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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 11.20.19

11/20/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Quite a day: "Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday in what was the most anticipated public hearing yet in the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry."

* Israel: "Former military chief of staff Benny Gantz said Wednesday that he could not form Israel's next government, prolonging the country's political uncertainty after deadlocked elections in September."

* Remember when Trump said this deal was already done? "Trade talks between the U.S. and China are in danger of hitting an impasse, threatening to derail the Trump administration's plan for a limited 'phase-one' pact this year, according to former administration officials and others following the talks."

* Edward Gallagher: "The Navy will review whether a sailor who was convicted of posing with the corpse of an ISIS fighter before President Donald Trump intervened should be allowed to remain in the elite SEAL corps, along with three of his supervising officers, a defense official told NBC News on Tuesday night."

* Hong Kong: "The U.S. Senate, in a unanimous vote, passed legislation on Tuesday aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong amid China's crackdown on a pro-democracy protest movement that has gripped the vital financial center for months."

* Open Skies Treaty: "The Trump administration and House Democrats are clashing on another foreign policy front, with the fate of a landmark international treaty that allows U.S. intelligence flights over Russia hanging in the balance."

* By all appearances, she'll need a good lawyer: "Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was indicted on multiple charges Wednesday, including wire fraud and tax evasion, in connection with the sales of her self-published children's books."

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Sondland: Ukraine had to announce investigation, not conduct one

11/20/19 03:59PM

It was a quick exchange that didn't generate much attention, but a reporter asked Donald Trump two months ago to explain his administration delaying military aid to Ukraine. The president, without missing a beat, lied. "I didn't delay anything," Trump said at the time.

The next day, the Republican's story changed and he tried to explain why his administration delayed the aid he'd just denied delaying. "We want to make sure that country is honest," Trump told reporters. "It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?"

From time to time, the White House and its allies will still pretend to take this line seriously, as if Trump, despite allegations of widespread corruption surrounding him and his team, has a deep and abiding concern related to possible Ukrainian malfeasance.

As the scandal has unfolded, the idea that the American president is sincere about this has always been laughable, and in recent days, the point has become even more absurd. Privately, administration officials keep making clear that Trump couldn't have cared less about corruption in Ukraine, a point that's been bolstered publicly during congressional impeachment proceedings. (When the National Security Council recommended that Trump bring up the issue during a phone meeting with Zelensky in April, and included specific talking points in briefing materials to emphasize the importance of the topic, Trump ignored the NSC, making his apparent indifference clear.)

This morning, however, these concerns came into sharper focus. Consider this exchange between House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, as part of a clarification regarding the White House's quid-pro-quo scheme.

SCHIFF: He had to get those two investigations if that official act was going to take place, correct?

SONDLAND: [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] had to announce the investigations. He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it.

A great many revelations have come to the fore today, many of which reinforce some of the worst fears surrounding Trump and his extortion scheme. This point about simply "announcing" investigations, without regard for follow through, is among the most striking.

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Despite devastating testimony, Trump falsely claims exoneration (again)

11/20/19 02:28PM

The public hearings in the impeachment inquiry have been quite devastating for Donald Trump, but Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony was especially brutal. As former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara explained, Sondland has effectively destroyed every White House defense: "Trump didn't care about Ukraine; there was a quid pro quo; Trump & Rudy demanded the announcement of investigations; everyone was in the loop; Ukraine knew about the linkage; all was directed by Trump."

It's against this backdrop that the president -- you guessed it -- claimed exoneration.

President Donald Trump claimed that testimony E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland gave in the House impeachment inquiry, exonerated him, saying that "it's all over."

Addressing reporters as Sondland publicly testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee, Trump recounted a conversation he had with the ambassador and claimed that, "I just noticed one thing and I would say that means it's all over."

The Republican echoed this on Twitter, declaring, "Impeachment Witch Hunt is now OVER!" adding, "This Witch Hunt must end NOW."

Obviously, no one could seriously believe this, but what I find amazing is the larger pattern: the boy who cried wolf has been replaced with the president who cried exoneration.

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Why Trump's line on Gordon Sondland is literally unbelievable

11/20/19 12:59PM

In early October, Donald Trump suggested he had a very high opinion of Gordon Sondland, a Republican megadonor the president chose to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Trump described him as "a really good man" and a "great American."

Two weeks ago, the president's line took a rather dramatic turn, telling reporters he "hardly knows" Sondland, though he added that the ambassador "said there was no quid pro quo, and he still says that."

This morning, Sondland appeared under oath before the congressional committee exploring impeachment, and effectively flipped, directly implicating the president and top members of Team Trump in the extortion scheme. At that point, the president's line on the ambassador evolved a bit more:

"I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. Seems like a nice guy, though, but I don't know him well. He was with other candidates; he actually supported other candidates, not me. Came in late."

As a rule, when Trump stops to speak with reporters on the White House South Lawn, he isn't carrying anything. Today, however, the president carried some visible handwritten notes, though his comments referring to his relationship with Sondland appeared to be extemporaneous.

Nevertheless, the problem with Trump's latest line is that it's literally unbelievable.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.20.19

11/20/19 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* In case there weren't enough going on in the political world, MSNBC and the Washington Post will host the latest Democratic presidential primary debate tonight in Atlanta. Ten candidates will participate.

* Though I have some concerns about the methodology, the latest Saint Anselm College poll in New Hampshire found Pete Buttigieg leading the 2020 field with 25%, while Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren were tied for second place with 15% support each. No other candidate reached double digits, though Bernie Sanders, at 9%, was close.

* Speaking of the former South Bend mayor, Buttigieg, who's struggling badly to win over African-American support, brought his message yesterday to Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male college in Atlanta.

* According to a report in Time magazine, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has let some of his fellow Republicans know he plans to give up his post and run for Kansas' open U.S. Senate seat, but he's not sure "how to get out" of the Trump administration "in one piece."

* Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke at an event in his home state of Nevada over the weekend and downplayed the importance of the first two 2020 nominating contests. "I don't think it matters what happens in Iowa or New Hampshire because those states are not representative of the country anymore," Reid said.

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Image: Republicans the House Intelligence Committee vote to release controversial memo on Russia investigation

Nunes labels actual, real-world events as 'ludicrous accusations'

11/20/19 11:19AM

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), still the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, continues to approach Donald Trump's impeachment inquiry in deeply strange ways. In fact, what's become clear over the last week or so is that the Republican congressman's efforts to defend the president fall into three categories.

The first is to play an awkward projection, rubber-glue game. Aware that the White House's critics see Trump as peddling outlandish conspiracy theories to cult-like followers, Nunes accused Democrats of peddling outlandish conspiracy theories to cult-like followers. Aware of John Bolton's description of the president's Ukraine scheme as a "drug deal," Nunes yesterday described the impeachment inquiry as a "drug deal."

The second part of the strategy is to use the proceedings to advance discredited partisan arguments. Yesterday, for example, Nunes accused Joe Biden of "threatening to withhold U.S. loan guarantees unless the Ukrainians fired a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma." We already know that's not even close to what actually happened.

But the third prong of Nunes' defense is pretending Trump didn't do things we already know he did. The Republican congressman made this pitch this morning as the impeachment proceedings got underway on Capitol Hill:

"In their mania to attack the president, no conspiracy theory is too outlandish for the Democrats.

"Time and again, they floated the possibility of some far-fetched malfeasance by Trump, declared the dire need to investigate it, and then suddenly dropped the issue and moved on to their next asinine theory."

Nunes proceeded to list a series of "accusations and insinuations," which included Democrats alleging that Trump "received nefarious materials from the Russians through a Trump campaign aide"; Trump had "a diabolical plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow"; and Trump "changed the Republican National Committee platform to hurt Ukraine and benefit Russia."

The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee described each of these as "false charges" and "ludicrous accusations," which would be more compelling if they were, in fact, false and ludicrous.

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Sondland to impeachment panel: 'We followed the president's orders'

11/20/19 10:20AM

By any fair measure, yesterday's double-header impeachment hearings were brutal for Donald Trump and his allies. An NBC News analysis said plainly that it was "a bad day" for the president and Republicans. Vox added, "Tuesday's impeachment hearings were a disaster for Republicans."

Today's proceedings are just now getting underway, but I think it's safe to say they're going to be quite a bit worse for the president and his partisan defenders.

Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the E.U., is pointing the finger at President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton in explosive public testimony on Wednesday in which he says explicitly that there was a "quid quo pro" linking a White House visit by Ukraine's president to investigations into a political opponent of the president.

Under fire from all sides after multiple witnesses contradicted his earlier deposition, Sondland blames everyone but himself for the pressure campaign on Ukraine now driving impeachment proceedings against Trump. He showed up for his televised hearing with reams of new text messages and emails he said prove the highest levels of the White House and the State Department were in on it.

Though Sondland still appears to be using some ambiguous language, the bigger picture is clearly going to be a problem for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appears to have been far more involved in the extortion scheme than was previously understood.

This is also another sign of trouble for Rudy Giuliani, who the ambassador is now saying was responsible for delivering a quid-pro-quo message to Ukraine. "Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the president," Sondland's opening statement reads.

But it's Donald Trump who has reason to be the most concerned this morning.

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Impeachment hearings tear down Trump's argument about Biden

11/20/19 09:20AM

Last week, George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department, covered a lot of ground during public impeachment hearings, but it was of particular interest to hear Kent reject the idea that Joe Biden acted improperly in Ukraine. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

The central allegation is that Mr. Biden pressured Ukraine to fire Viktor Shokin from his job as prosecutor general of Ukraine in order to shield the energy company Burisma from scrutiny. Mr. Biden's son, Hunter Biden, was a board member of Burisma at the time.

Asked if there is any truth Mr. Trump's theory that Mr. Biden asked to protect his son's interests, Mr. Kent replied: "None whatsoever."

Mr. Biden did push for Mr. Shokin's removal. However, that was broadly in line with the policy of the United States and its international partners, who saw Mr. Shokin as insufficiently aggressive on corruption. Asked if Mr. Biden acted in the interests of the United States in pursuing policies in Ukraine, Mr. Kent replied: "He did."

Yesterday, as the Associated Press reported, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker -- invited by Republicans to testify -- also rejected Biden-related "conspiracy theories" peddled by the right.

Kurt Volker said he has known Biden as an honorable man for more than two decades, rebuffing debunked corruption allegations that Trump is said to have wanted the Ukrainians to investigate in exchange for military aid to hold off Russian aggression.

"The allegations against Vice President Biden are self-serving and non-credible," Volker declared.

Given the larger context, this was no small assertion: the "allegations" Volker was publicly dismissing as nonsense have come directly from the Oval Office.

Indeed, this entire line of inquiry has brought great clarity to a key element of the Republican case.

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White House, Republicans take aim at war hero to defend Trump

11/20/19 08:40AM

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is the top Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council. As part of the ongoing impeachment proceedings, he's also a witness with tough-to-dismiss credibility: the lieutenant colonel is a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran who earned a Purple Heart.

And as the world saw yesterday, Vindman also has devastating insights into Donald Trump's apparent wrongdoing as part of the Ukraine extortion scheme. For his trouble, as NBC News noted, the war hero "faced repeated character attacks from several House Intelligence Republicans," including not-so-subtle innuendo about his loyalties.

In one case, Steve Castor, the counsel for committee Republicans, asked a series of questions about whether Vindman had at one point been offered the post of Ukrainian defense minister by a Ukrainian politician.

Vindman, for his part, said such a request occurred three times, but that he dismissed the offers immediately, reported them to his superiors and to counterintelligence authorities, and told Castor it's no secret where his allegiance is.

"I'm an American," he said.

That the topic came up at all seemed to be part of a clear effort by Republican to discredit the allegiance of Vindman. Several conservatives have used the same tactic, including Fox News personalities.

By most measures, it was the ugliest thing we've seen as part of the public impeachment hearings. Dana Milbank noted, "[F]or pure maliciousness, it is hard to top the gall of Trump partisans who question Vindman's loyalty." The columnist characterized it as "sheer McCarthyism."

As dishonorable as the House Republicans' conduct appeared, things were no better a mile and a half down Pennsylvania Avenue. The New York Times reported overnight on the White House going after Vindman and Jennifer Williams, a top foreign policy adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, by name.

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In impeachment hearings, even the GOP's witnesses are hurting Trump

11/20/19 08:00AM

Yesterday was the first day in which the House impeachment inquiry featured public testimony from witnesses requested specifically by Republican members of the panel. As NBC News reported, these witnesses "were expected to provide testimony helpful to the president."

The report added, succinctly, "They did not."

Not surprisingly, the proceedings covered an enormous amount of ground over the course of several hours, but as Rachel noted at the top of last night's show, this was among the most striking moments of the afternoon session:

Under questioning from Democrats, Tim Morrison, the former top National Security Council official for Russia and European affairs, was asked to recall a September 1 conversation between US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and Ukraine official Andriy Yermak. That discussion has become central to the question of whether US military assistance to Kyiv was conditioned upon Ukraine opening investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden's family and other Democrats.

According to Morrison, it clearly was.

"What did Ambassador Sondland tell you that he told Mr. Yermak?" Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman asked Morrison. Morrison replied, "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."

Morrison went on to describe a conversation with Sondland, following the ambassador's conversation with Trump, who said Zelensky had to make a statement the White House wanted to hear as a condition for security assistance to be released.

Oh. So the committee members and everyone watching heard from Morrison -- a Republican-called witness who, up until very recently, was part of Donald Trump's White House team -- confirm that there was, in fact, a quid pro quo, communicated to Ukraine by a Trump emissary. If our vulnerable ally was going to get the military aid it was desperate to receive, the Ukrainian government would have to publicly declare an investigation into one of the American president's domestic political rivals.

NBC News' report added, "So much for helping Trump."

Of course, the man sitting alongside Morrison, former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, didn't make things any better for the White House.

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