Nov 20, 2019

Scorched earth: Gordon Sondland throws Trump under the bus.

Scorched earth: Gordon Sondland throws Trump under the bus.

Plus, what's happening in Bolivia?

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Today’s read: 11 minutes.

It’s a long one today, and a lot going on: the most explosive testimony in the impeachment hearings yet. Plus, a question about Bolivia.

Gordon Sondland testifies in front of Congress.

How the sausage is made.

A lot of people ask about how politicians move on and off the record during interviews. Some people even accuse the “fake news media” of making up off the record sources. But yesterday, Rep. Mark Meadows gave America a look into how it goes down when he seamlessly transitioned between being on the record and off the record for an interview. Unfortunately for Meadows, he didn’t realize C-SPAN was filming him live at the time:


At 9pm tonight, the fifth Democratic debate will be held on MSNBC and hosted by The Washington Post.

Image: Associated Press

What D.C. is talking about.

Yesterday and this morning’s impeachment hearings. Four witnesses testified yesterday. Here is a brief summary of what they said:

  • Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told investigators he was shocked by what he heard on the July 25th phone call between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky. Vindman said because of the power dynamics, the call amounted to a “demand” — and he told two people about it: George Kent, who testified last week, and an unidentified intelligence officer, who many believe is the whistleblower.
  • Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, also testified. She said the call was unusual but not unusual enough that she alerted anyone. She laid out why withholding aid hurt Ukraine and helped Russia, and refused to answer questions about conversations Pence has had with Zelensky.
  • Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine who Republicans called forward, described theories about Joe Biden’s alleged corruption as “conspiracy theories” that were “self-serving” and “not worth pursuing as part of our national security strategy.” Volker also said he did not connect Trump’s desire to investigate Burisma to the Bidens, as Burisma was a company worth inspecting.
  • Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council official who Republicans called forward, said he was quite worried about the withholding of military aid. He also reported issues to his supervisor, John Bolton, and said the leadership structure at NSC was constantly disrupted by Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union. Morrison also told impeachment investigators that previous colleagues of Lt. Col. Vindman had expressed concerns about his judgment.

This morning, Trump donor and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified. You can read his opening testimony here. Here is a brief summary of what he said:

  • Yes, there was a quid pro quo: Trump wanted Zelensky to announce investigations in exchange for a White House meeting.
  • Later on, Sondland came to understand military aid was a part of that deal. “Two plus two equals four,” Sondland said. “It was abundantly clear to everyone there was a link.”
  • Everyone in the State Department and on the National Security Staff involved in this stuff knew what was happening and nobody liked it.
  • The White House obstruction  — not allowing Sondland to access State Department documents — has negatively impacted his ability to give the most honest testimony possible.
  • Rudy Giuliani was not wanted, and yet the president directed almost everyone to him on issues that involved Ukraine.
  • The President did not necessarily need Ukraine to follow through on the investigations, but more importantly wanted Zelensky to announce them publicly.

What the right is saying.

During yesterday’s testimony, Republicans focused most of their time on attacking Vindman. Rep. Devin Nunes questioned Vindman about who he shared details of the call with. Vindman denied ever speaking to the press or leaking, but he did say he had told an intelligence officer about the call. When Nunes pressed him about where that intelligence officer worked, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff stepped in an advised Vindman not to answer if he would be revealing the whistleblower’s identity. Then Vindman’s lawyer did the same. For Republicans, this was perhaps the most significant moment in his testimony. The White House also shared a graphic on Twitter that elevated Morrison’s comments expressing concerns about Vindman’s judgment. Others mocked Vindman for correcting Nunes when he didn’t use his military title to address him. Some even seemed to question Vindman’s loyalty to the U.S., probing the fact Ukrainians offered him a military post in their government (which Vindman repeatedly turned down).

So far, Republicans are only just beginning to question Sondland during his testimony, which is happening now. But on social media and in front of the cameras, Trump defenders are focusing on Sondland’s quote saying he had “never heard from President Trump aid was conditioned on the investigations.” Instead, Sondland reached this conclusion on his own. Republicans are also accusing the Democrats of moving the goalposts, saying Sondland only has evidence of the White House holding a meeting over Zelensky’s head, not the military aid. Sondland also testified that Trump told him “I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo.”

What the left is saying.

This morning is the biggest testimony yet. Sondland, a Trump donor and pro-Trump ambassador, is testifying that there was a clear quid pro quo: Trump asked for investigations involving Burisma, corruption and the 2016 election in exchange for a White House meeting. Later on, Sondland came to understand military aid was also being withheld in exchange for those investigations. He says that was the obvious understanding on what was happening, even if it wasn’t being said explicitly. He also testified that everyone else around him understood what was happening. This is the firsthand, pro-Trump, smoking gun witness they’ve wanted.

And all of it comes after yesterday. Vindman, Williams, Volker and Morrison all expressed varying degrees of concern about Trump’s conduct, and none said it was “perfect” or typical. Each, including the Republicans’ own witnesses, described the Republicans’ central talking point — that Joe Biden acted corruptly in Ukraine — as hogwash. While Republicans boasted about the fact no witnesses used the term “bribery” in any of their testimony, which ultimately may be the impeachable offense here, Democrats insisted that a quid pro quo constituted bribery.

My take.

If this wasn’t a wrap before, it is now. Democrats will impeach Trump in the House. I’m not sure what will happen in the Senate, but I am highly skeptical of any Republicans turning against Trump and removing him from office. Jake Sherman from POLITICO wrote in his morning newsletter that no Republicans were moving any closer to impeaching Trump in the House. “No endangered lawmakers are jittery, no retiring lawmakers are at risk of crossing over, and no one from the rank and file is, either.” Of course, this all comes before Sondland’s bombshell testimony, but he was deposed privately already.

To be clear: I believe Sondland’s testimony absolutely scorches every defense Republicans have tried to make so far. There was a quid pro quo, everyone understood the quid pro quo, Trump was directing the show with Giuliani, and pretty much everyone hated what was happening. Even the best defense from Republicans, that Sondland never heard Trump explicitly explain the quid pro quo, is bogus. Trump told Sondland to go to Giuliani, and Giuliani made the president’s demand for the quid pro quo clear.

As many Democrats have noted, there will likely be several crimes here laid out in articles of impeachment. “Bribery” may be at the top, and that will be based on the definition for a quid pro quo, which Sondland has now confirmed: “a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something.” Obstruction will also likely be filed, as Sondland and other witnesses have testified that the White House and State Department have impeded their testimony by withholding documents and trying to get them not to testify. I suspect Democrats will vote along a party line, and perhaps pick up Justin Amash, in a vote to impeach Trump. A couple Democrats in pro-Trump districts may vote against impeachment, but it seems inevitable it will happen. I still don’t see any way Republicans in the Senate turn on Trump, but how the next few days — and the polls— play out will be telling.

Your questions, answered.

Q: What’s happening in Bolivia right now? What was the U.S.’s role in the coup, if any? Can you do a basic education primer on the situation / brief context, and what the left and right are / aren’t saying about it?

- Nicky, Chicago, IL

Tangle: The story in Bolivia is a wild one, and it’s difficult to get information on it that feels untainted by partisan divides or pure ignorance of Latin American politics. Here’s the simplest version of the story I can tell: Evo Morales was the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history, and Bolivia is a majority indigenous country that has deep cultural ties to its indigenous people. Morales was and is very, very popular, and helped usher in economic prosperity the country has never really seen. But that popularity waned in the last few years because of Morales’ actions. He was president for 14 years, and so popular that he tried to pass a referendum to abolish term limits. Voters said no and it failed, but the Supreme Court ended up ruling term limits were unconstitutional, so he was able to run again this year (as you can imagine, this was very controversial — the referendum was often seen as the voice of the people, while the Supreme Court victory was a mere legal win). Morales was also unpopular with Bolivia’s youth, who did not experience the country Morales inherited but instead have only lived in a more prosperous country he helped create.

Then the election happened. In Bolivia, you win an election by getting 50% of the vote or 40% of the vote and also being ahead by 10 percentage points over the next highest candidate (sidebar: I like this system). Bolivia tracks its elections with two things: a quick count and an official count. The media uses the quick count to update Bolivia’s 11 million citizens. When the quick count was about 83% done, Morales was at ~45% and his opponent, Carlos Mesa, was at ~37%. Based on these results, Mesa began celebrating that he had forced a second round of elections (he was within 10%). Also around this time, electoral authorities stopped the quick count. They said the official count had begun and they didn’t want confusion. They also said they had pledged to release more than 80% of the vote which they had done, so it was the right time to end it. But the public freaked out and insisted the quick count continue, so it was started it back up. 24 hours later. When the count came back online, it got to about 95%, and the quick count reported Morales’ lead had moved to 46.86% and Mesa was at 36.82% — which would indicate a win for Morales. When the official count came in, it basically matched the quick count and polling done before the election. Morales won by about 11%, and his quick count vote seemed bolstered by late returns from rural areas where he enjoys his strongest support.

As Kevin Cashman from The Center for Economic and Policy Research said, “all hell broke loose and they were immediately accused of fraud.” Right-wing groups began torching election centers and going after the homes of Morales’ political allies. Protesters marched in the street en masse. Morales resisted calls for him to stand down for weeks. Then the Organization of American States (OAS) published a report on the election and cited “clear manipulation,” calling for a new vote under a new election commission. Morales accepted this ruling and announced new elections. But not long after, the leader of Bolivia’s armed forces and police called for Morales to resign in order to restore order while simultaneously urging protesters to call off their uprising. Morales ultimately resigned, saying he didn’t want more people to be attacked at the instruction of Mesa.

Reaction to the election has been divided along party lines. Cuba, Venezuela, and leftists politicians like Bernie Sanders have called it a coup or a military overthrow. Mesa, Marco Rubio, and other conservative figures have said Mesa helped end tyranny in Bolivia. Mexico offered Morales asylum and that’s where he is for now. Many in Latin America and Bolivia have been devastated by this sequence of events and it’s unclear what the future holds. I’m no expert on Bolivian politics, but I feel a little sympathetic for Morales. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor on abolishing term limits, and just because I don’t like that outcome doesn’t mean the court’s ruling should be ignored (certainly, here in America, we try not to ignore Supreme Court rulings). He also invited OAS to verify the election and accepted the outcome even though they didn’t rule in his favor, only to be seemingly forced out by the military and violence.

As for the U.S. role, it’s hard to say with any certainty. Obviously, anyone who is historically literate can tell you about the numerous elections — especially in Latin America — that the U.S. and its intelligence agencies have intervened in. The U.S. played a role in Bolivia during a 1964 coup, and this time around the government is being accused of providing overt financial support to opposition political parties, including ones who have engaged in violence. A U.S. ambassador was actually expelled from Bolivia in 2008 for meeting with opposition figures during a coup attempt then. But even the folks most insistent that the U.S. played a role concede that we won’t really know exactly what it was until it’s in the history books, which is probably true.

If you want to know more about what happened I really enjoyed this long read from The Nation — a left-leaning publication — where the author interviews several experts on the region. If you’re looking for a balance to that piece, The Wall Street Journal has a negative editorial about Morales.

A story that matters.

The battle between natural gas companies and environmentalists is finally coming home to roost — right near me in New York. Nearly 4,000 customers in Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens have had their natural-gas services cut off (that includes homes and includes for things like heating and cooking). This comes after state regulators rejected a 37-mile pipeline connecting natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York and New Jersey. Now, pipelines like that which used to be built unopposed can no longer be guaranteed, and gas companies are struggling to keep up with the new environment. Meanwhile, customers are facing gas and oil shortages like never before. You can read more from Axios here.


  • 11.5 hours. The length of yesterday’s impeachment hearings.
  • $2.3 million. The amount of money Mayor Pete Buttigieg has spent on television ads in Iowa.
  • 97%. The percentage of tweets on national politics that came from just 10% of users, depicting a small concentration of Twitter users who drive political discussions.
  • 4 million. The number of individual contributions Bernie Sanders has received so far, the most ever of any candidate at this point in a campaign.
  • $61.5 million. The amount of money raised from individual donors by Bernie Sanders, the most of any Democrat.
  • $49.8 million. The amount of money raised from individual donors by Elizebath Warren, the second most of any Democrat.

Have a nice day.

In The New York Times today, there is a feature story about a girl’s soccer coach who was nearly killed in the El Paso shooting that killed 22 people. Since the shooting, Luis Calvillo has been fighting for his life as he recovers. Along the way, he’s been helped by the girls soccer team he helped coach and was raising money for that day. It’s a powerful and uplifting story amidst a horrific tragedy. Click.

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