What Now?! – 10/9/2019

“The Trump administration directed a top American diplomat involved in its pressure campaign on Ukraine not to appear Tuesday morning for a scheduled interview in the House’s impeachment inquiry,” the New York Times reports.

“The decision to block Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, from speaking with investigators for three House committees is certain to provoke an immediate conflict with potentially profound consequences for the White House and President Trump.”

Axios: “The Trump administration gave the order just hours before Sondland was scheduled to sit for a deposition in the basement of the Capitol, and House Democrats have warned that they will consider any attempts by the administration to interfere with their investigation as obstruction, possible grounds for impeachment.”

Chris Cillizza: “That last-minute decision by the State Department seems directly at odds with President Trump’s repeated insistence that his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was ‘perfect’ and that he retained the ‘absolute right’ to ask foreign countries to investigate corruption.”

“If Trump — and, by extension, his State Department — are completely certain they were acting appropriately, why keep Sondland from testifying to that effect? If there is truly nothing to hide here and everything that Trump and his people did was ‘perfect,’ why not let Sondland tell that story?”

After he was directed to not testify, the House committees leading an impeachment probe into President Trump issued a subpoena to Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, the Washington Post reports.

A person with knowledge of the situation confirms to NBC News that Ambassador Gordon Sondland spoke by phone with President Trump on September 9 before responding to acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor’s text about it being “crazy” to link Ukraine assistance to help with a political campaign.

U.S. officials and others with knowledge of their relationship also say that Sondland is part of a small cadre of ambassadors who enjoy direct and frequent access to Trump. They say the two speak frequently by phone and have spoken extensively about Ukraine in the past.

Also: “Kurt Volker, Sondland and Taylor used WhatsApp in addition to regular text messages to communicate about Ukraine… The use of WhatsApp has raised questions about problems it poses for complying with federal record-keeping requirements.”

THE FRIGHTENING CALL. A White House official listening to President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president described the call as “crazy” and “frightening” and was “visibly shaken,” ABC News reports.

CNN: “The scramble and fallout from the call, described by six people familiar with it, parallels and expands upon details described in the whistleblower complaint. The anxiety and internal concern reflect a phone conversation that deeply troubled national security professionals, even as Trump now insists there was nothing wrong with how he conducted himself. And it shows an ultimately unsuccessful effort to contain the tumult by the administration’s lawyers.”

“At least one National Security Council official alerted the White House’s national security lawyers about the concerns… a detail that had not been previously disclosed. Those same lawyers would later order the transcript of the call moved to a highly classified server typically reserved for code-word classified material.”

IMPEACHMENT ARTICLES WILL ENCOMPASS MORE THAN JUST UKRAINE. “The House of Representatives may be considering articles of impeachment against President Trump that go further than the Ukraine issue, including obstruction of justice and interference with federal elections,” CNN reports.

Said the top House lawyer said in federal court: “I can’t emphasize enough, it’s not just Ukraine.”

BREXIT DEAL IS IMPOSSIBLE. A source close to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that a Brexit deal is “essentially impossible” after a call between Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Johnson spoke to the German leader about the proposals he put forward to the EU, but the source said she made clear a deal based on them was “overwhelmingly unlikely.”

The Guardian says Johnson “appears to be giving up on hopes of a new Brexit deal” after the call, triggering an angry response from Brussels that he is trying to play a “stupid blame game” over the near-collapse of talks.

NAFTA 2.0 LIKELY TO PASS HOUSE AND SENATE SOON. “The escalating impeachment drama between Congress and the White House that has all but doomed hopes of most legislative progress this fall has instead enhanced the prospects for approval, within weeks, of one major initiative: a sweeping new trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico,” the New York Times reports.

“Top lawmakers in both parties and others closely following the talks said that substantial progress had been made in resolving the sticking points, and that a decisive House vote on the accord to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement could occur before Congress departed for Thanksgiving.”

SENATE INTEL REPUBLICANS AGREE: RUSSIA DID IT. The Senate Intelligence Committee released its bipartisan report on Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and concludes the Kremlin sought to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign by spreading disinformation.

From the report: “The Committee found, that the IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.”

The report also called on the Executive Branch to “reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election.”

WHITE HOUSE SENDS STRONGLY WORDED LETTER, SEEKS OUTSIDE IMPEACHMENT COUNSEL. The White House has reached out to outside lawyers for impeachment counsel, CNN reports. One of the lawyers they reached out to is Trey Gowdy, a former congressman and an ex-federal prosecutor.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone said in a letter to House Democrats that it will not cooperate with their impeachment inquiry into President Trump, claiming that the proceedings amount to “baseless, unconstitutional efforts to overturn the democratic process.”

From the letter: “You have designed and implemented your inquiry in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process… Put simply, you seek to overturn the results of the 2016 election and deprive the American people of the President they have freely chosen.”

Chris Ruddy, a confidante of President Trump, told CNN that he believes Trump is “overreacting” by preventing U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland from testifying before Congress.

Ruddy said the impeachment inquiry is “a mortal threat to his presidency, and he certainly should treat it that way.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he would allow Rudy Guiliani to come before the panel to “inform the committee of his concerns,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Tweeted Graham: “Given the House of Representatives’ behavior, it is time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine.”

THE ROMNEY RESISTANCE. Gabriel Sherman: “According to people close to Romney, he’s firmly decided against primarying Trump, an enterprise he believes to be a sure loser given Trump’s enduring GOP support. Romney has also told people that, as an unsuccessful two-time presidential candidate, he’s the wrong person to take on Trump.”

“Instead, a Romney adviser told me, Romney believes he has more potential power as a senator who will decide Trump’s fate in an impeachment trial… In recent days, Romney has been reaching out privately to key players in the Republican resistance.”

Said the adviser: “He could have tremendous influence in the impeachment process as the lone voice of conscience in the Republican caucus… Romney is the one guy who could bring along Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, Ben Sasse. Romney is the pressure point in the impeachment process. That’s why the things he’s saying are freaking Republicans out.”

Meanwhile, former White House chief of staff Andy Card told MSNBC that he supported the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry of President Trump, saying that “clearly lines have been crossed.” Said Card: “I do think an impeachment inquiry is warranted.”

THE KURDISH BETRAYAL IS “BATSHIT CRAZY.” “The White House is insisting that President Trump did not offer Turkey a ‘green light’ to slaughter U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria last night and that the U.S. would not bear responsibility for any Islamic State, or ISIS, resurgence in the area,” Axios reports.

“Confusion and concern followed the sudden announcement last night that Trump had decided to pull U.S. troops from the ‘immediate area’ into which Turkish troops are expected to advance. Turkey fiercely opposes the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which holds the area and helped the U.S. retake swathes of Syria from ISIS, leading to bipartisan accusations that Trump is abandoning an ally.”

The Guardian: Trump left isolated as allies revolt over U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

Former national security adviser Susan Rice told the Late Show with Stephen Colbert that President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria was “batshit crazy.” Said Rice: “It seems like six days a week I just put my head in my hands.”

“A day after threatening Turkey with economic ruin if it goes too far in invading northern Syria, President Trump said Tuesday that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet at the White House next month,” the AP reports.

“The announcement came one day after Trump publicly warned Turkey it would be in ‘big trouble’ if any American troops in Syria are injured during a military operation Turkey is preparing to launch against Kurdish fighters who had been allied with the United States against Islamic State militants.”

THE HUMILIATION OF LINDSAY GRAHAM IS COMPLETE. Charlie Sykes: “Graham told himself: by staying close to Trump, he could influence him and prevent horribly bad decisions. Others made the same calculation, but Graham made the uber-tradeoff, because the stakes were so high. What did it matter if he had to endure temporary embarrassments, abase himself on cable television, or even become a political punchline, if he could stop Trump from impulsive decisions regarding Russia or North Korea? Or Syria?”

“The world saw Graham as a craven, cringing Uriah Heep. Graham saw himself as someone who could save the world, or at least the Kurds.”

“Graham calculated: If he didn’t play golf with Trump and indulge his penchant for pillow talk, Trump would be putting and chatting with Rand Paul, listening to the counsels of isolationism, appeasement and international amorality. He was not simply the adult in the room; he was the adult BFF in the room, who would temper Trump’s worst instincts.”

“And then came Trump’s decision. Despite Graham’s compulsive turd-polishing of the last few years, Trump didn’t even consult him before making the decision to abandon the Kurds. Graham, who had given up so much self-respect to prevent just this outcome, was not even in the room. He didn’t even get a text.”

SCHIFF SAYS STATE DEPT. IS WITHHOLDING EVIDENCE. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) told reporters that the State Department is withholding EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s personal device with relevant messages about the Trump administration’s interactions with the Ukrainian government, Axios reports.

Said Schiff: “Not only is he being deprived of his testimony today, but we’re also aware that the ambassador has text messages or emails on a personal device, which have been provided to the State Department — although we have requested those from the ambassador. And the State Department is withholding those messages as well.”

PROTECTING THE WHISTLEBLOWER. Lawyers for the whistleblower said “certain individuals” had offered a $50,000 “bounty” for any information on the whistleblower’s identity after the official complained to a government watchdog that President Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, Reuters reports.

“House Democrats eager to protect a whistleblower who raised alarms over President Trump pressuring a foreign leader to investigate a political rival are considering testimony at a remote location and possibly obscuring the individual’s appearance and voice — extraordinary moves to prevent Trump’s congressional allies from revealing the identity,” the Washington Post reports. “Democratic investigators are concerned that without such rare precautions, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee could learn and then leak the identity of the whistleblower, who has agreed to answer questions before the intelligence committees in both the House and Senate.”

THE WEALTHY PAY LOWER TAXES THAN YOU. The 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, the New York Times reports.

“That’s a sharp change from the 1950s and 1960s, when the wealthy paid vastly higher tax rates than the middle class or poor. Since then, taxes that hit the wealthiest the hardest — like the estate tax and corporate tax — have plummeted, while tax avoidance has become more common.”

TRUMP BLINDSIDED HOUSE REPUBLICANS. “Donald Trump blindsided key Republican allies on Tuesday when the White House blocked a diplomat’s testimony in the House impeachment probe, and the lawmakers later asked the president to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Bloomberg reports.

“Frustrated that they didn’t get a heads-up that Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, would be prevented from appearing on Tuesday, a handful of GOP lawmakers went to the White House to discuss the issue with Trump and senior advisers.”

THE CORRUPT ATTORNEY GENERAL. Attorney General Bill Barr has taken an intense interest in a mysterious European professor whose conversation with an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign helped launch the FBI’s Russia investigation and who has since become the focal point of an unproven conservative theory, the Washington Post reports.

“Those involved in the FBI investigation said they are mystified by the attorney general’s activities and interest in the professor, Joseph Mifsud, and they suspect that Barr might be using Justice Department resources to validate conjecture that Mifsud was deployed against a Trump adviser by Western intelligence to manufacture a basis to investigate the campaign.”

Said on person involved in the Russia probe: “It just seems like they’re doing everything they can to delegitimize the origins of that investigation.”

Vanity Fair: “Washington keeps asking why the law-and-order attorney general is carrying water for a morally untethered president. The answer may lie in the youthful lessons Barr learned from his father, a combative, provocative New Yorker—not unlike Donald Trump.”

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