The Morning Dispatch: Transcript Troubles

Plus: Trump’s minion moment and Juan Soto’s heroics.

Good morning, and congratulations to student-athletes everywhere who will soon be able to participate in the free market alongside literally everyone who is not a student-athlete. If only the NCAA had implemented this change a few years back, some of us could have made a killing monetizing our likenesses as members of the marching band.

Drip, Drip, Drip

House Democrats just keep subpoenaing White House officials, and the trickle of bad news for President Trump keeps coming. The latest previously unknown figure to enter the spotlight: Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the U.S. National Security Council and someone who listened in on President Trump’s now-infamous July call with the president of Ukraine. Vindman appeared before House investigators Tuesday; as we’ve all come to expect by now, his opening statement was released. In it, Vindman added his voice to the chorus of current and former officials who have already testified about their unease in the wake of the call, saying a “sense of duty” compelled him on two occasions to voice his concerns about Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine behavior to White House lawyers. 

Then, on Tuesday night, the New York Times reported another intriguing piece of Vindman’s testimony: the rough transcript of the call in question, which the White House released under heavy pressure last month, omitted several key details: 

The omissions, Colonel Vindman said, included Mr. Trump’s assertion that there were recordings of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. discussing Ukraine corruption, and an explicit mention by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of Burisma Holdings, the energy company whose board employed Mr. Biden’s son Hunter. 

The news might not seem like blockbuster stuff on its face: the Times itself reported that the revelations “do not fundamentally change lawmakers’ understanding of the call.” But we don’t know what, exactly, was said in the call. And that’s the concern. 

Eapalliophobia: Fear of Rugs

The Vindman testimony has spooked Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom had offered defenses of Trump, however qualified, based on the memorandum of the conversation that the White House released. Trump encouraged this, repeatedly pointing to the document as exonerating. (The president has tweeted about his “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president no fewer than 13 times since September.) A GOP source tells The Dispatch the new questions about the transcript present yet another example of the White House pulling the rug out from under Trump’s defenders on the Hill. For weeks, Republicans willing to defend the president on substance—as opposed to just complaining about the Democrats’ “secret” process —have cited the transcript as a central part of their defense: Yes, it might have been awkward, and yes, there is the implication of a quid pro quo, but there is nothing impeachable in the transcript of the call. And we know exactly what the president said. 

One Republican compared these new revelations to the press conference given by acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, on October 17. As Mulvaney spoke, Republicans across town in the hearing of Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, were pushing back hard on suggestions from Democrats, based on Sondland’s testimony, that there had been any kind of quid pro quo. But when they broke from that hearing, they learned that Mulvaney had acknowledged that there had, in fact, been a quid pro quo and that those worried needed to “get over it.” This left the president’s congressional defenders disclaiming an allegation the White House was admitting - at least for a time. (Mulvaney, of course, later tried to walk back his admission.)

Even for Hill Republicans willing to defend the White House aggressively on these matters, a group shrinking by the day, it’s almost impossible to do so when the basic facts of the White House story change from day to day.

While the Vindman testimony made clear that the memorandum of the conversation between Trump and Zelensky omitted some of their comments to each other, this wasn’t news to many of those in the national security establishment. As the media focused on the public opening statements and leaks of testimony from the hearings, those with an understanding of the internal reporting processes wondered about discrepancies between the MemCon released by the White House and the actual conversation. The other primary topic of discussion behind the scenes? The transcript of the first phone call between Trump and Zelensky, on April 21. Sources familiar with that call, in which Trump congratulated Zelensky on his electoral victory, have suggested it’s more than just the perfunctory call that the initial readouts might have indicated. 

Democrats Extend a (Small) Olive Branch

Since the start of impeachment proceedings, House Democrats have been playing a game of procedural hardball. From the cockpit, Speaker Pelosi has insisted (correctly) that the Constitution does not require Democrats to take a full House vote to authorize impeachment proceedings. Meanwhile, early hearings and depositions, operating under the authority of Adam Schiff and the House Intelligence Committee, have taken place behind closed doors. Unsurprisingly House Republicans have complained, justifiably, about a partisan process. 

All that’s changing a bit this week. First, Pelosi has finally agreed to take a formal vote on the impeachment inquiry on Thursday. Not a vote to authorize the inquiry, mind you—Democrats are unwilling to concede that they are obligated to do any such thing. Functionally, however, the measure will accomplish the same thing, as well as address a few GOP concerns: opening up future hearings to the public and permitting Republicans to subpoena testimony—provided they first obtain permission from Democrats. 

Naturally, this has done little to satisfy Republicans, who are unenthused at the prospect of beseeching Adam Schiff for permission to summon witnesses and argue the concessions are little more than a convenient fig leaf for Democrats. But while it’s at least a step in the right direction for Democrats, Republicans signaled that they will keep fighting on process. At a press availability Tuesday, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise decried the “Soviet-style” proceeding and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, previewing the coming defenses of Trump, invoked the legal doctrine of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” (he said from the poisonous tree). That theory holds that if the source of the evidence, the “tree,” is “poisoned” then all of the fruit it bears is likewise tainted.

Deep Staters to the Left of Me, Soros Agents to the Right

Of course, Republicans may not have any other choice. The alternative to objecting on process grounds is objecting on substance—actually defending the president against the accusation that he improperly pressured Zelensky to investigate his past and possible future political rivals. And as they peer out into the wider world of pro-Trump media, House Republicans have no doubt noticed that efforts to make that defense aren’t going very well. 

The central problem is one of scale. Given the difficulty of defending Trump’s actions on the merits, the president’s allies have increasingly tried to shoot the messengers: denouncing the administration officials who have testified about Trump’s actions as disgruntled agents of the “deep state.” As House Democrats depose more and more current and former administration officials—all of whom keep telling the same damning story—Trump defenders have constructed an alternate reality in which everybody surrounding Trump, including plenty of officials appointed by Trump himself, is part of the Deep State efforts to sink the president: 

  • Bill Taylor, hand-picked by Secretary of State Pompeo to be the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine earlier this year, testified last week about the existence of an “irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making,” led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, that was obsessed with putting political pressure on Ukraine to carry out the president’s desired investigations. The White House responded by denouncing “a coordinated smear campaign from … radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution,” while Fox News’s Laura Ingraham suggested that Taylor’s testimony amounted to the “deep state bringing in reinforcements.”  

  • Fiona Hill, brought on by Michael Flynn as a top Russia adviser in early 2017, also testified that Giuliani had headed up a shadow foreign policy, which, she testified, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton had called a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” Fringey pro-Trump site Gateway Pundit dubbed her a “deep state spy” and a “George Soros-connected traitor.”

  • The aforementioned Alexander Vindman joined the National Security Council during James Mattis’s tenure as defense secretary, and testified Tuesday that he was so concerned after listening in on the Trump/Zelensky call that he reported it to NSC’s lead counsel. On her Fox News show that evening, Ingraham insinuated that Vindman was a Ukranian double agent; her guest, former Bush attorney John Yoo, responded that “some people might call that espionage,” though he later tried to walk that statement back. Representative Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican conference, went out of her way in a Tuesday press conference to defend Vindman and other veterans testifying, saying “it is shameful to question their patriotism.” Several prominent Republicans followed her lead —from John Thune to Mitch McConnell—distancing themselves from such smears.

Or what about the people still ostensibly on Trump’s team? How about diplomats Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, Republicans hand-picked by the administration for their roles, who were working closely with Giuliani on Ukraine and whose text messages helped kick off the “quid pro quo” controversy when they were released early this month? And the aforementioned Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who explicitly said that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine in part because he wanted to pressure them into committing to his desired investigations—prompting Fox’s Sean Hannity to throw him under the bus

All of this brings into focus a harsh new reality for the White House: the people digging Trump’s grave in Ukraine are Trump’s own people. Even if it’s true that Democrats are being partisan, that the impeachment process they’re running is in some respects unfair, that the media are inclined to see daily developments in the worst possible light for the president—none of that mitigates the fact that those doing the most damage to the president’s position, aside from the president himself, are not “deep state” actors or political opponents, but people whom Trump hired.

Will the president’s defenders try to do the same with Tim Morrison tomorrow if he offers testimony damaging to Trump? Morrison is currently a top adviser to Trump on Russia and Europe, carrying the title of "Special Assistant to the President.” Morrison, who is scheduled to defy White House orders against testifying, is a highly-respected national security expert and a longtime Republican, who was prominently mentioned in testimony from Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine. A veteran of GOP offices on the Hill, Morrison came to the NSC with John Bolton. He is the antithesis of the deep state.

Okay, phew. That’s a lot of impeachment news. On Friday we’ll slow things back down and bring you some other political news, including deep dives on the recent spate of GOP retirements and Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer’s odd trip to the 2020 table. That’s the plan, anyway.

What Else We’re Reading/Watching

  • The Ringer’s Jordan Ritter Conn traveled to Hong Kong to better understand the protests against the Chinese government, why they’ve resonated globally, and how they triggered potentially the biggest geopolitical sports story ever. Read his account to find out why a Hong Kong frontliner says he still “loves everyone in the NBA but [Lebron] James.”

  • In the Deseret News, Boyd Matheson advocates for a public sense of morality and steadfast adherence to the principle of religious freedom: “If America is going to remain a beacon of hope and freedom, every leader and every citizen must live within their shared public morality and seek to secure the religious freedom required to promote and defend it.”

  • Philip Klein, executive editor of the Washington Examiner, has a terrific piece in the New York Times raising alarm bells over the $22.9 trillion national debt. “With leading Democratic presidential candidates proposing tens of trillions of dollars of new federal spending,” Klein writes, “Republicans’ abdication of fiscal conservatism leaves Americans with no responsible party.” 

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

In the first inning of Tuesday’s World Series game, Astros slugger Alex Bregman carried his bat all the way to first base on a home run trot. In the fifth inning, Nationals phenom Juan Soto did the same. Asked why, Soto, who turned 21 this week, simply said: “I just thought it was pretty cool, I wanted to do it too.”

He’ll have a chance to do it again Wednesday night, with the Nationals getting up off the mat after three straight losses to stave off elimination and set up a dramatic Game 7 showdown in Houston.

Toeing The Company Line

  • Tuesday’s iteration of the yet-to-be-named David French newsletter (we at The Morning Dispatch are pulling for The FrancoFile) delves into a little-covered Supreme Court case that has serious 2020 implications, the difference between “endless war” and strategic military presence, Kanye’s Christianity, and the Memphis Grizzlies.

  • There’s a new Remnant podcast! AEI’s Adam White joined Jonah for an impeachment tutorial, answering all of your basic questions about how the process will — and should — unfold. They also cover congressional Republicans’ responses, and whether Trump’s “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president was really all that perfect. Give it a listen here.

Let Us Know

What does it mean for a phone call to be “perfect?”

  • It’s from someone you know, and not Gary the auto insurance salesman who you’ve asked several times to remove you from his list because you do not even own a car

  • You do that rom-com thing where you alternate saying “no, you hang up!” in an endearing way

  • Two tin cans connected by a string

  • You offer to unfreeze congressionally appropriated military aide in exchange for them publicly announcing their intention to open an investigation into your political rival

  • They just text you instead

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

Correction, October 30, 2019: The post originally gave the wrong night for Game 7 of the World Series. It’s tonight; don’t miss it.