October 21, 2019

President Trump did what?

In a Cabinet meeting Monday, Trump addressed the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, again referring to the Kurds, the U.S. allies who largely fought America's campaign against ISIS, as "not angels." He then went all-in on claiming he "captured" ISIS all by himself.

"ISIS was all over the place," Trump said Monday of the time before he got involved in Syria, per a pool report. "It was me ... who captured them. I'm the one who did the capturing. I'm the one who knows more about it than you people or the fake pundits," Trump then told the gathered reporters. It's reminiscent of his false claim last week that, even though his then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis said it would take two years to defeat ISIS, Trump did it in one month.

With his infamous bone spurs, age, and the general busyness of being the president, it seems safe to say that Trump did not, in fact, fight with thousands of U.S. troops and even more Kurds to defeat ISIS fighters in Syria. Trump did, however, order America's troops out of the area earlier this month and leave the Kurds to face the ISIS threat and a Turkish incursion on their own. Kathryn Krawczyk

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

4:02 a.m.

At the center of the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump's Ukraine dealings is the nearly $400 million in congressionally allocated security aid that Trump ordered withheld from Kyiv for still-unclear reasons. House Democrats are investigating whether Trump was using the $250 million in Pentagon funds or $141 million in State Department aid as leverage to force Ukraine's president to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate.

Trump's Republican allies argue that there was no quid pro quo — aid for investigations — because the Trump administration lifted its hold on the money Sept. 11. "Ukraine in fact received the aid and there was no investigation into the Bidens," Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said during Tuesday's impeachment hearings.

"But $35.2 million — earmarked for grenade launchers, secure communications, and naval combat craft — has not left the U.S. Treasury," the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday, citing Pentagon spending documents and lawmakers. And the Pentagon isn't saying why it has not sent Ukraine the money. Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Carla Gleason told the Times only that the remaining $35 million will be disbursed "over the next several weeks."

Democratic lawmakers say the Defense Department is stonewalling them, too. "We've raised the question and we have not received an answer," said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee's readiness subcommittee. "We're going to have to find out why." Senate Democrats wrote Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday arguing that "speeding the delivery of this critical aid, which Congress specifically appropriated to improve the security of Ukraine, is important to affirm our commitment to Ukraine in the wake of the chaotic, undisciplined, and deeply concerning approach the administration has taken toward our important partner."

Congress approved the funds a year ago, but because the White House kept them on ice until right before the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, lawmakers gave the Pentagon another year to spend the $250 million. Peter Weber

3:08 a.m.

President Trump responded to Day 3 of the House impeachment hearings into his Ukraine dealings by gushing that "the Republicans are absolutely killing it." On CNN, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin didn't exactly disagree, but he took the death metaphor in a different direction. "Today was a graveyard for Republican talking points," he said Tuesday night, tackling three GOP arguments: That all the testimony is second-hand, the idea that there could be no U.S. military aid-for-investigations quid pro quo because Ukraine didn't know the aid was being withheld, and that this is no big deal because Ukraine got the money without announcing an investigation of the Bidens.

"The reason that the president had to give the aid is because he got caught," Toobin said. "The whistleblower complaint comes in Sept. 9, they get notice that they've been busted, and it's only then that the aid is released" on Sept. 11.

Jen Psaki, former White House communications director for President Barack Obama, said she was struck by the afternoon testimony where Tim Morrison and Kurt Volker, the Republican witnesses, "basically acknowledged that everything that was done was wrong and they just didn't know about it." Psaki was skeptical of their ignorance, she added, but "they said Biden didn't do anything wrong, they said that the Ukraine Crowdstrike is a conspiracy theory, and they both acknowledge that the president of the United States should not be seeking political dirt on an opponent" from foreign governments.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) wanted to give Trump — or at least the "adults" minding him — the benefit of the doubt, but panel-wide, doubt prevailed. Peter Weber

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