I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Friday, October 4, 2019. 32 days until Election Day 2019. 122 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 396 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trump administration leveraged potential meeting to push Ukraine to investigate Biden, texts show
Trump publicly urges China to probe former VP
Kurt Volker, who resigned as U.S. special envoy to Ukraine last week, met with congressional investigators for more than nine hours on Thursday, becoming the first witness in the House Democratic impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Late Thursday night, the three House committees leading the investigation released a tranche of State Department text messages turned over by Volker, which show Trump administration officials using the prospect of a meeting between President Trump and Ukraine's newly elected president as leverage to press the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's potential 2020 rival.
In one message on July 25, Volker texted Andrew Yermak (an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky): "Heard from White House—assuming President Z[elensky] convinces trump he will investigate / 'get to the bottom of what happened' in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington."
Hours later, Trump and Zelensky spoke on the phone — the now-infamous conversation later highlighted by an intelligence community whistleblower complaint, in which the former pushed the latter to investigate Joe Biden's ties to Ukraine and aspects relating to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But just over a month later, a planned meeting between Trump and Zelensky was canceled, as Trump ordered a hold on military aid to Ukraine that had been authorized by Congress.
"Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Bill Taylor, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Ukraine and a career diplomat, asked Gordon Sondland, a prominent Trump donor now serving as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, on September 1, according to the released messages.
"Call me," Sondland replied.
In a September 9 message, Taylor remained concerned that the suspension of military aid to Ukraine was being tied to the politically-charged investigations. "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," he texted.
"Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions," Sondland responded, emphasizing Trump's claim that the efforts to persuade Ukraine to pursue the investigations while holding up military aid to the country did not constitute an explicit "quid pro quo."
The text messages also show the Zelensky aide and Trump-appointed diplomats working to craft a public statement that would have committed Ukraine to pursue the investigations sought by Trump.
"We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future," Volker wrote to Sondland in August, appearing to recommend language for the Ukrainian statement. Burisma Holdings was the company tied to Hunter Biden, the former vice president's son, which was under investigation by a Ukrainian prosecutor who the elder Biden later sought to have fired. President Trump has alleged that Biden's calls for the prosecutor's ouster were an attempt to take the heat off of his son's company; the former VP has denied these claims.
Volker sent the proposed language just days after communicating with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, who was leading a shadow campaign to encourage Ukraine to pursue investigations of Biden and the 2016 election. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Marie Yovanovitch was removed as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine in the spring after complaints by Giuliani that she was undermining his efforts to pressure Kyiv to launch the investigations.
While no statement was released by Zelensky's administration at the time, Ukrainian prosecutor general Ruslan Ryaboshapka announced this morning that he would review several cases previously handled by his predecessors, including the investigation into Burisma Holdings.
"American presidents should never press foreign powers to target their domestic political rivals," the Democratic chairmen of the three House committees leading the impeachment probe wrote in a letter on Thursday, pointing to the text messages as renewed evidence of such efforts by the Trump administration. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, emphasized that the released messages were "cherry-picked" by Democrats and insisted that the full batch show a different story.
The late-night release of the messages — which Politico Playbook called "the smoking texts," a reference to the so-called "smoking gun" tape during the Watergate investigation — capped off another tumultuous day in the quickly-accelerating impeachment probe, as new developments were not only reported but also occurred in real-time.
Earlier Thursday, Trump repeated the request central to the impeachment inquiry — asking a foreign power to investigate his political rival — but in public, not just in a private phone conversation.
"China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened in Ukraine," the president told reporters as he departed the White House for an event in Florida. (Hunter Biden has been involved in companies in China and Ukraine. Despite Trump's claims, there has been no evidence to suggest that the former VP traded favors with either foreign government to boost his son's business interests.)
The moment was reminiscent of Trump's July 2016 call for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's email account ("Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing), a public statement that was extensively scrutinized by special counsel Robert Mueller.
President Trump denied in a tweet this morning that his request for investigations was politically-motivated, amid questions about the legality of accepting help from foreigners in an election. "As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries," Trump said. "It is done all the time. This has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens. This does have to do with their corruption!"
According to a CNN report on Thursday, Trump previously raised Biden's "political prospects" in a June 18 phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The report also said that Trump promised Xi "he would remain quiet" on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while U.S.-China trade talks were underway. White House records of the Trump-Xi call were reportedly stored in the same "highly secured electronic system" also used to house Trump's July conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky and other controversial foreign leader calls.
The impeachment investigation will continue apace today, as Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in a 10:30 a.m. closed hearing. Atkinson was the first official to receive the anonymous whistleblower complaint about the Trump-Ukraine call, which he deemed to be "credible" and "of urgent concern."
Rick Perry reportedly plans to resign: Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to resign from the Trump administration by the end of November, Politico reported on Thursday. The Energy Department denied the report, which was later confirmed by The Washington Post and The New York Times. While Politico reported that the planned departure was "unrelated" to the Ukraine scandal, Perry's name has emerged as part of the impeachment investigation into President Trump: he led the U.S. delegation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s in May, and Democratic lawmakers have requested documents to determine if he played any role in the campaign to pressure Ukraine to pursue an investigation of Joe Biden.
More details emerge on second Trump administration whistleblower: "An Internal Revenue Service official has filed a whistleblower complaint reporting that he was told that at least one Treasury Department political appointee attempted to improperly interfere with the annual audit of the president’s or vice president’s tax returns, according to multiple people familiar with the document."
"Trump administration officials dismissed the whistleblower’s complaint as flimsy because it is based on conversations with other government officials. But congressional Democrats were alarmed by the complaint, now circulating on Capitol Hill, and flagged it in a federal court filing. They are also discussing whether to make it public." (The Washington Post)
2020 Central: "Former Vice President Joe Biden announced raising $15.2 million in the third quarter of the year, behind some rivals and short of what he raised in the previous quarter of the year."
Meanwhile, "Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tapped his small-dollar fundraising army for an impressive $25.3 million haul in the quarter, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who has become a darling of the left-leaning donor class, posted a $19.1 million haul." (NBC News)
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Today at the White House
--- At 11 a.m., President Trump visits with wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. At 2:15 p.m., he receives his daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office. At 4:30 p.m., he addresses attendees of Turning Point USA's 2019 Young Black Leadership Summit in the East Room.
--- Vice President Mike Pence joins President Trump for the Young Black Leadership Summit.
Today in Congress
The House and Senate are on recess through October 15. Both chambers will meet today in brief pro forma sessions where no business will be conducted.
Today at the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court's October sitting begins on Monday.
Today on the trail
--- Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will all address the Unions for All Summit in Los Angeles, California, hosted by the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) today.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) will also address the summit on Saturday. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was scheduled to attend as well but he has canceled his upcoming appearances due to his hospitalization.
--- Buttigieg addresses the Greater Indianapolis NAACP 50th Freedom Fund Banquet in Indianapolis, Indiana.
--- Castro tours "The Forty Acres," the original Delano, California, headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union, with Anthony Chávez, the son of UFW founder César Chávez.
--- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) holds a town hall in Charleston, South Carolina.
--- Klobuchar holds a roundtable at the REG Biorefinery Plant in Newton, Iowa.
--- O'Rourke visits a youth shelter in Los Angeles, California.
--- Former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) attends town meetings organized by local Democrats in Greenfield and Mount Vernon, New Hampshire.
--- Spiritual author Marianne Williamson addresses the 1st annual American Descendants of Slaves Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.
*All times Eastern