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Wake Up To Politics - November 20, 2019

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, November 20, 2019. 75 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 349 days until Election Day 2020. Have any comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com!

It's a major day in American politics, as the central witness in the House impeachment inquiry offers his testimony and the Democratic presidential candidates meet for their sixth debate...

Impeachment hearings Day 4: Crucial witness takes the stand

The most highly-anticipated public testimony of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump will come today, as Gordon Sondland — the wealthy Seattle hotelier and Trump donor now serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union — testifies before the House Intelligence Committee.

Sondland's name has come up again and again in testimony from other witnesses, as the critical role he played in the Trump administration's Ukraine pressure campaign has come to light. While Republicans have dismissed many of the previous witnesses because they didn't possess "firsthand knowledge" of Trump's machinations, Sondland stands alone as having been in frequent contact with the president about Ukraine.

The donor-turned-diplomat will likely be pressed by lawmakers to answer for the myriad contradictions between his closed-door testimony in October and the accounts other witnesses have offered since.  

"I think I've spoken with President Trump — and this is a guess — maybe five or six times since I’ve been an ambassador," Sondland told lawmakers in his private deposition last month. But a string of witnesses have testified that Sondland at least presented himself as having many more conversations with the president: "Ambassador Sondland believed and at least related to me that the president was giving him instructions," former National Security Council aide Timothy Morrison testified.

His closed-door testimony seems to have downplayed or ignored key conversations with the president. Most prominently, State Department official David Holmes testified last week that he overheard a conversation on July 26 between Trump and Sondland. According to Holmes' account, the president asked the ambassador if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was going to "do the investigations" — a reference to the probes into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 election that Sondland was pushing on Trump's behalf — to which Sondland replied, "He's gonna do it."

Holmes explained that he was having lunch with Sondland at a restaurant in Kyiv when the conversation took place; he added that he overheard parts of the call because Sondland was holding his phone away from his face despite being in a crowded public space, which a number of experts have cited as a "stunning breach of security."

"This was an extremely distinctive experience in my foreign service career," Holmes said. "I've never seen anything like this, someone calling the President from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There's just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly."

Holmes also told lawmakers that he asked Sondland after the call "if it was true that the president did not give a s--t about Ukraine" and that the ambassador "agreed.

"I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the president only cares about 'big stuff,'" Holmes continued. "I noted that there was 'big stuff' going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant 'big stuff' that benefits the president, like the 'Biden investigation' that [Trump's personal attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pushing."

Sondland made no mention of a July 26 call with the president in his initial testimony before lawmakers. Holmes' testimony also undercuts one of Sondland's key closed-door claims: that he did not realize until much later that Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company that he was ostensibly pushing Zelensky's government to investigate, was connected to Joe Biden. (Biden's son Hunter was a member of Burisma's board, a point Giuliani emphasized repeatedly in public interviews.)

The ambassador has already had to revise his October testimony once: Sondland originally testified that he "never" thought there was any link between Ukraine receiving military aid from the U.S. and their pursuing investigations, but later amended his statement after other witnesses revealed a conversation between Sondland and a top Ukrainian official about the aid.

"I said that resumption of the U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks," Sondland said in his revised statement. A number of witnesses have testified that the Ukrainians understood the "public anticorruption statement" to mean a statement announcing investigations into Biden and the 2016 campaign.

Washington is abuzz with questions about whether Sondland will break with Trump in his testimony, offering the most direct tie between the president and the efforts in Ukraine at the heart of the impeachment probe, or attempt to stand by his previous testimony and face a battering from Democrats over the inconsistencies in his account. He could also take a third route, invoking the Fifth Amendment and declining to answer questions.

In the eyes of many, the fate of the entire impeachment inquiry rests on which of these paths Sondland opts to choose. "The impeachment effort comes down to one guy, Ambassador Sondalnd," Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a top Trump ally, told the Washington Post. "All the other testimony has a Sondland core to it and a Sondland connection."

Sondland's key testimony will come at 9 a.m. today; he will be followed at 2:30 p.m. by testimony from Laura Cooper, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs, and David Hale, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

Sondland, Cooper, and Hale will be addressing House members one day after a marathon day of testimony in which four witnesses testified at length about Trump's July 25 call with President Zelensky. "It was inappropriate, it was improper for the president to request — to demand — an investigation into a political opponent," Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, testified on Tuesday. "Especially [from] a foreign power."

Vindman sat alongside Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, who similarly described the phone call as "unusual" because "it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter."

The White House was quick to attack Vindman and Williams, posting a tweet on its official account denouncing the former and issuing a formal statement challenging the latter, despite the fact are both White House aides themselves. "The White House appears to be cannibalizing itself," Williams C. Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush, told the New York Times. "While many previous White House staffs have feuded with each other and leaked against each other, this is the first time in history I am aware of a White House openly attacking its own staff — especially for merely upholding their constitutional duties."

In the afternoon, former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former National Security Council official Timothy Morrison — both witnesses requested by Republicans — testified. Although they both took a milder view of the Trump-Zelensky call and denied that a "quid pro quo" had taken place between the U.S. and Ukraine, Morrison did confirm the substance of such an understanding.

Morrison testified that Sondland told a top aide to President Zelensky "that the Ukrainians would have to have the prosecutor general make a statement with respect to the investigations as a condition of having the aid lifted," an assertion Sondland is likely to face questions about today.

In addition, Volker's testimony contained a key reversal from his earlier statements to investigators: confirming that Sondland brought up the investigations in a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian leaders, which Volker had initially failed to disclose. "I think all of us thought it was inappropriate," Volker added.

Volker, one of the GOP-requested witnesses, also broke with the party line in testifying that the accusations against former Vice President Joe Biden by Trump and Giuliani "didn't seem at all credible" to him.

--- The Pompeo connection: The New York Times just posted a new report alleging that Sondland "kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apprised of key developments in the campaign to pressure Ukraine’s leader into public commitments that would satisfy President Trump," linking Pompeo more directly to the Ukraine efforts that had been previously known. Time Magazine reported on Tuesday that Pompeo "has told three prominent Republicans in recent weeks that he plans to resign from the Trump Administration to run for the U.S. Senate from Kansas in next year’s elections."

Tonight: Democrats debate in Atlanta

Although much of the political world's attention has shifted from the 2020 campaign to the Trump impeachment inquiry, the Democratic presidential candidates will attempt to wrest focus back tonight as they meet for their sixth primary debate in Atlanta, Georgia.

Here's how the New York Times assesses the state of the field heading into tonight's debate: "Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has recently emerged as a leader in some Iowa polls, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont appears re-energized by the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. But the two candidates at center stage remain the same: former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Together, these four have separated themselves from the 2020 pack."

"The debate stage has shrunk since the October clash, with former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas quitting the race and the former federal housing secretary Julián Castro failing to qualify. Two other names are now a part of the 2020 conversation: former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is making a late bid and Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire and former New York City mayor, is on the verge of a possible run."

After a highly-respected pollster declared him the frontrunner in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg is widely expected to face increased attacks from his rivals as they attempt to blunt his momentum. As with previous face-offs, Warren will also likely tangle with her rivals over health care, after finally releasing her full "Medicare for All" plan to loud criticism. Although she has spent recent months steadily rising in the polls, her surge has mostly stalled amid renewed attention on Buttigieg and a rebound from Sanders after he notched key endorsements despite a heart attack.

Meanwhile, Biden (whose 77th birthday is today) is under pressure to turn out a positive debate performance after a series of stumbles, with Patrick and Bloomberg attempting to channel anxieties about Biden's age and acuity into bids that would threaten his support among moderates.

While ten candidates will be on stage tonight, only six have qualified for the December debate so far. As such, it will also be an important night for those contenders who still need additional donors and/or polling support to qualify: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and billionaire Tom Steyer.

The debate, which will air on MSNBC at 9 p.m., will be moderated by an all-female panel comprised of MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, NBC News correspondents Andrea Mitchell and Kristen Welker, and Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker.

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--- Jennifer Williams' private deposition before House investigators was misquoted in Tuesday's newsletter. She referred to President Trump's raising political investigations during his phone call with the Ukrainian president as "unusual and inappropriate."

My apologies for the error and thanks to the readers who caught it.

Today at the White House

--- President Trump travels to Austin, Texas, today. At 3:20 p.m., he will tour Apple's new manufacturing plant in Austin (where the Mac Pro is assembled) along with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, and White House aides Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his daughter and son-in-law. Trump will then return to Washington, D.C., arriving back at the White House at 7:50 p.m.

--- Vice President Pence travels to Wisconsin and Indiana today. At 11:30 a.m., he tours the USS Cooperstown, a Navy combat ship that is under construction at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipbuilder in Marinette, Wisconsin. At 12:10 p.m., he delivers remarks at Fincantieri Marinette Marine. At 6:30 p.m., he delivers remarks at Strada Education Network's National Symposium in Indianapolis, Indiana. The VP will then return to Washington, D.C., touching down at 9:05 p.m.

--- First Lady Melania Trump and Second Lady Karen Pence will visit the American Red Cross Hall of Service in Washington, D.C. to "assemble comfort kits for American troops deployed overseas. . . alongside Cabinet Secretaries’ spouses, military spouses, Red Cross leadership and volunteers," according to the White House.

Today in Congress

--- The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. today. At 11:30 a.m., the chamber votes to confirm Barbara Lagoa's nomination to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Eleventh Circuit and to advance Adrian Zuckerman's nomination to be the U.S. Ambassador to Romania. The chamber is also expected to vote on Zuckerman's confirmation in the afternoon.

--- The House convenes at 10 a.m. today. The chamber is scheduled to consider ten pieces of legislation:

  1. H.R. 1309 – Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act
  2. H.R. 182 – To extend the authorization for the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission
  3. H.R. 255 – Big Bear Land Exchange Act, as amended
  4. H.R. 263 – To rename the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge as the Congressman Lester Wolff Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge
  5. H.R. 737 – Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019, as amended
  6. H.R. 925 – North American Wetlands Conservation Extension Act
  7. H.R. 1088 – FIRST Act
  8. H.R. 1446 – Multinational Species Conservation Funds Semipostal Stamp Reauthorization Act of 2019
  9. H.R. 1472 – To rename the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice, Nebraska, as the Homestead National Historical Park
  10. H.R. 1487 – Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Boundary Adjustment Study Act, as amended

Today at the Supreme Court

--- The Supreme Court has no conferences or oral arguments scheduled.

Today on the trail

--- The top ten candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will participate in the fifth 2020 primary debate at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia: former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

--- Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

--- Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) holds "meetings, fundraising events, and national press" appearances in New York City.

--- Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (D) holds a community roundtable on housing in Atlanta, Georgia, with a trio of grassroots organizations.

--- Former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) speaks and meets with the Iowa Afterschool Alliance in Burlington, Iowa.

--- Former Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) visits South Carolina, speaking at Claflin University in Orangeburg and holding a neighborhood walk through Charleston, including a stop at Hannibal's Kitchen for lunch.

--- Former Gov. Bill Weld (R-MA) visits Manchester Central High School and meets with the Granite State Organizing Project in Manchester, New Hampshire, and speaking at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

--- Spiritual author Marianne Williamson (D) campaigns in Iowa, making stops in Fairfield and Washington.

*All times Eastern