What to Know in Washington: Trump-Blocked Witnesses Loom Large

Gordon Sondland testified that “everyone was in the loop” about his months-long push for a quid pro quo from Ukraine. Democrats must now decide if they’ve gathered enough evidence to justify impeaching President Donald Trump quickly or press for more.

In more than six hours of testimony yesterday, the hotelier-turned-envoy to the European Union said he informed Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and other top officials that he was relaying a demand that he believed came directly from the president: Ukrainian aid and an Oval Office meeting required a corruption probe tied to former Vice President Joe Biden’s family.

Sondland said Pompeo, one of Trump’s closest advisers, told him to “keep banging away.” But more broadly, he emphasized that everyone in a position of authority in the administration, including the president, knew of and approved his work with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland testified. “Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Democrats will soon face a choice in what has been a fast-moving inquiry: Draw up articles of impeachment based on what they’ve heard so far, or chase more evidence and testimony from high-profile witnesses like Pompeo and Giuliani who have so far refused to cooperate. That would likely require months of court battles, pushing hearings well into the presidential primary calendar next year.

Today will feature the last scheduled public hearing at the end of a dramatic week, with two witnesses expected to further underscore the confusion around Trump’s Ukraine policy. One of them, Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council director on Russia and Eastern Europe, worked directly with ex-National Security Adviser John Bolton. Read more from Nick Wadhams.

Fiona Hill - Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomber
Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg
Hill departs after closed-door testimony before House committees on Capitol Hill on Nov. 4.

Ukraine Asked About Aid Hold in July: A top Pentagon official said Ukrainian officials might have been aware the U.S. was holding up military aid as early as July, much earlier than previously reported and contradicting a main argument Trump’s allies have used to defend him. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine, disclosed that her staff got questions from Ukraine relayed by the State Department over the aid on July 25, the same day as Trump’s infamous call. Billy House, Nick Wadhams and Steven T. Dennis.

Beigun Vows to Counter ‘Personal’ Diplomacy: Trump’s pick for the No. 2 job at the Department of State pledged to speak up if he detects attempts to further personal interests through U.S. diplomacy—a direct reference to Giuliani’s work in Ukraine on behalf of Trump. “If I feel that somebody is in fact advancing their own personal interest in the course of interacting with American diplomats in a manner that’s inappropriate, I will say so,” Stephen Biegun, the current envoy to for North Korea talks, said yesterday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Biegun went on to say that the State Department has made clear “that there will not be disciplinary action by the State Department against any of our employees who are testifying under subpoena.” Read more from David Wainer.

Trump’s New Inquiry Hires: The White House is engaging in a more aggressive and organized response to the inquiry after hiring two new aides, though allies in Congress say the effort remains handicapped by Trump’s own unpredictable reactions. Trump recently hired Tony Sayegh, formerly the top spokesman at the Treasury Department, and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to handle the White House’s communications on impeachment. They supervise a “rapid response” to the public impeachment hearings, issuing talking poi nts and statements in real time that attempt to undermine the credibility of witnesses or contradict their testimony. Read more from Saleha Mohsin, Jordan Fabian, Josh Wingrove and Justin Sink.

Happening on the Hill

Continuing Resolution: Senators plan to pass a month-long stopgap funding measure today, hours ahead of the deadline to keep the government running. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this week he expects the Senate to pass the measure and President Donald Trump to sign it into law. For more, read the BGOV Bill Summary by Sarah Babbage and Michael Smallberg.

Hong Kong Bill Reaches Trump, Who’ll Sign It: Congress overwhelmingly voted to send a bill backing Hong Kong protesters to Trump, setting up a confrontation with China that could imperil a long-awaited trade deal between the world’s two largest economies. The bill, approved unanimously by the Senate on Tuesday and passed by the House 417-1 yesterday, could go to Trump as soon as today to be signed into law, according to a congressional aide. Trump was reportedly expected to sign the bill, despite it potentially derailing his hopes of securing a trade deal with China.

“The Congress is sending an unmistakable message to the world that the United States stands in solidarity with freedom-loving people of Hong Kong and that we fully support their fight for freedom,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the floor. “This has been a very unifying issue for us.” Read more from Daniel Flatley and Justin Sink.

  • China had a swift and forceful response, with multiple government agencies threatening some sort of unspecified retaliation. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” said a statement issued by the foreign ministry’s office in Hong Kong, using a Chinese phrase that prior to this year was used only in rare cases like before a 1962 war with India. But President Xi Jinping’s government has a problem: Any strong measures against the U.S. also risk backfiring. Read more from Iain Marlow and Dandan Li.
  • Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) are pushing a bill that would block a U.S. government retirement fund from investing in some Chinese companies after the fund’s board approved plans to transition to a different emerging market index. The Federal Thrift Retirement Investment Board, which oversees retirement investments of federal employees, including the military, said last week that an outside consultant said the move would be in the best interests of the plan participants. Read more from Daniel Flatley.

Maloney to Take Up Cummings’ Gavel: House Democrats have selected Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) over Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) to succeed the late Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to lead the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Maloney won the election 133-86, according to a House Democrats tweet. Maloney on Tuesday won the recommendation of the Democratic Steering Committee, Erik Wasson reports.

Refugee Protections: Legislation to expand the U.S.’s refugee program and reverse some of the actions taken by the Trump administration that have implications for due process for asylum seekers will be introduced in both chambers today by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Michaela Ross reports. The Refugee Protection Act of 2019 will also aim to increase protections for foreign nationals who have helped U.S. military troops.

Moniz Warns Paris Deal Not Enough: The Paris climate accord now appears far too modest to tackle rising global greenhouse gas emissions, former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a House panel yesterday. The problem will require a huge infusion of money into next-generation carbon capture, advanced nuclear, and other low-carbon energy sources, Moniz, President Barack Obama’s energy secretary from 2013 to 2017, told the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee. Read more from Dean Scott.

Elections & Politics

Democrats Duck Big Fights in Atlanta Debate: Democratic presidential candidates largely avoided lengthy battles over the biggest fault lines in the primary on the Atlanta debate stage, instead arguing over a variety of issues and competing to prove how much better they would run the country than Trump.

The 10 Democrats took stabs yesterday at each other’s policy differences on climate change and health care but were fairly united on their approaches to foreign policy and race relations — and on the impeachment hearings that dominated the news in the 12 hours before the debate started. From the first question on, Trump’s leadership was the focus. Jennifer Epstein and Tyler Pager recap the debate.

  • Debate Takeaways: Still, after several debates in which the entire field took aim at the front-runner, the Democratic presidential candidates fought a series of skirmishes against one another. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) went after Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) on foreign policy. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) took on former Vice President Joe Biden over marijuana. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) characterized South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as inexperienced. Here are Ryan Teague Beckwith’s debate takeaways.

Biden Leads by 10 Points in New York: Biden is leading by 10 percentage points among New York Democrats in a Siena Research Institute poll, reclaiming his spot as the front-runner after tying with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last month. Biden received 24% of the vote in the poll released today, followed by Warren with 14% and Sanders with 13%. No other candidate polled in the double digits: Buttigieg had 5%, and Harris had 3%. Read more from Emma Kinery.

Bloomberg Sets $15M to Register Voters: Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to spend an estimated $15 million to $20 million to register 500,000 voters early next year in five battleground states that Trump won in 2016. Bloomberg, who’s considering a Democratic presidential bid but hasn’t yet announced a decision to run, also filed yesterday to appear on the March 3 Democratic primary ballot in Texas, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office. He previously filed to run in party primaries in Alabama and Arkansas. Read more from Mark Niquette. Michael Bloomberg is the majority owner of BGOV’s parent company.

California to Rule on Presidential Tax Returns: The California Supreme Court will rule today on whether a law requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to take part in the state’s primary is constitutional. The ruling, set to be posted on the court’s website at 1 p.m. Washington time, comes ahead of a Nov. 26 candidate filing deadline for the state’s March 3 primary, Laura Mahoney reports.

Foreign Affairs

China ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ on Deal: China’s chief trade negotiator indicated he was “cautiously optimistic” about reaching a phase one deal with the U.S., as two titans of American diplomacy in Asia warned of the dangers of escalating the tariff war. Vice Premier Liu He made the comments in a speech in Beijing yesterday ahead of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, according to people who attended the dinner and asked not to be identified. He has also reportedly asked the top U.S. trade negotiator to travel to China to continue talks this month, an invitation that so far hasn’t been accepted. Read more from Shawn Donnan.

  • China Called Most Potent Cyberadversary: China’s ability to carry out cyberattacks has increased to a level that it poses the most significant long-term cybersecurity threat to the U.S. of any nation state, a senior FBI cybersecurity official said. China continues to steal intellectual property from the U.S. even though this activity isn’t necessarily detected, and its offensive capabilities roughly match U.S. defenses, the FBI official said. Read more from Alyza Sebenius.
  • Official Blasts China on Solar ‘Loophole’: China has worked to undermine U.S. tariffs on solar equipment and is “exploiting” a loophole that shields some panels from the duties, according to White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. The country has tried to skirt the tariffs that the U.S. government imposed on solar imports last year, Navarro, an assistant to Trump on trade and manufacturing policy, said by email yesterday. More specifically, he said, China is taking advantage of an exemption for bifacial — or double-sided — solar panels, adding that it’s a loophole that must be “slammed shut.” Read more form Brian Eckhouse.

U.S. Denies Report on South Korea Troop Reduction: The U.S. dismissed a report that it was considering a withdraw of thousands of its troops to gain leverage with South Korea as the Trump administration seeks to have it pay five times more to host American service members. The South Korea daily Chosun Ilbo reported the U.S. was considering withdrawing one of its brigades if ongoing defense cost talks with Seoul don’t go as it wants. Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesman, later said in a statement that “there is absolutely no truth” to the report, which the paper attributed to a diplomatic source in Washington familiar with the talks. Read more from Glen Carey and Jihye Lee.

Tariff Exemption for Apple: Trump, touring an Apple assembly plant in Texas, said yesterday that he’s “looking at” exempting the iPhone maker from tariffs on goods imported from China. Trump made the remarks alongside Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook at a Flex Inc. facility in Austin, Texas, that is manufacturing Apple’s new Mac Pro desktop computer. Trump repeated previous comments he’s made that it isn’t fair for Apple to be taxed on iPhones built in China given that South Korean rival Samsung doesn’t have to pay the China import duties. Read more from Mark Gurman and Jordan Fabian.

Fraudulent Exports to U.S.: Vietnam is intensifying efforts to crack down on Chinese exporters trying to route products through the Southeast Asian nation to bypass higher U.S. tariffs, a customs official said. Vietnam has become one of the top destinations for suppliers looking to avoid U.S. duties on Chinese goods amid the trade war, making it vulnerable to goods fraudulently labeled as “Made in Vietnam,” according to Au Anh Tuan, head of customs control and supervision in the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Read more from Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen.

Around the Administration

Conservative Group Targets Medicaid Work Rules: When Idaho’s Legislature voted to expand Medicaid coverage for people in the state, a key debate involved whether to require some recipients to work to receive benefits. Republicans, who favored the requirement, gained a key ally—the “Opportunity Solutions Project,” a little-known new group with opaque funding. While Republicans found the organization’s suggestions on how to make “workfare” a success useful, opponents of the idea felt very differently. Liz Woodruff, assistant director of programs at Idaho Voices for Children, said the group shared “misinformation on how work reporting requirements worked” and what Idaho voters wanted. Idaho Voices for Children is a nonprofit that advocates at the state level for policies that help families and children. Read more from Shira Stein.

New Data Tool for Students: That high-priced graduate degree doesn’t always pay off—at least not immediately, according to Education Department data. The information, released yesterday through the College Scorecard, for the first time shows earnings levels for most college graduates by field of study. Many of the programs whose graduates took out large student loans, such as dentistry or medicine, also led to high earnings. Graduates of other programs with high debt, such as master’s degrees in teaching or social work, led to much more modest salaries. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum.

Trump Wall Judge Pledges Fast Ruling: A federal judge said he’ll rule as fast as he can on on whether Trump can move forward on the next phase of his Mexico border wall after a government lawyer said construction is slated to start in a week. U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam pressed lawyers on both sides with tough questions during a two-hour hearing yesterday in Oakland, Calif., over a request from the Sierra Club, a coalition of states and House Democrats to stop the Trump administration from using $3.6 billion in Pentagon funding for the wall. Read more from Robert Burnson.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com