What to Know in Washington: Trump’s Crises Test Senate Firewall

President Donald Trump’s serial self-inflicted crises are testing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP senators he’ll be counting on in an impeachment trial that lawmakers in both parties now see as all but inevitable.

Trump has forced Republicans in Congress to bounce between chiding and defending the president in quick succession in recent weeks over, among other topics, his abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, his aborted decision to hold the next G-7 summit at his own golf resort, and a parade of damaging witness testimony in House impeachment proceedings.

McConnell, who usually steps gingerly when talking about the president, took the rare step yesterday of criticizing Trump by name for his decision on Syria, and he called his description of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as a lynching “an unfortunate choice of words.”

Then he pulled the rug out from under Trump’s claim that he had the majority leader’s assurance that the July telephone call with Ukraine’s president, where Trump asked for a probe of political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter was “innocent.”

“We’ve not had any conversations on that subject,” McConnell told reporters. Asked if the president had lied, McConnell said, “You’ll have to ask him. I don’t recall any conversations with the president about the phone call.”

Still, McConnell and the Senate Republicans, with rare exceptions, remain a bulwark of Trump’s defense. They are united in ripping the closed-door hearings used by Democrats in the House impeachment inquiry even as they hold back from giving a full-throated defense of his actions regarding Ukraine that are at the heart of the investigation. When McConnell was asked why more Republicans weren’t defending the president, he pivoted to attacking Democrats. But a recent swell of public support for im peachment has taken a toll on both Trump and Republicans. Steven T. Dennis and Laura Litvan have more.

Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg
McConnell speaks at the Capitol on Tuesday

Pompeo Cornered After Ukraine Envoy’s Testimony

The acting U.S. envoy to Ukraine said he was told Trump wanted Ukraine’s president “in a public box” in order to get him to investigate Joe Biden’s son in exchange for military aid. Instead, it was Secretary of State Michael Pompeo who got boxed in.

After the White House disparaged the testimony yesterday by Ambassador William Taylor as the work of “radical unelected bureaucrats,” Pompeo must choose between backing a career diplomat and fellow West Point graduate he installed in the job just five months ago or stick with the president at the risk of alienating the foreign service officers he leads.

In a detailed 15-page opening statement to lawmakers in the House impeachment inquiry, Taylor said he saw a clear “quid pro quo” in Trump’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine as leverage to extract political favors. He also recounted how it was Pompeo who personally asked him to serve as acting ambassador after the previous envoy, Marie Yovanovitch, was recalled to Washington a few months early after running afoul of Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

While Taylor said he initially hesitated on the job offer, he decided to accept it after Pompeo “assured me that the policy of strong support for Ukraine would continue and that he would support me in defending that policy.” Read more from Nick Wadhams.

Taylor Emerges as Biggest Threat: Taylor provided House investigators with a meticulously detailed statement, chronicling an “irregular policy channel” with Kyiv, in which Trump associates circumvented traditional diplomatic paths to pressure the country’s new president to investigate White House political rivals. His chronology, based on firsthand conversations and contemporaneous notes, offered a clear account of a president who saw congressionally allocated foreign aid and an Oval Office visit as leverage to extract political favors. And his danger to Trump goes well beyond that of the anonymous whistleblower. Read more from Justin Sink.

Sondland Return Possible: The House committees leading the inquiry could call Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, back to revise his testimony after Taylor contradicted some of his previous statements. Although Sondland previously sought to distance himself from Trump and Giuliani, part of his account was at odds with Taylor’s private deposition. Read more from Erik Wasson.

Happening on the Hill

Democrats Find Few Republican Allies on SALT: Democrats are staging a long-shot attempt to chip away at the Republican tax law’s limit on state and local tax deductions, finding few GOP allies despite potential benefit for Republican-led states. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to force a vote today that would invalidate Treasury Department regulations prohibiting proposals in high tax states to get around the cap on the state and local tax, or SALT, deductions that was part of the 2017 GOP tax law. Republicans have resisted helping Democrats score a political win by undermining regulations written by Trump’s Treasury Department. Read more from Laura Davison.

Syria Envoy Blames Turkey: Trump’s special envoy for the Syrian conflict said the administration made clear “at every level” that it opposed Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria and that the resulting offensive has undermined the fight against Islamic State. “Turkey launched this operation despite our objections, undermining the D-ISIS campaign, risking endangering and displacing civilians, destroying critical civilian infrastructure, and threatening the security of the area,” Ambassador James Jeffrey told the Senate Forei gn Relations Committee yesterday, using an acronym for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Jeffrey returns to Capitol Hill for more testimony today. Read more from Daniel Flatley.

•Meanwhile, McConnell yesterday released the text of a resolution that would condemn Turkey for escalating hostilities in northeastern Syria and pressure it to act with restraint. The resolution also calls for Trump to rescind his invitation to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit the White House and also supports a pressure campaign, including sanctions, to get Turkey to cease hostilities and respect human rights, Erik Wasson reports. Read text of resolution here.

Senate Spending Package Inches Forward: The Senate voted yesterday to advance four fiscal 2020 spending bills that had unanimous bipartisan backing in the Appropriations Committee. A procedural vote to proceed to the package passed on a 92-2 vote. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is substituting the four Senate bills into the package, including Agriculture-FDA, Commerce-Justice-Science, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD spending, Catherine Dodge reports. The Senate will continue consideration of the measure today.

Boeing CEO to Testify: Boeing’s CEO will testify before a Senate committee next week to answer questions about the planemaker’s design and certification of a jet involved in two deadly crashes. Dennis Muilenburg will appear at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, a day before his expected appearance before the House’s Transportation Committee, according to two people familiar with the hearing who spoke on the condition they not be named, Courtney Rozen and Erik Wasson report.

EPA’s Halted Labor Talks: The Environmental Protection Agency is being asked by 41 Senate Democrats—including six senators who are running for president—to explain why the agency walked away from labor talks with a union that represents about 7,500 EPA workers. After failing to agree on ground rules for further discussions with Council 238 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the agency then “abruptly announced earlier this year that it would forego further negotiations, and instead opted to implement a contract over union objections,” the lawmakers said in a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Read more from Louis C. LaBrecque.

Pregnant Worker Accommodation: Legislation sponsored by a Democrat that would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers is finding some support across the aisle, but many Republicans are still reluctant to get behind it. The bill, reintroduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in May, was the subject of a House Education and Labor subcommittee hearing yesterday. Nadler said after testifying that he believes there will be a markup on the bill soon. Read more from Jaclyn Diaz.

Slow Emergency Response at HUD: House lawmakers angered by the slow pace of disaster recovery efforts focused much of their ire yesterday at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and mulled ways to compel the agency to move more quickly. The hearing before a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee panel was the second in a week to criticize the housing department’s missed deadlines in releasing aid for disaster victims. Read more from Michaela Ross.

Money Laundering Bill Passes: The House yesterday passed legislation to strengthen anti-money-laundering rules, moving closer to a victory for Wall Street banks. The bill, which passed 249-173 yesterday, would make it harder to use anonymous shell companies to break the law. A similar Senate bill has yet to get a hearing, which would be the next step before a vote on the Senate floor. Big banks favor the bill, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), because they would no longer shoulder the full burden of reporting customer wrongdoing to law enforcement. Read more from Elizabeth Dexheimer.

Politics & Influence

Lobbying Spending Up in Third Quarter: The 20 top-spending associations reported $92 million in expenditures the third quarter, a 16.2% increase from the previous quarter. Despite the increase, 11 of the 20 associations in the list reported a decrease in spending. Among companies, 20 of the top spenders reported $55.8 million in expenditures in the third quarter, a 5.5% increase from the previous three months. Technology and telecommunications companies, as well as prime contractors, make up 11 of the 15 top spenders. Read more from Jorge Uquillas and Megan R. Wilson.

Facebook’s Washington Strategy Falters: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will face the House Financial Services Committee today with a legion of lobbyists backing him up. Despite spending record amounts of money to influence Washington policy, the social media company’s efforts to ingratiate itself so far have done little to assuage policy makers’ privacy and antitrust concerns and in some cases have even made the company’s challenges worse, according to first-hand accounts of its efforts. Facebook’s struggles to gain traction in Washington aren’t for a lack of resources. Read more from Joe Light and Lydia Beyoud.

Surprise Medical Billing Fight Leads to Lobbying Surge: The fight between insurers and physicians over how to address surprise medical billing led the largest change in health industry lobbying spending over the past three months, according to the latest disclosures on Capitol Hill. Physicians for Fair Coverage, a group backed by health-care specialty firms, reported spending $4.12 million on its own lobbying operations during the third quarter of 2019, more than the group has ever spent to date. The group spent $120,000 on such internal lobbying in the second quarter of 2019 and less than $5,000 on its own lobbying in the third quarter of 2018. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Biden Promises to Raise Wages: Joe Biden aims to cut into Trump’s appeal to middle-class voters with a speech today in which he’ll argue that the president has favored policies that benefit corporations and the super-rich. Biden plans to return to his hometown of Scranton, Pa., to deliver the latest in a series of policy addresses. Biden promised to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. “Donald Trump doesn’t know what it means to be part of the middle class. I do,” Biden said in a statement about the speech provided to Bloomberg News. Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

•Separately, before Biden blasted Trump yesterday for calling his possible impeachment a “lynching,” he decried Bill Clinton’s impeachment using the same racially tinged term. “Even if the president should be impeached,” the then-senator says in a CNN clip from 1998, “history is going to question whether or not this was just a partisan lynching or whether or not it was something that in fact met the standard, the very high bar, that was set by the founders as to what constituted an impeachable offense.” Read more from Epstein.

Trump Inaugural Donor Charged: A Southern California venture capitalist who contributed $900,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee agreed to plead guilty to making almost $1 million in illegal campaign contributions from 2012 to 2016. Imaad Shah Zuberi, 49, also admitted he hid his work for foreign nationals while he lobbied U.S. government officials and evaded paying taxes, according to the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. The charges don’t appear linked to contributions made to the Trump campaign, but Zuberi has been linked to numerous people in Trump’s orbit who’ve come under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors, such as the president’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen. Read more from Edvard Pettersson.

Defense & Foreign Affairs

Pentagon Backs Contractors on Foreign Discounts: The Pentagon and major defense contractors are opposing a congressional effort to force more complete disclosure of discounts that are given to foreign governments for weapons purchases at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. A provision in the House version of the annual defense policy bill would require detailed reporting whenever the Defense Department exempts such foreign military sales from a law that says the buyers should pay a portion of initial development costs for the equipment they buy. Read more from Tony Capaccio.

Esper Recuses From Cloud Bid: Defense Secretary Mark Esper is recusing himself from any decisions involving a controversial Pentagon cloud computing contract worth as much as $10 billion to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Esper will delegate oversight of the contract to Deputy Secretary David Norquist because his son works with one of the original applicants, according to a statement from the Pentagon yesterday. Read more from Naomi Nix.

Security Bloc to Keep China in ‘Proper Place’: Pompeo has said efforts to revive the Indo-Pacific security grouping known as the Quad will help Washington contain China’s rise. “We’ve reconvened ‘the Quad’ — the security talks between Japan, Australia, India and the United States that had been dormant for nine years,” Pompeo said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation research group yesterday. “This will prove very important in the efforts ahead, ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world.” Read more from Iain Marlow.

Pentagon Eyes Commercial 5G Experiments: The Pentagon will invite companies to experiment with fifth-generation, or 5G, cellular networks on military bases as the U.S. ramps up competition with China to dominate the new high-speed data networks. The military plans to issue a draft public request next month and a final request in December for industry to pitch 5G prototypes and demonstrations with high-powered, mid-band radars at four installations, according to a senior defense official, who asked not to be named because the decision isn’t public yet. Read more from Roxana Tiron and Travis J. Tritten.

Around the Administration

White House Trade Staffer to Leave: Kelly Ann Shaw, deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council and deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs, will finish at the White House on Friday for a private sector role, spokesperson Judd Deere said, Jordan Fabian reports.

Supreme Court Won’t Halt Climate Cases: State court cases targeting oil companies for their role in climate change are set to move forward after the Supreme Court on Oct. 22 rebuffed the industry’s efforts to halt them. The high court denied applications from BP, Chevron, Suncor Energy, Exxon Mobil, and other companies seeking to freeze proceedings in high-stakes cases from Baltimore, Rhode Island, and Colorado municipalities that accuse the industry of creating a public nuisance by producing and selling planet-warming fossil fuels. Read more from Ellen M. Gilmer.

White House Sides With EPA on Biofuel: Administration officials warned that an EPA plan for boosting biofuel-blending requirements violated the spirit of a deal brokered by Trump. The White House blessed it anyway. The back and forth is revealed in newly released documents from a White House review of the EPA’s biofuel proposal before its public release Oct. 15. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.

IRS Reorg Isn’t a Foregone Conclusion, Rettig Says: The IRS “may or may not” reorganize in the near future, but the issue is getting close consideration, the agency’s leader said. The last major IRS reorganization occurred in the late 1990s. Since then the economy has shifted from a paper to a digital one, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said yesterday at a tax conference in Beverly Hills, Calif. Read more from Allyson Versprille.

Tax Refunds During Shutdown: The IRS broke the law when it processed tax returns and issued refunds during the government shutdown, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Congressional leaders asked the office in May for an opinion on whether the agency violated the Antideficiency Act during the government shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019. That law bars agencies from creating obligations or spending resources without appropriations unless they are legally authorized to do so. Read more from Aysha Bagchi.

Ivanka Trump Talks Parental Leave: Trump’s daughter and top adviser Ivanka Trump met with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian at the White House yesterday as part of the push by the entrepreneur to promote paid family leave. Ohanian, who also co-founded Initialized Capital, met with Ivanka Trump as part of a trip to lobby for federal legislation to provide additional paid leave to mothers and fathers after the birth of a child. He has said previously that he was drawn to the effort after the birth of his daughter in 2017. His wife, tennis superstar Serena Williams, nearly died from complications and was confined to bed for some six weeks. Read more from Justin Sink.

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