What to Know in Washington: U.S. Diplomats Sought Biden Probe

Two top American diplomats tried to strike a deal on behalf of President Donald Trump for Ukraine’s leader to investigate discredited allegations of wrongdoing by Joe Biden and his son in return for improving relations with the U.S., according to documents released by House Democrats late yesterday.

Text messages released by three congressional committees show Kurt Volker, the former envoy for Ukraine, coordinating with the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, to help craft a statement for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in early September.

The statement they devised read, “We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of the problem in the future.” Volker sent that line to Sondland on Aug. 13. Hunter Biden sat on the board of Burisma, a natural gas company.

“Perfect,” Sondland replied.

While the statement was apparently never made by Zelenskiy, the emails suggest that Ukraine was willing to issue it — but only after the Trump administration offered a firm date for him to travel to the U.S. for a White House visit. It also shows how Ukrainian officials were wary of being used as tools of a domestic U.S. political fight.

Today, Ukraine’s top prosecutor said some important cases opened before he was appointed in late August — including those relating to the Bidens — are being audited. He didn’t say how long the review would take or whether any cases may be reopened as a result. Read more from Nick Wadhams and Billy House.

Volker arrives for a closed-door deposition before House committees on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Volker arrives for a closed-door deposition before House committees on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Trump’s Story of Hunter Biden’s China Venture: Trump’s tale of how Hunter Biden flew into Beijing aboard Air Force Two and left a billionaire — an episode he now wants China to investigate — isn’t supported by known details about the episode. Trump’s account isn’t even a faithful retelling of the original allegation first outlined in a 2018 book by a conservative author — an accusation whose details are in dispute. There’s no indication that Hunter Biden has profited from the Chinese deal, much less made billions. Read more from Gregory Korte and Zachary R. Mider.

Whistleblower Timeline Central to Battle: Trump and his allies are seeking to sow doubt about Democrats‘ impeachment inquiry by suggesting that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) orchestrated the whistleblower complaint that touched off the investigation.

Schiff’s aides have flatly denied suggestions of coordination, and the attorneys for the unnamed intelligence official denied that he had any contact with them or the whistleblower. The aides and the lawyers all said the early contact between the whistleblower and an intelligence committee staffer were standard practice for handling such cases and only offered guidance on next steps. Read more from Billy House.

Pompeo Sticks Even Closer to Trump: Michael Pompeo has emerged as one of Trump’s most prominent defenders even as the Ukraine controversy threatens to engulf the secretary of state — and his political future. Pompeo, the last remaining member of Trump’s original national security team, has made clear he will fight what he calls congressional overreach by Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry who are demanding documents and testimony from the diplomats who work for him. And he’s said that the president did nothing wrong when h e asked Ukraine’s president to investigate the Bidens. Read more from Nick Wadhams.

Trump Tactics Mirror His Anti-Mueller Tactics: Trump is making his case against an impeachment inquiry by relying on the same tricks and tactics he used to fight the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He’s called it a hoax, fake news and a witch hunt. He’s attacked investigators as partisans, called the process unfair and prematurely claimed exoneration. Ryan Teague Beckwith takes a closer look at Trump’s playbook.

Lawmakers Balance Legislating While Impeaching

As Democrats pursue their probe of Trump, they also seek to complete negotiations with Republicans and the administration on the U.S-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, advance drug price legislation, finish spending bills for 2020 and enact gun control legislation.

The history of the last two Congresses that conducted impeachment proceedings shows those efforts to remove a president didn’t stop legislative action.

“You can still get legislation done,” said former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) who was majority leader when Clinton was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate in early 1999. Lott was also a member of the House Judiciary Committee when it approved articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

Soon after his Senate acquittal, “Clinton called me and wanted to discuss some bill,” Lott said. “He never mentioned that we just had his impeachment trial and I had voted for the articles of impeachment. It was just as if that hadn’t happened. So we went forward.”

Still, Pelosi is navigating tricky political terrain with Democrats revving up the impeachment inquiry. James Rowley takes a look at the history of legislating while impeaching for signs on what the 116th Congress can expect.

Elections, Politics & Policy

Impeachment Fundraising Shows Political Fight: Trump’s fundraising strategy around the fight over impeachment proceedings shows that for now he views it as more of a political battle than a legal one. Since Democrats announced an inquiry on Sept. 24, Trump’s campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads on Facebook’s and Twitter’s social networks mentioning impeachment. Even though the ads call for supporters to contribute to an impeachment defense fund, or sign up to be a member of his Official Impeachment Defense Task Force, clicking on the link directs supporters to the website for his re-election campaign fund. Read more from Sarah Frier, Kurt Wagner and Ryan Teague Beckwith.

Biden’s $15.2M Trails Sanders, Buttigieg: Biden’s campaign said he raised had $15.2 million in the third quarter, putting him behind lower-polling candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The announcement came shortly after Biden himself disclosed fundraising total at a private fundraiser in Palo Alto, Calif. Biden’s campaign said its average donation was $44 and that 56% of those contributing in the third quarter gave for the first time. The last week of the quarter was Biden’s best for online fundraising since May when the campaign solicited donations at his kickoff rally in Philadelphia. Read more from Tyler Pager .

Meanwhile, Marianne Williamson raised $3.1 million for her long-shot presidential campaign, roughly doubling the amount she collected in the previous period. She ended the quarter with $655,276 cash on hand, and has 140,000 unique contributors since starting her campaign, according to a statement released by her campaign manager, Patricia Ewing. Williamson failed to meet the fundraising and polling requirements to participate in the debate of Democratic candidates last month and didn’t qualify f or the next forum on Oct. 15 in Ohio, Bill Allison reports.

Trump Prepares for Potential Warren Face-Off: Trump suggested yesterday he’s preparing for a possible face-off against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as the Democratic nominee in the 2020 presidential election. Calling her “Pocahontas,” Trump reprised a favorite slur for Warren, who’s surging in polls of candidates for the Democratic nomination. Trump said he thought his use of the nickname had ruined Warren’s prospects in the Democratic primary, but now sees her as a potential victor over Biden. Read more from Alex Wayne.

Lieberman’s Son Launches Senate Bid: Matt Lieberman, son of former 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), announced that he’s running for a Senate seat in Georgia. Lieberman is running as a Democrat in a special election to succeed Sen. Johnny Isakson (R), who in August announced that he’d retire at the end of 2019. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is expected to appoint a Republican to take Isakson’s seat until the special election is held next fall, Megan Howard reports.

Republicans Tiptoe Around Being Green in 2020: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) touts herself as the only Republican to vote against both of Trump’s picks to head the EPA. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) brushed aside the president’s request for deep cuts for the Energy Department’s renewable energy initiatives and attempt to zero out next-generation energy research by ARPA-E. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), though a new arrival to the Senate, sided with Democrats in several high-profile showdowns over climate change as a House member, including a vote to scrap requirements that the Pentagon assess its vulnerability to rising sea level and other climate impacts.

The three, considered the most vulnerable Senate Republicans seeking re-election in 2020, have distanced themselves from Trump and some Republican colleagues who question whether climate change is real or whether humans are contributing to it. Read more from Dean Scott.

Movers & Shakeups

Grenell Adds Adds Kosovo, Serbia Roles: Trump announced the intention to appoint Richard Grenell to serve concurrently as special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations and as U.S. Ambassador to Germany, according to a White House statement. Grenell has held the role of ambassador to Germany since May 2018.

Perry Expected to Announce Resignation: Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to announce his resignation next month and be replaced, at least temporarily, by deputy Dan Brouillette, Politico reports, citing three people familiar with his plans. The Ukraine investigation is unrelated to Perry’s departure, according to the report.

Around the Administration

Trump’s EPA to Detail Biofuel Boost: The Trump administration today will announce plans to aid corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel, capping weeks of deliberations over how to temper a wave of criticism from biofuel advocates in the U.S. Midwest. The EPA is slated to announce several changes to propel those renewable fuels, including a commitment to bolster annual biofuel-blending quotas to compensate for waivers exempting some small refineries from the mandates. The shift, which still must be formally proposed and codifi ed, would effectively force bigger, non-exempted refineries to take up the slack. The planned announcement was described by several people familiar with the move, who asked for anonymity before a formal rollout. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Mario Parker and Jennifer Jacobs.

Probe Sought on Alleged S.F. Violations: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) are calling for the EPA’s inspector general to investigate whether the White House pushed the agency to “single out California and the city of San Francisco” over alleged violations in its water quality. The two senators asked the watchdog in a letter to investigate why the agency had “reversed course” and “alleged water quality violations that are contradicted by the agency’s own reasoned findings in recent permit approvals” for San Francisco.” The EPA told the city that discharges from its waste-water treatment plants, sewer discharge facilities and combined sewer system violate permits, Megan Howard reports.

Questionable Electric-Car Tax Credits: Thousands of auto buyers may have improperly claimed more than $70 million in tax credits for purchases of new plug-in electric vehicles using ineligible cars and trucks, a Treasury Department watchdog said yesterday. The questionable claims were found in 16,510 individual tax returns during a five-year period through the 2018 processing year, according to an audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. That compares with more than $1.4 billion paid in credits to almost 240,0 00 taxpayers over the same period that were reviewed as part of the audit. Read more from Ryan Beene.

Wheeler Tweet Wasn’t ‘Purely Partisan’ GAO Says: The EPA didn’t violate federal law about partisan communication when it sent a celebratory tweet in April 2018 about Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation to be the agency’s deputy administrator, the Government Accountability Office said. The EPA’s tweet did include political content, but wasn’t a “purely partisan communication” because it gave the public information about the agency’s management, the GAO concluded in an opinion yesterday. Therefore, the tweet “maintained a connection to EPA’s official business,” GAO said. Read more from Stephen Lee.

New Space Agency Seeks $10.6 Billion: A new space agency created by the Pentagon to expedite deployment of as many as 1,200 satellites plans to request almost $11 billion over five years despite skepticism in Congress toward the nascent effort. The Space Development Agency, created in March over objections from the Air Force, started slowly with an initial setup budget of $150 million. Last month, its leaders proposed an increase to about $259 million for fiscal 2021 and then a jump to $1.1 billion in 2022, $1.9 billion in 2023, $3 .67 billion in 2024 and $3.68 billion in 2025, according to figures obtained by Bloomberg News. Read more from Tony Capaccio.

Facebook Told to Slow Encryption Effort: Facebook should stop its plans for end-to-end encryption in messaging applications until governments can ensure lawful access to user communications, according to a joint letter signed by U.S., U.K. and Australian justice officials. U.S. Attorney General William Barr and legal officials from the U.K. and Australia called upon Facebook to take certain steps before it implements end-to-end encryption on messaging products, according to the letter obtained by Bloomberg News. The social media compan y should work with governments to “embed the safety of the public in system designs,” according to the letter signed by Barr, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Australian Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton. Read more from Daniel Stoller and Kurt Wagner.

Vaping-Related Lung Injuries Rise: The number of vaping-related lung-injury cases across the U.S. climbed to 1,080, up from 805 reported last week, in what a top health official said may be only “the tip of the iceberg.” The number of linked deaths also rose to 18 from 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday. Officials haven’t determined the cause of the outbreak or identified any single product or substance responsible for causing the injuries. Read more from Robert Langreth.

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: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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