Happy Friday! Week two of the fully launched Dispatch is in the books! We’re very thankful to all of you who are helping us keep the lights on, and we hope our presence in your inbox every morning has become as predictable as Sen. Martha McSally trying to fundraise off of a cheap shot at a very good reporter.
Quick Hits: What You Need to Know
Eleven U.S. troops were injured during the Iranian attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq last week, reports Kevin Baron of DefenseOne. Dan LaMothe, a reporter with the Washington Post, offers very good context in this thread.
President Trump’s impeachment trial formally commenced yesterday, with House impeachment manager Adam Schiff reading the articles before the Senate and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts being sworn in.
Rep. Liz Cheney announced she will not run for retiring Sen. Mike Enzi’s Wyoming Senate seat, opting instead to remain in House leadership. Many see the move as a sign Cheney is eyeing the speaker’s gavel one day.
The senate voted to formally ratify the United States Mexico Canada (USMCA) trade agreement by an 89-10 vote.
The fallout from the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal continues! The Mets fired manager Carlos Beltran for his involvement in the scheme, and new accusations surfaced alleging some Houston players wore buzzers under their shirts to transmit upcoming pitches.
Over the past couple weeks, your Morning Dispatchers will admit we grew a little fatalistic about what was left to come of the impeachment saga. The facts were all out there, more or less; all that remained was to slog through a few more weeks of formulaic squabbling at trial before the matter reached its foreordained conclusion.
So imagine our surprise this week, when—at the very moment we expected things to be at their sleepiest—we suddenly find ourselves up to our ears in new impeachment news. And not just the sort of parliamentary jockeying that’s passed for most impeachment news since the House passed the articles last month. In the last couple days, we’ve seen two big, new developments that dramatically complicate the president’s remaining defense arguments—although not, it remains all but certain, his path to Senate acquittal.
The first was a report released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog agency that reports to Congress. The GAO found that by withholding authorized military aid from Ukraine for a policy reason—and “policy” is a most generous characterization in this context—the White House had violated the Impoundment Control Act.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the report reads.
Then there’s the strange case of Lev Parnas—the former client of Rudy Giuliani who was arrested late last year on campaign finance charges, with prosecutors alleging that he and an accomplice had worked to meddle in U.S.-Ukrainian relations, including by launching a smear campaign to get the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine fired by President Trump.
In recent days, Parnas has been on a redemption tour reminiscent of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, another Trumpworld scoundrel who decided his best path forward was to try to reinvent himself as an anti-Trump crusader. Parnas has turned over a huge pile of his communications related to the scheme to House investigators, and told a pile of eager interviewers all about how not only Trump, but also Vice President Pence and Attorney General Barr were in on the scheme from the get-go.
Parnas, whose harebrained schemes we covered when they were first revealed back in October, is a complicated figure in the Ukraine affair. This is largely because his motivations don’t line up perfectly with the White House’s: If the criminal indictment against him is to be believed, he got involved in Ukraine to make a pile of money on a side hustle, not necessarily to help Trump prosecute his pressure campaign against the Ukrainian government. Add that to his current motivation to ingratiate himself with Trump’s foes, and there’s plenty of reason to take his recent interviews with a 40-pound bag of water softener salt.
Parnas’s documents don’t just provide additional evidentiary support for the narrative that Trump was focused on pushing Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden (one of Parnas’ notes helpfully states, “Get Zelensky to announce that the Biden case will be investigated”), they also paint the picture of an utterly slapdash clown-car version of international diplomacy.
All this has left the GOP Senate in a bit of a tough spot. So far, the most common response seems to be to dismiss the latest revelations as inadmissible evidence, arguing that if Pelosi couldn’t be bothered to wait to include them in the articles of impeachment, they can’t be expected to pay attention to them either.
“They were in such a hurry that they didn’t get all this information,” Sen. Joni Ernst said Thursday. “They obviously felt they had enough information to impeach the president with what they had. Let’s take a look at what they had.”
Putin Shakes Things Up
In yesterday’s Quick Hits, we outlined some fairly significant “reforms” in Russia: Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev unexpectedly resigned to “give President Vladimir Putin room to carry out the changes he wants to make to the constitution.”
With the benefit of an additional 24 hours, we were able to talk to some smart folks about what Putin actually did, why it matters, and its implications both within Russia and beyond.
Addressing the Russian people in his annual state of the nation speech, Putin proposed a series of constitutional reforms that could have a monumental impact on the governance of the country. Because this is Russia—and more specifically Putin—many people’s minds immediately jumped to what the move means for the current occupant of the presidency. Was this move by Putin an attempt to consolidate his hold on power?
What Putin didn’t do, Jeffrey Mankoff—senior fellow at CSIS’ Russia and Eurasia program— told The Dispatch, was change the term limits of the presidency. Under Russia’s constitution, presidents are elected to six year terms, and they can serve only two consecutively. Putin circumvented this statutory nuisance by ceding the presidency to Medvedev for four years from 2008 to 2012, while Putin himself continued to pull many of the strings from the role of prime minister. After being re-elected president in 2012—Putin, the longest serving leader of Russia or the Soviet Union since Josef Stalin—will be legally bound to leave office in 2024.
Yesterday’s moves may be about what he does next.
“The net impact of those changes,” Tom Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff under George W. Bush, told us, “will be to limit somewhat the authority of the president, enhance the authority of the prime minister and the Duma and Federation Council, the legislative branch of the Russian Federation.”
Graham continued: “He’s created a number of positions where he could perhaps place himself that would allow him to retain power while relinquishing the presidency as he is required to under the constitution as it’s now written.”
Like France—which the Russian system of government was “consciously based on,” per Mankoff—Russia is run by a “very strong president and a comparatively weak prime minister.” The president is “elected” nationally—scare quotes both Mankoff’s and ours—and oversees and appoints most bodies of the government in addition to being in charge of security services and the use of force. The prime minister—who is currently appointed by the president but would be chosen by the Duma (legislative body) under Putin’s proposed reforms—is mainly responsible for day-to-day operations of cabinet ministries.
In weakening the presidency before he leaves it, Putin may be able to insulate himself from any real challenges to his power post-2024. “By keeping the term limits, and by taking the power to appoint the prime minister away from the president,” Mankoff said, “these provisions would ensure that Putin’s successor, whoever he or she is, isn’t going to have the same control over the system as a whole … If Putin goes off into another role he doesn’t have to worry, to the same degree, that his successor is going to shunt him off to the side.”
This is “all about power,” Graham said. “There’s nothing yet that suggests that this is a major change in policy. Nothing has come out of Moscow in the past 24, 48 hours that suggests that Putin wants to take the country in a different direction economically, socially, politically.”
At this time last year—per a Public Opinion Research Centre poll—trust in Putin among the Russian people had fallen to a 13-year low, and his approval rating had plunged from a peak of nearly 90 percent to just over 60. “Hopes for economic development [in Russia] aren’t nearly as good now as they were 10 years ago,” Graham told us. Following an exceedingly unpopular pension reform plan two years ago, “Putin has taken a hit.”
“And that does have some impact on his ability to manage this political process going forward.”
Worth Your Time
This chilling report from Freedom House, detailing the ways in which totalitarian China’s media influence is growing around the world, is worth taking a look at.
Writing in Vanity Fair this week, Peter Hamby has a great essay looking at the vast chasm between how people who work in politics professionally and people who don’t process their politics—and how Democrats’ obsession with coming across well in the Beltway bubble may be giving them a flawed sense of what will actually matter if they want to win in 2020.
Presented Without Comment
Also Presented Without Comment
Presidential impeachments don’t happen every day. So it’s not too surprising that a bunch of the laws surrounding the process feel a little … musty. Take for instance the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms’ opening proclamation each trial day: “Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment.”
Good luck keeping a room full of senators from talking.
Toeing the Company Line
David’s aforementioned Thursday French Press took a look at how the new impeachment evidence affects the Trump defense before turning to political polarization and how it stems from public apathy.
We’ve been busy pumping out podcasts the past few days! You can check out the latest Dispatch Podcast with the whole crew here, and Sarah and David’s most recent Advisory Opinions podcast here. There’ll be an exciting new Remnant hitting your feeds in just a few hours.
On the home page, Jonah looks at the stakes GOP senators face now that the impeachment trial is under way (and now that—egads!—they have to pay attention).
Also, we have a piece from Avi Woolf on why the world needs us as a superpower, whether we like it or not.
Let Us Know
Yesterday we asked what song we should set John Bolton’s Doha stroll to, and wow, did you all have great suggestions. Click through to see some of our favorites are included in this thread:
Photograph of Rudy Giuliani and Lev Parnas arriving at the funeral of George H.W. Bush by Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images.