Plus, impeachment updates and Trump's visit to Walter reed.
Today’s read: 9 minutes.
We’re talking impeachment, the big election in Louisiana, Trump’s mysterious hospital visit and how subpoenas work.
Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who testified before the House intelligence committee on Friday. Photo: U.S. Embassy, Kiev, Ukraine
What D.C. is talking about.
Impeachment (still). And don’t expect that to change as we enter another week of public hearings. There have been a few significant news stories on impeachment since Friday morning.
- On Friday, former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified about how she was forced from her post by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other Trump allies who conspired against her.
- Democrats have said Yovanovitch was forced out so Trump could more easily execute his plan to pressure Ukraine’s president into investigating Joe Biden. Republicans claim it was because she was badmouthing Trump.
- During her testimony, Trump upended things by tweeting disparagingly about Yovanovitch’s record.
- On Saturday, House investigators released the testimony of former National Security official Tim Morrison and Vice President Mike Pence’s aide Jennifer Williams.
- Morrison corroborated reports that Trump was, at least in part, directing the show on pressuring Ukraine. But he also said he didn’t find the phone call with Zelensky to be alarming or improper. Williams said she thought it was “unusual” but added that she had no firsthand knowledge of the reasoning for Trump’s ask.
- Last night, The Wall Street Journal reported that Gordon Sondland was keeping the White House appraised of the push for Ukraine to open investigations. Reminder: Sondland is a Trump donor turned ambassador who changed his testimony and conceded that Trump was directing a quid pro quo. This report undercuts Republican defenses that the White House wasn’t orchestrating any pressure campaign on Zelensky.
What the right is saying.
Republican defenses have broken into a few main parts. On the merits of what Trump did, they are beginning to concede it was “improper” or even “alarming” but they are holding the line on it not being an impeachable offense. On the process of how Democrats are investigating the phone call, Republicans have repeatedly cried foul. They say House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff is lying, orchestrating secret meetings, cherrypicking witness testimony, and perhaps even backchannelling with witnesses. On the media coverage of impeachment, Republicans have repeatedly accused the media and Democrats of being in cahoots to remove the president. On the witnesses called, Republicans have been across the spectrum. Some have framed the witnesses as respected diplomats who have no firsthand knowledge of what happened. Others have framed them as never-Trumpers hellbent on destroying Trump because he doesn’t support their foreign policy. Republicans have repeatedly claimed that there’s been a lot of witness testimony poking holes in Democrats’ claims, but it’s withheld or undercovered by liberals and the media.
What the left is saying.
Witness after witness is telling the same story. Rudy Giuliani and his allies removed Marie Yovanovitch, a respected diplomat, with no clear reasoning. Once she was out, they inserted their own team and began opening backchannels with Ukraine’s government to ask them to open investigations into Joe Biden’s family and the 2016 election. When it was unclear if Ukraine would open those investigations, officials working for Trump began dangling a White House visit, froze military aid and made the ask as clear as they possibly could. Ukraine’s President Zelensky eventually caved, ceding to Trump’s demands and scheduling an interview on CNN to announce the investigations. He only backed out when Democrats discovered the withheld aid, caused an uproar and forced the Trump administration to release it. Information is going to keep coming out.
The evidence keeps mounting. People are so exhausted by the news every day that the Wall Street Journal’s story last night has barely seemed to register, but it was revealing. Their reporting shows that EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland was giving regular updates to Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and other top officials in the White House. To say Trump didn’t know what was going on, or wasn’t instructing it, is just absurd. I certainly think it’s true that some of these career diplomats loathed Trump’s foreign policy beliefs, but it’s also pretty stupid to call them “never-Trumpers.” They did, after all, agree to work with his administration and apparently tried to operate in the confines of what he wanted. There’s also plenty of political theater going on from both sides that make it easy to criticize members of Congress anywhere you look. But the heart of impeachment comes down to two distinct questions. First, did Trump orchestrate the pressure campaign on Ukraine to investigate Biden? The answer to that, to me, is a resounding yes. Second, is that an impeachable offense? I’m less certain about how I feel here, but I think given what would have happened without the whistleblower exposing this scheme my answer is yes, it is.
What you missed.
There was quite a bit of news over the weekend that got drowned out by impeachment stories. Here’s what you missed:
- In Louisiana, the Democrat Governor incumbent John Bel Edwards defeated Republican Eddie Rispone 51 percent to 49 percent in Saturday’s runoff election. Trump campaigned for Rispone and the Republican National Committee spent $2 million on the race. It’s the second loss Republicans have had in a deep south Governor race in as many weeks (a Democrat Governor held onto his seat in Kentucky, too). Democrats say it’s a referendum on Trump and proof the suburbs are turning on him. Republicans say it’s got nothing to do with Trump, it’s just a good candidate in a red state that frequently elects moderate Democrats.
- President Trump made a surprise, unscheduled visit to Walter Reed hospital on Saturday. His staff said it was the first part of a routine visit. But an op-ed writer for The Hill, who is also a U.S. Army veteran with sources at Walter Reed, said Trump was suffering from chest discomfort. Other news outlets haven’t been able to confirm the rumors, but speculation about Trump’s health abounds.
- Some Democrats are wavering on impeachment. New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew went on Fox News and attacked impeachment as a waste of time and not what voters sent him to Congress for. Van Drew and Minnesota Rep. Colin Petersen voted against the impeachment proceedings last month. Van Drew says Democrats in Trump districts fear impeachment and claims there is “some discussion among some of them — quietly, privately — of concern.”
- Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized for stop-and-frisk programs that defined his term as New York’s mayor. The stunning reversal came after Bloomberg supported the program for decades, even when it was ruled unconstitutional and even when data showed it indiscriminately targeted minorities. Many saw the apology as a cheap political flip-flop in an effort to help his potential run for president.
- Mayor Pete Buttigieg is being accused of insincerely claiming he has the endorsement of black voters in South Carolina in his campaign materials. Over the weekend, The Intercept published a damning report on Buttigieg’s rollout of a plan centered on African-American success, and how his campaign team reportedly published endorsements on the plan from African-Americans who didn’t actually support it or his candidacy. Support amongst black voters has been the Achilles heel of Buttigieg’s campaign thus far, and the news report was a damaging piece of information for the campaign.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: You can send in a question to Tangle by simply replying to this email and writing in. Answering reader questions is my favorite part about this newsletter, so don’t be shy!
Q: How can the White House continually block people that were eye/ear witnesses to what happened? The whole point of this system is to give a public view on what happened, yet it seems like the GOP is still controlling the narrative and keeping it as a “Game of Telephone” so that no real witness can speak up. Is this standard protocol? Can the White House really stop the hearing from calling on the correct witnesses? Is there no way to subpoena them and force them to speak? And if the White House tried to stop Taylor and Kent from going under oath, why did they fail at stopping it?
- Jonathan, Denver, CO.
Tangle: I’ve gotten a few different versions of this question from several different readers. It’s also something I see on Twitter a lot: “how can people just ignore subpoenas?” First off, I should note that the only reason Democrats can compel so many people to testify is because they have the majority in the House of Representatives. Without that, they’d be almost entirely stonewalled. That has been, so far, one of the biggest outcomes of the 2018 election. It’s also one of the reasons I often advocate for a “divided” government, with mixed control between the White House, the House and the Senate. What’s happening here is that State Department officials like George Kent or Bill Taylor are first obligated to obey the department’s orders. So the State Department, on behalf of the White House, asks them not to testify. Then Congress subpoenas them, which trumps the State Department request (pun intended). At this point, Kent, Taylor or whoever else can use the subpoena as cover and testify, saying that they don’t want to be in defiance of Congress. The subpoena gives them the legal rationale to disobey the State Department.
Once subpoenaed, people often negotiate the terms of their appearance in front of Congress. But if they decide to disobey a subpoena, Congress only has a few options to enforce it. The favorite of political firebrands is to call the Sergeant-at-Arms to detain a person who is defying a subpoena. Sergeant-at-Arms detention hasn’t happened since 1935, and it’s a pretty archaic and unlikely outcome. Another option is to fine or try to jail someone defying a subpoena (the maximum penalty is $100,000 and a year in jail). That requires pursuing criminal contempt charges and would mean a U.S. attorney for the Justice Department is bringing a case forward. Given that the Justice Department is controlled by William Barr, a Trump appointee, this is unlikely. Another possible outcome is that Congress files a civil suit, which sends the case into the court system and gets a federal judge’s weight to enforce a subpoena. This is perhaps most common, but it takes awhile.
Instead of these options, Democrats have pursued another method: they’ve simply taken the defiance and made it part of their case that Trump and his allies are obstructing justice. It’s quite likely they will add obstruction to the articles of impeachment and use it to define Trump and his administration in criminal terms when they vote on impeachment. The reason for this is twofold: one, they believe this is more damaging to Trump’s presidency. Two, they are probably wary of any of the other options. Like I said, a civil suit could take months or years for a court to sort out. The Justice Department would never bring a case forward. And deploying the Sergeant-at-Arms would be a significant escalation, especially given the fact Democrats are sometimes the ones defying subpoenas.
In sum, there is a lot of political and legal calculation here. There are ultimately levers that the Democrats could pull, legally, to force people into testifying or to punish them with fines and potentially even detention. But instead of pulling those levers they are opting to use the defiance as evidence for obstruction, which could be a shrewd political move, even if it lets some witnesses off the hook temporarily.
A story that matters.
This weekend, The New York Times reported on how China began detaining millions of Muslims across mainland parts of the country. It was the biggest leak from inside the Chinese Communist Party in decades. The Chinese government has put more than one million Muslims inside internment camps. Chinese officials have long maintained that they weren’t internment camps or prisons, but instead “job-training centers.” These documents expose those lies and shed a frightening light on the human rights abuses inside one of the world’s most powerful countries. You can read more here. P.S. protests in Hong Kong are still happening, and they’re getting more violent.
- 43%. The percentage of Americans 45 years and older who expect to outlive their savings, according to an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll.
- 20.2%. Percentage of 65+ Americans who are participating in the workforce, triple what it was 30 years ago.
- $1,503. The estimated average for a Social Security monthly payment next year, according to The Washington Post.
- $100,000. The fine public companies will face under a new California law if they don’t have at least one woman on their board by the end of 2019.
- 46.7%. National support for impeachment and removal of Donald Trump, the lowest since early October.
- 44.7%. Opposition to the impeachment inquiry process, the highest since early October.
- 47%. The percentage of Americans who believe it’s difficult to know whether the information they encounter is true, according to an Associated Press poll.
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More than a dozen homeless Canadian veterans moved into new homes earlier this month, marking a major milestone Calgary’s Homes for Heroes program. The program, led by the Homes for Heroes Foundation, is a government-funded project that houses homeless veterans inside a tiny home community. The community will provide more than just homes: it will have a resource center, a counselor’s office and a place for visiting family members. Ultimately, it’s designed to help get the vets back on their feet and reintegrate them into society on their own terms. You can read more here.