With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA:

Republicans are flailing to defend President Trump from the impeachment inquiry, right as some key members of the Senate shift from implicitly defending Trump to acknowledging recent testimony has been damaging to his case. This suggests conviction of Trump in the Republican-controlled Senate, should the House impeach him, isn’t a door that’s entirely slammed shut. 

Defending Trump has been a struggle since the whistleblower complaint and rough transcript of the Ukraine phone call came out a month ago. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) went on “60 Minutes” and tried to refute the language Trump used when he responded to Ukraine’s president inquiring about more aid. He incorrectly accused his interviewer of distorting Trump's now-famous line: “I would like you to do us a favor, though” to try to make it sound worse for Trump. CBS's Scott Pelley was quoting Trump accurately.

Now, as the impeachment inquiry presents stronger evidence Trump was holding up military aid for his personal gain, his congressional defenders are pulling even more Trumpian tactics. Most of them collapse under the weight of the facts. Some are so obviously political stunts that there’s no other way to describe them.

For instance:

On Wednesday, about 30 Republicans very publicly stormed into the secure room in the Capitol’s basementdemanding to be let into an inquiry that most of them didn’t have a right to be a part of — even if the hearings were public. (They aren’t on the corresponding committees handling impeachment.) They quickly realized that bringing hackable phones into a secure location was a major security breach that potentially compromised the investigation — and put an end to their ostensible plans to broadcast their sit-in publicly. The hearing with a Pentagon official who oversaw the Ukraine aid started up again after five hours of delay.

Two top Republican senators introduced a resolution yesterday condemning the whole House inquiry. That won’t stop it, but it will help undermine it—and show Trump whose side Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are on. Graham says the nonbinding resolution has 46 supporters, though several key Republicans have not signed on, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Cory Gardner (Colo.), who are both in tough reelection battles.

It followed a day of whispered concern among Senate Republicans that things are looking bad for Trump.

“The picture coming out of it based on the reporting we’ve seen is, yeah, I would say is not a good one,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told NBC a day after acting ambassador Bill Taylor’s testimony about potential quid pro quos. Thune is the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.

Also Wednesday, an editor at National Journal spoke to a source close to McConnell who said: “This is shaping up to be a very dark moment for the Trump White House.”

In the House, Republicans continue pressing their quixotic argument that the impeachment inquiry isn’t official until they vote on it. There’s no rule that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has to do that. And even if she did, it wouldn’t change the fact Democrats control the process.

Finally, some Republicans sitting in the hearings insist they haven’t seen evidence of a quid pro quo. But that misses the point: There doesn’t have to be one for Trump to get impeached, and in a court of law it’s really hard to prove an explicit, undeniable quid pro quo anyway, Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles told me. So some Republicans are moving the goal posts on an impeachable offense to something that’s impossible to fully prove.

“I mean … show me something that … is a crime,” Graham said to Axios on HBO in an interview last week. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.”

Republicans’ erratic attempts to defend the president are derived from the fact the White House has no coherent defense either, and it largely isn’t coordinating with Republicans on what to say or do. 

Trump had lunch with a small group of Republican senators backing Graham’s resolution and complained bitterly that he was the victim of a never-ending political assault. “He feels like it never stops, that he’s been in office for, what, three years now, and every time he turns around there’s another reason that his family, his friends have to pay legal bills,” Graham said, according to the Times. “He keeps telling us he did nothing wrong.”

Yet campaign consultants have stressed to senators the importance of maintaining their own credibility, two senior Republican officials told the Times: “They have instructed senators not to respond to every turn of the screw, one reason that most of them have dodged questions about Mr. Trump’s conduct or resorted to complaints about the process.” 

As Republicans are flapping in the wind, Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry remain focused and fortified that they are on the path to uncovering wrongdoing against the president. They could bring their evidence out in the open in public hearings in a few weeks, report The Post’s Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian. It would saturate the public consciousness and polls continue to show a majority of Americans support the impeachment inquiry. 

All this is to say: Are Republicans running out of options to defend Trump from a very real impeachment threat? It’s a possibility to watch.

Amber writes The 5-Minute Fix newsletter, a weekday afternoon rundown of the biggest political news that right now exclusively focuses on impeachment.

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MORE ON THE IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY: 

-- The White House delayed a Ukraine trade decision in August after then-national security adviser John Bolton warned Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that Trump would probably oppose any action that benefited Kyiv, a sign that U.S. suspension of cooperation to the country extended beyond security funds. David J. Lynch and Josh Dawsey report: “The August exchange between Bolton and Lighthizer over the trade matter represents the first indication that the administration’s suspension of assistance to Ukraine extended beyond the congressionally authorized military aid and security assistance to other government programs. It is not clear whether Trump directed Bolton to intervene over Ukraine’s trade privileges or was even aware of the discussion. … One former U.S. government official said the president wanted ‘the total elimination’ of the global trade program at issue. Known as the ‘generalized system of preferences,’ or GSP, it allows 120 countries to ship roughly 1.5 percent of total U.S. imports without paying tariffs. But in March 2018, Trump signed legislation reauthorizing the program through 2020, and Lighthizer in recent weeks has been negotiating with India over restoring its GSP status, which was suspended in March.”

-- Attorney General Bill Barr’s Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into the Russia probe. Matt Zapotosky reports: “Barr tapped Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham in May to review the FBI’s investigation, looking specifically at whether the U.S. government’s ‘intelligence collection activities’ in the probe of possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia were ‘lawful and appropriate,’ a person familiar with the matter said then. Durham’s appointment came amid calls from Trump and his allies to investigate the FBI personnel and those in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office involved with the probe of Trump’s campaign. At the time, the Justice Department inspector general was conducting a similar probe. The significance of officials deeming Durham’s probe ‘criminal’ is difficult to determine by itself. Durham’s appointment was noteworthy because he, unlike the inspector general, is a federal prosecutor with the ability to convene a grand jury that could compel witnesses to testify or charge people with crimes if Durham felt that was necessary.”

-- Democrats say the first whistleblower’s testimony is no longer necessary as other witnesses have come forward. Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian report: “Democrats were once prepared to take extraordinary steps to preserve the whistleblower’s identity under questioning, considering him central to their investigation. But over the past month, they have grown cold to the idea of exposing him to additional scrutiny after several witnesses described how Trump leveraged access and military aid to secure a promise from Ukraine to launch investigations that could help his 2020 reelection bid. ‘I think it’s quite clear we have a surfeit of evidence that corroborates in full every aspect of what happened and the policy they were pursuing,’ said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees.”

­-- The Trump administration sent a letter to Pentagon official Laura Cooper warning her not to testify before House impeachment investigators. She did so anyway. "The letter, signed by deputy secretary of defense David Norquist, leaves ambiguous whether the actions of Cooper and other State Department employees who’ve testified would be considered insubordinate. So far, though, none of the witnesses who are current federal employees have been fired." (New York Times)

THE DOMESTIC AGENDA: 

-- The ACLU said 1,500 more migrant children were taken away from their parents by the Trump administration. Maria Sacchetti reports: “The majority of the children are ages 12 and under, including more than 200 considered ‘tender age’ because they are under 5 years old. The ACLU said the Justice Department disclosed the final tally — which is in addition to the more than 2,700 children known to have been separated last year — hours before a federal court deadline to identify all children separated since mid-2017, the year President Trump took office. U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw in San Diego gave the Trump administration six months in April to disclose the names to the ACLU, which is trying to track down all the families and learn whether they have been reunited. … ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said the Justice Department has been sending the names of separated families to them in batches and provided the last information Thursday. He said he is worried that parents have been deported without their children.”

­-- The Trump administration is testing a secretive program that aims to speed up the asylum process for migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. From Robert Moore: “The pilot program — known as Prompt Asylum Claim Review — streamlines the asylum process so that migrants who are seeking safe refuge in the United States will receive a decision in 10 days or less, rather than the months or years it currently takes, according to Customs and Border Protection officials. The reviews are largely to determine if Central American migrants can be sent back to their homelands ... El Paso is the only place where the administration is currently testing the program, which started this month, according to U.S. officials.”

-- A federal judge is holding Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in contempt for violating an order to stop collecting loan payments from former Corinthian Colleges students. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports: “Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco slapped the Education Department with a $100,000 fine for violating a preliminary injunction. Money from the fine will be used to compensate the 16,000 people harmed by the federal agency’s actions. Some former students of the defunct for-profit college had their paychecks garnished. Others had their tax refunds seized by the federal government. … The judge has ordered the department to provide monthly status reports on its efforts to follow her order and rectify the harm it inflicted upon borrowers. Failure to comply with this latest order could result in additional sanctions. The Education Department said it was disappointed in the court’s ruling.”

-- Arthur Wayne Johnson, appointed by DeVos to a top post in the government’s trillion-dollar financial aid operations, resigned, saying the student loan system is “fundamentally broken” and called for the elimination of millions in student debt. From Douglas-Gabriel: “The departure of Johnson, who said he will seek a Senate seat in Georgia, arrives as House Democrats ramp up their investigation of the role Education Department officials, including Johnson, played in helping Dream Center Education Holdings. Dream Center operated the defunct for-profit chain Argosy University and the Art Institutes. The House Education and Labor Committee has requested an interview with Johnson, DeVos and the department’s head of higher education policy, Diane Auer Jones.”

-- A number of conservative activists voiced their support for the embattled acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, telling Trump that the “swamp” is attacking him and urging him to permanently appoint the former House conservative to the job. From the Times: “The letter was signed by dozens of conservatives, including Ginni Thomas, who is married to the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and David McIntosh, the president of the anti-tax Club for Growth. … The letter continued, ‘Recent news reports demonstrate that the D.C. swamp is attacking him — and we believe it is because he has been the most successful chief of staff in this administration to advance the Trump pro-America agenda.’”

-- Trump directed federal agencies not to renew their subscriptions to The Post and the New York Times, per the Wall Street Journal: “‘Not renewing subscriptions across all federal agencies will be a significant cost saving—hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars will be saved,’ White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in an email Thursday. Ms. Grisham declined to provide further details, and it wasn’t immediately clear how the White House intended to compel agencies to cancel the subscriptions or how soon the order would take effect. The White House was still working on implementing the directive as of Thursday morning, an administration official said. … Mr. Trump is an avid consumer of the news, and he regularly reads the Times and the Post, according to aides who privately acknowledged that they expect him to continue doing so despite the directive. … Federal employees are eligible for free digital subscriptions to the Post using their government email addresses.”

-- Trump said he will attend Game 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park this Sunday if the Nats and the Astros are still playing. David Nakamura reports: “Trump’s attendance at the 41,000-seat stadium in Southeast would mark a rare time he has ventured into the District’s entertainment and nightlife scene, other than his occasional visits to the Trump hotel a few blocks from the White House. It could also mean increased security restrictions at the ballpark for what is expected to be a capacity crowd.”

-- The House Transportation Committee issued a subpoena for financial records and other information related to Trump’s D.C. hotel, which is housed in a federally owned building. Jonathan O’Connell reports: “According to a copy of the subpoena, sent by committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) to [General Services] Administrator Emily Murphy, the committee is seeking any communications between the GSA and Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump or Eric Trump, as well as monthly financial records that the Trump Organization provides to the agency. … The Transportation Committee’s subpoena also seeks legal memos regarding the [GSA’s] decision to allow the lease to remain in place despite a passage in it barring elected officials from benefiting from it and the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars the president from accepting gifts or payments from foreign or domestic governments.”

-- New Jersey is trying to revoke the liquor license for Trump’s golf course in Colts Neck, N.J., triggered by a 2015 case in which state officials say the Trump club overserved alcohol to a man who then caused a fatal wreck, David A. Fahrenthold reports. The state is giving Trump’s company 30 days to challenge the planned revocation. 

THE 2020 WATCH: 

-- Economists are rushing to help Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) figure out her Medicare-for-all tax puzzle. Jeff Stein reports: “Warren has promised more details within weeks, but her team faces a challenge in crafting a plan that would bring in large amounts of revenue while not scaring off voters with big middle-class tax increases. … Bharat Ramamurti, a longtime Warren aide who served on the Senate Banking Committee, is widely seen as spearheading the single-payer financing plan for the campaign, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. ‘They want to figure out — with one go — how to stop the ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ question,’ one outside economic adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the campaign’s thinking. ‘She wants something airtight but easy to understand.’”

-- Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), a freshman who has gained notice for her grilling of corporate executives in congressional hearings, plans to endorse Warren for president, per CNN.  

-- Former vice president Joe Biden appeared to drop his opposition to the creation of a super PAC to benefit his campaign. Matt Viser reports: “Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that Biden will reform campaign finance if he is president, but in the meantime, he will open the door to outside money. … The decision is also bound to trigger accusations of ­flip-flopping, given that Biden has long said he would reject such outside help. His campaign advisers were aggressively opposed to the idea as recently as three weeks ago, pushing back against a Washington Post report stating that the campaign ‘has publicly discouraged’ outside help because they felt it was not worded strongly enough.”

-- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released a marijuana legalization plan to expunge criminal convictions related to the drug. Sean Sullivan reports: “Sanders’s plan, which aims to overhaul an approach he argues has unfairly hurt minorities, calls for using executive power to reclassify marijuana as a dangerous controlled substance and passing legislation to permanently legalize the drug. … The marijuana industry, however, has become lucrative as more states have legalized it. Sanders, who is running on a platform of curtailing income inequality and reining in the power of big companies, says he would create provisions to prevent large corporations from dominating the market.”

-- And then there were 17: Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) quit the presidential race and said he will run for reelection to the House. Felicia Sonmez reports: “Ryan (D-Ohio), who pitched himself as the candidate best poised to talk to working-class people and take back Rust Belt states from President Trump, failed to qualify for the third and fourth Democratic debates. He has a Dec. 11 deadline to file to run for reelection in his Ohio district.”

-- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said she won’t run for reelection as she continues her bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Tim Elfrink reports: “Gabbard faced a Democratic primary challenge from Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele, who has lashed out at her for missing votes while on the presidential campaign trail. Gabbard cited her presidential bid in her decision not to seek another term. … Hours before announcing that she would not seek another term in Congress, Gabbard appeared on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show Thursday night to criticize Democrats for holding impeachment hearings in private.”

-- The Trump campaign owes over $1 million in outstanding bills to cities. Philip Bump reports: The money concerns costs around political rallies held around the country. "The campaign generally doesn’t sign contracts for additional police officers, so the cities don’t have binding agreements to recoup the costs. … In the context of Trump’s campaign, these costs are not significant. Earlier this week, the Republican Party celebrated having raised more than $300 million through the first three quarters of 2019. Reimbursing these cities for the costs they incurred from Trump’s rallies, then, would eat up a little more than a day’s average fundraising. Don’t expect that to happen.”

-- One of Trump’s Republican challengers, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, said he would vote for Biden “in a heartbeat” against Trump in the general election. From the AP: “Weld says he’d never support Trump ‘for any office under any circumstances’ but could ‘very well’ support a third-party candidate. If the matchup were Trump against [Warren], Weld says, ‘I suppose I’d rather have her, with a couple of modifications in her platform.’”

-- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited a workforce development program in Kansas, refueling speculation that he may leave the administration to run for Senate next year. Annie Gowen and Carol Morello report: “Earlier in the day, a Wichita Eagle reporter asked if touring a technical school was the best use of time for America’s chief diplomat. Pompeo said ‘absolutely, 100 percent,’ adding that he also wanted to attend the wedding of his son’s best friend. … He said Thursday that there had been ‘no change’ in his thinking [about running for Senate]. His ‘mission’ is ‘to ­execute American diplomacy, to make sure that American markets are open for Kansas products all around the world,’ he said. ‘That’s what I’m focused on. And it’s what I continue, intend to continue to be focused on.’”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway lashed out at a Washington Examiner reporter who, in a story about Conway’s potential shot at becoming White House chief of staff, mentioned the ongoing rift between Trump and Conway’s husband, conservative lawyer George Conway:

Commentators on both sides reacted:

Conway, who in the call told the reporter the White House would investigate her personal life, attempted to defend her words:

Meanwhile, her husband posted a cryptic tweet:

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's primary challenger in the Hawaii congressional race celebrated Gabbard's decision not to run for reelection:

These are some of the newspapers the White House will continue to be subscribed to:

A professor at the Missouri School of Journalism collected the Twitter accounts that have the most congressional followers:

"The Boss" finally responded to Trump, who earlier this month said he didn't "need little Bruce Springsteen" and other major celebrities to support him:

And the New York City mayor issued a warning:

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “He’s the president of this country. If he want to come to the game, it’s something that he want to do,” said Nationals pitcher Anibal Sanchez about Trump's interest in attending Game 5 of the World Series. “Of course everybody has to respect that situation.” (David Nakamura)

 

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Visitors crowded the Capitol to pay their respects to the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), whose funeral will take place today in Baltimore:

A high-voltage power line broke near the origin of California's massive Kincade Fire:

"Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, told state regulators Thursday that a jumper on one of its transmission towers broke close to where officials say the Kincade Fire started, near Geyserville," report Reis Thebault, Kim Bellware and Andrew Freedman. 

Stephen Colbert said Trump might have been kidding about building a wall in Colorado, but House Democrats are not joking around when it comes to the impeachment probe:

Seth Meyers examined the ways in which the president's allies have flip-flopped in their defense of Trump:

And scientists found that rats can drive tiny cars, which lowers their anxiety: