The Morning Dispatch: All Eyes on Sondland

Plus: Mayor Pete's moment, alliances in Korea, and the White House that cried wolf.

Happy Wednesday! Welcome to the first Morning Dispatch crafted (at least partially) in our new office space! The exposure to other human beings (and sunlight) has been fantastic, but we hope the newsletter retains the same “they probably wrote this in their pajamas” vibe we’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

Quick Hits: What You Need to Know

Impeachment Corner

Tuesday’s impeachment proceedings were the most punishing yet—two hearings, four witnesses, a grueling nine hours. In the morning, investigators heard from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Pence—both of whom listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president. In the afternoon, ex-NSC Russia adviser Tim Morrison and ex-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker appeared.

Vindman and Williams testified that they considered Trump’s request for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden inappropriate—undercutting GOP arguments that those accusations were mere “hearsay” from people who had only heard about the call secondhand. In response, many Trump defenders went after Vindman himself, questioning the loyalty of the decorated combat veteran who had immigrated to the U.S from Ukraine as a young child.

That narrative had previously stayed on the cable-news fringe; GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney denounced it as a shameful smear. On Tuesday, however, both House Republicans and the White House repeated the claim. GOP counsel Stephen Castor pressed Vindman multiple times about a Ukrainian official offering him the job of minister of defense; the White House’s director of social media, Dan Scavino, later tweeted out the exchange as evidence of an “impeachment sham.” (The Ukrainian official in question, for what it’s worth, later told The Daily Beast the offer had just been jokey banter.)

Next up: Gordon Sondland

“What did Ambassador Sondland tell you that he told Mr. Yermak?”

That question Tuesday to Tim Morrison from Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman —about a conversation between Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Andrey Yermak, a top aide to Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky—elicited one of the clearest confirmations yet of the investigations-for-aid quid pro quo long denied by the White House.

Morrison testified that Sondland told him that he’d told Yermak, “that the Ukrainians would have to have the prosecutor general make a statement with respect to the investigations as a condition with respect to having the aid lifted.”

The exchange was one of several Tuesday that placed Sondland at the heart of the events central to the impeachment inquiry. In short order, Sondland has gone from being the official who insisted (after a phone call he had with Trump) that there was “no quid pro quo” to being the person who communicated the quid pro quo to the Ukrainians.

Sondland had to revise and update his testimony from his closed-door deposition to include this fact. His explanation: Hearing the recollections of others about his role reminded him of what he’d said. In his supplemental testimony, Sondland said he told Yermak "the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks." Sondland will be asked about these issues and many others when he testifies before the House intelligence committee on Wednesday.

The Man in the Middle
Gordon Sondland, a hotelier and businessman from the Pacific Northwest, was nominated to be Trump’s ambassador to the European Union in March 2018. He was passed over for more coveted and prestigious ambassadorships in the early days of the administration, according to sources familiar with the process, in part because he had withdrawn as a host of a Trump campaign fundraiser after Trump attacked the family of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, killed in Iraq. Once he got the job, Sondland was eager to please the president and to prove that he would be a faithful advocate of the president’s policies.

Sondland’s deposition has garnered lots of media attention because the story he tells is, at times, in tension with the narrative we’ve heard from other witnesses. And, at other times, it’s in tension with itself. Although Sondland’s deposition transcript reads like it comes from someone trying to protect the president, he nonetheless offers a number of details that undercut the White House narrative in important respects.
Sondland, in his own words:

P. 71: Sondland says he can’t say for certain when he “finally said, Oh, Burisma equals Biden. I have no idea when that was.” He may not know when he had that epiphany but Sondland leaves little doubt that he did have such a realization.

P. 73: Sondland, asked whether he came to know that “the president’s interest and Giuliani’s interest in the Bidens,” was driving their advocacy, says, “Yeah, I do.”

P. 80: “It started with corruption. Then it was Burisma and the 2016 election. And then at some point in the continuum, late in the game, I connected Burisma with Biden.”

P. 83: “I think the only discussion that I had in negotiating a public statement was to get a Burisma, 2016—this was the language that was being proposed by Giuliani.”

P. 84: Q: And what did Mr. Giuliani add that the president wanted?”
Sondland: “He wanted Burisma and 2016 election mentioned in the statement. And I don’t believe the Ukrainians were prepared to do that.”

P. 92: Sondland on the continuum of Ukraine/corruption/investigations talk: “As time went on—and, again, I can’t nail down the dates—then ‘let’s get the Ukrainians to give a statement about corruption.’ And then, no, ‘corruption isn’t enough, we need to talk about the 2016 election and the Burisma investigations.’’

P. 96: Sondland testifies that obtaining the statement from Zelensky was necessary for the bilateral meeting: “We just wanted a statement to get the [Trump-Zelensky] meeting.”

P. 143: Q: “There was an evolution from generic interest in fighting corruption to an interest in Burisma, to finally the realization that what they were interested in was an investigation of the Bidens. Is that a fair summary?”
Sondland: “Yes.”

P. 162: Sondland, on a statement about Burisma and 2016 investigations: “At some point this press statement was a condition of the White House meeting.” More: “The press statement was linked to the White House meeting. And the press statement included—the most laden press statement was the one that mentioned the 2016 and the Burisma investigations continuum.”

P. 170: Sondland: “The White House visit was conditioned on the press statement involving the 2016 and Burisma. That was the only condition.”

A Buttigieg Bubble?

The fifth Democratic debate takes place tonight. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the two-hour affair will reveal anything new about the 10 qualified candidates’ policy agendas, which have been pretty well-covered in the previous 14 hours of 2020 debates.

But tonight’s debate will be notable for one reason: It will be the first debate to put South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the hot seat. Buttigieg, who has been lurking just outside the top tier for months, has gained serious momentum recently—particularly in Iowa, where a new poll has him leading with 25 percent support. And when a candidate starts to break away, the pack tends to reach up en masse to try to drag the leader back down.

Buttigieg is a gifted politician, but he has definite vulnerabilities—vulnerabilities that have so far gone largely unaddressed.

  1. The résumé 

Of the leading candidates (and even most in the second tier), Buttigieg has by far the least amount of governing experience. Biden, Sanders, and Warren all have decades of federal government experience under their belt; Buttigieg is the two-term mayor of the fourth-largest town in the nation’s 17th-most populous state.

Other items on his résumé have been a sore spot for left-wing voters in particular—especially his work at the consulting conglomerate McKinsey & Company, which Sanders and Warren’s left-wing fans point to as proof positive that he’s more interested in working the system than breaking it up.

  1. The flip-flopping

Buttigieg’s journey from relative unknown to household name (in the households of politics nerds, anyway) has given him a rare opportunity to build a national brand from scratch. 

Early on, that meant burnishing his progressive bona-fides with speeches praising the Green New Deal and tweets endorsing Medicare for All. As the primary progressed, however, it became clear that his best opportunity was in the relatively uncrowded moderate lane. So he pivoted back, emphasizing his technocratic, solutions-oriented approach with slogans like “Medicare for All who want it.” 

As a political maneuver, this has clearly worked in Buttigieg’s favor. But it also leaves him vulnerable to questions of the sincerity.

  1. Minority support

This one may be a dagger. So far, Buttigieg’s surge has been limited to fairly monochromatic states. Meanwhile, he’s barely registered among black voters—in another new poll, this one from South Carolina, he failed to break 1 percent in that cohort. 

According to Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina, there are a few reasons for this: most prominently, that Buttigieg has yet to build up a reputation for dependability among black voters enjoyed by candidates like Joe Biden (44 percent in the South Carolina poll) and Bernie Sanders (10 percent). All the Iowa and New Hampshire momentum in the world won’t get him very far if he can’t counter that. 

“I do not see a scenario where you can be the Democratic nominee without having strong, deep, and wide support among African American voters. I don’t care who you are,” Seawright told The Dispatch, adding that black turnout will be a crucial factor not just in the South but throughout the Rust Belt.

Part of Buttigieg’s thud among black voters has been a question of emphasis: He’s flooded the zone in Iowa and New Hampshire, gambling that winning there would do more to boost his chances in later states than trying to catch Biden in South Carolina. But he’s also faced criticism over how he’s handled racial issues during his mayoral term, and he suffered another spate of bad press this week over a clumsy rollout of his racial equality plan, which trumpeted the endorsement of black leaders who hadn’t endorsed it and prominently featured a stock photo taken in Kenya. 

Buttigieg is sharp, quick on his feet, and a smooth talker: If he can address these criticisms in a satisfying way, it’ll go a long way toward solidifying his recent bump in support. If he stumbles, however, we may see Mayor Pete follow Elizabeth Warren as this month’s victim of a post-debate slump.

A Big Week on the Korean Peninsula

When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump doctrine has proven to be quite erratic, as we’ve discussed at length in The Morning Dispatch. One day the president is ordering troops out of Syria in an attempt to wrap up what he deems to be “endless wars,” the next he’s sending 3,000 service members to Saudi Arabia to deter an ascendant Iran. 

But in some ways, Trump’s actions have remained remarkably consistent: He defers to authoritarian strongmen, and thinks the United States is paying more than its fair share. Recent moves from the administration on the Korean peninsula encapsulate both of these tendencies.

  1. Postponing joint military training exercises

Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Sunday, alongside his South Korean analogue Jeong Kyeong-doo, that the two countries were postponing a joint military training exercise that would have involved 60 planes and was originally scheduled to begin earlier this week. The two nations have long held such exercises to maintain military preparedness, but they tick off North Korea. Historically, we haven’t cared.

Esper told reporters he viewed the delay as a “good faith effort ... to enable peace” and not a “concession” to Kim Jong-un, but it’s hard to view it as anything else. The United States is trying to get Pyongyang back to the denuclearization negotiating table after talks (and beautiful letters) have fizzled; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told reporters “The reason we’re doing that is to give the North Koreans an opportunity to reconsider their recent provocations and get back to the negotiating table.” Dare we say the administration is hoping for a little ... quid pro quo? (Not all foreign policy quid pro quos are corrupt! Many are made with the best of intentions!)

The problem, according to Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief for Korea? We’ve been canceling or constraining military exercises since last year’s Singapore summit, and “we’ve received nothing in return.” North Korea has not stopped conducting missile tests, and it’s already rebuffed the U.S.’ most recent effort, saying “the suspension of the drill does not mean ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula and is not helpful to the diplomatic efforts.”

The president has been amenable to many of Kim’s demands surrounding the military exercises, even echoing some of the dictator’s language about the drills being “provocative war games.” Only time will tell if Trump is willing to capitulate further.

  1. Negotiating the next Special Measures Agreement

Also coming to a head this week were negotiations between the United States and South Korea over funding of the approximately 28,000 American troops stationed on the peninsula. The current Special Measures Agreement, or SMA, expires at the end of this year, and talks to work out a new one reportedly broke down due to President Trump’s demand South Korea more than quintuple its annual expenditures for hosting the U.S. troops from $890 million to $5 billion.

“Unfortunately, the proposals that were put forward by the Korean negotiating team were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden sharing,” U.S. negotiator James DeHart said. Esper argued South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more.”

Trump has long endeavored to extract more in defense spending from allies—whether it’s for NATO or Ukraine—he feels aren’t paying their “fair share.” But with respect to Korea, Klingner told The Dispatch this would be a “self-inflicted wound” that could risk triggering anti-American sentiment in a country that has been a staunch ally for decades. 

South Korea already devotes a higher percentage of its GDP to defense spending than every NATO ally, Klingner said. One of the country’s negotiators told Reuters, “It’s upsetting that the United States is employing brinkmanship in negotiations with a key ally, which shows eroding trust in the alliance built on shared values.”

If such hardball tactics lead to an eventual troop drawdown in the region—either because Trump pulls troops out or South Korea decides it can’t afford all 28,000—North Korea, Russia, and China stand to gain. South Korea has already signed a defense agreement with China that some are viewing as a response to American hostility, though Klingner cautioned against making that connection.

Viewing military and diplomatic support through such a transactional lens has already led to a significant decline in American leadership worldwide, and it will inevitably open up more power vacuums that our adversaries would love to occupy. According to NBC, DeHart said the SMA negotiations were on hold, "in order to give the Korean side some time to reconsider." Perhaps the United States should reconsider, too.

Press Sec Cries Wolf

Now, we at The Morning Dispatch don’t plan to make a habit of fact-checking everything the Trump administration says. Even if our editorial staff was triple the size it is, we wouldn’t have the bandwidth.

But White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham unleashed a whopper on Tuesday so egregious we felt the need to address it. Speaking with reporters, Grisham claimed departing Obama staffers left behind notes to Trump aides saying “you will fail” and “you aren’t going to make it.” Setting aside the fact that countless of those present denied the baseless allegation (see here, here, here, here, or here), do you really think the Trump administration—notorious for its magnanimity—would wait 1,033 days to reveal the slight? Or provide a picture of them?

Grisham walked back the comment in an email to Politico later in the day, saying she “certainly wasn’t implying every office had that issue.”

The press secretary receives a taxpayer-funded $183,000 salary to answer to the media and convey to the American people the White House’s initiatives and policy positions. All who hold the the job spin for their bosses, and none have been entirely truthful throughout their tenure. 

But despite telling reporters Trump’s unannounced trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Saturday was simply to “begin portions of his routine annual physical exam,” Grisham has had to spend her week batting back speculation that the president had a heart attack. And he almost certainly didn’t! But when you lie about something as trivial as Post-It notes on desks, how can you be trusted to tell the truth about far more important issues?

Pop Culture Recommendation

Noah Baumbach’s new film, Marriage Story, opens with a husband (Adam Driver) and wife (Scarlett Johansson) recounting all the little things they love about one another: her openness, his passion, her bravery, his perseverance. But the movie immediately finds them in a mediator’s office as they look to navigate their separation and eventual divorce.

Told with a gentleness to both protagonists rarely seen in breakup flicks, Baumbach’s story breaks viewers’ hearts taking them through Charlie and Nicole Barber’s falling out in a way that says more about love than anything else. And don’t be surprised if you get a push alert on your phone in mid-February letting you know Driver won an Oscar for his role.

Toeing the Company Line

  • We’re incredibly excited to welcome Sarah Isgur to The Dispatch! Sarah, an alum of Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaigns and the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions, will be joining us next month as a staff writer. Give her a follow here!

  • The kid gloves are off. David’s going to be doubling his output here at the Dispatch, publishing four newsletters a week: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Yesterday’s edition dove into Elizabeth Warren’s dip in the polls, declining fertility rates across the globe, and Disney+’s The Mandalorian.

  • Jonah had Daniel Burns from the University of Dallas on The Remnant to discuss something other than impeachment! You can listen to their conversation about post-liberalism and political theory here.

Let Us Know

Speaking of The Mandalorian, the latest episode set the internet on fire by introducing a creature that looks like Yoda’s baby cousin, thereby opening up a whole new undreamed-of universe of prepubescent alien possibilities. Who’s the next creature you hope to see get the treatment? 

  • Baby Admiral Ackbar

  • Baby Sebulba

  • The baby Rancor

  • Baby Fett

Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.

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