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10 things you need to know today: November 19, 2019

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Harold Maass
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1.

IRS whistleblower met with Senate staffers

Senate Finance Committee staff met this month with a career Internal Revenue Service official who filed a whistleblower complaint accusing political appointees at the Treasury Department of trying to interfere with an audit of President Trump's tax returns, The New York Times reported Monday, citing a congressional aide. The person spoke with staffers for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Finance Committee. The whistleblower contacted the staff of the House Ways and Means Committee in July, claiming that political appointees were getting involved in the audit and putting pressure on senior IRS officials, the Times reports. The allegations are still under investigation, and details remain unclear. [The New York Times]

2.

Trump says he'll 'strongly consider' testifying in impeachment inquiry

President Trump said Monday he would "strongly consider" testifying in the House impeachment inquiry. "Even though I did nothing wrong, and don't like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!" Trump tweeted. He made the remark in a tweet after lashing out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after she said the president was welcome to appear before impeachment investigators. If Trump has information to clear himself, Pelosi said, "then we look forward to seeing it." Trump also said he "wanted" to sit down for an interview with former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but never did. The House Intelligence Committee is beginning its second week of public impeachment hearings. [CNBC]

3.

U.S. announces reversal backing Israel's right to build settlements

The U.S. has dropped its longstanding position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are "inconsistent with international law," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday. The decision effectively backs Israel's assertion that it has the right to build housing in occupied Palestinian territory. The U.S. had contested that assertion for four decades, based on a 1978 State Department legal opinion. The Trump administration has taken a softer stance on several issues related to Israel's interests in the region; Washington in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the U.S. embassy to the city in 2018. Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, criticized Pompeo's announcement on Twitter. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, said the announcement "rights a historical wrong." [Reuters]

4.

Holmes testified he remembered Trump-Sondland call 'vividly'

State Department official David Holmes testified to House impeachment investigators last week that the cellphone conversation he overheard between President Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was so extraordinary that he remembered everything he heard "vividly," according to a transcript of his testimony released Monday. "I've never seen anything like this," Holmes said, "someone calling the president from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language." Holmes said he distinctly heard Trump ask, about Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, "quote, 'So he's going to do the investigation?' Ambassador Sondland replied that 'He's going to do it,' adding that President Zelensky will, quote, 'do anything you ask him to.'" [The Associated Press]

5.

California sues JUUL, accusing it of fueling vaping epidemic

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Monday that the state had filed a lawsuit accusing JUUL Labs of illegally targeting minors with advertising and flavored e-cigarettes to get them to buy vaping products, creating a "public health epidemic." "We will go after anyone who uses deceptive business practices to harm our people," Becerra said in a news conference where he announced the litigation. California says JUUL delivered e-cigarettes to underage customers without checking their ages. Youth vaping has doubled since JUUL made its debut in 2015. The company's sales now account for more than 64 percent of the e-cigarette market, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [The Sacramento Bee]

6.

Chief justice delays House effort to get Trump tax returns

Chief Justice John Roberts issued an order Monday indefinitely delaying House Democrats' demand for President Trump's tax returns and other financial records while the court considers the case. The hold could last just days or weeks if the high court declines to grant a full review and lets stand an appeals court ruling saying the House Committee on Oversight and Reform can try to enforce its subpoena of Trump's accounting firm Mazars USA for the records. The delay could go on for months if the justices take on the case. The House said it would agree to a brief delay to allow for the filing of legal papers, but opposed an extended wait. The Supreme Court also has a similar case pending regarding New York prosecutors' effort to get the records. [The Associated Press]

7.

Chick-fil-A stops donations to 2 allegedly anti-LGBTQ organizations

Chick-fil-A's charitable arm said Monday that it was halting donations to two charities widely seen as anti-LGBTQ. The fast-food chain had faced boycotts and protests for years over its ties to the groups, the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The Chick-fil-A Foundation said in a statement that the change came as it cut the number of charities it worked with to focus on education, homelessness, and hunger. It did not acknowledge the groups' allegedly anti-LGBTQ records. The Salvation Army has denied claims that it is discriminatory. The Salvation Army and FCA were major recipients of Chick-fil-A Foundation donations in 2018, but don't appear on its list of charities for next year. [The Washington Post]

8.

Volker, Vindman among witnesses in second week of public impeachment hearings

Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, plans to testify during Tuesday's impeachment hearing that he was not aware that others working for President Trump were linking congressionally approved military aid to Trump's demand for Kyiv to investigate Democrats, The New York Times reported, citing an account of his prepared testimony. Volker is among four scheduled witnesses as the House Intelligence Committee starts its second week of public impeachment hearings. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a national security aide, also will testify. Vindman heard Trump's call with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and was disturbed when Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Democrats as a "favor." Republicans previewed their response in a letter from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that says Vindman fits the "profile" of someone who might "sabotage" Trump. [The New York Times]

9.

Taliban releases American, Australian in prisoner exchange

The Taliban freed an American, Kevin King, and an Australian, Timothy Weeks, on Tuesday after holding them hostage for three years, Afghan officials said. The two men were freed after rebel commanders also were released in a prisoner exchange that had been delayed for several days. King and Weeks were working as instructors at the American University of Kabul when they were kidnapped in 2016. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the exchange last week, calling it a way to build trust to restart peace talks that broke down in September. Three militants released included Anas Haqqani, a younger brother of the deputy Taliban leader and son of the Haqqani network's founder. An official in southern Zabul province said the release coincided with a 48-hour ceasefire. [The Washington Post]

10.

Trump doctor: Unannounced hospital visit was 'planned interim checkup'

Hoping to end speculation about President Trump's surprise weekend visit to Walter Reed Medical Center, the White House released a memo on Monday night written by Trump's physician, who said the "trip was kept off the record" due to "scheduling uncertainties." On Saturday, Trump underwent a "routine, planned interim checkup as part of the regular, primary preventative care he receives throughout the year," Dr. Sean Conley said. Trump has "not had any chest pain, nor was he evaluated or treated for any urgent or acute issues," he continued. "Specifically, he did not undergo any specialized cardiac or neurologic evaluations." Several doctors who treated former presidents and vice presidents said they found the unannounced hospital visit concerning. [CNN, NBC News]