The Morning Dispatch: We Watched All the C-Span So You Don’t Have To
Our brains are Jell-O! Plus, Congress goes bipartisan in a show of solidarity with Hong Kong.
|The Dispatch Staff||Nov 22, 2019|| 28||3|
Happy Friday! Public testimony in the House’s impeachment inquiry concluded Thursday, which means an imminent end to the deep polarization on display and alternative realities it has produced. No? Impeachment isn’t over, you say? And the coming election means more of that red-team/blue-team polarization?
Onward to the news!
Quick Hits: What You Need To Know
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust.
We averted a government shutdown for at least one more month, with President Trump signing a Senate-approved spending bill that extends funding until December 20.
WeWork laid off 2,400 employees after a terrible few months that saw the co-working company’s valuation plummet tens of billions of dollars.
Google announced it would start restricting targeting parameters on political advertising next month.
Tesla unveiled its first-ever electric pickup truck, set to hit the road in 2021.
Impeachment: Everything You Missed Because You Have a Job and a Life
After a grueling week of hearings, phase two of the Trump impeachment inquiry, the public witness testimony, is at an end. Rather than wait to see if a court would compel further testimony from White House officials Trump has forbidden from testifying—such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Adviser John Bolton—the Democrats are opting to press ahead with what they’ve got. It’s a revealing decision that suggests for all of their public professions about a determination to get the whole truth, politics is driving the process.
Meanwhile, you’d be forgiven if you got a little lost in the weeds of what exactly they have. For all the lawmaker grandstanding about hearings taking place “before the eyes of the nation” and media types firing the new bombshells around Twitter every few minutes, the reality is that very few Americans had the time or desire to sift through dozens of hours of sometimes-captivating, often-tiresome testimony from a whole constellation of officials previously unknown to them.
Fear not: We’ve got you covered. As we gear up for impeachment proper, here’s a quick digest of what key witnesses testified to over the last week.
Last week: Bill Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch
The House’s first two witnesses were the administration’s former and current acting ambassador to Ukraine: Yovanovitch and Taylor, respectively. Both witnesses went after the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, whom Trump was using as his ad-hoc point man for Ukraine throughout this year. Yovanovitch testified that Giuliani had worked with corrupt U.S. and Ukrainian businessmen as part of a smear campaign to get Trump to fire her, which he did in May.
Taylor, who was brought on to replace her, testified that he soon learned that he was only nominally in charge of Ukrainian policy—Trump had entrusted the issue he really cared about, getting Ukraine to investigate the DNC and the Bidens, to the “irregular channel” of Giuliani and another political ally, U.S. ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland. Taylor also testified that he soon learned about the irregular channel’s plan: to force Ukraine to commit publicly to those investigations by withholding the possibility of a state visit and congressionally appropriated military aid until they did so.
Super Tuesday: Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, Tim Morrison and Kurt Volker
Next up were the first two witnesses who listened in on Trump’s July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine: Lt. Col. Vindman, a top Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, and Williams, an adviser to Mike Pence. Both testified that they had found the call unsettling and inappropriate, and both claimed that no one they knew in the administration had supported the decision to hold up the aid. Vindman also pushed back against the notion that the White House had placed the recording of the Ukraine call on a secure server to cover it up: “I didn’t take it as anything nefarious,” he said.
The same afternoon, investigators heard from two former officials: Vindman’s previous NSC boss, Tim Morrison, and the former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker. Morrison disagreed with the morning witnesses’ assessment of the July 25 call, testifying that he believed nothing illegal had taken place on the call. Meanwhile, Volker claimed that he was unaware that U.S. military aid had been linked to Ukraine committing to Trump’s investigations, insisted he had not known those investigations were connected to the Bidens, and denounced what he described as “Giuliani’s conspiracy theory” about them.
Wednesday: Gordon Sondland, Laura Cooper and David Hale
This was a big one: Sondland, who worked directly with Giuliani to help Trump secure his desired investigations from Ukraine, testified that he and Giuliani had indeed pushed a quid pro quo and that he had worked with Giuliani “at the express direction of the president of the United States.” He also claimed that “everyone was in the loop” about the scheme, including Pence, Pompeo, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He was careful, however, to point out that while he had spoken with Trump directly about the investigations, it was only Giuliani who’d ever spoken explicitly about a quid pro quo.
Cooper, a Defense Department official, testified that Ukrainian officials had begun asking about the hold-up of the aid on July 25—the same day Trump had spoken to Ukrainian President Zelensky and long before the White House had suggested the Ukrainians had known about it. Hale, the third-ranking official at the State Department, was one of three officials that Republicans had listed on their witness list who would testify in the proceedings. He said the firing of Yovanovitch was wrong and agreed that withholding aid from an ally to compel an announcement of the investigation into a political rival was “completely inappropriate.”
Thursday: Fiona Hill and David Holmes
Hill, a former Russia expert at the White House, is primarily noteworthy because she tussled with Sondland over what she took to be his elbowing in on Ukraine during her time in the administration. During her testimony Thursday, she backed up Taylor’s testimony about two separate chains of command on Ukraine: “He was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged.”
Holmes, meanwhile, is an aide to Bill Taylor, notable because he overheard a phone conversation between Sondland and Trump the day after the infamous Trump/Ukraine call. Holmes testified that he heard Trump ask Sondland if Zelensky would “do the investigation,” and Sondland told him Zelensky “loves your ass” and “will do anything you ask.”
Will It Move the Proverbial Needle?
There’s no denying the bulk of this testimony was better for House Democrats than for Republicans. As more and more evidence has emerged, the presidents’ defenders have had to fall back on an ever-shrinking number of tenuous arguments: The aid to Ukraine was released; this is all just hearsay; Democrats are making things look worse than they are because they hate the president.
But the task set before congressional Republicans is also much simpler and easier than the one the Democrats are tackling. Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff need to convince the nation to tune in and brush up; Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan need only to convince them that this is just partisan politics as usual, and safe to ignore. If impeachment isn’t the first thing on voters’ minds during the election a year from now, Republicans will be happy to write it all up as a win.
Meanwhile, evidence is piling up to suggest that, far from defecting in quantities necessary to remove Trump from office, Republicans might end up presenting a unified front against impeachment. Moderate Republican Will Hurd, an important bellwether retiring from Congress next year, signaled on Thursday that he considered Trump’s conduct inappropriate and unseemly, but not necessarily impeachable.
We’re left with this. The evidence shows that president did what he’d been accused of doing: He used his office in an attempt to coerce the Ukrainian government to investigate his chief Democratic rivals, past and present. In an exchange with a reporter on October 3, Trump was asked about the July 25 call in which he asked for a “favor” of Ukrainian President Zelensky, who was eager to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the US.
REPORTER: “Mr. President, what exactly did you hope Zelensky would do about the Bidens after your phone call? Exactly.”
TRUMP: “Well, I would think that, if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer.”
And What About Hunter Biden, Anyway?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Republicans are readying their own impeachment weapons. Sen. Lindsey Graham on Thursday announced he would look into Joe Biden’s communications with Ukrainian officials during his tenure as vice president, doubling down on accusations Republicans have made, without evidence, that Biden acted corruptly to help an energy company with which his son Hunter was affiliated avoid Ukrainian prosecution.
It is highly unlikely that Graham’s inquiry will turn up the kind of bad behavior Trump’s allies have insinuated Biden took part in. But the move will have one positive effect for Republicans: It will keep Hunter Biden in the news as much as possible.
Impeachment hearings have already underscored how inadvisable it was for Hunter to accept a position on the board of the energy company Burisma while his father was vice president. The company was one of those founded by corrupt Ukrainian oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, who used it during his tenure as minister of energy to direct government energy contracts to himself. In the spring of 2014, Ukraine asked the U.S. to help them get that money back—which was just about when Burisma added Hunter Biden to their board, paying him in excess of $50,000 per month despite the fact that Biden had no real experience in Ukraine and no experience in the industry. Burisma did this for a reason, of course. It’s the kind of soft corruption—greasy but legal—that has driven so many Americans to dismiss Washington as, well, the Swamp.
Stateside, the news hasn’t been much better recently for Biden’s son. On Wednesday, an Arkansas woman suing Hunter for child support filed a court motion saying a paternity test had proved he had fathered her baby. Hunter had previously denied the child was his.
All of this, of course, is very far afield from the ongoing impeachment inquiry. The lesson is simply this: Trump’s saving grace continues to be in his picking unsympathetic enemies.
Nothing Brings Congress Together Like Dunking on China
Longtime subscribers to The Morning Dispatch (since we launched six weeks ago) will remember we took a deep dive last month into the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as well as the anti-democratic kowtowing to the Chinese government from the NBA, Apple, and Nike. At the time, lawmakers ranging all the way from Tom Cotton to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed outrage over the treatment of these protesters and the cowardice of some American corporations. This week, that outrage was channeled into policy, with both chambers of Congress passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and sending it to President Trump’s desk.
The bill, introduced by Marco Rubio in June, received unanimous support in the Senate and just one nay vote in the House compared to 417 yeas (Republican Thomas Massie told CNN he “agreed with 90 percent of that bill” but has “never voted for sanctions against a sovereign country.”) It now goes to the White House for the president’s signature, which it is widely expected to receive, despite reports earlier this year that Trump promised China’s President Xi the U.S. would “remain quiet” on the protests. And even if Trump doesn’t sign it? 100-0 and 417-1 are what one might call “veto-proof majorities.”
So what’s in it? The legislation directs the president to sanction anyone responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong, freezing their American assets and either revoking their visa or making them ineligible to receive one to enter the United States. It would also prompt the State Department to conduct annual reviews of both Hong Kong’s autonomy from China and China’s efforts to use Hong Kong to evade American sanctions and export controls. Hong Kong’s historical semi-independence from China has granted it more preferential treatment in dealing with the United States economically; if the Chinese government has eroded this independence, the United States may want to reconsider this arrangement.
The Middle Kingdom, for its part, is not taking the bill’s passage particularly well. An editorial in People’s Daily, a mouthpiece for the Communist Party of China (CCP), argued the legislation “neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in China’s internal affairs.” Another one in China Daily, said it “speaks volumes about the United States' hypocrisy” and accused the U.S. of backing the Hong Kong protesters, referring to the dissidents as “anti-Beijing cliques and their pawns.”
Ted Cruz, one of the more than 50 co-sponsors in the Senate—29 Republicans and 26 Democrats—made clear to The Dispatch he didn’t much care about the CCP’s bellyaching. “The Chinese government hopes it can silence and oppress the people of Hong Kong in the dark of night without anybody noticing,” he said. “Passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is an important step in demonstrating American support for the men and women of Hong Kong.”
A further wrinkle? Trade talks between the United States and China remain ongoing, and this bill could throw yet another wrench into the negotiations that were already reported last week to have hit a snag. A limited deal between the two nations was first announced on October 11, but it has not been consummated in the month and a half since. Some experts view the bill as the potential end of the discussions. “The legislation will further fuel the narrative in Chinese domestic policy circles that the U.S. is attempting to infringe on the sovereignty of China in terms of its internal economic and political affairs,” Eswar Prasad, former head of the International Monetary Fund’s China division, told the New York Times.
Worth Your Time
Joe Biden grew up with a stutter. John Hendrickson sat down with the former vice president to artfully tell the story of how the speech impediment still affects the Democratic frontrunner.
Luis Calvillo was wounded in the Walmart shooting in El Paso last summer. Manny Fernandez and Tamir Kalifa documented his recovery, and the role the girls youth soccer team he coached played in it.
Presented Without Comment
Okay, okay—we’ll admit right up front this won’t be all that fun to all of you. But to the spurned former St. Louis Rams fan on staff, this ESPN story—a blow-by-blow of the loveless marriage between the L.A. Rams and the L.A. Chargers, and the city of St. Louis’s suddenly strong-seeming lawsuit to soak the NFL for abandoning it unfairly—was chicken soup for the soul.
Toeing the Company Line
In his midweek G-File, Jonah has what ought to but won’t be the last word on Trumpworld’s increasingly goofy “no quid pro quo” defense, and his perspective on the latest crackup between the mainstream MAGAsphere and its radical racialist flank. You won’t want to miss it.
David French is cranking out these dang French Press letters faster than we can sum them up! Check out his Wednesday dive into how much authority the Constitution actually gives the president on foreign policy and his Thursday ruminations on the November Democratic debate and the shiny new GOP trend of “common-good capitalism.” Then send him an email and tell him to quit being so prolific; he’s making us look bad.
The R Street Institute’s Andy Smarick joined Jonah on The Remnant Thursday to talk about the economist Friedrich Hayek, the principle of subsidiarity, post-liberalism—and more, we are reliably told. Give it a listen!
Let Us Know
Once he’s bored of his pickup truck adventure, what perfectly good American classic will Elon Musk “improve” next?
A new professional baseball league played indoors under a blacklight, with neon uniforms, TRON-style.
A next-generation roller coaster park (NB: This would actually be pretty cool).
Weed, but for rich people.
Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.