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10 things you need to know today: November 20, 2019

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Harold Maass
Alexander Vindman testifies
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1.

Volker says he should have realized Ukraine pressure targeted Biden

Former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified Tuesday in a House impeachment hearing that he should have recognized that President Trump's push for Ukraine to investigate energy company Burisma was connected to former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son was employed there. Republicans have suggested Biden pushed to fire a do-nothing Ukrainian prosecutor to protect Burisma, but Volker, whose testimony Republicans requested, called the allegation "self-serving and non-credible." Former White House national security official Tim Morrison testified that he didn't object to a call in which President Trump pushed Ukraine's president to investigate Democrats, but that he later heard U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland tell a Ukrainian official Kyiv had to publicly promise the investigations in order to get U.S. military aid released. [The Washington Post, ABC News]

2.

Vindman, Williams describe alarm over Trump's Ukraine call

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a national security aide, and Jennifer Williams, a top foreign policy aide to Vice President Mike Pence, testified Tuesday in the House impeachment inquiry, describing their firsthand knowledge of President Trump's dealings with Ukraine and his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Both Williams and Vindman were on the call. Williams said she found the call "unusual" and "inappropriate" and that no national security officials supported withholding Ukrainian aid. Vindman testified Trump was supposed to address Ukrainian corruption with Zelensky on the call but didn't, undermining Trump's argument that his request for investigations into his political opponents was about rooting out corruption. [The New York Times, The Washington Post]

3.

House passes bill aiming to prevent a government shutdown

The House passed a short-term bill intended to keep the federal government funded and prevent a government shutdown when currently allocated money runs out on Thursday. The stopgap measure passed 231-192. It seeks to extend funding through Dec. 20, which means Congress will face another deadline just ahead of the winter holidays. The proposal now must be passed by the Senate and signed by President Trump to keep some government offices from being temporarily closed. "With a government shutdown deadline just days away, this continuing resolution is necessary to keep government open as we work towards completing the appropriations process," House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. [CNN]

4.

2 jail guards charged over failure to check on Epstein

Two guards at a federal jail in New York City were arrested Tuesday in connection with Jeffrey Epstein's death. The U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan charged Tova Noel and Michael Thomas each with five counts of false entries in official records and one count of conspiracy. The guards, who were supposed to make regular checks on inmates, allegedly slept and browsed the internet in the hours before Epstein hanged himself in New York City's Metropolitan Correctional Center. Epstein, a wealthy financier, was in prison after decades of allegations of sexual abuse involving minors. Video footage apparently shows no one entering the area overnight. Both Noel and Thomas have allegedly admitted to skipping their rounds. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. [Politico, CNBC]

5.

Swedish prosecutors abandon rape investigation against Assange

Swedish prosecutors announced Tuesday that they were dropping their investigation into a 2010 rape allegation against Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. Assange dodged extradition to Sweden for seven years by taking refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London. Ecuador kicked him out in April, and he was then sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for skipping bail in the U.K. Swedish investigators suspended the case in 2017 because they couldn't question Assange, but reopened it this year after he was evicted from Ecuador's embassy. The Swedish Prosecution Authority said the decision to drop the investigation stemmed from the amount of time that has passed since the alleged crime. The decision marked a victory for Assange, who also faces possible extradition to the U.S. on espionage charges related to leaked secret documents. [BBC News, The Washington Post]

6.

Amnesty International: At least 106 people killed in Iran protests

At least 106 protesters are feared dead in Iran, after the government gave security forces authority to use firearms, water cannons, tear gas, and batons against demonstrators, Amnesty International reports. The protests began on Nov. 15 in response to the government's decision to raise fuel prices. Amnesty International says it has reviewed video and spoken with eyewitnesses and activists who say Iranian security forces are using excessive and lethal force against protesters. The demonstrations have largely been peaceful, although there are reports some fires have been set at banks and seminaries. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has called the protesters "villains." [Amnesty International]

7.

Miller pushed Breitbart to criticize Rubio in second tranche of emails

White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller fed attacks on then-presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to Breitbart News, according to a batch of emails between Miller and a then-Breitbart editor released Tuesday by Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch publication. Breitbart then followed Miller's direction and criticized Rubio. The far-right populist website also parroted Miller's hardline language in anti-immigration stories, even following Miller's advice on where to put the stories on Breitbart's homepage. In an earlier group of emails provided to Hatewatch by the same former editor, Katie McHugh, Miller pushed anti-immigrant stories and cited sources tied to white nationalists. [The Washington Post, Southern Poverty Law Center]

8.

Report: Pompeo telling Republicans he wants to step down, run for Senate

Time reported Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has told three prominent Republicans recently that he plans to step down to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas. A State Department spokesman told Axios: "I just spoke to the secretary and he said this story is completely false." Time said its sources said Pompeo had planned to leave the Trump administration in the spring, but that he might move up the timetable because the House impeachment inquiry and other recent events threaten to strain his relationship with President Trump. The impeachment inquiry also threatens to damage Pompeo politically. He faces mounting criticism for failing to defend veteran diplomats and U.S. policy from politicization. Trump loyalists blame him for damning testimony by diplomats in the impeachment inquiry. [Time, Axios]

9.

Impeachment hearings continue with Sondland testimony

Public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry, now in their second week, continue Wednesday with testimony from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key figure in the Trump administration's alleged effort to pressure Ukraine's government to investigate Democrats. Impeachment investigators are expected to question Sondland about inconsistencies in closed-door testimony he gave last month, when he failed to mention a July 26 phone call he had with Trump. David Holmes, an American Embassy official in Kyiv, told lawmakers that during lunch at a Kyiv restaurant he overheard a call Sondland had on his cellphone with Trump in which he heard Trump ask whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was "going to do the investigation," and Sondland replied, "He's going to do it." [The New York Times]

10.

Senate passes bill seeking to support Hong Kong protesters

The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters and warning China against violently cracking down on the protests in the Chinese-run, semi-autonomous city. China responded by repeating its threat to retaliate if the bill becomes law, although it did not provide details on how it would respond. China accused senators of meddling in Hong Kong's affairs. China's vice minister of foreign affairs in Beijing summoned a U.S. embassy official to express China's objections. The fresh tensions between the world's two largest economies came as they try to hammer out a deal to end their trade war. The Senate vote weighed down global stocks. Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index dropped by as much as 1.1 percent on Wednesday after gaining 2.9 percent over two days. [Bloomberg]