with Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: Four government lawyers appointed by President Trump face mounting scrutiny over the roles they played in seeking to limit the exposure of his prodding the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on his leading 2020 challenger. Those efforts prompted that whistleblower complaint that was released this morning and have led to an official impeachment inquiry.

The White House counsel helped to identify legal obstacles to the disclosure of information that could be politically damaging to Trump. The head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a classified opinion to initially block the whistleblower’s complaint from being transmitted to congressional committees that are legally entitled to receive it. The director of DOJ’s criminal division swiftly dismissed a criminal referral from the intelligence community’s inspector general that said Trump may have broken campaign finance laws by seeking dirt on Joe Biden. And Bill Barr declined to recuse himself, even though Trump invoked the attorney general at least twice during his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Here’s a quick primer on why each of the four taxpayer-funded attorneys is in the spotlight:

Steven Engel, director of the Office of Legal Counsel:

In late August, the inspector general for the intelligence community gave to the acting director of national intelligence a whistleblower complaint alleging that unnamed White House officials had expressed concern about Trump’s call. The IG said this was credible and urgent and should be turned over to Congress. But then Joseph Maguire, the acting DNI, contacted the Justice Department to ask for guidance. Engel issued a secret memo on Sept. 3 saying that the complaint didn’t need to be turned over to congressional intelligence committee because it was outside of the DNI’s jurisdiction. Instead, he said the allegation would more properly be referred to the Justice Department as a potential criminal matter for further review. (The DOJ published yesterday an unclassified version of Engel’s legal reasoning.)

Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, head of the criminal division:

When the intelligence community IG submitted a criminal referral that said the president possibly violated campaign finance laws, it was Benczkowski who made the call within a matter of weeks that there was not enough evidence to pursue an investigation of Trump. He’s a former Senate GOP staffer who worked at the same law firm as Barr before being appointed to the job. Benczkowski’s confirmation was held up for a stretch two years ago because of his legal work for a Russian bank.

“Senior Justice Department officials defended their handling of the matter, saying that campaign finance laws required them to ‘quantify’ the value of what Trump was seeking for his campaign, and that was impossible to do with the investigations Trump had requested. They said they were examining what was referred, and the rough transcript of the call was the ‘best evidence’ to help determine what to do,” Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report. “The FBI, the officials said, deferred to the Justice Department. … They said career prosecutors agreed with the decision.”

“All relevant components of the Department agreed with his legal conclusion, and the Department has concluded the matter,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

Attorney General Bill Barr:

Justice Department officials also said that the attorney general was “generally knowledgeable” of discussions about Engel’s decision but he didn’t make the call not to move forward with the investigation.

Kupec, Barr’s spokeswoman, said in a statement: “The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son. The President has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine – on this or any other matter. The Attorney General has not communicated with Ukraine – on this or any other subject. Nor has the Attorney General discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani.”

She added that U.S. Attorney John Durham, who has been investigating the origins of the FBI’s probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, is “exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election,” per Devlin, Matt, Carol Leonnig and Shane Harris.

But Democrats said Barr should have recused himself entirely. The Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee called on Barr to not be involved with anything related to Ukraine and this episode. Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate and formerly California’s attorney general, demanded that Barr testify under oath before Congress as soon as possible about his role.

“Trump has repeatedly lauded Barr, a stark contrast from his relationship with his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions,” the AP’s Michael Balsamo and Mark Sherman note. “Not only did Barr provide the first, favorable framing for the Mueller report, but he also … has supported the White House’s decision to claim broad executive privilege to prevent the testimony of administration officials that could be potentially damaging for Trump. Barr has also defied subpoenas from Congress — in line with the Trump administration’s stance to block Democrats’ efforts to investigate Trump.”

White House counsel Pat Cipollone:

Cipollone has been engaged in this matter since shortly after the whistleblower action surfaced, we reported last week, helping to identify legal obstacles to the sharing of information that could be politically damaging to Trump.

Three of my colleagues revealed yesterday that Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, threatened to resign over concerns that the White House might attempt to force him to stonewall Congress when he was going to testify about the whistleblower complaint. “He has at times expressed his displeasure to [Cipollone] and others that the White House had put him in the untenable position of denying the material to Congress over a claim that it did not fall within his jurisdiction as leader of the intelligence community,” according to Greg Miller, Shane and Karoun Demirjian. “The current and former officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said Maguire had pushed the White House to make an explicit legal decision on whether it would assert executive privilege over the whistleblower complaint … It was unclear whether Maguire’s threat had forced the White House to acquiesce and allow him to testify without constraint. But officials said Maguire has pursued the opportunity to meet with lawmakers to defend his actions and integrity.”

Maguire denied that he ever threatened to resign, and the White House also disputed the account. After their statements were issued, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said, “We stand by the story.”

TRUMP’S PERSONAL ATTORNEY IS ALSO IN THE SPOTLIGHT:

-- In the rough transcript, Trump praises Rudy Giuliani as a “highly respected man” who was a “great mayor” of New York. “If you could speak to him that would be great,” the president tells Zelensky.

-- “Giuliani has claimed that his discussions with Ukrainian officials have been at the request of the State Department, which remained fully abreast of his dealings. But the details of the July 25 phone call … raise new questions about Giuliani’s role, reinforcing the view of some U.S. officials that he operates at the president’s behest, often in a closed loop, and occasionally in contravention to the messages of diplomats in Kiev,” John Hudson reports. “Technically, it is illegal for private citizens to negotiate with a foreign government on behalf of the United States under the Logan Act, but the law has rarely been enforced. Trump is not the first president to enlist a trusted outside adviser for a sensitive international mission, but Giuliani’s interventions sparked concern among U.S. officials in Kiev who said Ukrainians told them they were unsure if Giuliani was speaking for the U.S. government …

Giuliani has said that Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, helped secure his discussions with a top aide to Zelensky, Andriy Yermak. A State Department official said Giuliani ‘does not speak on behalf of the U.S. government’ and added that Volker only helped set up the meeting at Yermak’s request. Yermak’s request to meet with Giuliani came after Trump requested that Zelensky speak with the former mayor in the July call. U.S. Embassy officials in Kiev repeatedly expressed concern about the contacts between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials. They have not been privy to most of the discussions, and at times only learned about them later from the Ukrainians, U.S. officials said. Giuliani told The Post he has had about five conversations with Yermak this year.

In May 2019, Giuliani also met with a top Ukrainian anti-corruption prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky, in Paris. Kholodnytsky — who was caught on tape advising witnesses in corruption cases how to avoid prosecution — had faced calls to step down from the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. But the meeting came at a triumphant moment for Kholodnytsky. He was holding on to his office. Yovanovitch had been recalled from her posting early. Kholodnytsky declined to comment on the contents of his conversation with Giuliani, which he described as that of a ‘prosecutor to a former prosecutor.’ But he has said that he believed something didn’t add up with the 2016 release of the ‘black ledger’ that forced Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to resign, and that the investigation into Burisma, the energy company of which Hunter Biden was a board member, needed to be reopened. Giuliani, when asked about his meeting with Kholodnytsky, said: ‘I’m not going to tell you about that.’”

-- Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens appears to have begun as an attempt to formulate a rationale by which the president could pardon Paul Manafort as part of an effort to undermine Mueller’s investigation, according to previously undisclosed records obtained by the New York Review of Books: “These records indicate that attorneys representing Trump and Manafort respectively had at least nine conversations relating to this effort, beginning in the early days of the Trump administration, and lasting until as recently as May of this year.

Through these deliberations carried on by his attorneys, Manafort exhorted the White House to press Ukrainian officials to investigate and discredit individuals, both in the US and in Ukraine, who he believed had published damning information about his political consulting work in the Ukraine. … [The records show that] on at least three occasions, [Giuliani] was in communication with Manafort’s legal team to discuss how the White House was pushing a narrative that the Democratic National Committee, Democratic donors, and Ukrainian government officials had ‘colluded’ to defeat [Trump’s] 2016 presidential bid.”

-- The phone call memo followed Trump’s long obsession with Ukraine. More details from the New York Times: “Long before the July 25 call ... Trump’s focus on Ukraine started after a law enforcement organization, the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, released damaging information about cash payments earmarked to [Manafort] by the Russia-aligned political party of Ukraine’s ousted former president. Even after Mr. Manafort stepped down from the Trump campaign under pressure, he insisted to Mr. Trump’s aides that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was behind the surfacing of the documents revealing the payments, and questioned the authenticity of the documents. … The issue continued to fester with Mr. Trump. He tweeted six months after his inauguration about ‘Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign’ and to ‘boost Clinton,’ and asked, ‘where is the investigation?’”

MORE DETAILS ABOUT THE WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT:

-- “The whistleblower complaint focuses largely on the July 25 call … But the complaint also broadly alleges an effort by Trump and [Giuliani] to pressure Ukrainian officials over time … The whistleblower paints a picture, also using public news reports, to suggest that Giuliani pressured Ukrainian officials to further Trump’s interest in investigating his political opponents,” Devlin, Matt, Carol and Shane report.

The complaint also alleges a pattern of obfuscation at the White House, in which officials moved the records of some of Trump’s communications with foreign officials onto a separate computer network from where they are normally stored … The whistleblower alleges that is what officials did with Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, an action that alarmed the intelligence community inspector general and prompted him to request that the White House retain records of the Zelensky call..."

--The whistle-blower, moreover, identified multiple White House officials as witnesses to potential presidential misconduct who could corroborate the complaint[and] the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, interviewed witnesses,” the Times reports. “Mr. Atkinson also found reason to believe that the whistle-blower might not support the re-election of Mr. Trump and made clear that the complainant was not in a position to directly listen to the call or see the memo that reconstructed it before it was made public … Instead, the officer heard about the call secondhand from unidentified White House officials who expressed concern that Mr. Trump had ‘abused his authority or acted unlawfully in connection with foreign diplomacy,’ the memo said. Still, Mr. Atkinson concluded after an investigation that the information in the complaint was credible.”

­-- The whistleblower tentatively agreed to testify on the condition that Maguire approves appropriate security clearances for the person’s lawyers, so they can accompany their client, CNN reports.

-- An eyebrow raising nugget in the whistleblower report:

THE ATMOSPHERICS ON CAPITOL HILL:

-- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and senior House Democrats agreed in a private meeting after the release of the rough transcript they should narrow their impeachment investigation to Trump's dealings on Ukraine, according to five Democrats familiar with the conversation. Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade report: “Democrats said the evidence was incriminating enough — and easy enough for voters to understand — to proceed with their impeachment inquiry and soon. ‘Strike while the iron’s hot,’ said one individual in the meeting, summarizing the sentiment. Democrats said they could move quickly on impeachment and act by the end of the year. … [Pelosi] told colleagues that keeping the inquiry narrowly focused on the Ukraine allegations could also help keep the investigation out of the courts, where a slew of investigative matters have been bogged down for months — though she did not rule out ultimately including other episodes in potential articles of impeachment ...

“Multiple Judiciary Committee members said that they expected probes of other matters to continue unabated and potentially contribute to impeachment articles drafted this year. Several liberal lawmakers also want to include multiple charges in any impeachment articles.”

-- A milestone: A majority of House members are now on the record in support of opening an impeachment inquiry. As of last night, 217 House Democrats and one independent (Justin Amash) say they support at least opening an impeachment inquiry. Of those, 25 have gone a step further, saying they would definitely support impeaching the president. (The Fix is keeping a live whip count here.)

-- That op-ed published by seven House Democratic freshmen from swing districts with national security credentials proved seismic in pushing both wavering Democrats and Pelosi toward supporting an impeachment inquiry. Paul Kane explains: “Throughout the first phase of the Trump investigations, focusing on Russian interference in 2016, these Democrats found that their constituents were confused by the complicated and long-running investigation by [Mueller]. Instead, while other freshmen got media attention for bashing Trump, this group focused on kitchen-table issues like health-care costs and infrastructure projects. ... Liberal activists tried to jam their town halls, but most Democratic aides reported that aside from one or two impeachment questions, the overwhelming majority of concerns focused on local economic matters. … To be sure, a dozen or so swing-seat Democrats remain mum, declining so far to take a position ... But no one spoke out against impeachment in their Tuesday afternoon huddle in the Capitol basement."

-- Some House Democrats say they wish Pelosi had waited a little longer. “I don’t get surprised often,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (N.J.). “But really, truly, I just was like, ‘Wow.’ It happened so quickly.” (Mike DeBonis has more.)

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) explained Sept. 25 why he thinks the rough transcript of President Trump's call with Ukraine's president is problematic. (Reuters)

THE GOP RESPONSE:

-- "The helter-skelter way the administration handled the aftermath of the whistleblower complaint could be a harbinger of the coming impeachment fight, with the White House scrambling to respond to a mercurial and frustrated president, who is increasingly sidelining his aides and making decisions based on gut instinct," Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker report: "Even some allies of the president worry that his team may not fully understand the potential upheaval that an impeachment fight could wreak on Trump and his administration, especially as he heads into the 2020 election. ...

"On Wednesday morning, aides invited roughly a dozen Republican lawmakers to the White House to preview and discuss the transcript before it was released to the public. At one point, Trump called in from New York, and attendees described him as generally in a good mood — 'chagrined' but not angry, though skittish about some of the details. At one point, the group began joking with the president that 'this was one of his better' phone calls with foreign leaders, an attendee said. And even privately, Trump did not believe his conversation with the Ukrainian president was problematic, according to four people with whom he spoke."

-- While most Republican senators publicly toed the line and repeated talking points sent by the White House, several were privately stunned and questioned Trump's judgment after seeing the rough transcript. Robert Costa reports: “One Senate Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said the transcript’s release was a ‘huge mistake’ that the GOP now has to confront and defend — while the party argues at the same time that House Democrats are overreaching with their impeachment inquiry of Trump. Three other GOP senators complained privately in discussions ... that the White House erred by releasing the transcript, arguing that it sets a precedent for future presidents about disclosure of calls with foreign leaders and could be seen as a concession to Democrats. Publicly, two senators expressed serious concerns about the revelation, as cracks have begun to emerge with GOP lawmakers privately discussing Trump’s conduct and their party’s political standing."

  • “Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say there’s no ‘there’ there when there’s obviously a lot that’s very troubling there,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) told reporters.
  • “It remains troubling in the extreme. It’s deeply troubling,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters.
  • Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said there was “no quid pro quo,” adding, “while the conversation reported in the memorandum … was inappropriate, it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”

One early divide among Senate Republicans is between the ‘Burr camp’ and the ‘Johnson camp,’ according to two senior GOP aides," Costa reports, "referring to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Burr’s faction of the Senate GOP has a darker, frustrated view of Trump’s handling of Ukraine, while Johnson has linked the Ukraine issue to his committee’s work into reviewing the launch of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails while serving as secretary of state."

-- He does not get a vote, but Vermont’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, said the impeachment inquiry is “appropriate,” per the AP.

-- The impeachment inquiry is threatening to derail most of Trump's domestic agenda, upending trade and spending talks. From Erica Werner and David Lynch: “The White House and lawmakers must agree to a new spending deal by Nov. 21, and prospects for an easy resolution were already dim because of a fight over border wall funding. The White House also wants Congress to pass a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada by the end of this autumn, a timeline that could now be impossible to meet."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 25 said he thought that only President Donald Trump's side of their July phone call would be published. (Reuters)

THE UKRAINE ANGLE:

-- Trump’s meeting with Zelensky on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly offered a platform for salesmanship, grievance and a joke or two. Anne Gearan reports: “‘We spoke a couple of times, as you probably remember,’ Trump cracked. … Zelensky, a comedian and television star before he was elected this year, also tried to keep the mood light by noting that ‘it’s better to be on TV than by phone.’ … Standing alongside Trump, Zelensky insisted Wednesday that ‘nobody pushed me’ to investigate. ‘I think you read everything,’ Zelensky said as he and Trump faced the cameras. ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved’ in U.S. elections, Zelensky continued, as Trump smiled beside him. ‘No, you heard that we had, I think, good phone call. It was normal.’ Trump chimed in: ‘In other words, no pressure.’"

-- Trump called former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin a “very good” prosecutor.” But Shokin resigned in disgrace. David L. Stern reports: Shokin “became Ukraine’s prosecutor general in 2015 with promises to wage an unflinching battle against corruption after political upheavals dumped a pro-Russian president and brought in Western-looking leadership. At the time, it was a message heartily welcomed by major donors … Shokin, however, quickly faced questions of his own. Critics complained that he fell short on his pledges to peer deeply into Ukraine’s shadows. By the end of his 13-month tenure, Shokin was scorned by the Obama administration and others that had once praised his appointment.”

-- Trump boasted about U.S. aid to Ukraine. But America isn’t Kiev’s only friend, writes Ruby Mellen: “Although the United States is one of the country’s biggest foreign-aid benefactors, other countries have also sent significant assistance to Ukraine. The European Union and its financial institutions have provided more than $16.5 billion in grants and loans to support its reform process since 2014. In addition to those E.U. funds, Germany on its own has pledged millions of dollars in assistance, as has Britain. And Japan, meanwhile, has given $3.1 billion in assistance to Ukraine to the establishment of diplomatic relations in the early 1990s.”

-- The U.S. tried to fix Ukraine’s government. We exported our corruption, instead,” laments Paul Musgrave, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The 2020 presidential candidates have been more vocal on the issue of an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. (The Washington Post)

DOMESTIC POLITICAL FALLOUT:

-- During the Ukraine call, Trump revived a pervasive conspiracy theory about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Ellen Nakashima report: “For years cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike was a source of news, not a subject, as it unraveled some of the world’s most notorious hacks. … Ever since the company exposed Russian intrusions into [DNC] computers in 2016, … CrowdStrike has been a subject of allegations that rippled through conservative news sources, onto social media, into the criminal trial of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone and [into the president’s call].”

The nature of Trump’s reference to CrowdStrike in his call is not obvious in the White House’s memo, but, basically, the company has become a boogeyman of right-wing conspiracy theorists who have falsely claimed it helped Democratic leaders cover up what they insist was a breach by a party insider. In reality, Drew and Ellen explain, “the FBI felt it was not necessary to enter the DNC's premises and take custody of the affected servers, as agents were able to obtain complete copies of forensic images made by CrowdStrike."

-- Trump claimed Hunter Biden got China to put $1.5 billion in a fund, an allegation that has been flatly denied by Biden’s lawyer. Michael Kranish reports: “Trump, who has made a similar allegation for months, is referencing information from a book by Peter Schweizer, ‘Secret Empires,’ that first detailed how Hunter Biden flew to China on Air Force Two with his father in 2013. … Trump on Wednesday put it this way: ‘When Biden’s son walks out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund and the biggest funds in the world can’t get money out of China and he’s there with one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two. I think that’s a horrible thing.’ … In bringing up the China episode, Trump did not provide any new evidence to back up his claims.

"Hunter Biden did travel with his father on Air Force Two to China on Dec. 4, 2013. Twelve days later, Hunter Biden joined the board of a just-formed investment advisory firm, known as BHR, whose partners included Chinese entities. Affiliates of the advisory firm said they planned to raise $1.5 billion. Some media reports over the past five years have described Hunter Biden as an owner of a private equity company that sought to raise that amount. However, George Mesires, lawyer for Hunter Biden, said in an interview earlier this year that his client’s role has been misconstrued. He said Hunter Biden was on the board of the advisory firm that did not directly invest, but instead advised those who did.”

-- Trump was fixated on attacking Biden long before his call with Zelensky, per Toluse Olorunnipa and Matt Viser: “He attacked Biden at the White House and at campaign rallies. He attacked Biden on Twitter and on Instagram. He attacked Biden in France and in Japan, during news conferences and official speeches, in phone calls and in interviews, on Air Force One and in the Rose Garden, during morning 'executive time' and in late-night tweet storms. … Trump’s advisers say the president has targeted Biden in recent months for several reasons: He has emerged as a front-runner in a crowded field of Democratic contenders, he has a long record in Washington that allows the president to position himself as an outsider and he has been leading Trump in polling in key swing states. Campaign aides previously had been wary of singling out any of the Democratic presidential candidates, opting instead to lump the group of more than 20 contenders together under the banner of ‘socialism.’”

-- An impeachment investigation will also shape the Democrats’ choice of a nominee, potentially foreshortening the race and freezing the current standings in place," writes Karen Tumulty. "Those who are struggling to break from the rear of a 19-person field will find it even harder — and maybe impossible — to make their voices heard in the din. ‘Candidates who have advantages now may see those advantages multiplied,’ says David Axelrod, who was Barack Obama’s chief strategist.”

-- Trump’s call with Zelensky is unlike anything scholars have heard before, reports Karen DeYoung: “‘This is nothing like a conversation between Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger and a foreign leader,’ said Ken Hughes of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, an expert on Nixon during the Vietnam War and Watergate. ‘Nixon had very detailed knowledge when he spoke to foreign leaders. He could be subtle in negotiations and still get his point across,’ Hughes said. But ‘when he wanted to dig up dirt on his political adversaries,’ Nixon did it at home, he said. Even President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose vulgarity and pressure tactics are well documented, ‘tended to be a cautious and careful communicator with world leaders and diplomats, not the gunslinger that he could be with Americans that he knew well,’ said Kent Germany of the University of South Carolina. ‘He was not going to go rogue and be Lyndon Johnson with these other leaders.’”

-- Before the transcript was released, former New Jersey governor and the onetime Trump transition chief Chris Christie ominously said that Trump would be in trouble if he said something like “do me a favor.” Hours later, it was revealed the president asked the Ukrainian president to “do us a favor.” (Mediaite)

-- The Wall Street Journal stands behind its reporting that Trump pressured Zelensky to work with Giuliani about eight times, despite claims from Trump allies and conservative media that it's wrong. The Journal notes the rough transcript is incomplete. There are also ellipses. (Erik Wemple)

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) on Sept. 25 called the rough transcript of President Trump’s call "damning." (Reuters)

NOTEWORTHY COMMENTARY:

-- Tuesday was Pelosi’s day, but Wednesday was Trump’s – for better or for worse, writes chief correspondent Dan Balz: “The impeachment inquiry is both an epic battle between the speaker and the president and, more fundamentally, a constitutional clash that will help define the limits on presidential power, and the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. The outcome will shape, perhaps decisively, the 2020 campaign. Trump will either be out of office by January 2021 or he will have emerged victorious, reelected to a second term in large part because of what would then, inevitably, be interpreted as an enormous gamble by the speaker and the Democrats that went terribly wrong. The past two days have shown that there is no turning back.”

-- The Trump-Ukraine transcript contains evidence of a quid pro quo, writes National Review’s David French, a leading conservative attorney: “The transcript provides proof that Trump made a completely improper request that the president of Ukraine work with Trump’s personal counsel to investigate a political rival. It provides strong evidence that this took place in the context of a quid pro quo for desperately needed military aid.”

-- The Trump-Zelensky readout is a devastating indictment of our president, says The Post’s Editorial Board.

-- The rough transcript of the call is devastating. How could Trump not realize that? Max Boot wonders: “At least Richard Nixon had the good sense to resist releasing the ‘smoking gun’ tape until finally forced to do so by the Supreme Court. … Trump, by contrast, is so clueless — so lacking in even the most basic sense of right and wrong — that he could actually tweet this morning: ‘Will the Democrats apologize after seeing what was said on the call with the Ukrainian President?’”

-- Democrats had no idea Trump would hand them so much ammo, writes E.J. Dionne Jr.

-- The House doesn’t need an impeachment inquiry to confirm Trump’s wrongdoing. His corruption is hidden in plain sight – just look at his D.C. hotel, argues Dana Milbank: “As the call notes were being released, a joint House committee opened a hearing on Trump’s lease of the Old Post Office, now the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Trump has violated the plain language of the lease (it says no U.S. elected official can be part of or benefit from the lease), and the plain language of the Constitution (it says no U.S. officeholder can accept payments from any ‘foreign state’). But the General Services Administration found a novel way to avoid declaring that Trump had obviously violated both: It looked the other way.”

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THE TRUMP AGENDA:

-- The administration announced an asylum deal with Honduras, which could force migrants into one of the world’s most violent nations. Nick Miroff reports: “Department of Homeland Security officials reached the accord with the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is embroiled in allegations of government corruption and charges that he and others have been operating the nation as a criminal enterprise — Hernández has been named as a co-conspirator in a major U.S. drug trafficking case. The deal paves the way for the United States to take asylum seekers from the U.S. border and ship them to a nation with one of the highest murder rates in the world, a country with gang wars that have fueled waves of mass migration and multiple ‘caravans’ to the United States that became a major irritant to [Trump].”

-- The new deal comes just days after a man was brutally murdered in Honduras -- just hours after being deported from the United States. (La Prensa)

-- The Republican-controlled Senate voted for the second time to overturn Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, but the body once again fell well short of the veto-proof, two-thirds majority needed to block the president from diverting military construction money to his pet project. (Erica Werner and Aaron Gregg)

-- Human rights groups demanded that ICE release all LGBTQ detainees and anyone with HIV in the agency’s custody. Robert Moore reports: “‘We know that lack of medical and mental-health care, including lack of HIV care, is the norm,’ Roger Coggan, director of legal services at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, told reporters Wednesday afternoon. ‘By the Department of Homeland Security’s own count, 300 individuals identifying as transgender have been in custody and at the mercy of ICE since October of 2018. These cruel incarcerations need to stop immediately.’ DHS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the complaint. It is unclear how many LGBTQ people and people with HIV are detained by U.S. immigration officials.”

-- Trump's decision to move the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service out of Washington will cause “significant delays” in vital research reports on which farmers depend. Politico reports: “ERS conducts research into areas such as climate change, nutrition, export data and the farm economy. Farmers also heavily rely on its outlook reports to make planting decisions. Crop markets can swing on the results of the numbers. ... USDA identified 38 specific reports that may be delayed because staff members have departed."

­-- Income inequality has grown, including in heartland states. From the AP: “The nation’s Gini Index, which measures income inequality, has been rising steadily over the past five decades. The Gini Index grew from 0.482 in 2017 to 0.485 last year, according to the bureau’s 1-year American Community Survey data. The Gini Index is on a scale of 0 to 1; a score of ‘0’ indicates perfect equality, while a score of ‘1’ indicates perfect inequality, where one household has all the income.”

-- The Federal Aviation Administration disputed an independent watchdog’s finding that safety inspectors who worked on training requirements for Boeing’s 737 Max jets were underqualified. Ian Duncan reports: “Deputy FAA Administrator Daniel K. Elwell also rejected the watchdog’s finding that his agency had misled Congress over the issue, saying that was ‘not what happened,’ ... that making any connection between that problem and the 737 Max was ‘simply not accurate.’”

-- Trump’s Turnberry resort is the only hotel named by Glasgow Prestwick Airport in promotional materials distributed at private meetings with American military air crews. From The Scotsman: “The document, prepared by the Scottish Government owned airport and handed out at ‘closed’ meetings with US Armed Forces personnel, emphasizes the ‘five star’ status of the US president’s flagship Scottish property, even noting how it has been ‘newly refurbished.’ Two sources familiar with the gatherings said Prestwick staff also delivered presentations in which they offered to arrange rounds of golf at Turnberry for visiting US Air Force (USAF) crews as part of their layovers.”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER: 

-- The White House banned Iranian officials from entering the U.S. just hours after a failed attempt to renew diplomacy with President Hassan Rouhani during the U.N. General Assembly, per the Times: “Mike Pompeo said the United States was still open to talking to Iran, and hoped to tamp down inflamed tensions after leaders in the United States, Europe and Arab nations blamed Tehran for attacks on oil fields in Saudi Arabia this month."

-- Shortly after, Rouhani warned the Persian Gulf is "on the edge of collapse." From the AP: "Rouhani accused the United States of engaging in 'international piracy' against his country by re-imposing economic sanctions after Washington withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Tehran 'will never negotiate with an enemy that seeks to make Iran surrender with the weapon of poverty,' Rouhani said ... 'Stop the sanctions so as to open the way for the start of negotiations.' ... Rouhani said U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria had failed, with Washington 'unable to resolve the more sophisticated issues' plaguing the Middle East."

-- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaking about his role in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder for the first time, said it was done without his knowledge. From Frontline: “‘It happened under my watch,’ the Saudi leader [said.] ‘I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch.’ But he insists that it was without his knowledge. … [bin Salman was pressed] on how the murder could have happened without him knowing about it. ‘We have 20 million people. We have 3 million government employees,’ Prince Mohammed responded. … ‘I have officials, ministers to follow things, and they’re responsible, they have the authority to do that,’ Prince Mohammed said.”

-- Israeli President Reuven Rivlin asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try forming a new governing coalition. Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash report: “Rivlin’s decision to offer Netanyahu the first go at forming a government came on the day that official results from last week’s election were finalized, showing that the prime minister’s Likud party had secured one seat fewer in the Knessett, Israel’s parliament, than the rival Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz. Neither of the two main parties is close to a 61-seat majority. But a plurality of all the newly elected parliament members told Rivlin that they preferred Netanyahu, earning him the president’s nod.”

-- Returning to Westminster, Prime Minister Boris Johnson goaded opposition lawmakers to call a no-confidence vote or agree to a general election and bring the Brexit fight back to the people after the Supreme Court ruled his decision to suspend Parliament was illegal. William Booth and Karla Adam report: “Facing a chamber packed with hooting and jeering lawmakers, Johnson said Britain’s highest court was ‘wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question at a time of great national controversy.’ Rather than apologize to the queen and the country, as opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn demanded, Johnson went on the offensive, saying it was anti-Brexit forces in Parliament who were working against democracy, with their cunning maneuvers designed to sabotage a departure and thwart the will of the people.”

-- At least 70 countries have engaged in disinformation campaigns, according to a new report by researchers at Oxford University. From the NYT: “In Vietnam, citizens were enlisted to post pro-government messages on their personal Facebook pages. The Guatemalan government used hacked and stolen social media accounts to silence dissenting opinions. Ethiopia’s ruling party hired people to influence social media conversations in its favor. Despite increased efforts by internet platforms like Facebook to combat internet disinformation, the use of the techniques by governments around the world is growing … The researchers … found that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns more than doubled to 70 in the last two years, with evidence of at least one political party or government entity in each of those countries engaging in social media manipulation. In addition, Facebook remains the No. 1 social network for disinformation, the report said. Organized propaganda campaigns were found on the platform in 56 countries.”

-- Military drones are now common in nearly 100 nations, a new report found. From the WSJ: “China is a top exporter of drones alongside Israel and the U.S., according to the report. Pentagon officials have expressed concern over Beijing’s dominance of the global market for small drones. There are at least 21,000 and probably more than 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles in military service world-wide, the report says. It catalogs 171 types of drones in military inventories and 268 military-drone units established by 58 countries. Fifteen countries have training academies for drone operators, and seven maintain drone bases outside their own borders, according to the report.”

2020 WATCH: 

-- Cindy McCain, widow of John McCain, criticized the GOP, saying it is no longer the party she and her husband belonged to. Kim Bellware reports: McCain, when asked to size up the political landscape heading into the 2020 election, “pointed to the local GOP in Arizona and assessed that ‘it’s not functioning well’ and excludes people who aren’t ‘walking the line.’ ‘That’s just not right,’ McCain said. ‘That’s not the party my husband and I belonged to.’ While those issues may have McCain feeling alienated from the party, she predicted they could also have consequences for Republicans in 2020. Speaking about the Arizona GOP, she noted how the party’s exclusionary views, as McCain described them, could fail to resonate with Arizona voters; the state’s demographics increasingly include younger voters, a politically organized — and vocal — Latino population and transplants from around the country. … ‘I can see [Arizona] going Democrat, I really can,’ McCain said. ‘I’m not saying I want that, but I can see it happening.’”

-- Elizabeth Warren is rising everywhere, per CNN: “The latest Quinnipiac University national poll ... has Warren at 27% to [Biden’s] 25%. Now, one poll doesn't mean much, and Quinnipiac's result is well within the margin of error, so there's no clear leader. ... The trendline is what is important here."

-- A volunteer for Warren’s campaign was killed in a car crash in western Iowa. Zachary Crombie Presberg, 22, joined the campaign as a summer organizing fellow and had stayed on as a volunteer. (Des Moines Register)  

-- More infighting: Top aides are privately questioning Bernie Sanders's strategy. From CNN: “The campaign's in-house production team recently began shooting its first television ads of the 2020 cycle in Iowa, likely quieting at least one source of dissent among some senior aides, who have been pushing for Sanders to get on the air. … Even if the senator and his staff have reason to believe the Iowa race is closer than the most recent polling indicates, interviews with two senior aides to Sanders revealed growing concerns that the Hawkeye State and New Hampshire could be at risk of slipping away. The twin sources of frustration and internal debate, both aides told CNN, was a schedule that too often takes Sanders away from the early voting states and a perception among staff, especially in Iowa, that the campaign has been wrong-headed in its decision to put off investing there in television ads.”

-- Biden’s brother James Biden touted his ties to the former vice president’s cancer initiative during an investment pitch to a health-care firm, according to Politico: James Biden “made the promise to executives at Florida-based Integrate Oral Care during a phone call on or around November 8, 2018, according to Michael Frey, CEO of Diverse Medical Management, a health-care firm that is suing James Biden. At the time, James Biden's business partners were pursuing a potential investment in Integrate, according to Frey and court records. Frey, who had a business relationship with James Biden and his associates, had introduced the group to Integrate. James Biden told the Integrate executives that he would get the Biden Cancer Initiative to promote an oral rinse made by the firm and used by cancer patients, Frey, [told Politico]. He added that James Biden directly invoked the former vice president on the call. 'He said his brother would be very excited about this product,' Frey said. A spokesman for James Biden disputed Frey's account.”

-- Cory Booker has crossed the halfway threshold to his $1.7 million fundraising goal. His campaign manager said that he needs to raise that much in the final 10 days of September to have a viable path forward, per Yahoo News.

-- Tulsi Gabbard qualified for the fourth Democratic debate after missing out on the third one. The Hawaii Democrat has the support of 2 percent of registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters, according to a Monmouth University poll, per the Columbus Dispatch.

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

The White House accidentally emailed its Ukraine talking points to all House and Senate Democrats, then asked to “recall” the email:

A Post reporter noted that some Republicans were caught off guard by a comment made by the House Minority Leader:

A Post reporter noted the irony of one of the White House talking points:

A Democratic congressman from Arizona, an Iraq War veteran, explained why it was so significant Trump asked for a favor right after Ukraine's president said they wanted to buy more Javelins:

A former spokesman for the CIA and the Defense Department wondered what Trump must have said in other conversations with other foreign leaders if he did not think there was anything wrong with the Ukraine call:

White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway's husband, a leading conservative lawyer, argued that Trump did, in fact, offer a quid pro quo:

A CNN reporter highlighted Lindsey Graham's situational approach to impeachment:

Some mocked Trump's words from the memo:

One of Trump's primary challengers spoke about Trump's policies outside an Iowa Arby's, prompting the fast-food chain to respond with a popular meme:

Steve Bannon held a fundraiser for former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach: 

And the secretary of Commerce asked a reporter to focus on other issues and not the fact that he seems to have dozed off while Trump spoke before the U.N.: 

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Nancy Pelosi, as far as I’m concerned, unfortunately she’s no longer the Speaker of the House," Trump during his bilateral meeting with Zelensky at the U.N. In fact, she is. (White House handout

 

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Joe Biden stopped by Jimmy Kimmel's show to talk about the Ukraine story:

Stephen Colbert can't believe the White House released the call memo: 

Seth Meyers can't believe it either:

Trying to focus on this week's lighter news, Samantha Bee dissected former White House press secretary Sean Spicer's "Dancing with the Stars" performance: