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Today’s read: 9 minutes.
Gordon Sondland’s changing testimony and what you need to know from last night’s elections.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, the Republican who lost a close race last night. Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Yesterday, I accidentally linked to the wrong article when referencing Barack Obama’s war on whistleblowers. A few of you wrote in asking for the correct link. You can read the story by clicking here.
What D.C. is talking about.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU and a critical witness in the Trump impeachment inquiry, made an abrupt change to his testimony this week. Sondland told investigators that he now recalled telling a top Ukrainian official the country likely would not receive American military aid unless it publicly committed to the investigation Trump was demanding, including one into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Sondland, a political appointee chosen by Trump who had donated to the Trump campaign, was widely seen as an ally of the president’s. His new testimony clearly describes the quid pro quo arrangement that Democrats say is an impeachable offense. Sondland said his memory was refreshed after reviewing opening statements from other diplomats.
What Democrats are saying.
You’re getting everything you’ve asked for. Republicans asked for someone who was on the now infamous call, so Democrats brought forward Alexander Vindman. Republicans wanted evidence of a quid pro quo, then Trump released the White House transcripts and several witnesses said they understood it to be a quid pro quo. Republicans wanted a vote on impeachment proceedings, so Democrats had a vote. Republicans wanted to open the hearings, Democrats announced their plans to open the hearings. Republicans wanted to release the transcripts, so Democrats released the transcripts. Republicans wanted Ambassador Volker’s testimony to be released, so Democrats released his testimony. All of it, Democrats say, still incriminates Trump. And now the only person who seemed to really defend him — Sondland — has changed the most critical part of his testimony and even said he believed what Trump was doing was illegal.
What Republicans are saying.
It’s all a sham. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he won’t read any of the transcripts and dismissed Sondland’s reversal. “I’ve written the whole process off,” he told reporters. “I think this is a bunch of B.S.” Mitch McConnell says if a vote were held today in the Senate to remove Trump there is no question — it would not lead to removal. Other GOP lawmakers are noting how Democrats initially said they wanted the whistleblower to testify but are now changing their tune. Rep. Mark Meadows and conservative pundits are saying that the media is cherry-picking the most damaging parts of the testimony and not sharing other context. For example, both Gordon Sondland and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (who was forced out by Rudy Giuliani and his allies), testified that the administration was concerned about corruption in Ukraine. Meadows also notes that Ukraine was largely unaware that aid was being withheld and they eventually got their money without following through on their half of the bargain — proof in and of itself there was no quid pro quo. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, a left-leaning reporter who wrote critically about the “Russia collusion conspiracy” from the start, has also begun attacking it as a fever-pitch overblown drama. He said on Twitter, “I don’t see Russiagate and the Ukraine scandal as separate stories. Will get into this more later, but it’s the same people, same tactics, same rhetoric, same endgame. I think you have to look at the behavior of people like Adam Schiff in context.”
It seems like we have slowly moved to a place where Republicans will concede the “quid pro quo” and make the case that it’s not an impeachable offense. Some are holding the line, but “quid pro quo” has become this story’s version of “Russia collusion.” It’s apparently the thing this action needs to rise to in order for it to qualify as a crime or an act bad enough to mean the president should be removed from office. The thing I’m most stuck on about this story is that Trump, Giuliani and other members of Trump’s team were pushing Ukraine’s president to make a public anti-corruption statement that included comments about Burisma and 2016. Pretty much everyone has testified to that, including former US Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker, whose testimony Republicans insisted be made public.
That alone makes it clear to me that the plan here had more to do with damaging Biden — whose son worked at Burisma — than rooting out corruption. Imagine if the whistleblower never came forward, but Zelensky had followed through on the ask and publicly announced an investigation into Burisma? News outlets would have made the connection immediately, and a storm of negative press would have come down on Biden and his son. To think that ask was on the table in exchange for military aid to keep Russia at bay is pretty stunning. Whether it’s an impeachable offense seems to be based solely on whether you support Trump or not, and I think would work in reverse, too. If this were President Obama on a call with a foreign country, telling them he needed a favor to look into Trump in exchange for continued military assistance, Republicans would similarly call for his head while Democrats would probably defend him. That being said, it’s tough to imagine any other president surviving this kind of scandal. If you want to see how Democrats are framing the entire story, I found this video from Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy. It has a pretty strong lefty bias but gives good context on the history in Ukraine and represents Democrats’ talking points well.
Last night, Democrats won complete control of the Virginia government for the first time since 1993. The Democratic nominee also won the race for Governor in Kentucky, where Republicans underperformed in the suburbs that Trump has repeatedly struggled in across national polls. In Mississippi, Republican Tate Reeves won the race for governor over Attorney General Jim Hood. And in New York City, voters passed a law to implement ranked-choice voting — where voters rank options in order from favorite to least favorite — instead of binary choices. New York became the most populous place in the U.S. to implement the change. Some quick thoughts:
Kentucky. The left will make it about Trump, but he may have helped Republicans. Republican Matt Bevin was underwater in Kentucky, and after Trump’s support came in the race got competitive. Bevin was extremely unpopular and Republicans still elected their first attorney general since 1948 and the first African-American attorney general in state history. If anything, the race proves that candidates matter, not just party, and Republicans ran a very bad candidate for governor (historically, Kentucky has had a Democratic governor for 23 of the last 35 years, so it’s kind of the norm).
Virginia. This is definitely great news for Democrats, marking the end of Virginia’s total transformation into a blue state. It comes after the 2017 election when races were so close one Virginia House Delegate seat was decided by literally pulling a random name out of a bowl. The Democratic state Senate means tightening access to guns and minimum wage raises are probably on their way. It also marked a victory for Juli Briskman, the cyclist who lost her job after flipping off Trump’s motorcade. She ran for office and is now a supervisor for Algonkian District in Loudoun County, Virginia.
Bucks County. In my hometown, historically split between Republicans and Democrats, liberals won huge last night, sweeping the board of commissioners race. Democrats also won all five seats on the Delaware County Council, a Republican stronghold since the Civil War. Of all the results last night, this one should be most concerning for Republicans, as Bucks and Delaware County are often a barometer for Pennsylvania and national enthusiasm.
Other notables. Ghazala Hashmi became the first Muslim woman elected to the Virginia Senate. Regina Romero became the first woman and first Latina to become Tucson’s mayor. Republicans picked up two seats in southern New Jersey.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: You can ask a question by simply replying to this email or tweeting at me @Ike_Saul — but I’m more likely to see it if you email in.
Q: It seems that since Trump's election, we have seen record voter turnout to support Democrats. Do you think we would be seeing the same initiative and drive that voters seem to be showcasing if Hillary Clinton had won? Given this evening's election results with Democrats winning the governorship in Kentucky and the Senate and House of Delegates in Virginia, do you think this "blue wave" of sorts can carry into 2020?
- Jake, Seattle, WA.
Tangle: Historically speaking, the kind of turnout and voter fire that we’ve seen since Trump’s election is about what you’d expect. When one side wins the presidency, it’s usually the other side whose turnout blows up in the following midterm elections. There are a few reasons for that, from a political science perspective, but none seem more important than the fact that people in the minority often feel more compelled to vote for change.
That being said, what we’re seeing in response to Trump is still historic. In 2018, more than 50 percent of eligible voters showed up for the midterm elections. The last time the turnout rate for a midterm was that high, Woodrow Wilson was president (1914). Part of that turnout drive was in support of Trump, but the blue wave we saw in the 2018 midterms reflected the fact that Democrats were on fire heading into the elections. So, to answer your first question: No, I don’t think we’d see the same initiative and drive if Hillary Clinton had won. In fact, I think we’d probably have seen the opposite. Despite the history her election would have brought — being the first woman ever elected — it’s clear from the 2016 result that lots of Democrats and Republicans were turned off by Clinton. She was an establishment candidate and her victory seemed like a foregone conclusion. I think a lot of people on the left would have checked out had she won, though the Republican base would have probably turned out in droves to keep Congress red.
As for what’s next, it’s tough to imagine this not carrying over into 2020. A lot of Democrats have adopted the stance that “turnout is the only thing that matters,” and there is some data to back that up. In elections where turnout is high, Democrats tend to do better. Plenty of pollsters think that if 2020 turnout tracks with what we’ve seen since 2016, Democrats could wipe out Trump and possibly even the Republican majority in the Senate. But there are some caveats.
For one, turnout isn’t just some light switch that comes on. It has to be earned with smart campaigning and grassroots movements to sign up voters. Last night in Mississippi, turnout was “pathetic,” as pollster Dave Wasserman put it. Republicans won pretty much every race by a comfortable margin and far fewer people turned out than they did in their last elections. This is just one example, but it’s a reminder turnout isn’t automatic. Secondly, there are about 44.4 million eligible non-college educated white voters who didn’t vote in 2016. Comparatively, there are just 9.3 million eligible college-educated whites who didn’t vote. Those 44 million non-college educated white voters overwhelmingly tend to support Trump, which means he has a huge untapped pool of voters he can get out to the polls. That’s lots of room for improvement. Finally, a recent New York Times article sheds light on the swing voters who make up 15 percent of the electorate in crucial battleground states. Right now, those voters truly are undecided, and they don’t fit neatly into any political grouping. How they break in 2020 could be enough to swing the election, regardless of turnout, and it’s not entirely clear where they will go.
All this is to say: turnout is very important, and the more turnout in 2020 the better Democrats’ chances of winning. But there are plenty of other factors that could undercut a historically high turnout for Democrats and still leave us with a second term for Trump.
A story that matters.
ProPublica has uncovered a grizzly trend in a California jail: inmates considered at risk of suicide were being forced into “isolation rooms” with no mental health treatment or special attention. Instead of reducing rates of suicides, like jail officials claimed the policy would, it increased rates of suicide. The story is a horrifying look into the mismanagement of overcrowded prisons and what happens when jail officials ignore the recommendations of experts. You can read more about it here.
- 1.2 million. The number of high school and middle school students who said they used mint or menthol e-cigarettes in the last month, both of which may be exempted from Trump’s ban on flavored e-cigs.
- 62%. The percentage of people who approve of Trump’s presidency that say they can’t think of anything he could do to lose their support.
- ~1.4 million. The number of Kentucky voters who cast a ballot in yesterday’s election, up from ~975,000 in 2015.
- 31%. The rate of voter turnout in Kentucky predicted by the Secretary of State last week.
- 41%. The new low-end estimate of actual voter turnout in Kentucky yesterday.
- 4.9 million. The total number of subscribers to The New York Times.
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Have a nice day.
What’s more American and loveable than dogs and beer? Very, very few things. That’s why a clever North Dakota brewery is combining them. Fargo Brewing Company is now printing pictures of dogs up for adoption on their beer cans. The clever marketing move is part of a partnership with 4 Luv of Dog Rescue, and the two companies hope it will increase dog adoption in the state while spreading love for the brewery. You can read more here and see some of their cans below.