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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.21.19

11/21/19 12:00PM

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

* It looked to me like voters learned quite a bit during last night's Democratic presidential primary debate.

* In one of the most important polls I've seen in a while, the latest Marquette University Law School poll found Donald Trump leading each of the top four Democratic presidential contenders in hypothetical general-election match-ups in Wisconsin, in margins ranging from three to eight points.

* Kamala Harris' presidential campaign picked up a new congressional endorsement this morning, when the Virgin Islands' Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D) threw her support behind the California senator. Plaskett is the 11th member of the Congressional Black Caucus to endorse Harris.

* For the second time this week, a poll out of Iowa offers good news for Pete Buttigieg: a new Iowa State University poll found the former mayor leading the Democrats' presidential field with 26%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 19%. Bernie Sanders is a very close third with 18% followed by Joe Biden at 12%.

* In New York, a new Siena College poll found Biden leading Warren among Democratic voters, 24% to 14%, with the former vice president's support fueled in large part by African-American support. Sanders is a close third with 13% in the poll.

* Google announced changes to its policy on microtargeted advertising yesterday. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "Under the new policy, political ads can only be targeted based on users' age, gender, and location at the postal-code level. Political advertisers will also still be able to display ads based on the content of the page a user is viewing. Advertisers would no longer be able to target political ads based on users' interests inferred from browsing or search history."

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Investigations leave Rudy Giuliani in the hot seat

11/21/19 10:45AM

Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony in the impeachment proceedings clearly didn't do Rudy Giuliani any favors. As NBC News' report noted yesterday, Sondland left little doubt that it was the former mayor who played "a signature role in orchestrating" Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme.

Around the same time, the New York Times published this report on federal prosecutors having issued subpoenas in recent weeks to players in Trump's fundraising apparatus as part of an investigation into Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two prominent Giuliani associates.

The recent activity by prosecutors and F.B.I. agents shows that they have cast a wide net as they collect evidence about Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, who were arrested last month. It also comes as the same prosecutors look into whether Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Trump's personal lawyer, violated a federal lobbying law in some of his dealings with Ukrainians.

Mr. Giuliani and one of his companies were mentioned by name in one of the subpoenas, which was issued to a businessman who was approached by Mr. Parnas seeking an investment.

He was trying to finance a portion of a $500,000 payment he had promised to Mr. Giuliani to consult for a company he helped found, Fraud Guarantee, according to a person familiar with the solicitation of the businessman. The businessman never provided the money.

This reporting came the day after the Associated Press reported that federal prosecutors are moving forward with plans to interview "an executive with Ukraine's state-owned gas company" as part the investigation into the business dealings of Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman.

The executive in question is Andrew Favorov, the director of the integrated gas division at Naftogaz. His lawyer confirmed to the AP that he's scheduled to meet voluntarily with the U.S. Justice Department.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported late last week that federal prosecutors are investigating whether Giuliani "stood to profit personally from a Ukrainian natural-gas business pushed by two associates who also aided his efforts there to launch investigations" to benefit Donald Trump."

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Trump's guiding principle: 'You just tell them and they believe you'

11/21/19 10:00AM

By any fair measure, Tuesday's 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, while Vox added, "Tuesday's impeachment hearings were a disaster for Republicans."

And yet, as the dust settled on Tuesday night, Trump declared on Twitter that it was "a great day for Republicans."

Yesterday's impeachment proceedings were, by most metrics, considerably worse. One of Trump's ambassadors confirmed a White House quid-pro-quo scheme, while directly implicating the president and top members of his team. Soon after, lawmakers heard from a top Pentagon official who shredded a key GOP talking point.

As the president's defense imploded, the day's events left Republicans "scrambling ... to contain the damage."

Trump, however, claimed exoneration. In fact, the president went to an event in Texas, where he boasted, "Not only did we win today -- it's over."

It's obvious that Trump was lying. It's equally obvious that the president's strained relationship with reality reinforces concerns about his stability. But watching Trump pretend that devastating news is actually good for him, I was reminded of something Billy Bush, to whom Trump bragged about sexual assault during the infamous Access Hollywood recording, wrote in a 2017 piece for the New York Times:

In the days, weeks and months to follow, I was highly critical of the idea of a Trump presidency. The man who once told me -- ironically, in another off-camera conversation -- after I called him out for inflating his ratings: "People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you," was, I thought, not a good choice to lead our country.

"People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you."

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Trump points to purported evidence, which is actually 'meaningless'

11/21/19 09:23AM

The public recently learned of text messages between Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, in which the former made his dissatisfaction clear to the latter.

"Are we now saying that security assistance and [a White House] meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Taylor wrote in early September. He added, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Nearly five hours after that text was sent, Sondland replied, "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."

It was a difficult message to accept at face value, since common sense suggests it was written as a cover story. But yesterday, we learned even more during Sondland's sworn testimony about the conversation he had with Donald Trump after receiving Taylor's text. The ambassador told lawmakers:

"I finally called the president, I believe it was on 9 September. I can't find the records, and they won't provide them to me. But I believe I just asked him an open-ended question, Mr. Chairman. 'What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories and this and that. What do you want?'

"And it was a very short, abrupt conversation. [Trump] was not in a good mood. And he just said, 'I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to do the right thing,' something to that effect."

For some reason, Trump immediately convinced himself that this was the game-over moment he'd been waiting for. The president carried with him handwritten notes on Sondland's description of the September phone conversation, and he repeated the lines with great vigor in brief comments to White House reporters yesterday. The Republican proceeded to tweet about this soon after.

It's quite strange. As the editorial board of the New York Times explained, "Perhaps the president is unaware that simply saying he didn't do something is not proof that he didn't -- especially when he has already provided the proof that he did do it."

Orin Kerr, a law professor at UC Berkley, added, "You can't charge him with a crime because after he walked into the bank with a gun and said, 'Give me the money and no one gets hurt,' the clerk tripped the silent alarm and he yelled, 'I want nothing! I want nothing! Tell the clerk to do the right thing!' when the cops arrived."

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Pence, Pompeo in the spotlight after impeachment hearing testimony

11/21/19 08:40AM

"Everyone was in the loop," Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified yesterday, referring to the White House's Ukraine scheme. "It was no secret." For good measure, the megadonor-turned-diplomat added, "Again, everyone was in the loop" -- a phrase he repeated twice.

The next obvious question is who, exactly, is included in "everyone." It's fair to say Vice President Mike Pence, who's already faced some awkward questions as part of the controversy, suddenly finds himself back in the spotlight. As NBC News' report noted, Sondland's testimony has put the vice president "squarely in the middle of the saga."

Sondland said Wednesday he directly told Vice President Mike Pence of his concerns about a possible link between the release of military aid to Ukraine and the announcement of the investigations by Ukraine into Burisma Holdings and the 2016 election. He noted that this occurred when Pence was in Warsaw, Poland, for a Sept. 1 meeting with Zelenskiy. Sondland was there, as well.

"I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations. I recall mentioning that before the Zelenskiy meeting," Sondland testified. He added that Zelenskiy, during his meeting with Pence, "raised the issue of security assistance directly with Vice President Pence" and that Pence said "he would speak to President Trump about it."

Marc Short, the vice president's chief of staff, insisted soon after that the purported conversation "never happened."

Of course, there's also Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose emails Sondland shared with Congress, and whom Sondland claims to have kept informed of Team Trump's "activities" in Ukraine. In fact, according to the ambassador, Pompeo was still directing U.S. officials in Ukraine to deal with Rudy Giuliani as recently as Sept. 24.

A New York Times report added overnight, "No matter what he does, Mr. Pompeo will almost certainly face charges that, at best, he abetted Mr. Trump in enlisting a foreign nation to help his 2020 campaign as the price for aid in a grinding war involving Russia in eastern Ukraine. At worst, Mr. Pompeo will be seen as coordinating and approving the demands that Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, announce investigations into dubious claims about the Biden family and 2016 election interference as the price for an Oval Office meeting and a resumption of American military aid."

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Impeachment testimony knocks down another key GOP talking point

11/21/19 08:00AM

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of Donald Trump's fiercest defenders, appeared on CBS's Face the Nation earlier this week and pushed one of his party's favorite talking points. Referencing the July 25 phone meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which the Republican pressured his counterpart to participate in a political scheme, the Ohio congressman took aim at a foundational element of the controversy.

"The Ukrainians didn't know that their aid was held at the time of the call," Jordan said. The Ohioan made related points during yesterday's hearing with Ambassador Gordon Sondland.

This has been a central element of the Republican case for several weeks: in order for the quid-pro-quo allegations to have merit, there would need to be evidence that Ukrainian leaders were aware of Trump's scheme to use military aid as leverage to get the political assistance he was desperate to receive. It can't be extortion, the argument goes, if the intended target doesn't know they're being extorted.

Yesterday, Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine, testified as part of Congress' impeachment inquiry and explained that Ukraine did, in fact, know about the White House's hold. Politico reported:

Laura Cooper shared some startling information during her opening statement in Wednesday's impeachment inquiry hearings: evidence that Ukrainian officials may have known about a hold on U.S. assistance well before news of it broke in late August.

The Pentagon official said that as early as July 25 -- the same day President Donald Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky -- her staffers received two emails indicating the Ukrainians were aware of the hold.

In fact, Cooper described a dynamic in which Ukrainian officials raised multiple concerns about the delayed military aid within hours of the Trump-Zelensky phone meeting.

All of which knocks down one of the central pillars of the Republican Party's defense.

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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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