A Trump Call That Went Rogue Hands Erdogan a Surprise Win on Syria

Donald Trump was supposed to tell his Turkish counterpart to stop testing his patience with military threats in Syria. That is, if the American president stuck to the script.

Instead, during a lengthy phone call earlier this month, Trump shocked even those in his inner circle by yielding to a suggestion from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse the Pentagon’s Syrian strategy, handing the Turkish president his biggest diplomatic victory ever.

Erdogan pressed Trump on the Dec. 14 call to explain why American forces were still in Syria even after they met their objective of defeating Islamic State, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.

Erdogan had a point about the defeat of ISIS, Trump said, repeating his long-held conviction that American troops should be out of Syria anyway, according to the people, including an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing the call.

Then the American president dropped a bombshell, asking National Security Adviser John Bolton — whom he addressed as “Johnny” — about the feasibility of an immediate pullout, according to two of the people. He got a reassuring “yes” in response and the ball started rolling, the people said.

Days later, Trump announced the pullout of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, facing withering criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for leaving a key part of the Middle East exposed to Russian and Iranian influence. Then on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned.

While Trump faced political heat, Erdogan became a hero at home, seen as a leader who got his way with the world’s biggest superpower by convincing Washington to end its support for Turkey’s nemesis in Syria, a Kurdish militant group called the YPG. Erdogan says the group — which has allied with America for some of the toughest fighting in northern Syria — is linked to domestic terrorists he has long sought to wipe out.

The developments illustrate how Erdogan has managed to become a more central player in both Mideast politics and U.S. foreign policy, capitalizing on an American president eager to fulfill promises to extricate American troops from Middle East quagmires. They come just months after Trump and Erdogan were facing off over new American tariffs, Turkey’s refusal to release an American pastor and Erdogan’s demands that the U.S. extradite a cleric it views as behind a failed 2016 coup.

[Bloomberg]

Trump lashed out at Whitaker after explosive Cohen revelations

President Donald Trump has at least twice in the past few weeks vented to his acting attorney general, angered by federal prosecutors who referenced the President’s actions in crimes his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

Trump was frustrated, the sources said, that prosecutors Matt Whitaker oversees filed charges that made Trump look bad. None of the sources suggested that the President directed Whitaker to stop the investigation, but rather lashed out at what he felt was an unfair situation.

The first known instance took place when Trump made his displeasure clear to acting attorney general Matt Whitaker after Cohen pleaded guilty November 29 to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. Whitaker had only been on the job a few weeks following Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions.

Over a week later, Trump again voiced his anger at Whitaker after prosecutors in Manhattan officially implicated the President in a hush-money scheme to buy the silence of women around the 2016 campaign — something Trump fiercely maintains isn’t an illegal campaign contribution. Pointing to articles he said supported his position, Trump pressed Whitaker on why more wasn’t being done to control prosecutors in New York who brought the charges in the first place, suggesting they were going rogue.

The previously unreported discussions between Trump and Whitaker described by multiple sources familiar with the matter underscore the extent to which the President firmly believes the attorney general of the United States should serve as his personal protector. The episodes also offer a glimpse into the unsettling dynamic of a sitting president talking to his attorney general about investigations he’s potentially implicated in.

Whitaker and William “Bill” Barr, Trump’s nominee to replace Sessions, are facing increased scrutiny this week for their criticisms of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling. Whitaker refused to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe. And a memo from Barr came to light in which he wrote that Trump’s decision to fire former FBI director James Comey did not amount to obstruction.

Trump has already shown a willingness to use the Justice Department to settle political scores. As CNN previously reported, the President questioned Whitaker about the progression of the investigation against Hillary Clinton when Whitaker was Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff.

“It seems very clear that the only reason that Matt Whitaker was ever appointed to this role was specifically to oversee the Mueller investigation,” Mueller biographer Garrett Graff said on Friday in an interview on CNN’s Newsroom.

With Sessions, Trump ranted publicly about how he did nothing to curtail the Mueller investigation. Sessions had recused himself from oversight because of his role on the Trump campaign.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now,” the President tweeted in August.

The Justice Department declined to comment on any discussions between Whitaker and the President.

The President’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, could not confirm the conversations with Whitaker but said the President views the SDNY prosecutors as out of control. “The president and his lawyers are upset about the professional prosecutors in the Southern District of New York going after a non-crime and the innuendo the president was involved,” Giuliani said in a statement to CNN Friday.

One source close to Whitaker pushed back on the notion that the Cohen situation caused tension between the two, emphasizing that Whitaker and the President have a “great relationship.”

[CNN]

Donald Trump Tweets Picture of Himself at His Desk Signing a Blank Sheet of Paper

On December 21, Donald Trump posted a tweet to his official Twitter account: “Some of the many Bills that I am signing in the Oval Office right now. Cancelled my trip on Air Force One to Florida while we wait to see if the Democrats will help us to protect America’s Southern Border!”

Trump has been butting heads with Democrats over his demand for $5.7 billion to fund a 215 mile wall along the Mexican border.

He accompanied the tweet with a picture of himself in the Oval Office, surrounded by a massive stack of black folders, signing his name to a piece of paper.

The problem? The paper appeared to be completely blank.

[Second Nexus]

Trump tweeted a design for ‘steel slats’ along the border with spikes on top — and called it ‘totally effective while at the same time beautiful’

President Donald Trump on Friday tweeted an image of what he said was a design of his administration’s “Steel Slat Barrier” intended for the US-Mexico border, complete with metal spikes at the top.

The tweet came amid turmoil within Congress as lawmakers struggled to reach a funding deal, hours before a partial government shutdown was set to begin.

In the last two days, Trump has begun demanding that Congress approve $5 billion in funding for his long-promised border wall, though he has pivoted in recent days to demanding “steel slats.”

He speculated on Thursday that doing so would give Democratic lawmakers “a little bit of an out” to pass his requested funding.

“We don’t use the word ‘wall’ necessarily, but it has to be something special to do the job – steel slats,” he said.

The Republican-controlled House passed a continuing resolution on Thursday evening that included $5.7 billion for border security. The resolution will now go to the Senate, where it is almost certain to fail.

A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman told Business Insider that the design is the same that has been used in Calexico:

The fencing in Calexico, however, doesn’t appear to feature the same sharply spiked tips as the design Trump tweeted.

The Trump administration has also been working on similar fencing projects throughout the last year, using “bollards” – spaced-out, hollow steel rods – as a barrier, usually with metal anti-climbing plates at the top.

[Business Insider]

Whitaker rejected ethics official’s advice he should recuse from Russia probe

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker disregarded the advice of a Justice Department ethics official to step aside from overseeing Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Whitaker never sought a formal recommendation about whether he needed to recuse, but he received guidance on his options and the applicable rules during three meetings with ethics officials and multiple discussions with his own advisers, according to a senior department source and a letter from the Justice Department to CongressThursday night.

The decision to make was Whitaker’s alone and came the same day news emerged that Trump’s nominee to take the permanent job, Bill Barr, wrote the Justice Department last year to argue against the Mueller investigation, raising concerns on Capitol Hill that the President is selecting leaders based on their alignment with his critical view of the Russia probe and will seek to undercut the special counsel.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Mueller investigation in favor of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — to the constant annoyance of President Donald Trump — because Sessions had been an active participant on the Trump campaign.

Some of Whitaker’s comments about Mueller in 2017 mirrored Trump’s complaints. In one instance, speaking on the “Rose Unplugged” radio program in August 2017, Whitaker said the appointment of Mueller was “ridiculous” and it “smells a little fishy.”
“For whatever reason, Rod Rosenstein determined that the Department of Justice couldn’t handle this in their ordinary course of work, which I think was ridiculous,” Whitaker said. “So I think it smells a little fishy, but I just hope it doesn’t turn into a fishing expedition, because I will be one of [the people] jumping up and down making sure the limitations on this investigation continue because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

While ethics officials said there was no legal conflict of interest that would bar Whitaker from overseeing Mueller, the Justice Department letter states, it could look bad in the eyes of the public.

“If a recommendation were sought” from ethics officials, the letter states, “they would advise that the Acting Attorney General should recuse himself from supervision of the Special Counsel investigation because it was their view that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts likely would question the impartiality of the Acting Attorney General.”

While the process was ongoing, Whitaker was never briefed on the Mueller investigation, the senior Justice source told CNN. But Whitaker was given a heads up that Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen would plead guilty to lying to Congress about the proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow before it was publicly announced.

It is expected he will be briefed as acting attorney general now that he has stated his position on recusal.

Rosenstein’s office is still managing the investigation on a day-to-day basis, as CNN has previously reported.

[CNN]

Trump pushes McConnell to use “nuclear option” to get his wall funded

The U.S. government-shutdown drama is running high Friday morning as the midnight deadline looms, with President Donald Trump saying Democrats will be to blame and warning that a closure, if it happens, will “last for a very long time.”

The House passed a temporary spending bill Thursday that included more than $5 billion for Trump’s border wall, which the president has demanded as a condition for him to sign the bill to keep the government open — even though there’s little support for it except from his diminishing base.

However, the legislation is unlikely to pass the Senate Friday where Republicans need Democratic votes. If there’s no deal reached, then parts of the government will shut down as of midnight Friday, affecting thousands of workers at the Justice Department, Commerce Department and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.

Democrats “will probably vote against Border Security and the Wall even though they know it is DESPERATELY NEEDED,” Trump tweeted.

“If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don’t want Open Borders and Crime!’”

The president also called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to blow up the Senate filibuster rule, known as the “nuclear option,” to pass the legislation. That tool allows a budget to pass by a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the 60 usually needed per Senate rules, but McConnell has firmly resisted it in the past.

Trump praised House Republicans, who voted in favor of wall funding by 217-185 votes.

“Republican House Members should be very proud of themselves,” Trump said. “They flew back to Washington from all parts of the World in order to vote for Border Security and the Wall. Not one Democrat voted yes, and we won big. I am very proud of you!”

[Vice]

Trump announces second round of farm aid to offset trade damage

President Trump on Monday announced his administration was planning to disburse a second tranche of aid as part of a $12 billion package meant to assist American farmers stung by retaliatory trade measures enacted by China and other foreign governments.

“Today I am making good on my promise to defend our Farmers & Ranchers from unjustified trade retaliation by foreign nations,” Trump tweeted. “I have authorized Secretary Perdue to implement the 2nd round of Market Facilitation Payments. Our economy is stronger than ever–we stand with our Farmers!”

After this latest round of payments, farmers will have received about $9.6 billion in aid, according to Department of Agriculture figures. The largest payments will be for soybeans.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement Monday that farmers “are continuing to experience losses due to unjustified trade retaliation.”

“This assistance will help with short-term cash flow issues as we move into the new year,” he added.

The Trump administration announced in July it was dispersing $12 billion in aid to farmers amid escalating trade disputes with China, Mexico, Canada and the European Union. The administration said it would dole out the first $6 billion in August.

Reuters reported earlier this month that the second portion of aid had been delayed by the administration.

The $6 billion that was dispersed in August included about $4.7 billion to producers of corn, cotton, dairy, pork, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat.

Perdue said in a statement at the time that “all of this could go away tomorrow, if China and the other nations simply correct their behavior.”

“But in the meantime, the programs we are announcing today buys time for the President to strike long-lasting trade deals to benefit our entire economy,” he said.

Trump has engaged in an escalating trade war with China that has hurt farmers in the U.S. who rely on China for exports.

The second portion of aid announced Monday was initially delayed because the Trump administration was worried about the cost of the program and was hopeful that China would resume buying soybeans from the U.S., according to Reuters.

[The Hill]

Betsy DeVos’ answer to school shooters is to mandate more unfair discipline for minorities

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will be rolling back protections against unfair discipline for minority students, instead of pursuing gun control, The New York Times reported Monday.

“The Trump administration is planning to roll back Obama-era policies aimed at ensuring that minority children are not unfairly disciplined, arguing that the efforts have eased up on punishment and contributed to rising violence in the nation’s schools,” The Timesexplained.

In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Trump had a “brief flirtation with gun control” before rejecting that approach and starting a school safety commission.

The commission was lead by DeVos and included former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

“Almost immediately, the commission turned away from guns, and instead scrutinized the Obama administration’s school discipline policies, though none of the most high-profile school shootings were perpetrated by black students,” The Times noted. “The documents obtained by The Times — a draft letter and a draft chapter of the safety commission’s research — focus significantly on race and promote the idea that the federal crackdown on potentially discriminatory practices has made schools more dangerous.”

Six documents included in the Obama administration’s “Rethink Discipline” approach are expected to be rescinded on Tuesday.

“The Obama administration policies were adopted after strong evidence emerged that minority students were receiving more suspensions and tougher punishments than white students for the same or lesser offenses, while disabled students were too quickly being shunted into remedial or special-education programs,” The Times added.

[Raw Story]

Sidestepping Congress, Trump Administration Proposes More Work Rules For Food Stamps

House Republicans couldn’t get stricter work rules for those who receive food stamps into law. So the Trump administration is attempting to sidestep Congress and add them anyway.

On Thursday, the Department of Agriculture unveiled a regulatory proposal to expand work requirements for those in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The proposed rule change makes it harder for states to waive work requirements in areas that have high unemployment, currently defined as 20 percent above the national average.

The USDA is calling for those waivers to be limited to one year, down from up to two years states can currently request. It also wants to slash states’ ability to “bank” waivers for future years and is pushing to restrict waivers under certain criteria where local unemployment is around 7 percent.

In all, the proposed rule could reduce areas that qualify for waivers by roughly 75 percent, according to USDA officials.

The change to the federal SNAP program, which is overseen by the USDA, comes on the same day President Trump is expected to sign the $867 billion farm bill into law.

“These actions will save hard-working taxpayers $15 billion over 10 years,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, adding that the proposed rule would also get Trump “to support a farm bill he might otherwise have opposed.”

Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents — commonly referred to by the acronym “ABAWDs” — are required to work 20 hours a week or be in a job training program. An ABAWD is classified as someone 18 to 49 who is not elderly, a woman who is pregnant or someone living with a disability.

According to a USDA fact sheet, 2.8 million individual ABAWDs on SNAP rolls in 2016 were not working. If the proposed rule change from USDA is approved, roughly 755,000 would lose food stamp benefits as a result of the new waiver restrictions.

This is the latest push by the Trump administration to call for stricter work requirements as a way to move more Americans off public assistance and toward self-sufficiency, often pointing to the low unemployment rate, currently at 3.7 percent, as evidence jobs are available.

“This restores the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population, while it’s also respectful of the taxpayers who fund the [SNAP] program,” Perdue said.

Farm bill negotiations were bogged down for months over work requirement provisions included in the House-passed version of the farm bill. Those provisions, supported by House Republicans and the president were eventually weeded out of the final bill.

Democrats on Capitol Hill lambasted the proposal, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, saying the change was “driven by ideology.”

“This regulation blatantly ignores the bipartisan Farm Bill that the president is signing today and disregards over 20 years of history giving states flexibility to request waivers based on local job conditions,” Stabenow said in a statement.

“I do not support unilateral and unjustified changes that would take food away from families,” she said.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Agriculture committee, cheered the administration’s push.

“This is an issue we took head-on in the House-passed farm bill, creating a road map for states to more effectively engage [able-bodied adults without dependents] in this booming economy,” Conaway said in a statement.

“I applaud the proposed rule and proudly stand with the Trump administration in demonstrating the importance of state accountability and recipient success.”

Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, it will be open for 60 days for the public to comment.

[NRP]

Trump Administration Will Send Asylum-Seekers To Mexico While Claims Are Processed

Migrants who cross the U.S. southern border and seek asylum will be forced to wait in Mexico while their claims are being processed, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Thursday.

Currently, people claiming asylum are allowed to stay in the U.S. — sometimes in detention — while their claim is pending in immigration court. The new policy will send such migrants to Mexico for the duration of that process.

That’s true regardless of the migrants’ country of origin: Many people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are not Mexican, but are fleeing violence in Central America.

The immigrants will still “be interviewed by a U.S. asylum officer, but they will no longer be released into the interior with a notice to appear in immigration court,” NPR’s John Burnett reports. “DHS has long complained that many applicants simply disappear and never show up for their hearing.”

Speaking before lawmakers on Thursday, Nielsen also emphasized that DHS cannot detain families with children for more than a few weeks under U.S. law, which is not enough time for an asylum claim to be processed.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration began separating children from parents who were being prosecuted for illegally crossing the border, a policy which horrified many Americans and was ultimately found to be illegal. Sending families back to Mexico would provide an alternate method for the administration to avoid releasing such families into the U.S.

The Mexican government, while affirming its own sovereign rights to determine who enters the country, said it would allow the practice. Mexico also said it would extend some rights and protections to the non-Mexican asylum-seekers on Mexican soil who await immigration hearings in the U.S.

The migrants will receive humanitarian visas, have the opportunity to apply for work permits and have access to legal services, Mexico said.

Last month, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had reached a deal with Mexico to allow asylum-seekers to remain south of the border while their claims were processed. However, governments of both countries would not publicly confirm that a plan was in place, in part because the Mexican government was days away from a transition of power.

The announcement on Thursday appears to confirm those early reports.

In late November, Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said there were questions about the legality of such a proposal.

“One thing we know right off the bat is that it cannot be legal unless they can assure all the asylum seekers who will be stranded in Mexico … will be safe — not only from persecution by state actors in Mexico, but by criminal gangs,” Gelernt told NPR. “And from what we know about what’s going on, we see no likelihood that that is going to be true.”

The news comes during a time of close national attention to issues of immigration and asylum, as President Trump continues to denounce migration as a national security threat, and critics of the administration’s actions accuse the White House of inhumane policies.

The recent arrival of a caravan of Central American migrants at the U.S. southern border brought fresh attention to asylum-seekers, particularly after a clash between protesters and Border Patrol agents.

The Trump administration has been setting limits on the number of people allowed to claim asylum at those ports of entry per day. The result has been a massive backlog of migrants waiting to claim asylum — in addition to a backlog of migrants who have claimed asylum and are awaiting processing.

The death of a 7-year-old migrant girl in Border Patrol custody this month has brought fresh outrage to the debate.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to seek funding for his border wall — which he had originally claimed would be paid for by Mexico. He recently said that Mexico is essentially paying for the wall through the new deal to replace NAFTA, a claim which is not true.

[NPR]

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