Hello again, friends & welcome back. President Trump's on his way back to Washington sans deal with North Korea, Michael Cohen's got one more day on the Hill, and we've got two more people jumping into 2020. Tips, comments, recipes? Reach out & sign up.
TRUMP'S TAX RETURNS: Michael Cohen's public description of President Trump, his longtime boss, as “a mendacious and petty racist who enlisted those around him to propagate a culture of deceit" -- as a private citizen, presidential candidate, and president -- riveted much of America on Wednesday.
Cohen, armed with documents and anecdotes, alleged that Trump lied about his foreknowledge of WikLeaks's dump of stolen Democratic National Committee emails, the extent of his business dealings in Moscow, and hush payments to silence adult film star Stormy Daniels with whom he is said to have had an affair. He also "hinted repeatedly at possible legal jeopardy for the president," The Post reports.
But it was the less-explosive moments of Cohen's appearance before the House Oversight Committee that could lay the groundwork for obtaining the goods Democrats have been cautiously pushing for: Trump's tax returns.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) used their time questioning the president's former personal lawyer to uncover more details about Trump's unusual finances and tax-related claims, which some experts believe to be evidence of bank and tax fraud.
Gomez homed in on Trump's claim that his tax returns are under audit by the IRS and that is why he never released them to the public during the 2016 campaign (or since).
- “I asked for a copy of the audit so that I could use it in terms of my statements to the press, and I was never able to obtain one,” Cohen told Gomez of Trump's refusal to release his tax returns. “I presume that [Trump] is not under audit,” Cohen concluded.
- “He has said to me … that what he didn’t want was to have an entire group of think tanks that are tax experts run through his tax return and start ripping it to pieces and then he’ll end up in an audit and he’ll ultimately have taxable consequences, penalties and so on,” Cohen replied in response to Gomez's question about “the real reason the president has refused to release his tax returns.”
- “To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?” Ocasio-Cortez asked Cohen, who responded “yes.”
- Ocasio-Cortez also asked Cohen to confirm a New York Times report revealing that Trump undervalued properties he inherited. Cohen replied he wasn't working for Trump at the time but that Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg would know. He also described the process by which Trump allegedly artificially undervalued assets in order to pay less taxes. (NBC News reported yesterday that Weisselberg is not a cooperating witness in federal probes.)
- “Would it help for the committee to obtain federal and state tax returns from the president and his company to address that discrepancy?” Ocasio-Cortez asked. “I believe so,” Cohen answered.
Democrats have so far tread lightly on the issue of how and whether to try to get their hands on Trump's taxes. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.), with direct jurisdiction over the issue, have so far moved only carefully on the issue. With good reason: the administration is unlikely to hand them over without a court battle.
- “He wants to lay out a case about why presidents should be disclosing their tax returns before he formally forces him to do it,” Dan Rubin, a Neal spokesperson, told Politico earlier this year, outlining Neal's approach.
Power Up spoke with Gomez, a member of both House Oversight and the Ways and Means Committee, about how lawmakers intend to proceed on Trump's taxes going forward. Gomez said that the Cohen hearing paved the way for the committee to pursue the release of Trump's taxes on the grounds of fulfilling Congress's oversight responsibilities.
- “Chairman Neal was very clear that we're not going to request [Trump's] tax returns without providing the justification,” Gomez told us last night. “I believe today we raised enough questions . . . and hopefully the Chairman and staff will determine if the justification was provided. And hopefully, we're a lot closer than what we were, but it's up to the committee chairman in the end.”
- Gomez added that Republicans undermined their credibility by appearing more concerned with Cohen's taxes than the president's own filings. “All they did was spend their time attacking his credibility,” he said. “Why aren't they concerned about [Trump's] taxes? They're concerned about Cohen's. He committed tax fraud and evasion but they're not interested in Donald Trump? That's insane. That's where the hypocrisy lies and where they're damaging their credibility.”
- “We really need to get those tax returns to get a better picture and to understand if he committed a crime,” Gomez added, responding to allegations Trump committed a crime by Cohen. "I think that the information leads us in that direction, but I'm not sure if we're quite there yet. I think we need those tax returns to seal the deal.”
Oledoit: Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, told the HuffPost yesterday he sees no reason to delay trying to obtain Trump's tax returns, referring specifically to the check Cohen produced showing what he says was Trump reimbursing him for hush money he directed to Daniels.
“If Trump wrote these payments off as a business expense, that would constitute fraud and his returns would show that,” Pascrell said.
Programming note: Cohen will make his final appearance on the Hill today for a closed-door hearing with the House Intelligence Committee.
Kudos to @AOC who actually asked fact-finding Qs, not using most time to give speeches. She let him answer, then asked which others could back up his statements.— Paul Kane (@pkcapitol) February 27, 2019
Veteran lawmakers, R & D alike, should learn from this newcomer on how to actually draw out information.
Chris Christie on Republicans at Cohen testimony: "I can guarantee" Pres. Trump is "sitting in Vietnam right now, fuming that no one's defending him." https://t.co/cQKR8VvPRB pic.twitter.com/JVogHMcAvL— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) February 27, 2019
At the White House
BREAKING: Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “abruptly cut short their two-day summit here Thursday after the two leaders failed to reach an agreement to dismantle that country’s nuclear weapons,” my colleagues in Hanoi, Philip Rucker, David Nakamura, and Simon Denyer report.
“Although Kim said he was ready in principle to denuclearize, his talks with Trump collapsed unexpectedly as the two men and their delegations departed their meeting site in Vietnam’s capital city without sitting for a planned lunch and or participating in a signing ceremony,” they report.
At a news conference before his departure from Vietnam to return to Washington, Trump told reporters he had to "walk" from negotiations because of the North Korean leader's desire for the United States to immediately lift economic sanctions.
- “It was about the sanctions,” the president said. “Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”
- “The two leaders discussed various ways to advance denuclearization and economic driven concepts. No agreement was reached at this time, but their respective teams look forward to meeting in the future,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Responding to a question from the New York Times's David Sanger, Trump said that Kim expressed a willingness to close North Korea's main nuclear facility in Yongbyon but that it wasn't enough to secure a deal.
- “He would do that but he wants the sanctions for that,” Trump said. “As you know, there’s plenty left after that. I just felt it wasn’t good.”
Key: “Yongbyon is the North’s largest facility, but not its only one. At his news conference, Mr. Trump acknowledged that the country had another uranium enrichment plant. North Korea has long been suspected of having uranium enrichment capabilities beyond Yongbyon,” the Times's Austin Ramzy reports.
- “Unpopular take maybe: no deal is better than a bad deal or a deal that one side may violate, which sets up the prospect for conflict. Sometimes you throw the ball away and live to play another down,” Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT tweeted. “This isn’t a huge surprise. We have been papering over differences to get to Hanoi, and at some point that wasn’t going to be possible anymore. That time just happened to come to a head now.”
Earlier in the day, Kim expressed guarded optimism on the prospects of a deal: “In a 20-second exchange on Wednesday, [Kim] did something he’s never had to as the head of the world’s most closed society: Answer a question from a foreign journalist," The Post's John Hudson reports. “The Washington Post’s David Nakamura asked a short, pointed question: 'Chairman Kim, are you confident, feeling good about a deal?'”
- “It’s too early to tell. I won’t prejudge,” Kim said. “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come.”
“There would be people welcoming, and people viewing our meeting with skepticism, but there would also be people who would look at us spending a great time together, like a scene in a fantasy movie,” he added.
Trump also defended Kim with regards to the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died last year after being imprisoned in North Korea:
President Trump says he has confronted Kim Jong Un about the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea. But he doesn't believe Kim knew about what happened: "I don't believe that he would have allowed that to happen...He felt badly about it" pic.twitter.com/f4ePXAnTp8— CBS News (@CBSNews) February 28, 2019
P.S., ICYMI: Lawmakers in Washington repeatedly cited the work of journalists who have revealed important stories during their questioning of Cohen yesterday. But thousands of miles away in Hanoi, the White House banned four U.S. journalists from covering Trump's dinner with Kim.
When journalists in the press pool asked press secretary Sanders if North Korea was to blame for the decision, she said she "wouldn't say that," according to two people present, my colleagues on the ground, Phil Rucker and Josh Dawsey, report.
- Who: "Reporters from the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters were excluded from covering the dinner because of what [Sanders] said were 'sensitivities over shouted questions in the previous sprays.' Among the questions asked of Trump was one about the congressional testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen," Phil and Josh report.
- “The White House’s move to restrict press access was an extraordinary act of retaliation by the U.S. government, which historically has upheld the rights of journalists while a president travels overseas. It was especially remarkable because it came during Trump’s meeting with the leader of a totalitarian state that does not have a free press,” they add.
Today #HR8 passed the House, marking a pivotal moment in our fight to #EndGunViolence and to ensure the safety of every community across our nation.— Rep. Lucy McBath (@RepLucyMcBath) February 28, 2019
This is progress. I want to thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who are making the safety of all Americans a priority. pic.twitter.com/TSR2mez7vX
On The Hill
WHILE YOU WERE WATCHING COHEN . . .: “The House voted on Wednesday to require background checks for all gun purchasers, including those at gun shows and on the Internet — the first significant gun control bill to clear the chamber in a quarter of a century,” the New York Times's Catie Edmondson reports."The 240-to-190 vote is the first of two gun control measures expected to be put to House lawmakers this week, a turning point in gun legislation after 25 years when the National Rifle Association dominated the chamber.”
“Finally, we have done more than thoughts and prayers. Finally, we have taken a vote to expand background checks and help save lives,” said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who leads the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “For six long years, we worked on this issue, and the previous majority would not even let us have a hearing, let alone a vote to expand background checks.”
The House is also expected to pass legislation on Thursday extending the amount of time the FBI has to conduct background checks to 10 business days from three of those who want to purchase guns.
Big caveat: “It is 'unlikely' that either measure will be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican, said on Tuesday. House Republicans have flatly condemned both pieces of legislation, arguing the measures would be both ineffective and infringe on law-abiding citizens’ rights,” Edmondson reports.
TWO MORE?!: Democrats Beto O'Rourke and Washington Governor Jay Inslee are both expected to jump into the 2020 presidential race in short order.
Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times's broke the news that Inslee is expected to roll out his campaign by the end of this week, “the first by a Washington politician in more than four decades and the first devoted chiefly to the issue of combating climate change.”
- Inslee appeared on MSNBC on Monday afternoon and said an announcement was imminent and that combating climate change would be his top issue.
- “We have one administration left — of chance — to restrain this monster,” he said of climate change to NBC News's Andrea Mitchell. “When your house is on fire, you go grab the bucket and you fight the fire, even though your lawn needs mowing and you haven’t answered the mail. That’s the situation we’re in. This is a one-time chance.”
As for the former Texas congressman, the Dallas Morning News's Gromer Jeffers Jr. wrote that O'Rourke "has decided not to run for U.S. Senate next year against Texas Republican incumbent John Cornyn and likely will announce a campaign for president soon, people close to the former El Paso congressman told the Dallas Morning News on Wednesday.”
- “Amy and I have made a decision about how we can best serve our country,” he said in a statement to the Dallas Morning News. “We are excited to share it with everyone soon.”
Stars... they're just like us 🤗 🍻