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Wake Up To Politics - October 17, 2019

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, October 17, 2019. 19 days until Election Day 2019. 109 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 383 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

Breaking: Elijah Cummings, the longtime Democratic congressman from Maryland, died this morning at age 68 due to "complications concerning longstanding health challenges." As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Cummings was one of the top Democrats investigating President Donald Trump. Cummings had represented his hometown of Baltimore in Congress since 1996; he previously spent 13 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, rising to become the body's first African-American speaker pro tempore. Cummings, who was born the son of sharecroppers, died as one of the most powerful members of the U.S. Congress.

"Meltdown": Democrats walk out of White House meeting on Syria

The President of the United States and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives each accused the other of having a "meltdown" at a White House meeting on Syria on Wednesday. It was an apt way to mark the 1,000th day of Donald Trump's presidency, exemplifying the extent to which his tenure has shaken up countless norms in Washington and upended relations between the executive and legislative branches.

According to the New York Times and other news sources, the meeting began with the president distributing copies of his recent letter urging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to end his military's invasion into Syria, which has resulted in the deaths of the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters. "History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen," Trump wrote in the letter, which was sent days after Erdoğan personally informed Trump of the invasion in a phone call, which led to the U.S. stepping aside and withdrawing its troops from the Syria-Turkey border. "Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!"

After President Trump's opening remarks —which included telling the assembled congressional leaders "I didn't want this meeting," although the White House requested it — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) quoted retired Marine general James Mattis, Trump's first defense secretary, who warned last week that the U.S. withdrawal in Syria could lead to a resurgence by the terrorist group ISIS.

Trump cut Schumer off, calling Mattis "the world's most overrated general."

Fireworks continued throughout the 20-minute-long meeting, which was the first face-to-face encounter between President Trump and House Democrats since they launched an impeachment inquiry into him last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) accused Trump of allowing Russia to take a long-sought-after "foothold in the Middle East" by leaving northern Syria. "All roads with you lead to Putin," the speaker said.

Later, Trump told Pelosi: "I hate ISIS more than you do."

"You don't know that," she replied.  

"You're just a politician," he declared.

"Sometimes I wish you were," Pelosi shot back.

According to the Times, the two sides disagree over what was said next. Schumer and the White House said Trump called Pelosi a "third-rate politician." Pelosi said he mangled the insult, calling her a "third-grade politician."

Either way, the remark led to Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) walking out and abruptly ending the meeting. "Goodbye," the president said as they left. "We'll see you at the polls."

It was the third meeting between President Trump and congressional Democrats this year to end in one side walking out; he pulled a similar move at a meeting on the government shutdown in January and one on infrastructure in May.

"What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown," Pelosi told reporters after the meeting, adding: "I pray for the president all the time and I tell him that. I pray for his safety and that of his family. Now we have to pray for his health because this was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president."

Later in the evening, Trump tweeted a photo of Pelosi confronting him at the meeting, with the caption, "Nervous Nancy's unhinged meltdown!" Within minutes, the speaker made the image her cover photo on both Twitter and Facebook.  

Trump also echoed the other comments Pelosi made about him. "Nancy Pelosi needs help fast! There is either something wrong with her 'upstairs,' or she just plain doesn’t like our great Country," he tweeted. "She had a total meltdown in the White House today. It was very sad to watch. Pray for her, she is a very sick person!"
But Trump's 1,000th day in office did not just include insults being slung back in forth between him and Democratic leaders. He also suffered a rare bipartisan rebuke on Wednesday, as the House approved a resolution condemning Trump's withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeast Syria, in a 354-60 vote. Two-thirds of House Republicans voted in support of the non-binding measure.

Meanwhile, Trump continued to anger lawmakers on both sides of the aisle with his comments about Syria. At a photo-op with the Italian president, Trump told reporters that the Syrian incursion "has nothing to do with us" and spoke dismissively of the Kurds, whom he said were "no angels." Until the president's orders last week, the Kurds shared outposts with U.S. soldiers, collaborating in the fight against ISIS.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who clashed with Trump in 2016 but has become one of the president's closest allies, harshly criticized Trump's remarks. "I will do anything I can to help him, but I will also become President Trump's worst nightmare," Graham told reporters. "I will not sit along the sidelines and watch a good ally, the Kurds, be slaughtered by Turkey." He later added: "This is a defining moment for President Trump."

The president responded by dismissing the South Carolinian. "Lindsey Graham would like to stay in the Middle East for the next thousand years," Trump said. "I think Lindsey should focus on Judiciary," referring to the committee Graham chairs, from which he has waged an aggressive defense of Trump against the allegations that are likely to lead to his impeachment.

Speaking of impeachment...

Sondland to testify on his key role in Ukraine relations

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will testify before the three House committees overseeing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump today. Sondland has emerged as a central figure in the Trump administration's efforts to leverage diplomatic favors in Ukraine while attempting to persuade the country to investigate Trump's domestic political rivals.

Sondland will likely face questions from lawmakers about a series of text messages between Sondland and other diplomats. In one message, the ambassador signaled that a meeting between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was contingent on the latter publicly announcing his intent to pursue investigations sought by Trump into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 U.S. election. "I think potus really wants the deliverable," Sondland wrote.

In another message in August, Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor asked Sondland, "Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Sondland replied: "Call me."

Eight days later, Taylor wrote: "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance [to Ukraine] for help with a political campaign." Sondland responded: "The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any time," a message that has been frequently cited by Trump defenders.

But according to the Washington Post, Sondland plans to distance himself from that statement in his testimony today. The ambassador will tell lawmakers that his denial of quid pro quo was simply relying what President Trump had told him on the phone call and that "he has no knowledge of whether the president was telling him the truth at that moment."

"It's only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth," a person familiar with his testimony told the Post.

According to the New York Times, Sondland is also expected to testify that Trump "gave him and two other officials the impression" in a May meeting "that they should coordinate on Ukraine issues" with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney. "That command effectively created a foreign policy back channel that cut the State Department and National Security Council out of deliberations involving a pivotal ally against Russia," the Times wrote.

The Times also reported that Sondland is expected to say that "he realized by midsummer" that Trump was conditioning agreement to a meeting with Zelensky on Ukrainian prosecutors opening the investigations that he sought.

Lawmakers are also likely to press the witness on a White House meeting reported by NBC News, in which Sondland apparently told Ukrainian officials that "Trump was committed to meeting with Zelenskiy on the condition he opens a corruption investigation," and then ushered them into "a private room in the White House basement" in which he expliclty mentioned Burisma Holdings, the company linked to Biden's son Hunter.

"Sondland plans to tell Congress he was unaware of Hunter Biden’s ties to the company at the time, a person with knowledge of his testimony says, an assertion that lawmakers are expected to treat with extreme skepticism," NBC reported.

Sondland, a wealthy Seattle hotelier who was a major donor to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, is reported to have "wedged his way into Ukraine policymaking," according to the Times, despite the country not being part of his official portfolio as envoy to the European Union. Sondland's role in the Ukraine overtures have come up repeatedly in the interviews House investigators have held with current and former Trump administration officials.

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, testified on Tuesday that he was told to "lay low" and defer to the "three amigos" on Ukraine matters: Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Kurt Volker, the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, according to the Post.

Fiona Hill, the president's former top Russia aide, reportedly testified on Monday that she confronted Sondland about his inserting himself into Ukraine policy. "He told her that he was in charge of Ukraine, a moment she compared to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.’s declaration that he was in charge after the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt, according to those who heard the testimony," the Times reported.

"According to whom, she asked."

"The president, he answered."

The Times also reported that Hill said that she viewed Sondland "as a potential national security risk because he was so unprepared for his job."

By offering his testimony today, Sondland is the latest Trump official to defy the president's edict that his administration would refuse to cooperate with the impeachment probe. "Notwithstanding the State Department’s current direction to not testify, Ambassador Sondland will honor the Committees’ subpoena, and he looks forward to testifying on Thursday," Sondland's attorneys said last week.

Sondland's testimony comes one day after the release of a Gallup poll that found 52% of Americans saying Trump should be impeached and removed from office. The only other time Gallup has found stronger support for a president's impeachment and removal, Richard Nixon would resign from office four days later.

More impeachment headlines:

  • "Ex-Pompeo adviser tells impeachment investigators he was 'disturbed' by attempts to use foreigners to hurt Trump’s political opponents" (Washington Post)
  • "Rick Perry Called Rudy Giuliani at Trump’s Direction on Ukraine Concerns" (Wall Street Journal)
  • "Federal investigation of Rudy Giuliani includes counterintelligence probe" (CNN)

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Today at the White House

--- President Trump travels to Texas today. At 2:45 p.m., he participates in a roundtable with supporters in Fort Wroth. At 3:20 p.m., he delivers remarks at a joint fundraising committee luncheon in Fort Worth. At 5:20 p.m., the president tours the new Louis Vuitton Rochambeau workshop in Alvarado. At 5:45 p.m., he speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the workshop's opening. At 8:05 p.m., Trump speaks at a rally for his re-election campaign in Dallas, Texas. He will then return to Washington, D.C.

--- At 6:20 a.m., Vice President Mike Pence touches down in Ankara, Turkey, where he will attempt to negotiate an end to Turkey's incursion into Syria. At 8:15 a.m., he participates in a restricted bilateral meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. At 8:25 a.m., he participates in an expanded bilateral meeting with Erdoğan. At 11 a.m., the vice president holds a press conference. At 12:20 p.m., he departs Ankara and returns to Washington, D.C.

Today in Congress

--- The Senate convenes at 9:30 a.m. today. The chamber is scheduled to vote on two Democratic resolutions reversing Trump administration actions. At 12 p.m., the chamber votes on passage of S.J.Res.53, which would overturn the Trump administration's weakening of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which set carbon emission standards for coal plants. At 1:45 p.m., the chamber will vote on passage of S.J.Res.54, which would terminate the president's February declaration of a national emergency on the southern border.

--- The House convenes at 10 a.m. today. The chamber is scheduled to consider H.R. 1815, the SEC Disclosure Effectiveness Testing Act.

Today at the Supreme Court

--- The Supreme Court justices do not have any oral arguments or conferences scheduled today.

Today on the trail

--- Two nights after their highly-anticipated face-off in Ohio, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will once again take to the same stage tonight as they both address the Women's Leadership Forum conference hosted by the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.

--- Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro joins a "Civic Engagement Neighborhood Block Party" hosted by Urban Dreams, a local non-profit group, in Des Moines, Iowa.

--- Former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) campaigns in Iowa, participating in an Iowa Caucus Consortium Candidate Forum in Des Moines, touring an ethanol and biodiesel plant in Newton, and attending a meet and greet hosted by local Democrats in Waverly.

--- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) visits Iowa, hosting a meet and greet in Tipton and a town hall in Davenport.

--- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) continues her "For All of America Tour" through New Hampshire, meeting with local residents at restaurants in Dover, Concord, Conway, Berlin, and Plymouth, and touring an addiction recovery center in Laconia.

--- Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) holds a "Rally Against Fear" in Grand Prairie, Texas, to coincide with President Trump's rally in the state.

--- Former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) continues his "Kids, We’re Bankrupt and We Didn’t Even Know It Tour" with stops in Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana.

--- Former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) continues his walk across New Hampshire, holding a town meeting focused on the opioid crisis in Hampstead, holding an event on autism in Manchester, and attending town meetings organized by local Democrats in Hudson and Exeter.

*All times Eastern