May 13, 2015

The principal rationale of Jeb Bush's presidential candidacy is that he is best in class, a polished politician with both experience and savvy who is a grade above the rest. He may be genetically tied to an unpopular former president, but he is the closest thing the Republicans have to a complete package.

That's the theory, anyway. But the ongoing controversy over his position on the Iraq War shows that Bush does not seem to have done even basic homework on his most obvious weakness. First, in an interview earlier this week, he said he would have invaded Iraq, even with the knowledge of how the war turned out. Then he backtracked somewhat on Tuesday evening, telling Sean Hannity that he misunderstood the question. Then, when given the chance to clarify his position, he dissolved into inscrutability, saying the question was a "hypothetical."

Perhaps most painfully, he even repeated one of his brother's most infamous lines: "Mistakes were made."

Political observers are surprised, to say the least, that Bush has not figured out a way to address this issue. As Dan Pfeiffer, a former aide to President Obama, put it, "I would have loved to have been in the meeting when the Bush campaign decided not to prepare for the Iraq question." His competitors are bound to suggest that Jeb Bush is not as ready for prime time as he thinks he is. Ryu Spaeth

9:25 a.m.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key witness in the ongoing impeachment inquiry, is expected to explicitly confirm on Wednesday that efforts to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into the Bidens was "a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit" with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In his prepared remarks, Sondland also points his finger at the Oval Office, noting that Trump's personal lawyer and fixer, Rudy Giuliani, was working in accordance with "the desires of the president of the United States."

In his statement, Sondland adds that "everyone was in the loop. It was no secret." While Sondland has long been considered a close ally of Trump's, having been awarded his cushy diplomatic post after making a generous donation to the president's inauguration back in 2016, he will speak bluntly at the hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, saying: "The White House meeting and security assistance should have proceeded without pre-conditions of any kind."

Sondland additionally expressed frustration with Trump directing his diplomats in Ukraine to work with Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into opening a politically-motivated investigation. "Let me say again: We weren't happy with the president's directive to talk with Rudy," Sondland is prepared to say. "We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani. I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters."

Sondland also makes clear that his own cooperation with Giuliani on Ukraine was at "the express direction of the president of the United States ... simply put, we played the hand we were dealt." Read Sondland's full prepared statement here. Jeva Lange

9:19 a.m.

Well, that wasn't the start to the day the White House was hoping for.

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was temporarily brought onto the White House team to deliver "proactive impeachment messaging and other special projects as they arise," per an administration official, stumbled when it came to that very messaging during a CBS interview Wednesday before a major public impeachment hearing.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is testifying before Congress, but when Bondi was asked about him she flubbed his title, referring to him as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.

It's understandable to a point — there sure are a lot of different titles floating around in the impeachment inquiry, and most of them are related to Ukraine in some way. But, as the kids like to say, Bondi had one job. As Politico's Eugene Daniels noted, the distinction between the two positions "is why people are wondering why he was so involved in dealings with Ukraine." Watch the full clip below. Tim O'Donnell

8:56 a.m.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland made Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aware of a Ukraine pressure campaign, The New York Times reports.

Sondland is set to testify Wednesday and face further questions in the impeachment inquiry about an effort to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations that might benefit President Trump politically, including involving former Vice President Joe Biden.

Pompeo, according to the report, was informed by Sondland in mid-August "about a draft statement" he and another diplomat had worked on with Ukrainians "that they hoped would persuade Mr. Trump to grant Ukraine's new president the Oval Office meeting he was seeking." At the time, Sondland was negotiating a statement that would have Ukraine committing to an investigation of Burisma, the gas company where Biden's son served on the board, and the 2016 election.

Additionally, the Times reports Sondland discussed the idea with Pompeo of pushing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "to pledge during a planned meeting with Mr. Trump in Warsaw that he would take the steps being sought by Mr. Trump as a way to break the logjam in relations between the two countries."

Although the Times notes it's "not clear how specific" Sondland was with Pompeo about "what was being asked of the Ukrainians," Pompeo by this point would have already heard Trump's July phone call with Zelensky, during which the president makes clear that he wants the country to conduct investigations into Biden and the 2016 election.

This report is breaking just as Sondland's testimony before Congress is about to get underway. Brendan Morrow

8:17 a.m.

Wednesday is Gordon Sondland's time in the barrel. President Trump's ambassador to the European Union is the sole witness in Wednesday morning's House impeachment hearings, and there is a lot at stake — for Trump, for Democrats, and for Sondland, who faces legal jeopardy if he lies to Congress. Sondland already revised his sworn Oct. 17 deposition once, acknowledging "I now recall" telling a Ukraine presidential adviser Sept. 1 that U.S. military aid was tied to Ukraine announcing specific investigtations sought by Trump.

"The evidence gathered to date points to Sondland as the witness who, more than any other, could tie President Trump directly to the effort to persuade Ukraine to launch investigations that might benefit him politically," The Washington Post notes. On Wednesday, Sondland "could solidify the case against Trump. ... Or he could stand by his statements and face withering questioning from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee over inconsistencies between his testimony and that of a growing number of witnesses."

"Republicans — especially in the White House — are exceedingly uncomfortable with Sondland, and unsure what he will say," Politico reports. Their strategy Wednesday will be to "try to paint Sondland as a political hack who was carrying out what he thought Trump wanted, but not what the president told him directly," believing that if "they can inject enough doubt about Sondland’s credibility, they can undermine some of the larger arguments about the substance." Democrats, Politico says, hope to "show that Sondland was, in fact, the agent Trump was using to carry out his 'shadow foreign policy,'" but they have their doubts about his value as a witness, too.

Both sides have reason for concern, but especially Republicans, Michael Smerconish said on CNN Wednesday morning. Watch below. Peter Weber

7:56 a.m.

The fourth and potentially most significant day of public impeachment hearings is about to begin.

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will testify before Congress on Wednesday as part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump, which focuses on whether Trump improperly pressured Ukraine to open investigations that might benefit him politically, including by withholding military aid.

Earlier this month, Sondland revised his earlier closed-door testimony to admit he told Ukraine aid to the country that was being held up would likely not be released "until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks," The New York Times reports. As to why Sondland didn't mention this when he originally testified and said that he didn't "recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens," he said he had since had his recollection "refreshed."

Of all the witnesses who have testified in the public impeachment hearings so far, The New York Times reports Sondland is the one who people close to Trump are most concerned about, as they have expressed "worry that he interacted directly with the president about Ukraine and that they do not know what he will say." The Times notes Sondland is also likely to face questions about why he didn't disclose a phone call he had with Trump about "the investigations" on July 26, which was first revealed during the public testimony of William Taylor, acting ambassador to Ukraine.

The Sondland hearing is scheduled to get underway at 9:00 a.m. Eastern. Also set to testify on Wednesday are Pentagon official Laura Cooper and State Department official David Hale. The impeachment hearing can be streamed below via PBS. Brendan Morrow

6:54 a.m.

The Senate unanimously passed legislation Tuesday aimed at supporting the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as they brace for a pivotal showdown with security forces. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would require the State Department to certify Hong Kong's sufficient autonomy from China once a year, and threatens sanctions and withdrawal of Hong Kong's special trade status if it comes up short. The House passed similar legislation in October, and once the two bills are reconciled, they would head to President Trump's desk. The Senate also passed a bill prohibiting the sale of non-lethal anti-riot supplies like tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun guns to Hong Kong's police.

"Passing this legislation is an important step forward in holding the Chinese Communist Party accountable for its erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy and its repression of fundamental freedoms," Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) added that "as the situation in Hong Kong deteriorates, China must understand that the United States of America is committed to the promised freedom and autonomy for Hong Kong."

China did not see it that way. Beijing summoned a senior U.S. diplomat on Wednesday to emphasize its opposition to the bill, warning Trump that if he signs the bill, "China will take strong opposing measures, and the U.S. has to bear all the consequences." In a separate statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang warned the Trump administration to "take steps to stop the act from becoming a law, and stop meddling in the internal affairs of China and Hong Kong, to avoid setting a fire that would only burn itself."

Police and a dwindling group of pro-democracy protesters have been locked in a violent standoff at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University since Sunday. Police have arrested more than 1,100 protesters and hospital authorities say they have treated more than 500 people injured in the standoff. Peter Weber

5:28 a.m.

Washington was consumed with Day 3 of the impeachment hearings on Tuesday, but "there's an even bigger scandal rocking D.C. today, and — just a warning — if you have small children at home, you should probably bring them over to the TV to watch this," Trevor Noah said on Tuesday's Daily Show. "This" was a clip of Rep. Eric Swalwell's (D-Calif.) Monday night interview on MSNBC's Hardball being interrupted by what sounded an awful lot like very loud flatulence.

"That was a fart on live TV, and it was a loud fart, too," Noah cringed. He played it again. "Yeah, that was unmistakably a giant fart," he said, adding that to be fair to Swalwell, "it could have been the host, Chris Matthews. In fact, this is the viral argument that everyone has been talking about online: Who let it rip?" MSNBC blamed it on a mug scraping across the desk and Swalwell claimed "TOTAL EXONERATION!" Correspondent Desi Lydic didn't buy it. Along with his body language, "Swalwell's quick denial is the biggest tell of all," she said. "Might I remind you, Trevor, that the law says: 'He who denied it, supplied it.' It's right there in the Constitution."

Stephen Colbert had the same joke on The Late Show.

Though that joke apparently never made it out of rehearsal.

The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon ran with it, a little sheepishly. "The other big political story is that the hashtag #Fartgate was trending yesterday after people thought Rep. Eric Swalwell may have passed gas on live TV," he said. "I guess we finally know who the whistleblower is." He showed other poorly timed TV farts and managed to work in Baby Yoda. Watch below. Peter Weber

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