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Thursday's Mini-Report, 11.21.19

11/21/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Another informative day: "Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump's former top adviser on Russia and Europe, and David Holmes, a counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, testified before the House Intelligence Committee for more than seven hours Thursday -- capping the week's long list of public hearings in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry."

* Netanyahu indicted: "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday, prolonging the country's political uncertainty as it looks set to head into its third national election in a year."

* Afghanistan: "Two U.S. service members who were killed when their helicopter crashed in Afghanistan have been identified. The Defense Department said Thursday that Chief Warrant Officer 2s David C. Knadle and Kirk T. Fuchigami Jr. died when their helicopter crashed while providing security for troops on the ground in eastern Logar Province."

* There won't be a shutdown tonight: "The Senate cleared a monthlong spending bill Thursday, sending it to President Donald Trump's desk hours before government funding was set to expire at midnight." (Here's the roll call on today's Senate vote.)

* Federal executions: "A judge has temporarily blocked the Trump administration's plans to resume federal executions after 16 years, halting four scheduled executions to give the inmates time to challenge the new policy."

* A story to watch: "Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.'s criminal investigation of the Trump Organization is scrutinizing the actions of one of the president's oldest and most trusted deputies, ProPublica has learned. The focus on Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, a 72-year-old accountant now running the business with Trump's two adult sons, stems from his involvement in arranging a payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump (which Trump has denied)."

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Impeachment witness to GOP: stop echoing Russian propaganda

11/21/19 02:41PM

As it does most days, the White House issued talking points this morning, and as an Associated Press reporter noted, Team Trump helped start the day by accusing congressional Democrats of "playing right into Russia's hands."

The White House, pointing to impeachment testimony from Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the White House National Security Council, added that Hill "warned today that it is Russia's goal to delegitimize the President of the United States."

Even for this administration, the talking points were spectacularly misleading.. Hill did deliver a warning to congressional lawmakers, but it was largely the opposite of what Team Trump claimed.

Former White House official Fiona Hill on Thursday accused lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee of echoing Russian propaganda by fomenting the "fictional narrative" that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.

Hill, one of the foremost U.S. experts on Russian President Vladimir Putin, appeared to take aim at Republicans on the panel, led by ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes of California, who have repeatedly questioned witnesses about alleged efforts by Ukrainians to hurt President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

As part of Hill's unsubtle testimony, the former White House official explained, "In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interest. As Republicans and Democrats have agreed for decades, Ukraine is a valued partner of the United States and it plays an important role in our national security. And as I told the committee last month, I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary -- and that the Ukraine, not Russia, attacked us in 2016."

Hill added, "Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps somehow for some reason Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves."

This may seem like an obvious point, but it's critically important: Trump and some of his Republican cohorts have, for a variety of reasons, promoted the idea that Ukraine -- and not Russia -- was responsible for the attack on our 2016 elections. Hill, like a variety of witnesses who've testified as part of the impeachment proceedings, wants lawmakers to know how very wrong this is.

But this morning, she clarified matters further, explaining that the argument isn't just false, it's Russian propaganda that responsible Americans should take care not to promote.

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Members of the U.S. Navy

Trump intervenes against US Navy leadership (again)

11/21/19 12:40PM

Late last week, Donald Trump made an unfortunate decision to intervene in three murder cases involving U.S. service members. As NBC News reported, the president used his authority to dismiss charges against a Green Beret accused of killing an Afghan man, pardoned a former Army officer serving 19 years for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan men, and promoted a Navy SEAL who was convicted of posing with a dead body but acquitted of more serious charges.

For military justice experts and some senior Pentagon officials, the proper thing for Trump to have done was nothing. The Republican ignored them.

For the U.S. Navy, however, one of Trump's actions obviously didn't sit right. At issue is Edward Gallagher, who was ordered dropped in rank from chief to petty officer first class following a trial in which he was accused of murder and war crimes. He was acquitted, though his punishment stems from a conviction on a lesser count.

Trump reversed the Navy's decision, and the service branch had no choice but to accept the president's order. That said, the Navy soon after explored stripping Gallagher of his gold eagle Trident emblem, so that he would no longer be a Navy SEAL.

This morning, Trump decided to ignore the Navy's wishes on this front, too.

President Donald Trump on Thursday said he will not allow the Navy to take away an emblem signifying membership in the elite SEALs unit from an officer convicted of posing with an teen ISIS fighter's corpse.

"The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher's Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning," the tweet read. "Get back to business!"

Fred Wellman, an Army veteran and the head of a marketing firm advocating for veterans and military families, explained soon after, "In many ways this is worse than the pardons. This is an overt act directly undermining the ability of the Navy to maintain good order and discipline of their forces. Gallagher was convicted of posing with a dead enemy. Many have lost their tridents for less. This is outrageous."

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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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