With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: Amy Klobuchar questioned last week whether a woman with Pete Buttigieg’s level of experience would be on a presidential debate stage. With the two Democratic candidates standing on such a stage last night in Atlanta, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tried to tee up fireworks between the senior senator from Minnesota and the mayor of South Bend, Ind. But Klobuchar took a pass.

“Pete is qualified to be up on this stage, and I am honored to be standing next to him,” she responded. “But what I said is true. Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise we could play a game called name your favorite female president, which we can’t do because it has all been men.”

Then Klobuchar delivered the most memorable line of the night. “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump,” she said, “Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

The crowd roared, and Buttigieg wasn’t asked to respond. It was a great moment for Klobuchar, who has struggled to translate impressive debate performances into grass-roots support, but her answer also spared a relatively untested candidate who has surged in the polls from what could have become a quite uncomfortable back-and-forth. Buttigieg, an openly gay white man, is seeking to become the standard-bearer of a diverse party whose most vocal activists have increasingly embraced identity politics.

The 37-year-old prepared for a barrage of intense attacks that didn’t materialize in the debate, which was hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC. But now the presidential race will move to the backburner for the next few weeks as the national media, and many undecided Democratic voters, turn their focus back to the impeachment proceedings in Washington. The next debate doesn’t take place until Dec. 19 in Los Angeles.

A similar dynamic played out with Kamala Harris. On Monday, she criticized Buttigieg for using a stock photo of a mother and child from Kenya to promote his proposal for helping black Americans. She called it a “big mistake” that suggested he’s not ready to lead our polyglot republic. “I don’t have words to describe that,” Harris said. Another moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, brought up the topic and tried to get Harris to say more. But the junior senator from California declined. She said Buttigieg has apologized for the error, essentially letting him off the hook, and quickly pivoted to talk about her own plans to help black women.

And so it went. Buttigieg has been eating Joe Biden’s lunch in Iowa, yet the former vice president chose not to come after him. Cory Booker, plainly jealous that Buttigieg has seized the mantle of generational change that he hoped to carry in 2020, noted at one point during the debate that he too was a Rhodes Scholar and previously served as a mayor of Newark before representing New Jersey in the Senate. In a subtle dig, Booker mentioned that he led “the largest city in my state.” (South Bend is the fourth-most-populous city in Indiana.)

-- The only candidate who decided to really go after Buttigieg in an aggressive way was Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, perhaps the most useful possible foil for Buttigieg who was onstage. She claimed that he wants to send U.S. troops to fight drug cartels in Mexico. “That is outlandish,” Buttigieg replied. He accused her of taking him out of context. Then he attacked Gabbard for visiting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which he cited as proof of her poor judgment.

Earlier in the debate, after Gabbard criticized the Democratic Party for being overly interventionist, Harris ripped her for palling around with Assad and trekking to Trump Tower during the transition for a meeting with Steve Bannon amid speculation she might land a Cabinet appointment. “I think that it’s unfortunate that we have someone on the stage … who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” Harris said. This laid the groundwork for Buttigieg’s clapback more than an hour later.

-- The debate underscored just how fluid the race remains. No one dominated this debate, including Buttigieg. The clashes were less ideological than before and more focused on electability. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick have taken steps to join the field because Biden has been a weaker candidate than they expected. The race has already been frozen in some important respects by the impeachment inquiry, making it harder for candidates to unveil new plans or to generate coverage for talking about anything other than President Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine.

A Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend showed Buttigieg capturing the support of 25 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, followed by essentially a three-way tie for second place between Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who all drew 15 percent. None of the other candidates are in double digits. But most voters say they’re not wedded to anyone. A more surprising Saint Anselm College poll released this week put Buttigieg up 10 points among likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire, as well, with 25 percent to 15 percent for both Warren and Biden, albeit with a smaller sample size.

-- Every candidate has distinct incentives with 75 days to go until Iowa caucuses. Because the field is so scattered, Warren, Sanders and Biden seemed more focused on promoting themselves than attacking anyone else. The senior senator from Massachusetts was barely attacked last night, certainly compared to last month’s debate, possibly because her rivals see her as wounded. Some wind has been coming out of her sails as she’s struggled to detail how she’d pay for her Medicare-for-all plan without raising taxes on the middle class.

Biden, celebrating his 77th birthday, struggled once again to deliver a decisive performance. One illustration of just how unsettled the race remains came when billionaire Tom Steyer accused Biden of not taking climate change seriously enough. The former vice president slammed Steyer for making millions off coal at a time when he was championing environmental legislation in the Senate. If Biden was more confident about his standing, he might have brushed off Steyer – a non-factor in this race – and merely touted his own record or plans for rejoining the Paris climate accord.

-- Even though Harris didn’t attack him on Wednesday night, Buttigieg has failed thus far to make inroads with African Americans, a struggle that continues to cast a cloud over the long-term viability of his candidacy. Despite those polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the whitest states in the country, Quinnipiac University’s new South Carolina survey shows Buttigieg garnering less than one percent support among black voters – raising new questions about whether he can go the distance when the nominating contest moves to the South and, if he’s the nominee, whether he’ll be able to re-activate black voters who backed Barack Obama twice but stayed home when Hillary Clinton was on the ballot in 2016.

Buttigieg watched his words carefully, but he referred to being openly gay as he discussed racism. “While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country,” he said.

Last night, though, no one mentioned the police shooting in his city that dogged him during a previous debate. But Buttigieg touted his stewardship of South Bend. “I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don't yet know me – and before I share what's in my plans, let me talk about what's in my heart and why this is so important,” he said. “As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low-income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.”

Booker went after Biden, not Buttigieg, on the black vote. Perhaps because Biden actually has black support. He criticized Biden’s comments from the weekend about the dangers of legalizing marijuana as an example of how he doesn’t understand the issues affecting people of color. “I thought you might’ve been high when you said it,” Booker quipped. Biden said he wants to decriminalize marijuana. Biden then touted his support from the black community, but he mistakenly claimed that “the only black African American woman who had ever been elected to the United States Senate” supported him. “That’s not true,” Harris declared. Biden corrected himself to say that he meant “the first” black female senator supported him.

-- Buttigieg was pressed harder by the moderators than his rivals on his relative lack of governing experience. The mayor is wrapping up his second term as the chief executive of a city with just over 100,000 residents. Mitchell noted that Buttigieg was elected mayor with fewer than 11,000 votes, and he lost by 25 points when he ran for state treasurer. He also finished third in the race to chair the Democratic National Committee just last year. “Why,” Mitchell wondered, “should Democrats take the risk of betting on you?”

“Because I have the right experience to take on Donald Trump,” he answered. “In order to defeat this president, we need somebody who can go toe-to-toe who actually comes from the kinds of communities that he's been appealing to.” Buttigieg boasted that a recent Forbes magazine list showed he’s “literally the least wealthy person on this stage.”

-- Buttigieg wants to position himself as the leading outsider candidate in the race, noting that his opponents onstage have served in Washington cumulatively for more than 100 years. The ongoing impeachment drama will give him an opportunity to sharpen this message, but that may resonate more in the context of a general election than a primary.  Five of the 10 candidates onstage were senators who would be jurors in any impeachment trial. A sixth senator, Michael Bennet of Colorado, didn’t qualify for the debate but continues to essentially camp out in New Hampshire as he tries to make some magic happen.

The conventional wisdom among the chattering classes – and across most of the campaigns – is that the trial could become a frustrating distraction that keeps the senators away from Iowa and New Hampshire on the eve of voting. Perhaps that might become a problem if the trial really drags on. But it’s also possible that these races have become so nationalized – even in the early states – that all eyes would be on whatever’s happening in the Senate. And the six senators could get a helpful platform to showcase how they’re standing up to Trump, which is undoubtedly helpful in the context of a primary. In that way, it feels like an impeachment trial could become very beneficial for lower-tier candidates like Harris and Booker who are struggling to catch a break.

“I know that from the perspective of Washington what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small,” Buttigieg said. The usual way of doing business in Washington is what looks small. And I believe we need to send somebody in who has a different kind of experience.”

-- More team coverage: Glenn Kessler, Sal Rizzo and Meg Kelly fact-checked 10 dubious statements made by the candidates during the debate. Matt Viser, Annie Linskey and Toluse Olorunnipa lead with the "squabble over black voters." Michael Scherer's analysis looks at how beating Trump, rather than beating up on each other, was the focus of the debate. Our liveblog rounds up all the highlights. Read the full transcript here.

 -- What pundits are saying: The Fix's Aaron Blake picks Buttigieg and Klobuchar as the winners, and he writes that Biden and Gabbard were the losers. CNN says Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Harris and Andrew Yang won while Biden and Steyer lost. Vox calls the debate for Buttigieg, Warren and Booker. Their loser is Biden. USA Today reports that Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Harris won while “the lower tier” lost by failing to break through. Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh has a counter take on Fox News: Klobuchar is her “biggest winner” while Biden and Harris are “surprise winners.” The Boston-based consultant thinks Gabbard, Buttigieg, Warren, Sanders, Booker, Steyer and Yang lost.

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-- Fiona Hill, the former White House adviser on Russia, opened her testimony before the impeachment inquiry this morning with withering criticism of Republican attempts to sow doubt that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Hill’s testimony sets the stage for an extraordinary development in the impeachment hearings, with Trump’s former top adviser on Russia essentially telling the public under oath that his refusal to accept the reality of Moscow’s intervention in 2016 is wrong,” Greg Miller reports.

“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services,” Hill said in her opening statement. “Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country. … The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions. It is beyond dispute.”

-- In the most damaging testimony yet for Trump, U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland said yesterday that there was a quid pro quo “with regard” to Ukraine. He explicitly linked the president, the vice president and other senior officials to what he described as a widely understood campaign to pressure a foreign government to investigate Joe Biden. Rachael Bade, Aaron C. Davis and Matt Zapotosky report: “More forcefully than he has before, Sondland declared that the Trump administration would not give Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a chance to visit the White House — unless Zelensky agreed to announce investigations that could help the president politically. ‘I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo’?’ Sondland said. ‘With regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.’ …

“Sondland acknowledged that he and others were the ones pushing Ukrainians to announce investigations, but asserted they had merely ‘followed the president’s orders,’ communicated through Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. Sondland testified that top-level officials — including [Vice President] Pence, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were made aware at various points of what was happening, and he provided emails to back up his assertions. ‘Everyone,’ Sondland testified, ‘was in the loop.’

"In his defense, Trump zeroed in on one favorable, but misleading, part of how Sondland described a September phone call between the two. Sondland at the time had just received a text message from the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, worried that the White House was conditioning nearly $400 million in aid on the country committing to the investigations targeting Democrats. Sondland later replied in a text message … that the president wanted ‘no quid pro quo’s of any kind.’ Sondland testified last month, and again on Wednesday, that the phrase came directly from Trump in a phone call before he sent the text. … ‘I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,’ Sondland recalled Trump saying in the phone call. Trump carried with him handwritten notes of Sondland’s words as he spoke to reporters outside the White House. … Sondland testified Wednesday that he wished he’d typed the text differently back in September, using quotation marks to make clear the no quid pro quo phrase had come from Trump. It was ‘not artfully written,’ he said. …

Sondland said that he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, at the time a special envoy to Ukraine, worked with Giuliani in pressing Ukraine ‘at the express direction of the president of the United States’ — even though they were reluctant to do so. At least initially, though, Sondland said he did not believe he was engaging in anything ‘improper’ — in part because he claimed he did not understand that Trump wanted an investigation of Biden. Other witnesses have disputed that account. … Sondland said Giuliani seemed more focused on getting Ukraine to publicly reveal the investigations, rather than actually carry them out, though he conceded official announcements would hold foreign officials to their word. … Sondland revealed an email showing that he asked Pompeo to help him orchestrate a face-to-face encounter between Trump and Zelensky, off to the side of a World War II commemoration ceremony that the two were scheduled to attend in Poland on Sept. 1. … Days later, Trump decided not to travel to Warsaw ... Pence made the trip in place of Trump. Sondland claimed he informed the vice president before the meeting ‘that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations.’” (Pence's chief of staff denies that this happened.)

-- Sondland’s testimony left Trump’s Republican allies scrambling. Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey and Kayla Epstein report: “As he traveled on Air Force One to Texas, Trump called members of the House to argue that the testimony was good for him, according to an aide ... Trump also professed to reporters that he had little familiarity with Sondland, a major donor to his inauguration who testified that he had spoken with the president about 20 times. … On Sondland, key Republican allies sought to undermine the ambassador’s credibility, while insisting that the basic facts had not changed as to whether Trump had committed an impeachable offense by pressuring Ukraine to investigate [the Bidens]. ‘I say that he’s changed his story several times and one needs to be suspicious of that. But having said that, take what he says, compare it to the facts,’ Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday of Sondland. ‘I just know this: That [Ukraine] got the money, and Hunter Biden and Joe Biden weren’t investigated. That’s what I do know.’ … ‘Mike Turner’s ability to get Ambassador Sondland to say that he had not heard from anyone in the administration that would suggest that aid was tied to any investigations was really powerful and compelling,’ said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Trump’s most ardent defenders in the House. ...

“The White House sent 14 different sections of talking points to congressional Republicans, coming in at more than 3,300 words ... Included was a list of 10 times Sondland said he believed or presumed information to be true but could not prove it. … Other Trump allies sought to argue that, even if there was a quid pro quo as Sondland had testified, there were other factors to consider. ‘I don’t think the quid pro quo is the issue. If you’re talking about an illegal quid pro quo, there are legal and illegal quid pro quos,’ said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). ‘And an illegal quid pro would be based on a president’s intent.’ … White House aides said Sondland was the most damaging witness so far because he actually had interactions with Trump and described key issues in nefarious terms."

-- Sondland appeared to embrace his role in history with nonchalance. Aaron C. Davis, Rachael Bade and Josh Dawsey report: “As Sondland warmed up, sometimes smirking, joking and announcing casually that, yes, there had been a quid pro quo, it soon wasn’t clear what gravity he saw in the moment. … There was no somber rhetoric, no cancer on the presidency in his eyes — but rather a businessman for a president who had a transactional issue to solve: Trump wanted certain things from Ukraine, and vice versa. ‘Look,’ Sondland said, ‘we tried to fix the problem.’ … At some points, he even appeared to be having a good time. Asked about a phone call in which he was overheard giving Trump an encouraging report about the pressure campaign, Sondland seemed amused when read back an account of having told Trump that the president of Ukraine ‘loves your ass.’ ‘Sounds like something I would say,’ Sondland quipped. ‘That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words.’ Republicans took turns reading statements issued by [Perry] and Pence challenging Sondland’s testimony in near-real time. The ambassador sat still, smiling slightly, seemingly unfazed. At one point earlier this fall, Trump had praised Sondland as ‘a great American.’ On Wednesday, a lawmaker read Sondland the latest presidential comment: ‘This is not a man I know well.’ Sondland seemed unperturbed, saying with a chuckle, ‘Easy come, easy go.’”

-- By providing the committee with emails showing top administration officials were personally aware of or directly involved in the alleged quid pro quo, Sondland validated many Democratic suspicions. He also highlighted how much evidence has not been turned over, which gives Democrats usable evidence to substantiate a likely article of impeachment based on obstruction. Karoun Demirjian reports: “‘Based on a sample of the documents attached to Ambassador Sondland’s statement . . . we can see why Pompeo and [Trump] have made such a concerted and across-the-board effort to obstruct this investigation,’ Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said at Wednesday’s hearing. ‘They do so at their own peril: I remind the president that Article III of the impeachment articles drafted against President Nixon was his refusal to obey the subpoenas of Congress.’ …

"Sondland’s revelations implicated senior members of the Trump administration, and he made clear there are emails, phone records and documents that could have a bearing on the House impeachment investigation. But it is not clear whether House Democrats will run down all the new leads, as doing so would likely require them to issue new subpoenas and double down on existing ones in the courts. Democrats have repeatedly expressed a reluctance to get bogged down in legal proceedings, and leaders are committed to not losing the momentum of the public impeachment hearings, which are on course to feature a dozen witnesses in less than two weeks. Senior Democrats have indicated that the House is on track to vote on impeachment next month. Yet several members have acknowledged that there could be value in securing the testimony of holdouts like Pompeo and [Bolton], neither of whom have yet been subpoenaed for testimony.”

-- Sondland’s dramatic testimony undercut the president's version of eventswrites chief correspondent Dan Balz: “He arrived for Wednesday’s hearing facing an obvious dilemma, which was to risk a charge of lying to Congress by significantly disputing testimony that had taken place after his prior statements, or openly disputing the president’s version of events and thereby risking the wrath of the president’s allies as well as many with whom he serves in the administration. He chose to take on the president.”

-- Trump told Sondland there was “no quid pro quo” on Sept. 9. That's the same day the whistleblower complaint was filed, after several White House staffers expressed alarm to the National Security Council’s top lawyer, after the CIA general counsel was alerted to concerns by an employee of the agency and after multiple lawmakers, including Republican senators, inquired about why the aid was being held up.

Sondland said he could not rule out the possibility that Trump emphatically said there was “no quid pro quo” only because the president had already learned about the complaint. “He was in a very bad mood,” Sondland said during his closed-door deposition last month. “It was a very quick conversation.”

-- If Sondland was an agent of Trump’s alleged plot, he portrayed himself as a reluctant one, writes the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser: “By 10:15 a.m., when Sondland finished reading out his twenty-three-page opening statement, it was all over but the shouting, of which there would be much over the next seven hours. But that was later. For nearly forty-five minutes, the impeachment hearings were compelling enough to bring the relentless Washington news cycle to a halt, at least temporarily. There was no hate-tweeting from the Oval Office, no spin in the corridors of Capitol Hill. Just people listening, watching, wondering what it would mean.”

-- Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine, amended her testimony last night. She says her staff alerted her after her first deposition that they received an inquiry from the Ukrainian embassy about the status of the military aid frozen by Trump on July 25, just hours after the president's call with Zelensky. "The new timeline Cooper laid out threatens one of the GOP’s main defenses of Trump — that the Ukranians were not aware of the hold on security aid at the time of the call between the heads of state, and that they found nothing alarming in the presidents’ discussion," Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner and Colby Itkowitz report. The White House challenged Cooper’s timeline, arguing that just because the Ukrainians asked does not mean they knew that Trump had frozen the money.

Lawmakers also heard last night from David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. Hale, the third-highest-ranking official at the State Department, shed more light on the dismissal of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine: “‘I believe she should have been able to stay at the post and continue to do the outstanding work,’ Hale testified about Yovanovitch. Asked by Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) whether ‘what happened to her was wrong,’ Hale responded, ‘That’s right.’” Hale, who was called to testify by Republicans, also said he believed it would be unusual to withhold military aid to pressure a country to investigate a political opponent: “

-- The timeline has remained somewhat murky. Philip Bump sketched out what we know so far about it.

--The Fix prepared a list of things that Trump, Pence, Pompeo and other senior officials knew, based on Sondland’s testimony, texts and emails.

-- The FBI is seeking an interview with the whistleblower, who works for the CIA. Ellen Nakashima and Devlin Barrett report: “A special agent with the bureau’s Washington Field Office contacted one of the whistleblower’s lawyers last month, and the FBI and the legal team have traded messages since … No date for an interview has been set, and it is not clear whether one will be … The FBI is interested in the ‘substance’ of the whistleblower’s complaint, said one person familiar with the matter. … The bureau does not appear to be pursuing a leak investigation … It is unclear precisely what the FBI is investigating in its request to question the whistleblower, or whether it did so with the approval of Justice Department officials.”

-- Federal prosecutors in Manhattan issued subpoenas in recent weeks to Trump fundraisers linked to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the two indicted Giuliani associates. From the Times: “The subpoenas went to a lobbying firm run by a top fund-raiser for Mr. Trump, Brian Ballard, and to two people who have helped raise money for America First Action, a super PAC created to support the president and allied candidates ... Mr. Ballard and the America First fund-raisers worked to varying extents with [Parnas and Fruman] … Prosecutors also arranged a voluntary interview in New York as soon as this week with Andrew Favorov, an executive with the Ukrainian state-owned gas company Naftogaz whom Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman tried to enlist in an effort to win business, potentially through Global Energy Producers.”  

-- Parnas, an indicted Giuliani associate, helped arrange meetings and calls in Europe last year for Rep. Devin Nunes, Parnas’s attorney told The Daily Beast: “Nunes aide Derek Harvey participated in the meetings, the lawyer said, which were arranged to help Nunes’ investigative work. … The travel came as Nunes, in his role on the House Intelligence Committee, was working to investigate the origins of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election-meddling. Parnas’ assistance to Nunes’ team has not been previously reported. A spokesperson for Nunes did not respond to requests for comment.”

-- Trump is aggressively courting some of his Republican critics – including Mitt Romney -- ahead of a likely Senate trial. From Politico: “By day's end, the president will have hosted more than 40 Republican senators at the White House since autumn began, mostly for weekly lunches that address a series of issues but also usually include a side of impeachment. ... Romney has said it would be ‘wrong and appalling’ for Trump to request foreign countries to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, prompting Trump to call Romney a ‘pompous ass.’ But the Utah Republican seemed to be keeping an open mind heading into the meeting, even if impeachment comes up. ‘It’s the president’s meeting. Whatever he wants to talk about, he can talk about,’ Romney said. ‘I wasn’t expecting an invitation, but I’m happy to hear what the president wants to talk about.’”

-- Life at the impeachment “kids table” for new committee members sometimes means waiting hours for the spotlight. Paul Kane reports: “All told, six members, four Democrats and two Republicans, are new to the panel, but only [Jordan], installed this month by GOP leaders wary of the performance by their senior committee members, has a prime seat. These are the lawmakers who have to wait, wondering whether their preferred topic will already be covered by someone with an earlier spot. That’s a normal tradition in any committee in Congress, but these stakes could not be higher, with cable news networks covering every single question late into the evening. In addition, special rules for this inquiry gave the chairman and the ranking member a combined 90 minutes of questions at the top of the hearings, leaving members of this ‘kids table’ stewing sometimes for four or five hours before getting a word in edgewise.”

-- New York Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D) will become the next chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee. She succeeds the late congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). Mike DeBonis reports: “As the most senior member of the panel, Maloney has been serving as acting chairman since [Cummings’s death]. But she faced a challenge from Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), who argued to his colleagues that he was better equipped to handle the rigors of impeachment and battling Republicans intent on protecting the Trump administration from scrutiny. In the end, Democrats chose to respect seniority, electing Maloney on a 133-86 vote. … As the most senior member on the Oversight panel, Maloney got a boost from key sectors of the Democratic caucus that prize the seniority system — including the 53-member Congressional Black Caucus. … Also playing to Maloney’s advantage were diversity concerns: Maloney is the only woman among the three committee chairs who have taken a lead role in the impeachment inquiry.”

-- Commentary from the opinion page:

  • Dana Milbank: “In Gordon Sondland, Trump has met his match.”
  • The Post’s Editorial Board: “‘Everyone was in the loop’: Gordon Sondland makes two stunning points.”
  • Alexandra Petri: “Foolproof ways to be not guilty of crimes.”
  • Max Boot: “Sondland was devastating. But Republicans don’t care about the facts.”
  • Henry Olsen: “Republicans won’t impeach Trump. But they should punish him.”
  • Deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus: “The House is now fully entitled to hear from Pence, Pompeo, Mulvaney and Giuliani.”
  • Jennifer Rubin: “If Pompeo doesn’t testify, he should be impeached.”
  • Kathleen Parker: “It looks like Republicans are trying to impeach the media — not Trump.”

-- On the coverage: As Sondland testified, a misleading Ukraine story quickly spread among conservatives on social media. From NBC News: “The incorrect story, first disseminated by the finance blog ZeroHedge, claimed that Mykola Zlochevsky, the head of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, had been indicted over money laundering related to the Biden family. … In fact, there was no announcement of an indictment. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, announced in October his office would conduct a wide-ranging review of all previous cases involving Burisma, and Wednesday said he was including possible embezzlement in the investigation, according to Reuters.”

-- Lawyers for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman sent a letter to Fox News asking the network to retract a “false and defamatory” segment that suggested the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert committed espionage. From CNN: “The request for a retraction centers around an October 28 segment on Laura Ingraham's prime time show, ‘The Ingraham Angle.’ During that segment, Ingraham seemed to suggest Vindman, a decorated military officer, was perhaps more loyal to Ukraine than the United States. Vindman was born in Ukraine but grew up in the US. ‘Isn't that kind of an interesting angle on this story?’ Ingraham asked her guest John Yoo, a law professor who served in President George W. Bush's administration. ‘I find that astounding,’ Yoo replied. ‘Some people might call that espionage.’ Vindman's attorney, David Pressman, characterized the segment in his letter as ‘false and defamatory’ and ‘deeply flawed and erroneous,’ noting espionage is punishable by death. ... A Fox News spokesperson pointed to Yoo's clarifications when asked for comment on Pressman's letter to the network. ‘As a guest on Fox News, John Yoo was responsible for his own sentiments and he has subsequently done interviews to clarify what he meant,’ the Fox News spokesperson said."


-- Trump health-care adviser Seema Verma spent $3.3 million of taxpayer money to hire a stable of high-priced image consultants, who tried to get magazines like Glamour to profile her and encouraged Verma to go to social events to boost her personal brand. Amy Goldstein reports on what would almost certainly have been a massive scandal in any past administration: “Earlier this year, a top Republican communications operative delivered a plan to boost the profile of ... Trump’s top appointee overseeing health insurance for the elderly and poor. The 'Executive Visibility Proposal' was a month-by-month blueprint to have her grant interviews to Women’s Day and other magazines, speak at prominent conferences and appear at Washington’s most prestigious social events. ... This work over 19 months that provided ‘strategic communication’ services by a network of politically connected contractors and subcontractors, first reported by Politico, came as Verma spoke about the importance of fostering individual responsibility and self-reliance among the nation’s needy. As chief of [the] Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services within the Department of Health and Human Services, Verma has forged a far more partisan and outspoken brand than almost any of her predecessors. Typically, CMS administrators are visible on Capitol Hill and elsewhere but focus on the wonkish details of public insurance programs. Verma, in contrast, has emerged as one of the administration’s champions of conservative health policies …

"Offstage but irksome to some CMS staffers, the strategic communications consultants— at least two dozen of them, documents show — formed an extragovernmental team that helped guide Verma where she wanted to go politically, oversaw some decisions by communication staff and attempted to elevate her profile in ways that go beyond what federal consultants usually are hired to do — and possibly beyond what contracting law permits, according to the documents, individuals familiar with the team’s role and an expert on government ethics. ... HHS ordered an end to the contract, and work stopped the evening of April 3, after Politico first disclosed the contours of the arrangement. Afterward, Verma told multiple people that she wanted the contract restarted … HHS’s Office of Inspector General has been conducting a review of the contracts and the contractors’ role since June, and an office spokeswoman said it expects to finish early next year. ...

The main contract was with Porter Novelli, a multinational public relations firm based in Washington. Some of the work was carried out under a subcontract to another firm, Nahigian Strategies, led by two brothers with strong GOP ties … Both of them billed at $380 an hour …  At one point, CMS asked HHS to approve a multimillion-dollar contract for a national bus tour for Verma that was organized by Nahigian Strategies, but then decided not to move forward with it … Still, the Nahigian brothers and their employees continued to work as advance staff for Verma’s out-of-town appearances — a role that does not typically exist for federal officials below the level of Cabinet secretaries but was important to Verma.” Verma’s spokesman said that, of the recommended magazines and news outlets that consultants thought could write about her, only AARP and Politico did. Sounds like a not-very-good return on investment.

-- Barry Myers, the White House’s pick to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has withdrawn from consideration due to health concerns. Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow report: “Myers’ nomination had languished in the Senate since it was first announced in November 2017, due in part to conflict of interest concerns regarding his family’s continued ownership stake in AccuWeather, the private weather forecasting company he led until stepping down on Jan. 1. … Before his nomination, Myers had served as the CEO of AccuWeather since 2007. AccuWeather has had a history of advocating for expanding the role of private forecasting companies at the expense of the taxpayer-funded National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA. Concerns had also been raised regarding AccuWeather’s record of sexual harassment lawsuits and settlements during Myers’ time at the company. … Myers’ nomination had twice been favorably reported out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, but was never brought up for a floor vote.”

-- Fox News television personality Pete Hegseth, who convinced Trump to pardon disgraced service members charged in war crimes cases, has also been tapped by for-profit colleges to defend a lucrative loophole. From ProPublica: “Under the law, for-profit colleges can’t receive more than 90% of their revenue from federal education funds. The logic, according to the staffer who drafted the provision, was that the education should be good enough that at least some students are willing to pay. But veterans’ benefits, such as GI Bill stipends, don’t count as federal education funds (even though they also come from the federal government). This ‘90/10 loophole’ means that for every veteran enrolled, a school can admit nine more students using federal loans. Veterans advocates and congressional investigators say this loophole leads to predatory and deceptive marketing tactics that sometimes leave veterans with unexpected debt and useless degrees if schools lose their accreditation or go out of business.”

-- Trump hosted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel, the pro-Trump billioniare who sits on the company's board, for a secret dinner at the White House last month. From NBC News: “Facebook confirmed the meeting ... on Wednesday. ... It is unclear why the meeting was not made public or what Trump, Zuckerberg and Thiel discussed.”

-- So swampy: Dozens of Facebook lobbyists are tied to members of Congress, a new investigation shows. From the Guardian: “So far this year, Facebook has employed 68 federal lobbyists, 12 in-house employees and 56 from K Street firms – spending nearly $12.3m on federal lobbying through 30 September. … The Facebook lobbyists have worked for 29 current members of Congress – 18 representatives and 11 senators – including key Democratic party leaders. Four of the lobbyists have worked in the office of [Pelosi]. Two have worked in the office of Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Other Facebook lobbyists have worked for the majority leader Steny Hoyer, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Mark Warner, who is vice chair of the chamber’s Democratic caucus, and [Klobuchar]. Some of these lobbyists have recently donated to their former bosses … Thirty-two Facebook lobbyists worked for Democratic members of Congress, Democratic White Houses, or were hired by Democrats to serve as committee staffers, and 30 more worked for Republicans. In contrast to the Democratic connections, no 2019 Facebook lobbyist has worked for current members of the Republican House and Senate leadership. However, several have worked for powerful GOP Senate committee chairmen.”

-- The Trump administration has secretly begun carrying out its plan to deport people seeking asylum from the U.S. to Guatemala without giving them a chance to see a lawyer first. From BuzzFeed News: “Two sources with knowledge of the process and emailed guidance sent to asylum officials ... reveal new details of the 'third country' agreement — including a crucial part of the process where asylum-seekers are not entitled to a lawyer. … [USCIS] officials emailed guidance to asylum officers across the country on Wednesday morning to notify them that implementation of the plan would begin … The first phase of the plan will take place in El Paso. Border officials will, on an expected daily basis, refer a small number of adult asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Honduras who arrived on or after Tuesday to asylum officers for interviews, according to two sources with knowledge of the process. A few dozen asylum officers who had already been trained on the process will handle the interviews. … Before this interview with an asylum officer, immigrants have no access to legal counsel — unlike their initial asylum screening, when they first arrive at the US border.”

-- Not a single refugee was resettled in the U.S. last month. From Quartz: “The nosedive is the result of a State Department freeze on admissions, according to a World Relief press release, resulting in hundreds of canceled flights and yet more uncertainty for the thousands of refugees hoping to resettle in the US. The department has issued an admissions ceiling of 18,000 for the financial year 2020—the lowest in almost 30 years, and well below the number of displaced people already in the pipeline to be resettled in the US.”

-- The Arizona activist who gave Central American migrants humanitarian aid has been acquitted on charges that he illegally harbored them. From the Guardian: The activist, Scott Warren, “was stoic after the verdict was read. His supporters were crying at the news of the decision. Warren, 37, testified that neutrality guides his work near the border and denied he has ever helped migrants hide or instructed them how to avoid authorities. … Warren was arrested in January 2018 by US agents who were staking out a humanitarian aid station in Arizona known as The Barn, where two Central American men had been staying for several days. The prosecutor Nathaniel Walters said the men didn’t need medical attention and questioned the authenticity of Warren’s claim that he was ‘orienting’ them before they left the camp. The camp is run by a group that tries to prevent immigrants from dying in the desert.

-- Five American journalists sued the U.S. government, alleging that border authorities violated their First Amendment rights by inspecting their cameras and notebooks and questioning them about their coverage of last year’s migrant caravan. From the AP: “Mark Abramson, a photographer working for The New York Times, said two CBP officers patted him down when he returned to the U.S. at the San Diego border crossing on Jan. 5. They emptied his pockets and searched his bag, which contained notebooks with ‘confidential source material,’ the names and contact information of people he encountered while working, personal reflections and receipts to be submitted to his editor for reimbursement, the lawsuit said. After being taken to another room and patted down again, Abramson said another officer asked what was in his ‘book,’ who was leading the caravan, whether they were for or against the U.S. government and whether he knew of any groups helping the caravan.”

-- A judge blocked the scheduled executions of four death row inmates, delaying -- at least for now -- Trump's efforts to resume capital punishment in the federal system. From Politico: “The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials planned to carry out starting next month. The only other execution that officials had put on the calendar, also for December, was blocked last month by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. In July, Attorney General William Barr announced plans to resume executions at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. He suggested the practice had been allowed to languish for too long and said it would deliver justice in cases involving what he called the ‘worst criminals.’”

-- Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) continue their quest for answers in the killing of Bijan Ghaisar by two U.S. Park Police officers in 2017 after the Justice Department decided last week not to charge the officers. Tom Jackman reports: “The two senators requested a briefing from FBI Director Christopher A. Wray about the case, and they also sought answers in a series of letters they have sent the FBI beginning last year, which the FBI has previously declined to provide. In addition, three members of Congress have asked the FBI to allow the release of the 911 call made at the beginning of the incident, which may shed light on why the officers repeatedly approached Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee with guns drawn after Ghaisar left the scene of a minor fender bender in Alexandria on Nov. 17, 2017.”

-- Trump urged Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to appoint Rep. Doug Collins (R) to fill a Senate seat left vacant by Johnny Isakson. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “It’s the second time in two weeks that Trump directly appealed Kemp to appoint Collins, who was long considered a top contender to fill [Isakson’s seat] before a multimillionaire financial executive applied. Kelly Loeffler submitted her application hours before the Monday deadline, apparently scrambling Collins’ calculations. Loeffler, a financial executive who co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA franchise, is widely considered by GOP insiders to be Kemp’s favorite for the coveted post. When Collins was pressed ... earlier Wednesday about whether he was contemplating a bid for the office regardless of whether he’s selected, he confirmed his interest.”


-- Trump said China isn’t “stepping up," as the trade talks show new signs of languishing. David J. Lynch reports: “Trump’s comments, made while touring an Apple supplier facility in Texas, came as investors appeared to be growing impatient with his inability to deliver the promised accord. Asked by a reporter if the deal would be completed this year, the president said: ‘I haven’t wanted to do it yet because I don’t think they’re stepping up to the level that I want.’ After nearly a year of bargaining, negotiators remain stuck on several core issues, including the extent of Chinese commitments to buy American farm products and U.S. willingness to reverse its tariff plans. … ‘We continue to talk to China. China wants to make a deal. The question is: Do I want to make a deal? Because I like what’s happening right now. We’re taking in billions and billions of dollars,’ Trump told reporters in a misleading reference to his tariffs on Chinese products, which are overwhelmingly paid by American companies. Privately, Trump is more eager to announce a finished agreement and is being counseled by his trade advisers to lower his expectations, according to a senior administration official.”

-- Hong Kong has now taken center stage in the U.S.-China showdown after Congress passed a bill intended to protect human rights on the island amid months-long protests. Simon Denyer and Tiffany Liang report: “Hong Kong’s stock market slid more than 1.5 percent, with shares across Asia and U.S. equity futures also falling, amid concerns the intensifying dispute over the city’s future could delay or derail an interim U.S.-China trade deal. … The prospect that the bill’s passage could harm U.S.-China relations and dent prospects of a trade deal appeared to undermine investor confidence. China summoned the U.S. Embassy’s acting chief, William Klein, in Beijing to express its condemnation of the bill, and vowed ‘strong countermeasures’ to defend its sovereignty. … The slide in shares eased slightly after China’s chief trade negotiator, Liu He, said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ about reaching an interim trade deal with the United States.”

-- The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 30 soldiers this week in the West African nation of Mali. Danielle Paquette reports: “In a statement late Wednesday, the group’s West Africa arm said it wounded another 30 soldiers while mentioning no deaths among its fighters. The Malian army, which routinely tangles with extremists in the country’s restive north, said Tuesday that 17 enemy militants were killed in the fight at Tabankort in the Gao region, which borders Burkina Faso and Niger. U.S. officials say the Sahel region, which lies south of the Sahara Desert, threatens to become a safe haven for terrorists to plot and launch attacks worldwide. Mali, which is twice the size of Texas, is a particularly troubling hot spot. … More than 100 soldiers have died in Mali since October in near-weekly clashes as the resource-strapped country tries to shake off a scourge that took root after the Libyan government collapsed in 2011.”

-- Benny Gantz, the former Israeli army chief, failed to put together a governing coalition, prolonging Israel’s political gridlock and making it likely that voters will have to vote in a third national election in less than a year. Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash report: “Gantz, who has rocketed to the top tier of Israeli politics, caused a stir in October when he became the first person other than Benjamin Netanyahu to be given a chance to form a government here in a decade. Twenty-eight days later, his mandate to try is expiring with no parliamentary majority in sight. … Gantz said in a statement Wednesday that he had informed Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that it was not possible to form a government. ‘I left no stone unturned. I sifted through every grain of sand,’ Gantz said in a televised address. He accused Netanyahu, the prime minister, of negotiating not in good faith over a possible unity government but ‘with childish videos and slogans.’ For the next three weeks, the law allows any member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a chance to do what Gantz and Netanyahu could not: cobble together the 61 votes needed to form a government. If this, too, falls short, as most analysts predict, the country’s deja-vu nightmare will continue with another election, probably in March.”

-- Britain’s Prince Andrew is quitting his public duties “for the foreseeable future” after a chaotic interview during which he defended his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Karla Adam and William Booth report: “Essentially, the Duke of York will now go dark — as sponsors of some of the 200 charities he endorses had already begun to abandon him, concluding that he no longer casts a royal glow but controversial shade. In a statement Wednesday, Andrew, the second son of Queen Elizabeth II, said: ‘It has become clear to me over the last few days that the circumstances relating to my former association with Jeffrey Epstein has become a major disruption to my family’s work.’ He added: ‘I continue to unequivocally regret my ill-judged association with Jeffrey Epstein. His suicide has left many unanswered questions, particularly for his victims, and I deeply sympathise with everyone who has been affected and wants some form of closure.’”

-- Six Iranian environmentalists were sentenced to prison for “collaborating” with the U.S. Erin Cunningham reports: “The defendants, part of a group of eight imprisoned environmentalists, were arrested and jailed by the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps early last year for their work tracking the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah. The trial sparked outrage among conservationists worldwide."

-- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shrugged off a government report that deforestation in the Amazon reached an 11-year high on his watch. Marina Lopes reports: “‘Deforestation and fires will never end,’ the pro-development president told reporters in Brasilia. ‘It’s cultural.’ The comments were quickly condemned by environmentalists, who fear that the Amazon is approaching a tipping point at which large swaths of the rainforest will be irrevocably lost. … The Brazilian Amazon lost 3,769 square miles of rainforest between August 2018 and July 2019, Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported this week, an area almost 1½ times the size of Delaware. That was up 30 percent from the previous year.”

-- An increasingly popular product has sparked a bloody cartel war in Mexico: the avocado. From the Los Angeles Times: “Mexico’s multibillion-dollar avocado industry, headquartered in Michoacan state, has become a prime target for cartels, which have been seizing farms and clearing protected woodlands to plant their own groves of what locals call ‘green gold.’ More than a dozen criminal groups are battling for control of the avocado trade in and around the city of Uruapan, preying on wealthy orchard owners, the laborers who pick the fruit and the drivers who truck it north to the United States."

-- Myanmar’s government announced that its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, will head a legal team it will send to the International Court of Justice to contest a charge of genocide filed against the regime. From the Times: “The country’s military has been accused of carrying out mass rapes, killings and the torching of homes during a counterinsurgency campaign launched in western Myanmar in August 2017 after rebel attacks. The violence sent more than 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s population is overwhelmingly Buddhist. … The head of a U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar warned last month that ‘there is a serious risk of genocide recurring,’ and the mission also said in its final report in September that Myanmar should be held responsible in international legal forums for alleged genocide against the Rohingya. Myanmar has strongly denied carrying out organized human rights abuses."


Trump's notes on Sondland's testimony quickly caught the Internet's attention:

This picture of Sondland at the hearing by Post photographer Matt McClain also went viral:


The look from Nunes as he turned off his microphone after the first stretch of Sondland’s testimony went viral:

Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), a Trump critic who left the GOP on July 4, joked about it:


In his testimony, Sondland further pushed the notion that Trump didn't really care about corruption in Ukraine;

A Post foreign affairs columnist argued that we still don't have enough information about Rick Perry's role in this scandal: 

A Vox editor noted this troubling detail:

And a Bloomberg reporter noted this one:

The Post's fact-checker dug out email proof that contradicted a State Department defense of Pompeo: 

Sondland mentioned rapper A$AP Rocky in his testimony, and no one batted an eye:

After testifying, Sondland made it to his flight: 

Sondland, by the way, wasn’t the only high-profile figure flying out of Dulles yesterday:

Giuliani denied ever meeting Sondland:

And he asked for an apology:

An NBC correspondent shared this throwback:

And a Vox reporter shared this other throwback:

Here are Adam Schiff and Jim Jordan back in high school, via a CNN reporter:

And a Democratic senator observed that none of the oversight being conducted by the House Intelligence Committee would be happening if not for the outcome of last November's midterms:

Andrew Yang missed a former candidate’s presence onstage in last night's debate:

And Marianne Williamson reminded her followers that she's still running:

The other candidates who did not qualify for the fifth debate also tried to make their absences noticeable:

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "My whole day has been like this," Sondland said at Dulles, after accidentally placing his carry-on bag into the wrong overhead bin on his flight back to Brussels. (CNN)



Stephen Colbert joked that Sondland “spilled the tea” about Trump and Ukraine:

Seth Meyers thinks yesterday might have been the most devastating day of the Trump presidency… so far:

Sam Bee has concluded that all the president’s men colluded: