With Mariana Alfaro
THE BIG IDEA: David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, testified that he “vividly” remembers his July 26 lunch at a restaurant in Kyiv because he’d “never seen anything like this.”
After ordering a bottle of wine, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland used his unsecured cellphone to update President Trump on his meeting that morning with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Holmes said he could hear Trump say, “So he’s going to do the investigation?” And he said Sondland responded, “Oh yeah, he’s going to do it.” The ambassador explained to the president that Zelensky, whom Trump spoke with the day before, “loves your a--,” according to the transcript of Holmes’s deposition released last night by House impeachment investigators.
But it’s what purportedly transpired after this two-minute conservation that’s most problematic for both Sondland and Trump. According to Holmes, the E.U. ambassador volunteered that the president cared more about the investigation of Joe Biden that Rudy Giuliani was pursuing than anything having to do directly with Ukraine.
Holmes explained that he asked Sondland, point blank, whether it was true that the president “doesn’t give a s--- about Ukraine” because “it had been very difficult for us to get the president interested in what we were trying to do in Ukraine.”
“Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give a s--- about Ukraine,” Holmes said under oath. “I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated, the President only cares about ‘big stuff.’ I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff that benefits the president,’ like the ‘Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.’”
-- Holmes, a career Foreign Service officer, has agreed to testify publicly on Thursday at 9 a.m. alongside Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council official who also provided damaging closed-door testimony against Sondland. The 213-page transcript suggests that Holmes is poised to offer a gripping narrative for the benefit of a television audience.
“This was an extremely distinctive experience in my Foreign Service career,” Holmes said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the President from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly.”
-- House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) questioned Holmes about his bluntness with Sondland. “I’m not proud of my language,” the diplomat answered. “But the informal tone of the lunch and the language I had heard him using in his call with the president, we were just sort of, you know, two guys talking about stuff, and it seemed to me that was the kind of language that he used.” Holmes recalled that Sondland’s exact words were: “Nope, not at all, doesn’t give a s--- about Ukraine.”
Waiters were coming and going as all this played out on the outdoor terrace at SHO, a central Kyiv restaurant. Holmes said he was surprised a presidential conversation so candid would take place on a cellphone since the Russians own or hold significant stakes in the mobile networks and government officials should always assume that they’re being monitored. Acting ambassador Bill Taylor revealed the July 26 call between Trump and Sondland during his testimony last week.
-- Holmes’s sworn testimony links Trump himself much more directly to the efforts to coerce Ukraine to investigate Biden at a time when the former vice president was leading in polls. It also further undermines another favorite GOP talking point: that Trump put assistance on ice because he was sincerely concerned about corruption and the rule of law in Kyiv. The rough transcript of Trump’s initial April call with Zelensky, released Friday, revealed that the president didn’t even broach corruption during that conversation, despite the White House’s readout from the time that said he had raised the issue. “I think the Ukrainians gradually came to understand that they were being asked to do something in exchange for the meeting and the security assistance hold being lifted,” Holmes testified.
Not to mention, the president’s reported disregard for Ukraine’s future is a boon for the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts in Russia’s ongoing invasion in the east and its occupation of Crimea.
-- It stands to reason that Sondland would know about Trump’s interest in Biden. The rough transcript of the July 25 call shows Trump mentioning his political challenger to Zelensky. But Sondland insisted under oath that he didn’t know the president was interested in securing a Biden investigation until later. “Sondland did not disclose any conversation with Trump while in Kyiv in his testimony or in the follow-up statement,” Glenn Kessler notes. “In his initial deposition, he said: ‘Again, I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about former vice president Biden or his son. Nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.’
“Sondland in his testimony indicated that he did not understand until late in the game that administration requests that Ukraine investigate the Ukrainian gas company Burisma – where Hunter Biden was a director – were related to the Biden family. He expressed ignorance about statements and tweets made by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, making that connection. ‘I became aware of his [Giuliani’s] interest in Burisma sometime in the intervening period, but I never made the connection between Burisma and the Bidens until the very end,’ Sondland said. ‘I heard the word ‘Burisma,’ but I didn't understand that Biden and Burisma were connected.’”
-- Tomorrow morning, Sondland will get a chance to clear up these and other discrepancies during his own televised testimony. Holmes’s deposition gives him more to answer for when he’s in the hot seat. The Portland, Ore., hotelier already significantly revised his testimony regarding the existence of a quid pro quo after other officials gave conflicting accounts of his role.
-- Trump claimed last week that he doesn’t have any recollection of the July 26 conversation, and the White House refuses to turn over call logs that could illuminate the extent of the president’s Ukrainian-related contacts. The president has begun distancing himself from Sondland. “I hardly know the gentleman,” Trump said on Nov. 8. The president has previously taken this tack with Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and others who he apparently concluded had outlived their usefulness to him.
-- Sondland previously sought to minimize his contacts with Trump. “I think I’ve spoken with President Trump – and this is a guess – maybe five or six times since I’ve been an ambassador,” he said during his deposition. “And one of those I recall was a Christmas, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and it was zero substance.”
But former National Security Council senior director Tim Morrison said it was his understanding that Sondland had a lot of conversations with the president. “Ambassador Sondland believed and at least related to me that the president was giving him instructions,” Morrison testified, adding that Sondland related to him that he was “discussing these matters with the president.”
-- Democrats also released the transcript last night from Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale’s appearance. Hale, the top career official at Foggy Bottom, revealed that Mike Pompeo spoke with Giuliani by phone on March 28 and March 29 as officials in the department tried to get a statement of support for then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as the president’s personal lawyer participated in a smear campaign against her. Hale said Yovanovitch was doing an “exceptional” job.
-- Pompeo continues to defy a subpoena and refuses to turn over records that could validate – or undercut – some of the most damning witness testimony about Trump’s conduct. Sondland turned over communications from his personal devices to the State Department, but State won’t share them with investigators.
-- Holmes also testified that aides to Energy Secretary Rick Perry were “very aggressive in terms of promoting an agenda” in Ukraine, as well as in “excluding embassy personnel from meetings without giving explanations.”
-- He will return to the Capitol on Thursday with a deep reservoir of credibility because he has a proven track record of speaking truth to power. “Holmes won an award in 2014 for raising concerns about then-President Barack Obama’s policy toward Afghanistan, where Holmes had served,” Anne Gearan reports. “The ‘constructive dissent’ honor recognizes mid-level State Department officials who use an internal process to flag problems they observe, which in his case was about how Obama had, in his view, muddied decision-making on Afghanistan and Pakistan. … A rising star in the Foreign Service, Holmes had a string of sought-after jobs before landing as the senior political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. In addition to the National Security Council — a high-stress, high-profile plum — Holmes also was picked for a prestigious job working for the State Department’s No. 3 official during the Obama administration."
-- Two more-junior staffers who were sitting at the table might also be able to corroborate Holmes’s testimony if Sondland disputes his allegations: Suriya Jayanti arranged Sondland’s schedule in Kyiv, and Tara Maher, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, where Sondland is based.
-- Holmes said he also told others in the embassy: The encounter was so “extraordinary” that Holmes immediately told his direct supervisor at the embassy. “You’re not going to believe what I just heard,” he recalled telling her. “I would refer back to it repeatedly in our morning staff meetings,” he added. “We'd talk about what we’re trying to do. … And I would say, 'Well, as we know, he doesn't really care about Ukraine. He cares about some other things.’”
-- House investigators have now released all but two deposition transcripts. Mark Sandy from the Office of Management and Budget testified on Saturday and hasn’t come back to the Capitol to approve the text. Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, has not completed a review of his transcript either.
-- Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, European affairs director at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, Vice President Pence’s special adviser on Europe and Russia, are testifying this morning. They are the first public witnesses who heard Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky. This afternoon, lawmakers will hear from Kurt Volker, a former Trump administration envoy to Ukraine, and Morrison, the former top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council.
-- Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient, plans to testify about his alarm at Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate his political opponents. “But Republicans are also seizing on Vindman’s testimony as an opportunity, signaling that they plan to try to discredit one of the key witnesses in the inquiry by questioning his motives and his loyalty to the president,” Tom Hamburger, Carol Leonnig and Rachael Bade report. “Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) suggested in a letter released Monday that Vindman fits the profile of ‘a significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch [who] have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and … react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office.’ Vindman’s lawyer, Michael Volkov, called Johnson’s assertion ‘such a baseless accusation, so ridiculous on its face, that it doesn’t even warrant a response.’”
-- “Trump and many of his allies have seized on a core defense strategy by attacking career public servants who are testifying as witnesses in the probe and spreading disinformation about their motives as ‘unelected bureaucrats,’” Elise Viebeck and Isaac Stanley-Becker report.
-- Vindman is the second of three immigrants scheduled to testify. (My Big Idea from Friday explains the significance.)
-- Volker will modify his testimony and plans to say this afternoon that he didn’t know the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations. From the Times: “Mr. Volker will say that he did not realize that others working for Mr. Trump were tying American security aid to a commitment to investigate Democrats. His testimony, summarized by a person informed about it who insisted on anonymity to describe it in advance, will seek to reconcile his previous closed-door description of events with conflicting versions offered subsequently by other witnesses. … Mr. Volker will modify his account as well, addressing disparities between his testimony and that of other witnesses. While he has been lumped together with Mr. Sondland and Energy Secretary Rick Perry as ‘the three amigos’ working on behalf of the president, he plans to try to distinguish his role, insisting that he was not part of any inappropriate pressure and that he was unaware of certain events that he has only now learned about through other testimony. ...
"Mr. Volker plans to say that he never knew that Mr. Sondland told the Ukrainians that the aid and investigations were linked and that he did not know that Mr. Zelensky was being pressed to appear on CNN and announce that he would open the investigations Mr. Trump sought. He also will seek to explain why his description of a key July 10 meeting in the White House with Ukrainian officials differed from those provided by several others. According to other witnesses, John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, abruptly ended the meeting when Mr. Sondland raised the investigations.”
-- State Department officials were informed that Zelensky was feeling pressure from the Trump administration to investigate Biden even before the July phone call, the AP reports: “In early May, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, including then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, were told Zelenskiy was seeking advice on how to navigate the difficult position he was in ... He was concerned [Trump] and associates were pressing him to take action that could affect the 2020 U.S. presidential race ... State Department officials in Kyiv and Washington were briefed on Zelenskiy’s concerns at least three times ... Notes summarizing his worries were circulated within the department ... The briefings and the notes show that U.S. officials knew early that Zelenskiy was feeling pressure to investigate Biden, even though the Ukrainian leader later denied it in a joint news conference with Trump in September.”
MORE ON THE INVESTIGATIONS:
-- Two senators are looking into a second whistleblower’s allegations that at least one political appointee at the Treasury Department tried to interfere with an audit of Trump or Vice President Pence. Jeff Stein and Tom Hamburger scoop: “Staff members for Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, met with the IRS whistleblower earlier this month ... Follow-up interviews are expected to further explore the whistleblower’s allegations. It could not be learned to what extent the senators consider the whistleblower a credible source. Trump administration officials have previously played down the complaint’s significance and suggested that it is politically motivated. The whistleblower, a career IRS official, initially filed a complaint in July, reporting that he was told that at least one Treasury political appointee attempted to improperly interfere with the annual audit of the president’s or vice president’s tax returns.
"In recent weeks, the whistleblower filed additional documentation related to the original complaint, which was given to congressional officials in July ... The IRS whistleblower complaint was first disclosed in an August court filing by Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. … Neal made the disclosure in court filings as part of his battle with the Trump administration over the president’s tax returns, which the Treasury Department has refused to furnish. … The Treasury inspector general has opened a review of the Treasury Department’s handling of House Democrats’ request for Trump’s tax returns. Asked whether that review would look at the IRS whistleblower’s complaint, Rich Delmar, the acting inspector general, said in an email that ‘the inquiry is ongoing, and will take into account that aspects of the underlying matter are the subject of litigation.’"
-- The impeachment inquiry is expanding to explore whether Trump lied to former special counsel Bob Mueller, the House's general counsel told a federal appeals court. Ann E. Marimow, Spencer S. Hsu and Rachael Bade report: “The statement came during arguments over Congress’s demand for the urgent release of secret grand jury evidence from Mueller’s probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference, with House lawyers detailing fresh concerns about Trump’s truthfulness that could become part of the impeachment inquiry. The hearing followed Friday’s conviction of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone for lying to Congress. Testimony and evidence at his trial appeared to cast doubt on Trump’s written answers to Mueller’s questions … ‘Did the president lie? Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?’ General Counsel Douglas N. Letter said in court. ‘The House is now trying to determine whether the current president should remain in office,’ Letter added. ‘This is something that is unbelievably serious and it’s happening right now, very fast.’ … Behind the scenes, there’s been debate among Democratic lawmakers about whether articles of impeachment should include obstruction of justice allegations detailed in Mueller’s report.”
-- Mitch McConnell said he still “can’t imagine a scenario” that would lead to Trump’s conviction in the Senate. “I can’t imagine a scenario under which President Trump would be removed from office with 67 votes in the Senate,” the Senate majority leader said, according the Louisville Courier-Journal.
-- The Supreme Court placed a temporary hold on a lower court’s ruling that said accounting firm Mazars USA must turn over eight years of Trump’s financial records. Robert Barnes reports: “The House itself had acquiesced to such a move earlier Monday. Without the court’s intervention, the firm would have been required to turn over the records Wednesday. Trump last week asked the high court to stop the order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. … House General Counsel Douglas N. Letter said in a letter to the court Monday morning that the committee will oppose Trump’s motion. But ‘out of courtesy to this court,’ Letter said the committee did not oppose putting the D.C. Circuit’s ruling on hold temporarily. Roberts said in his short order that the House’s opposition to Trump’s filing should be filed by Thursday.”
-- Another federal judge blocked the House from obtaining Trump’s New York state tax returns without a court review. Spencer S. Hsu reports: “U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols of Washington entered the unusual order in a potentially precedent-setting case, which came even though the House committee has not said whether it wants the records and has sought to toss out Trump’s lawsuit, filed last July. Nichols’s 19-page decision and order came one week after the judge dismissed New York state officials from the lawsuit, which sought to bar the House from requesting and state officials from turning over Trump’s returns using New York’s Trust Act, signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and enacted July 7. … New York tax officials had agreed not to turn over Trump’s records any sooner than seven days after Nichols ruled on whether the Trump lawsuit should be heard before him or before a federal judge in New York.”
-- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham announced that he will hold a hearing on Dec. 11 featuring Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. From Politico: “Horowitz's scheduled appearance before the committee comes as the inspector general is wrapping up an investigation into the origins of the FBI probe into the 2016 Trump campaign's dealings with Russia. … In a statement announcing the hearing, Graham described Horowitz as ‘a good man that has served our national well.’ … The South Carolina Republican added that Horowitz ‘will deliver a detailed report of what he found regarding his investigation, along with recommendations as to how to make our judicial and investigative systems better.’”
-- Nepotism alert: What does Rudy Giuliani’s son Andrew actually do in the White House all day? The Atlantic's Elaina Plott tried to figure it out: “The younger Giuliani has served in the Office of Public Liaison, beginning as an associate director, since March 2017, making him one of the longest-serving members of the Trump administration. According to White House personnel records from 2018, he earns a salary of $90,700. The public-liaison office deals with outreach to outside coalitions, and several of the current and former administration officials I spoke to for this story said Giuliani helps arrange sports teams’ visits to the White House. ... But sports-team visits are more special-occasion than scheduling staple in the business of government, especially in this White House, where many title-winning teams decline invitations to visit or are simply not invited at all. … Steve Munisteri, who was principal director of the public-liaison office and Giuliani’s supervisor from February 2017 to February 2019, told me that Giuliani fills out his time by serving as the office’s representative at White House meetings about the opioid crisis.
"Others who have worked with Giuliani offered a different take on his White House tenure. ‘He doesn’t really try to be involved in anything,’ one former senior White House official told me ... ‘He’s just having a nice time.’ Yet for the differing opinions on the nature of Giuliani’s role, the officials I spoke to were certain that Giuliani had nabbed a White House post in the first place because of his father. A second former senior White House official plainly called it ‘a nepotism job.’”
-- Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson said it’s “wrong” to ask another country for personal favors. “If you’re seeking some kind of personal gain and you’re using — whether it’s American foreign aid or American weapons or American influence — that’s wrong. And I think everyone understands that,” he told PBS NewsHour. (Well, not everyone.)
-- Jimmy Finkelstein, the owner of the Hill newspaper, has stayed out of the impeachment headlines, despite playing a crucial role in the saga. From CNN: “Finkelstein was [John] Solomon's direct supervisor at The Hill and created the conditions which permitted Solomon to publish his conspiratorial stories without the traditional oversight implemented at news outlets. And he has kept a watchful eye on the newspaper's coverage to ensure it is not too critical of the President. As one former veteran employee of The Hill told CNN Business, ‘Solomon is a symptom of the larger problem of Jimmy Finkelstein.’ … The paper's editor-in-chief sent staff a note Monday morning notifying employees that editors ‘are reviewing, updating, annotating with any denials of witnesses, and when appropriate, correcting any [of Solomon's] pieces referenced during the ongoing congressional inquiry.’ … Finkelstein has been friends with Trump for decades. In fact, according to a former employee at The Hill, he ‘boasts that he's a close friend’ of the President."
-- Rep. Devin Nunes’s attorney is representing one of the congressman’s former aides in a new defamation lawsuit against Politico. McClatchy reports: “Kashyap ‘Kash’ Patel, a lawyer who worked for Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee when Nunes was the committee’s chairman, is suing Politico over an Oct. 23 story with the headline ‘Nunes Protege Fed Ukraine Info to Trump.’ … Patel is represented by Virginia attorney Steven Biss, who has filed five lawsuits on behalf of Nunes this year alleging that news organizations, Twitter, anonymous social media users and political consultants conspired against the California congressman. … The news story at the center of Patel’s lawsuit reported that Patel tried to involve himself in the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy. Patel now works [on] the National Security Council. The story by Politico reporter Natasha Bertrand was based on sources who described diplomats’ testimony at closed-door House Intelligence Committee hearings…”
Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring calls the suit baseless: “This lawsuit is high on bombast and low on merit. It is unserious and is a public relations tactic designed to intimidate journalists and media organizations from doing their job,” he said in a statement.
-- Tribalism alert: A remarkable 2 in 3 Americans say that nothing they hear in the inquiry will change their minds on impeachment, according to a new NPR-PBS-Marist poll. “It's a tangible example of just how locked in most Americans are in their partisan positions, even as nearly a dozen people have either testified or are set to testify in the impeachment inquiry. The poll was conducted Nov. 11-15 — before, during and after the testimonies of the first three witnesses to be called in the inquiry. … By a 47%-41% margin, Americans say they are more likely to support impeachment based on what they've heard or read from the testimonies and evidence presented. And the testimonies could actually be serving to harden their views — 86% of Democrats said they are now more likely to support impeachment after hearing testimony and evidence while 83% of Republicans said they are less likely to now support impeachment. … Some 70% of registered voters say they've been paying ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ close attention to the House impeachment inquiry. And 53% of those paying at least fairly close attention say they're more likely to support impeachment.”
-- Notable commentary from The Post's opinion page:
- Dana Milbank: “Trump-friendly judges run out the clock on impeachment.”
- Foreign affairs columnist Robert Kagan: “Republicans are pushing the U.S. to accept quid pro quo as the new normal.”
- Catherine Rampell: “Trump and Republicans are on the hunt for Real Crimes.”
- The Post’s Editorial Board: “Republicans’ defense of Trump is full of holes.”
- Michael Gerson: “Trump spurs a Wild West of continuously worsening political rhetoric.”
- Eugene Robinson: “For Trump, incompetent bribery is still bribery.”
THE NEW WORLD ORDER:
-- Mike Pompeo declared that Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law. Karen DeYoung, Steve Hendrix and John Hudson report: "The move upends more than 40 years of U.S. policy that has declared Israeli expansion into territories occupied since the 1967 war a major obstacle to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response to a question, Pompeo denied that the announcement was connected to turmoil in Israel in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has supported the Israeli annexation of West Bank territory, is fighting for his political life. … Pompeo said the administration was returning to policy under Ronald Reagan, pointing out that Reagan said in a 1981 interview that settlements were ‘not illegal.’ Reagan went on in that interview, however, to say that settlements were ‘ill-advised.’” Pompeo said the Trump administration, as it did with recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, has simply "recognized the reality on the ground."
-- A bid by Netanyahu’s rival to form a new Israeli government has entered its final, fraught stretch. Ruth Eglash reports: Benny Gantz's options are limited. "The most obvious choice — uniting with [Netanyahu’s] ruling Likud party — appears increasingly unlikely, while forming a government dependent on smaller parties with sharply conflicting ideologies seems an almost impossible gamble. Gantz has until midnight Wednesday to announce a government, then secure enough support in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to approve the new configuration. If not, Israel will enter politically uncharted territory, with even the keenest of political observers saying they have no idea what might happen next — though most are betting it will set Israel on the path to a third national election in less than a year.”
-- An American and an Australian who were being held hostage for the past three years were released by the Taliban. That announcement came shortly after it was revealed that three detained Taliban commanders had been flown to Qatar. Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan report: "American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were instructors at the American University of Kabul when they were kidnapped in 2016. The militants are Mali Khan, Hafiz Rashid and Anas Haqqani, a younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy leader and son of the Haqqani network’s founder. They were held in a government detention center at Bagram air base. The Haqqani network is an insurgent group closely allied with the Taliban. It is accused of orchestrating many of the sophisticated and deadly attacks against Afghan and foreign installations in recent years.”
-- Swedish prosecutors announced that the alleged rape investigation involving WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been dropped. Karla Adam reports: “Eva-Marie Persson, the deputy director of public prosecution, said in a statement that ‘my overall assessment is that the evidential situation has been weakened to such an extent that that there is no longer any reason to continue the investigation.’ In 2010, Assange was accused of committing sexual offences in Sweden. A case involving an alleged rape was abandoned in 2017, but then reopened earlier this year after Assange was evicted from the Ecuador Embassy in London. Assange is currently serving a 50-week sentence in Britain for jumping bail in 2012 and is fighting extradition to the United States, which accuses him of publishing secret documents.”
-- As violence spikes, some Hong Kong activists see salvation in their British citizenship. Rick Noack reports: “As the Hong Kong leadership — backed by Beijing — is increasingly cracking down on pro-democracy protests in the semiautonomous territory, some argue that the West’s most credible leverage over the Chinese leadership there hinges on the British National Overseas (BNO) passport category. Issued to those who were residents of Hong Kong before the transfer of power in 1997, the passports entitle holders to some but not all rights that British citizens can rely on. Passport holders can, for instance, travel to Britain for up to six months without a visa or seek consular assistance abroad, but they are not entitled to stay in the U.K. indefinitely. Calls on the U.K. government to grant BNO passport holders full British citizenship are gradually mounting, however, amid concerns that China may be breaking its promise to maintain Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status for at least three more decades.”
-- China slammed Hong Kong judges after they ruled that demonstrators could wear face masks. Gerry Shih, Tiffany Liang and David Crawshaw report: “The central government’s Hong Kong affairs office said that Monday’s judgment ‘blatantly challenged the authority’ of China’s legislature and of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and created ‘severe negative social and political impact.’ … The comments poured fuel on one of the central grievances of Hong Kong’s protest movement — encroachment by the mainland government on the semiautonomous territory’s affairs — and could exacerbate clashes after days of violent standoffs on university campuses. But they reflect the Chinese government’s diminishing patience for the unrest, as evidenced by an increasingly harsh line from officials and state media, some of which have urged police to use live ammunition against protesters.”
-- About 100 protestors remain holed up at a university surrounded by police in Hong Kong. From the Guardian: “Lam ... said about 600 protesters surrendered to authorities at the Polytechnic University campus in Kowloon overnight, after police allowed two representatives to mediate between the two sides. About 20 activists were evacuated to seek medical help. In her first public remarks since the crisis began more than 36 hours ago, Lam said that 200 of those who surrendered were children and were not arrested. She said however that authorities reserved the right to make further investigations in the future. Lam said the other 400 who left the campus have been arrested. … Groups of protesters have tried to escape the tight police cordon around the campus. Late on Monday, dozens were seen abseiling down a footbridge as police fired tear gas, to drivers on motorbikes who whisked them away. Others tried to flee through manhole covers. … Police said they had allowed Red Cross volunteers into the university to ferry out injured protesters but said the rest had no option but to give themselves up.”
-- American federal agencies have failed to adequately respond to the threat of Chinese government-funded programs that have recruited scientists and exploited U.S. research to strengthen China’s own economy and military. From the Wall Street Journal: “With what are known as ‘talent programs,’ the Chinese government provides compensation and resources to researchers who at times illicitly transfer intellectual property to China, in some cases setting up shadow labs overseas mirroring their U.S. research, according to the report released Monday by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Participants are routinely told to conceal their participation from U.S. authorities, the report said. … The Chinese government has concentrated recruitment efforts on those born in China but working in the U.S., although it also has recruited some people who are not ethnic Chinese. The report included examples of U.S.-funded scientists who allegedly willfully failed to disclose their participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, the best-known of more than 200 similar Chinese programs, or engaged in other activities counter to U.S. research values, the report said.”
-- North Korean veteran diplomat and Foreign Ministry adviser Kim Kye Gwan said the country is no longer interested in holding talks with the U.S., saying it does not want to “gift the U.S. president with something he can brag about.” Anne Gearan reports: “Trump has been hoping for a third summit with North Korea, ideally within about three months, to show that his bold effort to befriend and persuade Kim is working. … Talks have been bogged down for months, with North Korea demanding relief from economic sanctions before any meaningful discussion of disarmament. The Trump administration has stuck to its dual approach, retaining sanctions while offering free-flowing, direct leader-to-leader talks that traditional diplomacy would reserve for the very end of a process. Kim Kye Gwan’s statement to the Korean-language website of the official Korean Central News Agency [said] … that despite the two leaders’ previous meetings, ‘there has not been much improvement in relations with the United States.’”
-- The U.S. broke off talks with South Korea over how to share the cost of the two nations’ military alliance. Min Joo Kim reports: “Trump has demanded South Korea raise fivefold its contribution to cover the cost of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in the country, asking for nearly $5 billion, officials on both sides said. But that demand has triggered anger from Korean lawmakers and sparked concerns that Trump may decide to reduce the U.S. troop presence in the Korean Peninsula if talks break down. The top U.S. negotiator, James DeHart, said the U.S. side decided to cut short the negotiations on Tuesday morning, the second of two days of planned talks. In a rare public show of disunity between the allies, he blamed South Korea for making proposals that ‘were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden sharing.’ … Trump insists that South Korea, as a ‘very wealthy nation,’ needs to pay more. His demand for up to $5 billion would imply South Korea was effectively not only being asked to cover local costs but also the entire wage bill for the U.S. troops.”
-- Jennifer Arcuri, the American businesswomen who claims she once had a “very special relationship” with Boris Johnson, said the U.K. prime minister has fed her “to the wolves” while ghosting her. William Booth and Karla Adam report: “British authorities are looking into accusations that she received undue advantages because of her association with Johnson, including grants and contracts and participation in three trade missions abroad as part of Johnson’s entourage. … Whether there are grounds for a criminal investigation won’t be announced until after Britain’s Dec. 12 election. And whether Arcuri’s accusations of bad behavior can hurt Johnson and his Conservative Party at the polls is unclear. … Johnson, 55, is separated from his wife and living with his partner, Carrie Symonds, 31, at the prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street. This arrangement, a first in British history, is barely commented on in the news media. … He remains Britain’s most popular politician.”
-- As she named herself Bolivia’s interim leader, Jeanine Áñez said her “only objective” would be to call for new elections. Yet in the week since she assumed power, the conservative leader has acted like anything but a caretaker as she undoes 14 years of socialist rule under former president Evo Morales. Anthony Faiola and Rachelle Krygier report: “In just seven days, the U.S.-backed leader has replaced Bolivia’s top military brass, cabinet ministers and the heads of major state-owned companies with appointees of her own. Her administration has threatened to arrest ‘seditious’ lawmakers, and ejected allies of the old government including Venezuelan diplomats and Cuban doctors. Her new foreign minister announced Bolivia’s exit from the Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, a union of socialist nations based in Caracas. As supporters of Morales took to the streets last week to object, Áñez issued a presidential decree granting security forces immunity from prosecution for ‘participating in operations to reestablish internal order.’ Within hours, a confrontation between soldiers and Morales supporters near Cochabamba left nine dead.”
-- Libya’s U.N.-backed government believes that two Russians arrested on spying allegations earlier this year were employed by the Kremlin-friendly Wagner Group, a security firm. Missy Ryan and Sudarsan Raghavan report: “Fathi Bashagha, who serves as interior minister for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), said the Russian nationals were arrested on suspicion of attempting to influence planned municipal elections and gather information on the GNA’s military operations against a rival force, which is based in eastern Libya and backed by Russia. Speaking in an interview during a visit to Washington, Bashagha said the men had provided ‘confessions’ and remained in detention while the GNA attorney general investigates their activities. The alleged intelligence operation coincides with mounting concern about Russian involvement in a battle for control of Tripoli and the larger schism in the country that has impaired the oil industry and provided a foothold to Islamist militant groups.”
DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS THAT SHOULD NOT BE OVERLOOKED:
-- Trump’s health is under scrutiny again after an unplanned visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. Toluse Olorunnipa and Amy Gardner report: “In a memo released by the White House late Monday, Trump’s doctor, Sean Conley, wrote that Trump’s ‘interim checkup’ over the weekend had been ‘routine,’ and was only kept secret because of ‘scheduling uncertainties.’ ‘Despite some speculation, the President has not had any chest pain, nor was he evaluated or treated for any urgent or acute issues,’ Conley wrote in the memo. ‘Specifically, he did not undergo any specialized cardiac or neurologic evaluations.’ While Trump claimed that he had begun ‘phase one’ of his annual physical, Conley said Trump would have a ‘more comprehensive examination’ next year. Trump described his condition on Twitter as ‘very good (great!)’; Conley’s memo did not characterize the president’s overall health. It did include cholesterol figures that had dropped since Trump’s last physical exam in February. It is unusual for a president to undergo a physical exam in multiple stages months apart, and the circumstances surrounding Trump’s visit renewed questions about the White House’s handling of his medical information, according to several experts. … Two people who interacted with Trump late last week said that he seemed to be hoarse and have signs of a cold but that nothing serious seemed amiss.”
- “Trump’s mysterious hospital visit raises many questions. His explanation for it didn’t answer any of them,” writes the Post’s Editorial Board.
-- Prosecutors are preparing to file charges against two Bureau of Prisons workers who were supposed to regularly check on millionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein the night he hanged himself in his cell. Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report: “The two corrections workers, whose names have not been released, fell under suspicion immediately after Epstein was found early on the morning of Aug. 10 in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal jail used primarily for people awaiting trial. The New York City medical examiner ruled his death a suicide by hanging, although lawyers for the disgraced financier have questioned that conclusion. … The death of the most high-profile defendant in the federal prison system led to a major shake-up at the Bureau of Prisons. Attorney General William P. Barr brought in a former director of the agency to run it again, and replaced the top official at the MCC, saying the preliminary investigation had found ‘serious irregularities at the center.’
"Those irregularities include logs indicating that Epstein was checked on regularly, in accordance with MCC procedures. Investigators don’t believe those checks happened … Prosecutors have been focused on charges against the officers of falsifying federal records ... In recent weeks, they sought to have the officers plead guilty, though they refused.”
-- Emails obtained by CBS News show that San Diego billionaire Doug Manchester was pressed by Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to donate half a million bucks to the party while his Senate confirmation to become the ambassador to the Bahamas hung in the balance. “Manchester donated $1 million to Mr. Trump's inauguration fund. He was offered the Bahamas post the day after Mr. Trump was sworn in. Manchester said Mr. Trump told him, ‘I should probably be the ambassador to the Bahamas and you should be president.’ Then, for two and a half years, Manchester's nomination stalled in the Senate. … He wrote back to McDaniel's request for $500,000, ‘As you know I am not supposed to do any, but my wife is sending a contribution for $100,000. Assuming I get voted out of the [Foreign Relations Committee] on Wednesday to the floor we need you to have the majority leader bring it to a majority vote … Once confirmed, I our [sic] family will respond!’”
-- The Trump State Department appointee who inflated her résumé has resigned amid fresh questions about the Trump team's clearly flawed vetting process. Reis Thebault reports: In a letter of resignation to Pompeo, Mina Chang “defended herself and criticized the ‘toxic environment’ at the agency, where she had served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations since April. Chang denied creating or commissioning the Time cover and wrote that her resignation should be seen ‘as a protest and not as surrender,’ closing by saying that stepping down was ‘the only acceptable moral and ethical option for me at this time.’ … ‘The Department of State is experiencing what I and many believe is the worst and most profound moral crisis confronting career professionals and political appointees in the Department’s history,’ wrote Chang, who had no diplomatic experience before joining the State Department. …Chang, in her rebuttal document, argued that her ‘background was fully investigated by the FBI and State Department’s Diplomatic Security. No questions were raised or concerns identified during the process.’”
-- In Georgia, Democrats are finding out that turning the state blue is easier to predict than to pull off. Jenna Johnson reports: “Four Gwinnett County Democratic Party leaders gathered on living-room couches to … [address a pressing] priority: In less than a month, Republican state leaders plan to purge the registrations of 330,000 voters who haven’t participated in recent elections — roughly 22,000 of whom are registered in Gwinnett County, many of them likely Democrats. They spent hours debating how best to find these voters and keep them registered, and organizing phone banks, including one ahead of a Democratic debate watch party Wednesday night. Then came a text message from another county party member who had heard that the state party was organizing a similar effort, as was a nonprofit group. ‘We don’t have time for this,’ Bianca Keaton, the first black woman to lead the Gwinnett County Democrats, said with exasperation. ‘We are moving ahead with the plan we made this morning. I don’t want them in Gwinnett County.’ The exchange was yet another reminder that while Democrats see themselves as poised to take over the state, they are a long way from building the kind of coordinated effort that Georgia Republicans — and Democrats in places like Virginia and elsewhere — have long enjoyed.”
-- In Virginia, Democratic lawmakers rushed to file bills as the legislative window opened for next year’s General Assembly session, setting out voting rights, gun control, LGBTQ protections and the Equal Rights Amendment as priorities for their newfound majority. Gregory S. Schneider reports: “It was bad timing for Republican leaders, who traveled to Richmond Monday to officially shut down the special legislative session on gun control that they had cut short over the summer. As the state’s docket began filling with Democratic proposals, Republican leaders presided over the floor of the Senate and House of Delegates for probably the last time before their rivals take over. … House Democrats chose [Democratic Del. Eileen] Filler-Corn as their speaker-designee, putting her in line to be the chamber’s first female leader in its 400-year history. Republicans made no effort Monday to draw attention to proposed legislation, which can be filed until 10 days after the session starts Jan. 8.”
-- Three people were killed during a shooting in a Walmart parking lot in Duncan, Okla. Katie Mettler reports: “The shooting took place just before 10 a.m., reported the Duncan Banner. Officers with the Duncan Police Department responded to the Walmart Supercenter on Highway 81 in Duncan, a city 65 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. A man and woman were found dead inside a car in the parking lot, and another man was found dead outside the car, police said in the statement. It was not immediately clear whether the alleged shooter was among those who died. A handgun was found at the scene, authorities said. The Duncan Banner reported that Red River Technology Center and Duncan Public Schools were put on lockdown.”
-- The shooting at a Fresno, Calif., backyard gathering that left four dead was a targeted attack, police said. Derek Hawkins, Katie Shpeherd and Katie Mettler report: “The shooting stunned Southeast Asian Hmong residents in Fresno, which is home to the largest Hmong population in California and the second-largest Hmong population in the United States. … The attackers, armed with semiautomatic pistols, fled on foot before partygoers could make out their faces in the darkness, police said. … Fresno Police Deputy Chief Andrew Hall said the department was mobilizing an ‘Asian gang task force’ to investigate whether the attack was connected to recent a spike in violent crime in the city by Asian gangs. There was no indication that the residents were involved in gangs, he said, but investigators believe the gunman intentionally targeted the house.”
-- About 60 percent of Superfund sites overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency could be hit by climate change, a new Government Accountability Office report found. Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis report: “GAO investigators said the agency needs to take more aggressive action to acknowledge risks facing some of the nation’s most polluted sites — and to safeguard them amid a changing climate. Even as they agreed with the GAO on certain points, Trump administration officials formally rejected a recommendation to clarify how preparing toxic sites to withstand the impacts of climate change is part of the EPA’s mission.”
-- WeWork could lay off thousands of employees as the company tries to recover from a disastrous attempt to go public. Marie C. Baca reports: “That means WeWork could lose about a third of the 12,500-person head count it had in June, according to a company filing. WeWork Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure told employees that layoffs would begin this week." There are also reports that the New York attorney general is investigating the former chief executive for alleged self-dealing.
SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:
Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee criticized Pompeo:
.@SecPompeo just said with a straight face, "I always defend @StateDept employees," while once again refusing to do so.— House Foreign Affairs Committee (@HouseForeign) November 18, 2019
Ambassador Yovanovitch, Jennifer Williams, and the other targets of the President's smears probably see things a little differently. https://t.co/JTRdqfnPrR
A freelance reporter in Hong Kong shared devastating images from the detention of protesters inside one of the city's university campuses:
Here’s a diver from the fire services dept going through a sewage pipe to make sure no one was inside, which was alarming since if they did find someone, they’d almost certainly be dead. There were dubious rumors about protesters having successfully escaped thru the sewer system. pic.twitter.com/H8Gx6CsjMa— Laurel Chor (@laurelchor) November 19, 2019
Pete Buttigieg is surging in Iowa, but a new poll shows that he has literally no support among black voters in South Carolina:
South Carolina continues to be Biden's firewall. Largely because he's at 44% among black voters. Buttigieg is at 0%.— Matt Viser (@mviser) November 18, 2019
Booker: 2% https://t.co/X2NxghmYlE
Ken Cuccinelli is now tweeting under his potential DHS title, even though he has not been confirmed for it:
Reminder: Cuccinelli has not been confirmed for anything at DHS— https://t.co/FUo1tHSzbg— Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) November 18, 2019
An interview of Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) went viral for uncomfortable reasons, and a BuzzFeed reporter quickly got to the bottom of it:
NEWS: SWALWELL denies it was him who farted on MSNBC: pic.twitter.com/IYmHwYfuGf— Addy Baird (@addysue) November 19, 2019
The MSNBC show that aired the interview and Swalwell tried to set the record straight:
A Supreme Court justice shared some details about the job:
Asked about the worst part of the job kagan says it is when she loses cases. After conference sometimes she says she wants to "ram my fist through a wall" but she adds that everyone in the court is acting in good faith...— Ariane de Vogue (@Arianedevogue) November 18, 2019
A World War II veteran in Texas is turning 100:
Janice, #WWII @usarmy Vet and resident of our @texasvlb Veterans Home in McAllen is turning 100 on Dec. 3. All she wants for her birthday is cards. Let’s make it happen, Texas!— TXGeneralLandOffice (@txglo) November 18, 2019
c/o Alfredo Gonzalez TX State Veterans Home
301 East Yuma Ave.
McAllen, TX 78503 pic.twitter.com/vAqYS0KiWi
And a 2020 contender had a bit of "Breaking Bad" fun:
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I did not feel courageous. I was simply doing my duty as a citizen, providing information to the Senate that I believed would be relevant to the Supreme Court nomination process,” said Christine Blasey Ford of her decision to testify against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “I thought anyone in my position would, of course, do the same thing.”
VIDEOS OF THE DAY:
The South Dakota government’s new advertising campaign takes aim at the state’s methamphetamine addiction crisis. The $449,000 ad blitz centers around the slogan: “Meth. We’re On It," Michael Brice-Saddler reports. Many online mocked it and a marketing expert went as far as saying it was a “colossal blunder":
Seth Meyers finds the evidence against Trump to be "overwhelming":
Stephen Colbert can't believe Trump actually went on Twitter and attacked the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine while she spoke to the House investigators:
Colbert also visited New Zealand and drove around the island with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern:
And Trevor Noah thinks Trump had a pretty bad weekend: