I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, November 21, 2019. 74 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 348 days until Election Day 2020. Have any comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at email@example.com!
Sondland implicates Trump, senior officials in Ukraine "quid pro quo"
In historic testimony on Wednesday, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union and a central figure in the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, directly implicated Trump and other top administration officials in a pressure campaign he described as a "quid pro quo" with Ukraine.
Sondland testified that Trump directed him to work with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, in coercing Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly announce investigations into Trump's political rivals by dangling a coveted Oval Office meeting between the two leaders.
Contradicting Trump's prime impeachment defense — that there was "no quid pro quo" between his administration and Ukraine — Sondland clearly and explicitly stated: "Was there a quid pro quo? . . . With regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes."
Sondland, who was a prominent donor to Trump's 2016 campaign, also tied a number of officials to the Ukraine efforts, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. "Everyone was in the loop," he declared, offering emails that showed senior officials being kept informed about the pressure campaign. "It was no secret."
And he repeatedly told lawmakers that Trump was at the top of it all, insisting that he and others worked only worked with Giuliani reluctantly and "at the express direction of the President of the United States."
"We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine," the donor-turned-diplomat added. "So we followed the President’s orders."
Sondland's testimony had been hotly anticipated going into Wednesday's hearing: he was the first witness in the impeachment inquiry who had been closely allied with President Trump and had repeatedly discussed Ukraine with him. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) called Sondland's testimony "a very important moment in the history of this investigation," saying that the diplomat revealed a clear scheme "to condition official acts . . . on political favors the president wanted for his re-election."
The New York Times even called the testimony a "John Dean moment," comparing Sondland to the White House counsel who turned against President Richard Nixon in a turning point of the Watergate investigation.
Republican lawmakers spent much of the day attempting to stain Sondland's credibility, emphasizing that he was never "personally" told by President Trump that a White House meeting or $400 million in military aid to Ukraine were preconditioned on Zelensky launching investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 election. Indeed, Sondland testified that these claims were based only on his "presumption."
(According to the Washington Post, the testimony left Republicans "scrambling" behind the scenes.)
Trump readily declared victory after the Sondland hearing, repeating to reporters what the ambassador recounted having been told by Trump in a September phone conversation: "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing." The president also distanced himself from Sondland, claiming not to "know him very well."
"This Witch Hunt must end NOW," Trump later added in a tweet.
But Sondland was not the only witness to undercut one of the key GOP defenses in the impeachment probe on Wednesday. In the afternoon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper and Under Secretary of State David Hale took to the stand. Cooper told lawmakers that Ukrainian officials inquired about the stalled military aid as early as July 25, the same day as the infamous phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky.
Her disclosure altered the timeline promoted by Republican lawmakers, who have claimed that Ukraine wasn't aware of the delay in aid until late August and that Trump could not have executed a "quid pro quo" if the other side did not know what was being held against them.
Happening today: Hill, Holmes to testify
Fiona Hill, the former senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, and David Holmes, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, will testify at 9 a.m. today, in the last scheduled public hearing of the impeachment probe.
Hill is expected to describe her concerns about the Ukraine pressure campaign, which she shared with former national security adviser John Bolton. In her private deposition, she testified that Bolton described the administration's efforts in Ukraine as a "drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up" and described Giuliani as "a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up." According to Politico, Hill's opening statement will decry the "fictional narrative" about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election that Trump and his allies have pushed. "These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes," she will say.
Meanwhile, Holmes will likely be asked to recount his experience overhearing a phone call between Trump and Sondland while lunching with the ambassador at a Kyiv restaurant. Holmes has previously told lawmakers that he overheard Trump ask Sondland about "the investigation" and that the ambassador later told him that Trump doesn't "give a shit about Ukraine" and only cares about "big stuff that benefits the president" like the "Biden investigation." (Sondland acknowledged on Wednesday that Holmes's description of his call with Trump was likely true, but said he did not recall the conversation with Holmes that came after it.)
More impeachment news to know
--- "The FBI has asked to interview the CIA whistleblower whose complaint touched off the Ukraine impeachment investigation, a source directly familiar with the matter told NBC News. The whistleblower has not yet agreed to an interview, the source said." (NBC News)
--- "Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, helped arrange meetings and calls in Europe for [House intelligence Committee ranking member] Devin Nunes in 2018, Parnas’ lawyer Ed MacMahon told The Daily Beast." (Daily Beast)
--- "Federal prosecutors in New York have subpoenaed several individuals active in President Donald Trump's fundraising machinery as part of their investigation into the associates of Rudy Giuliani, the President's personal attorney, according to people familiar with the investigation." (CNN)
Democrats shy away from direct attacks in Atlanta debate
From the Washington Post:
"The top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination largely sought to speak directly to the American people rather than to draw contrasts with one another Wednesday night, in a wide-ranging presidential debate that came at a critical point in the party’s nominating contest."
"For much of the debate, the candidates shied from the biting exchanges and intraparty contrasts that marked the first four gatherings, opening new lines of conversation on issues as disparate as racial justice, marijuana policy and child care. But there were also pointed if brief disputes as the night wore on, some of them focused on black voters, a key Democratic constituency."
Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty Images
Continued, via the Post:
"The fifth Democratic primary debate, sponsored by The Washington Post and MSNBC, was the first since South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg showed signs of surging in several polls, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) obliquely criticized him for his lack of support among black voters."
"'For too long candidates, I think, have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party,' Harris said. 'They show up when it’s close to election time, show up at a black church.'"
. . . "Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) criticized former vice president Joe Biden in blunt terms, attempting to peel away the black voters who have been the backbone of Biden’s support.
"'Black voters are pissed off, and they’re worried,' Booker said. 'I have a lot of respect for the vice president . . . But this week I heard him literally say that 'I don’t think we should legalize marijuana.'"
"Looking toward Biden, Booker said, 'I thought you might have been high when you said it.'"
. . . "Biden [then] claimed to have the support of 'the only black African American woman had ever been elected to the United States Senate.' It was an apparent reference to an endorsement from former senator Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), but disregarded Harris — who, onstage, laughed and shrugged."
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Today at the White House
--- At 11:45 a.m., President Trump receives his daily intelligence briefing. At 3:30 p.m., he will present the National Medal of Arts to bluegrass-country singer Allison Krauss, National Gallery of Art chairwoman Sharon Percy Rockefeller, the musicians of the U.S military, and actor Jon Voight, and the National Humanities Medal to the Claremont Institute (a conservative think tank), philanthropist Teresa Lozano Long, chef Patrick J. O'Connell, and author James Patterson.
--- Vice President Pence has no public events scheduled.
Today in Congress
--- The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. today. Follow Leader remarks, the chamber will resume consideration of the nomination of Dan Brouillette to be Secretary of Energy. At 11:30 a.m., the Senate will hold a series of votes on H.R. 3055, the House-passed continuing resolution extending government funding through December 20. The chamber will vote on an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) requiring across-the-board 1% spending cuts, followed by a vote ending debate on CR, followed by a vote on passage of the CR.
The measure must be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Trump before midnight tonight to avert a government shutdown.
--- The House convenes at 9 a.m. today. The chamber is scheduled to consider H.R. 1309, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act.
Today at the Supreme Court
--- The Supreme Court has no conferences or oral arguments scheduled.
Today on the trail
--- Three presidential candidates will speak at the National Action Network (NAN)'s Southeast Regional Conference in Atlanta, Georgia: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-IN), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. The NAN is a civil rights group founded by Rev. Al Sharpton.
--- While in Atlanta, Buttigieg and Klobuchar will also participate in a phone and text bank hosted by Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group founded by 2018 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
--- Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) meets with Southern mayors in Atlanta, Georgia, and attends a town hall in Greenwood, South Carolina.
--- Former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) visits Iowa, holding a town hall in Des Moines, participating in an event at the Wind Turbine Tech training facility in Estherville, and holding an event for his Iowa staff and supporters in West Des Moines.
--- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) participates in a town hall in Hudson, New Hampshire.
--- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) headlines a "Black Women Power Breakfast" in Atlanta, Georgia, with Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and other supporters.
--- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a rally at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.
--- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) delivers a speech "honoring the historic legacy of some of the most persistent and fearless fighters" in history at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. She will be joined by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who has broken with her fellow members of "The Squad" by endorsing Warren's campaign.
--- Spiritual author Marianne Williamson (D) campaigns in Iowa, holding events in Fairfield and Des Moines.
*All times Eastern