What to Know in Washington: Ukraine Scandal Grows Into Threat.

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Revelations about Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president are shaping up to be the most serious threat to his presidency so far, surpassing even the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference that dogged the first two years of his administration.

A whistleblower complaint released yesterday alleging that Trump abused his power when he asked Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden in a July 25 call compounded the damage from a rough transcript of the conversation the White House released a day earlier.

The complaint emboldened Democrats pursuing Trump’s removal from office, while Republicans — many of whom had criticized the House’s move toward impeaching the president — largely refrained from comment.

Trump hurt himself further after telling U.S. diplomats in a private meeting yesterday that “we’re at war” and the whistleblower was “almost a spy,” according to video obtained by Bloomberg News.

“That is a gross mischaracterization of whistleblowers,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters.

Late yesterday, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said his panel would conduct an investigation of Trump’s Ukraine actions. He said he is “committed to make sure that we get to the bottom of what questions need answers.”

Trump evaded consequences after Robert Mueller’s investigation because the special counsel couldn’t tie the president directly to Russian interference in the 2016 election and didn’t clearly accuse him of obstructing the probe. But in the Ukraine affair, the most damaging facts are rooted in the president’s own words, recorded in a five-page memorandum that largely corroborates the whistleblower’s complaint. Justin Sink, Laura Litvan and Andrew Harris have the latest.

Trump returned to the White House from New York on Thursday.
Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Trump returned to the White House from New York on Thursday.

McConnell Attempts to Shield GOP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has tried to insulate Republicans in case more damaging information comes out about Trump and swings public opinion, even as he lashes out at Democrats for pursuing the impeachment inquiry. McConnell has accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of caving to the Democratic “far left” in pursuing “a never-ending impeachment parade in search of a rationale.”

Still, he has yet to offer a vigorous public defense of Trump and his interactions with the Ukrainian president, which are at the center of the latest controversy. And he allowed passage of a resolution pushed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that urged the White House to let lawmakers see the whistleblower’s complaint.

Several Republican senators are following McConnell’s lead, offering circumspect reactions to the release of a White House memo of Trump’s call and the whistleblower complaint that flagged it as potentially criminal.Yesterday, an increasingly common response from GOP senators was that they’re withholding judgment because they could be called upon to act as jurors if Trump is impeached in the House. Read more from Steven T. Dennis, Laura Litvan and Daniel Flatley.

Almost Half of Americans Back House Inquiry: Almost half of Americans say they approve of Pelosi’s decision to hold a formal impeachment inquiry, a new poll shows. The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released yesterday shows 49% of the adults surveyed support the probe, while 46% oppose it. Read more from Billy House and Gregory Korte.

Biden Reads Ukraine Complaint to Donors: Former Vice PresidentJoe Biden opened a California fundraiser yesterday by delivering a reading of the whistleblower complaint. Biden rejected Trump’s suggestion that he had acted improperly and continued to frame Trump’s actions as part of a pattern of abuse of power. “But folks, this isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s a tactic that’s used by this president to try to hijack an election, so we do not focus on the issues that matter in our lives, in your lives.” Read more from Max Berley.

Happening on the Hill

Republicans’ Drug Price Platform: Republicans are scrambling to find common ground on bringing down drug prices as Democrats move quickly to pass a Medicare negotiation bill in the House. House GOP leaders complain that efforts to redesign Medicare to reduce seniors’ prescription drug bills and to spur the creation of low-cost generic drugs have taken a back seat to legislation, backed by Pelosi, that would empower the government to negotiate lower prices with drugmakers. Conservatives are left waiting for the White House to signal where Trump stands on the issue. As a result, Republicans have largely resorted to opposing the negotiation bill, likening it to the same kind of “socialism” as Medicare for All and other policies unpopular with GOP voters. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Democrat Predicts 2019 USMCA Vote: The House impeachment inquiry will not derail a House vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement this year, said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). House Democratic leadership and the administration agrees that the trade agreement and the impeachment inquiry should be kept separate, Cuellar said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he told an American Security Project event yesterday. He speculated that a vote on the trade accord could come as early as November. Read more from Rossella Brevetti.

Democrats Want Ouster of Acting Land Chief: Twelve Senate Democrats yesterday urged Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to remove William Perry Pendley as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Bernhardt delegated the duties of BLM director to Pendley in July, shortly after he was hired as the BLM deputy director for policy and programs. The order delegating the duties expires Sept. 30, though Interior could renew it. The BLM has no Senate-confirmed director. Read more from Bobby Magill.

Banning Scooters on Capitol Hill: They may be all the rage on city streets these days, but at the tradition-bound Capitol, lawmakers and police intend to scuttle the scooter invasion. The U.S. Capitol Police sent warning letters to companies in Washington this spring warning that operating dockless commercial scooters is prohibited on Capitol grounds. “They’re all over the place,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “They’re on all the sidewalks and you don’t see them coming up.” To back up Capitol Police, senators tucked language into the draft report accompanying the fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch appropriations bill urging the police to keep the scooters away. Senate appropriators approved the bill 31-0 yesterday. Read more from Nancy Ognanovich.

Anti-Money Laundering Reform Bill: A bipartisan Senate group introduced a long-awaited bill yesterday meant to expose the true owners of shell companies and update major aspects of a cornerstone anti-money laundering law. The bill, known as the ILLICIT CASH Act, attempts to bolster communication between law enforcement and financial regulators, and between banks and regulators, about anti-money laundering efforts. It’s also one of a few bills that would require new companies to disclose so-called “beneficial owners” to the Treasury Department when they are formed. Read more from Jacob Rund.

Interior Solicitor Said Fighting Oversight: The Interior Department is resisting Congress’ oversight by not complying with House Natural Resources Committee requests for documents, according to Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). Of 24 formal requests for records, the committee has received three complete, or nearly complete, responses, Grijalva said at a committee hearing yesterday. Interior says it has produced thousands of pages of documents, while Grijalva is accused the department of “padding” their numbers, providing a printed 12,000-page spreadsheet that was already available online, and hundreds of pages full of “unintelligible symbols.” Read more from Bobby Magill.

Sandberg Weighing House Testimony: Facebook is negotiating with the House Financial Services Committee for its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, to testify as soon as next month, people familiar with the talks said. The talks come amid questions about the social media giant’s market power and its plans for a digital cryptocurrency called Libra. Read more from Joe Light and Elizabeth Dexheimer.

Defense & Foreign Affairs

Israel Fingers Iran in Saudi Hit: Israel’s top diplomat said the cruise missiles and drones that disabled key Saudi Arabian oil facilities, leading to the largest-ever surge in oil prices, were launched from Iran on the orders of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz reiterated long-standing support for President Donald Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure on Iran. “We must stop Iran today, in order to prevent war tomorrow,” Katz said in his address. Read more from Ivan Levingston.

Erdogan Signals Syria Incursion: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled Turkey may soon launch an incursion into Syria to retake border areas from an American-backed Kurdish force, even as the U.S. warns against a unilateral Turkish operation. Erdogan’s impatience to expand a previously agreed security zone in Syria grew after he failed to nail down a meeting with Trump in New York earlier this week. The security zone is designed to be off-limits to U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Turkey regards as a threat to its territorial integrity. Read more from Selcan Hacaoglu and Firat Kozok.

Trump, Thunberg Dominate Nobel Talk: In a year when Trump and climate activist Greta Thunberg stand as the most talked about nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize, a more low-key candidate such as a trio of youth peace activists could very well walk off with the world’s most coveted prize. Hajer Sharief, Ilwad Elman and Nathan Law Kwun-chung top the shortlist for potential winners of this year’s Nobel Peace prize, the Peace Research Institute Oslo said in annual predictions. Reporters Without Borders and the Control Arms Coalition are also among potential winners, according to PRIO Director Henrik Urdal. Read more from Sveinung Sleire.

Cross-Border Evidence Pact: A U.S.-EU deal to help law enforcement exchange data across borders is inching closer, as officials began formal discussions on an e-evidence agreement. The European Commission and Trump’s administration are in discussions to ease restrictions and enable access to electronic evidence in criminal probes. U.S. Attorney General William Barr and outgoing EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova aim to finish “an agreement as quickly as possible,” the commission said in a statement. Read more from Daniel R. Stoller.

Around the Administration

Trump to Nominate Acting FEMA Head Permanently: Trump yesterday announced his intent to nominate Peter Gaynor to be administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a White House statement, Chelsea Mes reports. Gaynor has served as acting administrator since March. Trump also announced the intent to nominate Leora Rosenberg Levy to be U.S. ambassador to Chile. Levy is a Republican National Committeewoman for Connecticut, and previously was finance chairwoman of the Connecticut Republican Party, the White House said.

Census Says U.S. Inequality Grew ‘Significantly’: Income inequality in America widened “significantly” last year, according to a Census Bureau report published yesterday. A measure of inequality known as the Gini index rose to 0.485 from 0.482 in 2017, the survey of household finances found. The measure compares incomes at the top and bottom of the distribution, and a score of 0.0 is perfect equality. The 2018 reading is the first to incorporate the impact of Trump’s end-2017 tax bill, which was reckoned by many economists to be skewed in favor of the wealthy. Read more from Ben Holland.

USDA Relents on Moving Data Report Deadline: Economic reports with set calendar dates and mandated releases will be issued on time after all, the Agriculture Department said late Thursday, after it pushed back the deadline for some Economic Research Service workers to relocate to Kansas City. “The Department has amended the report date to December 9th, 2019 for three ERS teams, which includes 9 ERS employees who have accepted relocation and 15 ERS employees who have declined relocation, who work on these time-bound products,” the USDA said in an email. Read more from Teaganne Finn.

Administration Seeks to Cut Refugee Cap: The Trump administration is proposing a refugee cap of 18,000 for fiscal year 2020, according to a State Department statement. The U.S. anticipates receiving more than 368,000 new refugees and asylum claims in fiscal 2020, according to the statement. The proposal has specific allocations for people persecuted on account of their religious beliefs, Iraqis whose assistance to the U.S. has put them in danger, and “legitimate” refugees from Northern Triangle countries, Megan Howard reports.

Immigration Agency Eyes Electronic Filing: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is looking to “dramatically” expand its ability to detect fraud, said acting Director Ken Cuccinelli. In addition to boosting the ranks of the agency’s Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate, Cuccinelli said that he hopes the agency’s initiative to convert to an electronic application process will help root out those who try to game the system. Electronic applications “will give us the ability to do data analysis, which we just can’t do now with an overwhelmingly paper system,” he said at an event in Washington yesterday. Read more from Laura D. Francis.

Administration Sued for Pesticide Use in Wildlife Refuges: Two conservation groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for reversing a prior ban on the use of certain insecticides and genetically modified crops in national wildlife refuges. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety filed suit on Sept. 26 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The challenge targets a decision from 2018 by Fish and Wildlife and the Interior Department reversing a 2014 pledge to phase out the planting of GMO seeds, many of which are coated with insecticides linked to declines in bird and bee populations. Read more from Adam Allington.

Trump, New York DA Reach Tax Deal: Trump’s attorneys reached a temporary agreement with the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance delaying the deadline for Mazars USA, Trump’s accountants, to comply with a subpoena for his taxes and for other financial papers. The deal calls for Mazars to continue gathering documents responsive to the subpoena and provides for it to begin turning them over to state prosecutors on Oct. 7 or two days after a judge rules on Trump’s request to block the subpoena, whichever comes first. Th e lawyers informed the court of their agreement in a letter filed yesterday afternoon. Bob Van Voris has more.

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

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