The Morning Dispatch: We’re Running Out of Quid Pro Quo Puns

Plus: ISIS indifference, break-up bewilderment, and anonymous arrogance

Good morning.

Let’s start by saying this: In the news business, every day is a big news day. Whether the events are tectonic shifts or tiny tremors, we still tend to want the public to care enough to give our stuff a read. 

Most of the time this desire is harmless. But treating everything as big news can have negative consequences during long news cycles, as each incremental development can feel like the potential linchpin of the whole case. As we saw during the Mueller investigation, all that noise can sometimes make it tough for the public to pick out which moments are the real watersheds and keep the whole thing straight. 

We bring this up now only to assure you that we at The Dispatch will strive not to succumb to it ourselves. So you know we really mean it when we say that Tuesday was a remarkable news day. 

Irregular Adventures

On Tuesday, House Democrats kicked off a full week of impeachment hearings with one big firework: Bill Taylor, the current top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. The hearing, like every impeachment hearing so far, was closed to the public—but as with most of the others, the public got the gist very quickly, as Taylor’s opening statement was leaked to the Washington Post within hours. 

What that opening statement contained was bombshell after bombshell. The Trump administration’s own top Ukrainian envoy asserted, under oath, all of the following:

  • Soon after he took over the Ukraine job in early June, Taylor was dismayed to learn that President Trump had mysteriously decided to hold back military aid that Ukraine, a U.S ally, desperately needed to withstand ongoing Russian aggression—although White House officials continued to insist that they had not changed their policy of support for Ukraine. 

  • Taylor quickly realized that the move was connected with an “irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making” involving several other ambassadors (including EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, whom you’ll remember from previous Morning Dispatches) and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. 

  • Taylor subsequently learned that the singular focus of that effort was to encourage Ukraine to launch a number of “investigations”—the same investigations, including one into Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s work at energy company Burisma, that we’ve now been hearing about for weeks. 

  • Finally, the denouement: Taylor was informed that the White House planned to require Ukraine to commit to those investigations publicly before they would release the aid money, and that this determination was not confined to the “informal channel” team—Trump had directly told Sondland as much himself. 

  • No point summarizing this quote—just read it for yourself: “Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman. When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.” 

None of these narrative beats, of course, are strictly new: They’re exactly the allegations over which Democrats launched impeachment proceedings in the first place. What’s new and shocking is who’s talking: Taylor, a current administration official who lived through the events in real time. Like the original statements from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney last week, Taylor provided firsthand details of a quid pro quo that will be hard to dismiss. After his testimony, the White House released a statement virtually absent denials but nonetheless decrying the “coordinated smear campaign” from “radical unelected bureaucrats”—a remarkable charge to levy against the person the administration hand-picked to run Ukrainian policy less than a year before. 

A Quid Pro Quo by Any Other Name

This is, of course, a huge headache for those allies of the president who drew a line in the sand back when all this first started to break—lines that are now being tripped over at record speed as new information continues to come to light. Best in Show here goes to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who told National Review last month: “What would’ve been wrong is if the president had suggested to the Ukrainian government that if you don’t do what I want you to do regarding the Bidens, we’re not going to give you the aid. That was the accusation; that did not remotely happen.”

Which certainly helps to explain why this time round, we are seeing a lot of strategic silence. While the White House beat its furious drumbeat decrying “witch hunts” and “deep states,” many of the president’s ordinary congressional defenders on Tuesday took up a milder range of procedural complaints. 

A spokesman for Rep. Jim Jordan, for instance, complained to The Dispatch about the way House Democrats have been playing these hearings so close to the chest: “Open it all up. If Democrats want to impeach the man the American people elected president, then they should do it for all the American people to see, with clear rules that have been approved by the people’s House.”

Alas, even such mild support may prove insufficient in Trump’s mind in the days ahead. The Daily Beast reported Thursday night that Trump and his advisers are growing irritated with what they see as an insufficiently aggressive response from Republicans on the Hill to the impeachment inquiry.

It is true, as Republicans have eagerly pointed out, that full transcripts of the hearings are not yet available to the public. And some Democrats, including Rep. Adam Schiff, who has become the face of the inquiry, have given the public good reason to be skeptical of their presentation of the facts. But Democratic partisanship can’t obscure the growing pile of credible allegations of wrongdoing, particularly when top administration officials have provided details of that wrongdoing in their own words.

Did the Pentagon Expect ISIS Detainees to Escape En Masse?

Defense Secretary Mark Esper sat down with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday to discuss recent developments in Syria. Amanpour asked Esper about warnings from Gen. David Petraeus about an ISIS “resurgence” made possible by the decision to withdraw U.S. troops. Esper: “Let’s look at the facts on the ground. Based on the intelligence we have—the reporting we have—of the 11,000 detainees that were imprisoned in northeast Syria, we’ve only had reports of a little bit more than 100 that have escaped. The SDF—and we remain in contact with them —are maintaining guards overtop the prisons they have, so right now we have not seen this big prison break that we all expected.” 

Wait a second. It’s news, of course, that more than 100 ISIS detainees have escaped. But what to make of Esper’s attempt to reassure us? Did the nation’s top defense official expect a bigger ISIS prison break?

Rep. Mike Gallagher, a former Marine and leading GOP national security voice in the House, says he hopes Esper “clarifies this statement, which seems to suggest that the U.S. government was anticipating a massive ISIS prison break as U.S. troops withdrew. Were these risks communicated to the president?”

Strange Bedfellows Targeting Silicon Valley

At a time when even one’s choice of coffee machine is politicized, getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on anything has grown exceedingly difficult. But Facebook managed to do just that, as 47 attorneys general nationwide—from Vermont and Massachusetts to Texas and Oklahoma—announced their intention to collaborate on an antitrust investigation into Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant.

The AGs are “concerned that Facebook may have put consumer data at risk, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, and increased the price of advertising,” according to a statement released by Democratic AG Letitia James of New York. Louisiana’s Republican AG Jeff Landry added, “Big Tech must account for its actions. I am proud to join my Republican and Democrat colleagues in efforts to ensure Tech Giants can no longer hide behind complexity and complicity.”

A similar investigation, backed by 50 attorneys general, was launched into Google just last month. It’s important to note that just because Republicans and Democrats are both signing on to these investigations does not mean they have the same reasons for doing so. 

Take this New York Times piece from earlier this summer. Using Columbia law professor Tim Wu and Fox News’ Steve Hilton as subjects, journalist Nellie Bowles highlighted the strange alliance between antitrust-zealous progressives and grievance-ridden conservatives over regulating Big Tech. While the former are concerned primarily with economic concentration and the disruption of established business models, the latter fear “censorship” and “shadow-banning” by the (mostly) liberal workforces of these companies out in San Francisco.

In our view, neither side has presented a particularly compelling argument for overhauling the consumer welfare standard, an antitrust doctrine introduced by Robert Bork in the 1970s that prioritizes consumer benefits over competitor and political interests when evaluating mergers and corporate concentration. Companies like Google and Facebook provide the bulk of their products—email, document storage, reminders to wish your high school acquaintance happy birthday—to users at no cost; you just have to fork over some of your data so advertisers can better target you with ads for tennis balls and dog treats (or is that just Jonah?).

While it’s true large tech companies have eaten into the market share of incumbents in certain industries—publishing, retail, etc.—that’s just the free market at work. If Google can provide advertisers a better return on investment than the Wall Street Journal can, or Amazon can ship your Rudy Giuliani Halloween costume faster and at a lower cost than Party City, who is the government to say they can’t? We should be in the business of rewarding innovation and success—not discouraging it.

And on the “censorship” point? Take a look at where the top Facebook posts from Monday came from.

The AGs’ investigations into these companies will continue, and they’ll be accompanied by scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, and the House Judiciary Committee. Zuckerberg will certainly face questions on the antitrust front when he testifies in front of the House Financial Services Committee today about Libra, the company’s new cryptocurrency. And while this scrutiny is certainly warranted—these are some of the most powerful companies in the world and have undoubtedly engaged in plenty of sketchy behavior—punishing their success simply for success’ sake would be a mistake.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Okay, listen: We here at The Dispatch are naturally inclined to roll our eyes any time the president starts ranting about his foes in the “deep state.” Yet we concede that there are lots of people in government who spend their careers furtively serving their own interests while loudly preaching the high-minded values of civil service. 

How else to explain Tuesday’s news that the anonymous Trump administration official who wrote a ponderous #Resistance op-ed for the New York Times last year is now writing an entire anonymous book

The tome, edgily titled A Warning, is set to come out in November. It’s billed as an explosive tell-all memoir—although it’s hard to imagine how an official who wants to remain unidentifiable would manage to craft a particularly gripping insider narrative without giving himself or herself away.

To win people over last year, the author had to convince people he or she had to remain anonymous: that the work being done behind enemy lines was far too important to jeopardize by coming forward and resigning on principle. That argument was shaky at the time—by now, it’s laughable. We find it tough to argue with the White House’s own statement on the matter: “It takes a lot of conviction and bravery to write a whole book anonymously.” 

What Else We’re Reading/Watching

  • Justin Trudeau was re-elected as Canadian prime minister on Monday night, but the Liberal Party to which he belongs lost its majority in the House of Commons. Read Canadian political journalist Jen Gerson on why Trudeau’s “win” doesn’t feel much like one.

  • Republican campaign alum Sarah Isgur has a great piece for CNN highlighting the challenges the eventual Democratic nominee will have knocking off Trump in 2020 if he or she doesn’t raise enough money. General election polls may have most of the Democrats running comfortably ahead of Trump, but general election polling means next to nothing 13 months out, and as Isgur notes, “polls don’t vote.”

  • The WeWork saga entered its next chapter on Tuesday, with SoftBank agreeing to take a majority stake in the co-working/real-estate start-up. The deal values the company at $8 billion, and provides eccentric co-founder Adam Neumann (who wants to live forever and become “president of the world”) with $1.7 billion. Can’t wait to see what he does with it. Read Maureen Farrell and Eliot Brown in the Wall Street Journal on WeWork’s stunning fall from grace.

Pop Culture Recommendation

Better buy your Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker opening-night tickets now before the eight Dispatch staffers snap them all up.

Something Fun

Three cheers for the Washington (née Montréal) Nationals, who jumped out to a 1-0 World Series lead over the Houston Astros in a nail-biter game Tuesday night. When it comes to D.C. baseball, Beltway conservatives have two schools of thought. One school sees the Nats as a soulless, joyless transplant institution, good for nothing but loudly hating to burnish one’s in-the-capital-but-not-of-the-capital cred. The other starts from the principle that it’s good to love the teams in the town you’re in, transplant or no transplant, and go from there. 

None of us Dispatchers are dyed-in-the-wool Nats guys, but it’s safe to say we put ourselves in the latter camp. Plus, it’s pretty easy to root against this. Here’s to a four-game sweep!

Toeing The Company Line

  • David French is officially aboard the pirate skiff, and he did what any respectable pirate does: joined Jonah on The Remnant podcast! Their conversation includes the single clearest discussion of the Ukraine developments and the “Crowdstrike” conspiracy theory we’ve heard. And David, who has for years closely studied Elizabeth Warren, unleashes on her “intersectional stolen valor… her consistently unconstitutional policy ideas” and her alleged plagiarism of a cookbook. “She is frequently just blatantly dishonest,” David concludes. And he backs it up. All that and a discussion of the Joker—here.

Let Us Know

Who are you most hoping is the administration official behind A Warning and last year’s op-ed?

  • Melania

  • Ben Carson

  • Jared and Ivanka

  • Mike Pence

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