December 3, 2019

Attorney General William Barr has told colleagues he disagrees with Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's conclusion in an upcoming report that the FBI had adequate legal and factual bases to open an investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia in July 2016, The Washington Post and The New York Times report. Horowitz's 400-page report, the culmination of a nearly two-year investigation, will be released Dec. 9; he will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11.

Republicans have been looking forward to Horowitz validating President Trump's accusations that the FBI had abused its surveillance power to target him for political reasons. The report is not expected to support those allegations. It isn't clear whether Barr will publicly express his disagreement with Horowitz, or how — he could rebut Horowitz in the written response the Justice Department typically appends to such reports, or he could make a public statement. The inspector general's office is independent of Justice Department leadership, the Post notes, "so Barr cannot order Horowitz to change his findings."

Barr reportedly argues that Horowitz does not have enough information to clear the FBI, and he is relying in part on a separate investigation he initiated, nominally headed by U.S. Attorney John Durham, that is also examining any role the CIA played. But "the threshold to open the Russia investigation was not particularly high," the Times reports. "The FBI can open a preliminary inquiry based on 'information or an allegation' that a crime or threat to national security may have occurred or will occur, according to bureau policy."

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement Monday that "the inspector general's investigation is a credit to the Department of Justice," that Horowitz's "excellent work has uncovered significant information that the American people will soon be able to read for themselves," and "rather than speculating, people should read the report for themselves next week" and "draw their own conclusions." Peter Weber

10:32 a.m.

Welcome to the new Cold War.

For the first time in more than 30 years, the United States secretly expelled two Chinese embassy officials on suspicion of espionage after they drove on to a sensitive military base in Norfolk, Virginia, in September, The New York Times reports. The State Department declined to comment and the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Chinese Embassy didn't reply to requests for comment, but six people with knowledge of the expulsions spoke to the Times about the incident.

The officials, who were with their wives, were reportedly told to go through the gate and turn around after they were denied access at the base's checkpoint, but they continued driving before being stopped. The officials reportedly said they didn't understand the English instructions and got lost, but American officials reportedly believe at least one of the officials was a Chinese intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover.

The Trump administration reportedly fears China is ramping up its espionage in the U.S. as economic and geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to simmer. The Times notes that so far China hasn't retaliated by expelling American diplomats or intelligence officers from Beijing, so it's possible the government understands the officials overstepped their boundaries in this case. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

7:56 a.m.

NBC's Saturday Night Live gave viewers a possible preview of their own upcoming holiday season family dinners during last night's cold open.

Three families in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Charleston, South Carolina, discussed President Trump's impeachment. The San Francisco family, led by Cecily Strong, was excited by the House moving forward with a vote, while Beck Bennett's more conservative Charleston family expressed dismay. Kenan Thompson, meanwhile, probably spoke for millions when he tried to steer his family away from impeachment and discuss the upcoming film Bad Boys for Life, instead.

As The New York Times pointed out, it was a rare cold open that relied solely on SNL's cast members, rather than attempting to wow its audience with a celebrity cameo. But the skit wasn't lacking surprise, as Kate McKinnon appeared at the end as climate activist Greta Thunberg with some dour news about the future of the planet. Watch the full clip below. Tim O'Donnell

7:30 a.m.

The Trump administration is expected to announce the withdrawal of around 4,000 troops from Afghanistan, multiple current and former U.S. officials said. The drawdown — which would reportedly be done in phases over a few months — would ultimately leave between 8,000 and 9,000 U.S. forces in place.

The intended announcement is reportedly part of Washington's negotiations with the Taliban in the hopes that the 18-year conflict in the country will finally wind down, one former defense official told NBC News. The withdrawal is viewed as a concession that could possibly sway the Taliban to promise a cease-fire in return, while still leaving enough troops in the country in case things go sour once again.

"This takes us to the minimum that you have to keep in the country to remain credible negotiating with the Taliban," the former defense official said.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad just rejoined talks with the Taliban this week after they broke down in September; he said Washington will take a "brief pause" from the discussions after the Taliban launched a deadly attack Wednesday near Bagram airfield, but it sounds as if the negotiations will eventually continue.

President Trump has been pushing for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan for some time. The announcement could come as early as next week, but officials said the timing is not set. Read more at NBC News and CNN. Tim O'Donnell

December 14, 2019

House Republicans may soon have a new member in their ranks.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), probably the most vocally anti-impeachment Democrat — and one of only two House Democrats to vote against formalizing an impeachment inquiry in October — apparently met with President Trump, who urged him to switch parties. And the congressman is giving it some serious thought, The Washington Post reports. In fact, he's serious enough about it that he's discussed which day he should make an announcement and whether it should come before or after the full House vote on two articles of impeachment, The New York Times reports.

Van Drew is a centrist freshman lawmaker who considers impeachment too divisive and hails from a district that swung from supporting President Obama by eight points in 2012 to backing Trump by five points in 2016, although it reportedly leans red historically. By crossing the aisle, Van Drew would be less likely to face a primary threat, two Democrats and one Republican told the Times on condition of anonymity. As it stands, Van Drew feels nervous about a Democratic primary challenge, as well as his chance in the general election, a Republican familiar with the discussions said.

Van Drew and his team haven't responded to the Post or the Times yet, but he did deny rumors about a switch earlier in the week. Read more at The Washington Post and The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

December 14, 2019

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has a lot of people scratching their heads over how he's managing to pay the legal fees for the numerous defamation lawsuits he's filed against entities ranging from CNN to a social media parody account called Devin Nunes' Cow, McClatchy reports.

Nunes' $174,000 congressional salary is reportedly his main source of income, so McClatchy notes it's unlikely he's simply paying out of pocket. He could theoretically rely on a benefactor by setting up a legal defense fund, but he would have had to disclose that since members of Congress have strict rules against receiving gifts.

The most plausible theory, campaign finance and legal experts seem to think, is that he's paying his lawyer, Steven Biss, by promising a contingency fee, which isn't mentioned by House Ethics rules and likely doesn't require disclosure. A contingency fee means representation receives a percentage of monetary damages Nunes would be awarded if he wins the lawsuits. So, in such an instance, a lawyer would front the costs, and then bank on a big payoff down the line. But McClatchy reports that most lawyers aren't too keen on relying solely on the possibility of a win, so contingency fees aren't too common. Read more at The Fresno Bee. Tim O'Donnell

December 14, 2019

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. Some House Republicans might have that cliche on their minds these days.

That's because U.S. District Court Judge David Briones has continually ruled against the Trump administration's efforts to fund the president's oft-promised wall at the U.S.'s southern border by pointing to an obscure legislative provision passed by the House GOP back in 2014, Politico reports.

The provision, which prohibits the chief executive from doing anything to "eliminate or reduce funding for any program, project, or activity as proposed in the president's budget request" until Congress gives the thumbs up, was initially put in place to prevent former President Barack Obama from making cuts to space exploration. While born from a narrow dispute, the restrictions wound up being applied government-wide when enacted, and a year later Republicans added "increase" along side "eliminate" and "reduce."

Briones has utilized the language in his rulings on the wall, noting that Trump doesn't have the authority to move money from other military construction projects to fund the wall. It looks like he has his own party to thank. Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

December 14, 2019

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg knows mayors. He was, after all, the leader of the nation's largest city, but even after giving up the reins to New York, Bloomberg has spent a lot of time building relationships with city leaders through philanthropy. Now, he's hoping some mayors might help boost his young Democratic presidential campaign, The New York Times reports.

So far, eight mayors across the country are backing Bloomberg. All eight attended his boot camp for mayors at Harvard University, where they had access to advice from Bloomberg-funded experts, and more than half have reportedly received millions of dollars in grants and support packages from Bloomberg.

The mayors maintain they're endorsing Bloomberg because of his platform and ideas, not because they felt pressured on account of his aid. But some did acknowledge that his philanthropy helped establish his credibility. "Lots of people have money," said Stockton, California, Mayor Michael Cobbs, who endorsed Bloomberg's campaign earlier this week. "But the way he uses his money speaks to how he's someone who has a vision for [the Democratic Party]."

There's plenty of mayors who attended Bloomberg's Harvard program or received grants from his foundation that haven't endorsed him yet, as well, though. So it's hardly a given that he'll rack up much more support from mayors, especially when considering that one mayor who attended the Harvard program is now his Democratic presidential competitor, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg, for what it's worth, probably has a leg up on Bloomberg when it comes to the mayoral vote after more than 50 city executives pledged their support back in September. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

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