Will Republicans budge? Also, a question about Pete Buttigieg.
Tangle is an independent, ad-free, non-partisan politics newsletter where I answer reader questions from across the country. If you found Tangle online, you can subscribe below.
Today’s read: 7 minutes.
The Bill Taylor testimony, a question about the Supreme Court and hidden charges on your utility bill.
Amb. Bill Taylor (left) speaks at the U.S Institute of Peace. Photo: Flickr / USIP
Hello from San Diego. I’m out west this week to compete in the National Championships for ultimate Frisbee (yes, it’s a thing!). The competition starts tomorrow and I’ll be here until Monday. Tangle will still be hitting your inbox tomorrow, as usual, around lunchtime. Here’s a view from today’s office:
What D.C. is talking about.
Bill Taylor’s testimony. The top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine spoke to impeachment investigators yesterday, and he delivered the most damning testimony about Donald Trump’s foreign policy in Ukraine yet. Taylor stated unequivocally that Trump was withholding military aid and a White House visit from Ukraine until Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced an investigation into interference in the 2016 election and Burisma, the company which Joe Biden’s son Hunter had sat on the board of. The testimony laid out a clear “quid pro quo” and detailed phone calls with other U.S. diplomats who explained that Trump was holding onto the money until a commitment was made on Ukraine’s side.
What Republicans are saying.
Depends where you look. The Republicans holding the line for Trump are making a number of points: 1) Most of the news around today’s testimony came via leaks to the press, which formed the narrative before the full testimony was released. 2) Bill Taylor is a bureaucrat with a cause and didn’t provide any evidence of the quid pro quo besides hearsay. 3) Taylor met with a staffer of Democrat Adam Schiff at the end of August, raising questions about whether his testimony or actions have been in the best interest of Democrats or Trump. 4) If there was a quid pro quo, Ukrainians were unaware of it (as Zelensky has said, he didn’t feel any pressure) and the military aid was ultimately released in September. “The leaks out of today’s witness interview have been laughably overblown and don’t tell the full story,” Rep. Mark Meadows tweeted. “Still no evidence of quid pro quo. Much of the statement and hearsay allegations didn’t hold up against any real scrutiny. The FULL transcript should be released immediately.”
Taylor did serve under George Bush as ambassador to Ukraine, though his position under Trump was an “acting” position — i.e. temporary. Still, he was chosen by Trump, which many “Never Trump” Republicans have pointed out. He is no liberal shill or hack, and those conservatives are taking his testimony seriously.
The White House responded to news of the testimony with this statement: “President Trump has done nothing wrong — this is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution. There was no quid pro quo."
What Democrats are saying.
What else do you need? Top Ukraine diplomat Bill Taylor, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and even Trump himself have all admitted to some or all of the initial whistleblower complaint: that the president was pressuring a foreign leader into investigating one of his top political foes. If that’s not an impeachable offense, what is?
During text messages that were made public a few weeks ago, Taylor texted Gordon Sondland, another U.S. diplomat, asking if security assistance and a White House meeting "are conditioned on investigations.” Sondland requested Taylor call him. "During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election," Taylor testified.
Democrats are also quick to remind folks why Taylor exists at all: Because Rudy Giuliani, according to reporting done by The New York Times, worked to fire Marie Yovanovitch, the previous U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Once Yovanovitch was forced out, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Taylor to take over (he had held the position under Bush and Obama from 2006 to 2009). Democrats plan to call Gordon Sondlond back to testify again, now that he’s been contradicted by Taylor.
Anyone can read Taylor’s opening remarks for themselves. I’ll be curious to hear what follow up testimony Mark Meadows alludes to that doesn’t “hold up against any real scrutiny,” but Taylor’s words are damning. He gives a detailed timeline of why he took the job, how he initially saw the dual channels (official and unofficial) working to achieve common goals, and where those goals diverged. He says clearly, and repeatedly, why and how he came to the conclusion that Zelensky was only going to be invited to the White House — or receive aid — if he made a public statement that he was investigating the 2016 election interference and Burisma. Taylor’s framing of the story lines up with the whistleblower complaints, dozens of news reports on Rudy Giuliani’s motives in Ukraine, the transcript Trump released, comments made by Trump’s Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and even Trump himself (who continues to encourage Ukraine to look into Biden’s family). I don’t get to decide whether that’s an impeachable offense or not, but best I can tell — even through all the partisan noise — these are the facts.
A big part of all this will always be how conservative media moves on Trump. I tuned into Fox News for an hour or two during a flight to California last night, and more time was spent on speculation about whether Hillary Clinton was going to jump into the race than Taylor’s testimony.
Your questions, answered.
Tangle is all about answering reader questions so you don’t have to wade through the news to find the information you’re looking for. Anyone can ask a question, you just have to reply to this email or tweet at me @Ike_Saul.
Q: I'm liking what Buttigieg says about coming together to fix the broken system. Particularly, his comments about changing up the way we vote in Supreme Court Justices. Kind of wild that each time the justices get up there in age we're just rooting that they stay alive long enough for whoever's side to get to put in one of their own. Is Mayor Pete's plan proposed (I believe it was have 10 justices, 5 voted in unanimously by both sides — may be mistaken) ever legitimately possible in our current system or does there need to be a massive disruption?
- Dan, San Francisco, CA
Tangle: If anything is going to push Democrats to a radical place on the courts, it’ll be the number of federal judge appointees Trump leaves office with. He already has two Supreme Court judges, and very well could get a third pending the health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As the years have gone on, the courts have — seemingly — become more politicized. To solve that problem, Pete Buttigieg has suggested expanding the Supreme Court from nine to 15 justices. His proposal would have five justices appointed by Democrats, five by Republicans and five apolitical justices who would need to be chosen by the first 10.
Photo: Lorie Shaull / Flickr
It’s a radical and innovative idea, to put it in generous terms. It’s also unrealistic and a bit incoherent. For one, the idea actually reinforces a politicized court, by denoting “Republican” and “Democrat” judges, which seems counterintuitive if the goal is to reduce the politics of SCOTUS. It’s often said that there are no Republican or Democratic judges, even if the judges are appointed by a Republican or Democratic president. The cynic in me says, of course, these judges are political. Justices now are more likely than ever to vote along party lines. But Supreme Court judges are still known to surprise both the conservative and liberal base who support them when they’re appointed.
It’s also unlikely to work because it’s unconstitutional. It’s possible to change the number of justices (in fact, before 1870 — when it was switched to nine — the number of Supreme Court justices varied), but it’s not possible for justices to appoint justices. The constitution says that Supreme Court justices are chosen by the president. That means it would require a constitutional amendment, which is very, very unlikely to happen so long as there are enough Republicans to stop Buttigieg’s plan from going through (which there almost definitely will be).
It’s also possible that none of what I just wrote is accurate. As an article in The Week detailed, the way Buttigieg has sold the plan and the way it was drafted by law experts on his team actually varies pretty wildly. In law experts’ telling, the president would appoint the first 10 justices from a list prepared by Senate leadership of the opposite party or by “some kind of bipartisan commission."
Regardless, The Week and I land in the same place: the plan is untenable, vague, and incredibly unlikely to happen. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. You can read more here.
A story that matters.
ProPublica pulled the veil back on obscure charges place on your monthly utility bill. The company says as many as 16 surcharges were added to New Jersey utility bills to subsidize all sorts of government programs, and they add up. Governments have started using surcharges on utility bills to help finance all different kinds of expensive government projects. Sometimes the costs are as low as a thousandth of a cent per kilowatt-hour of electricity, but that can amount to $45 over the course of a year for residential customers, and tens of thousands of dollars for industrial or commercial customers. You can read more by clicking here.
- 55 percent. The amount of support for impeachment in the latest Quinnipiac poll, a new all-time high.
- $459,000. The amount of money Donald Trump spent on Facebook ads in Florida between August 3rd and October 12th of this year.
- $492,000. The amount Priorities USA, a Democratic group, spent on Facebook ads in Florida during that same time span.
- 400,000. The number of children who began living without any kind of health insurance between 2016 and 2018, ending a trend towards universal coverage for children.
- 10. The time, in hours, that Bill Taylor spent testifying yesterday.
- 4. The number of weeks Iraq said U.S. troops who recently arrived from Syria could stay before they’d have to leave the country.
Have a nice day.
Shaq! Last night, before the first nationally televised NBA game of the year, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal took the stand against China many people had been waiting for. O’Neal, one of the most popular players in NBA history, said “They [China] know and understand our values ... and one of our best values in America is free speech. We’re allowed to say what we want to say and we’re allowed to speak up on injustices, and that’s just how it goes… Daryl Morey was right.” For a refresher on the NBA-China controversy, you can read this Tangle. You can also watch Shaq’s response below.