with Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: “Godfather II” is the Francis Ford Coppola movie that’s been in the news lately. Roger Stone was convicted Nov. 15 of tampering with a witness and lying to Congress about his efforts to learn of hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 presidential election. An FBI agent testified at trial that President Trump’s longtime friend and former political strategist twice told an associate to do a “Frank Pentangeli” ahead of a deposition two years ago to avoid contradicting what Stone had previously told the House Intelligence Committee.

In that film, Pentangeli is about to begin his testimony during a congressional hearing into the Corleone organized crime family when Michael Corleone ominously enters the room with Pentangeli’s brother. Suddenly, Pentangeli clams up. “I don’t know nothin’ about that,” he insists. The judge in the Stone case rejected a request from prosecutors to play this clip at trial, accepting an argument from Stone’s lawyers that doing so could prejudice the jurors.

-- Fiona Hill’s epiphany that Gordon Sondland was running a “domestic political errand” for Trump conjured the climax of another Coppola classic. In “Apocalypse Now,” Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) finally tracks down Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) after his journey into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness.

“They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound,” Willard says.

Kurtz asks: “Are you an assassin?”

“I’m a soldier,” Willard answers.

“You’re neither,” replies Kurtz. “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”

-- Hill’s testimony on Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee was almost as cinematic, and at times it felt like something that Coppola himself, now 80, might have directed. The former senior official on the National Security Council recalled confronting Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on June 18. “I actually said to him, ‘Who put you in charge of Ukraine?’ … I’ll admit I was a bit rude. And that’s when he told me, ‘The president.’ And that shut me up,” Hill said.

“I had not put my finger on that at the moment,” she continued, “but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating. And I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, ‘Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are.”

Hill said that she later chastised Sondland for not coordinating with her, and he responded that he already was briefing Trump himself, plus acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-national security adviser John Bolton. “Who else,” Hill said Sondland asked her, “do I have to deal with?”

Hill said she finally realized while watching Sondland’s televised testimony on Wednesday that he was “absolutely right.”

“He wasn’t coordinating with us because we weren’t doing the same thing that he was doing,” Hill said. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy.”

She testified that Bolton saw what was being “cooked up” as a “drug deal” and described Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as a “hand grenade” who was going to “blow everyone up.”

Hill, with her British coal-miner daughter’s accent, exuded a no-nonsense vibe. The White House instructed her not to appear, but she complied with the House’s subpoena and came anyway. She was not deterred by criticism from Trump allies or death threats and doxing. The 54-year-old confirmed an anecdote of her steeliness from a New York Times profile that, when she was 11 years old, a boy set her pigtails on fire while she was taking a test — and she snuffed out the fire with her hands and finished the exam. “It is a true story,” Hill said, adding that there were “unfortunate consequences.”

“Afterward, my mother gave me a bowl haircut,” Hill lamented. “So, for the school photograph later in that week, I looked like Richard III.”

-- This whole mess stems, at least in part, from Trump’s expansive view of presidential powers. Set aside, for a moment, the growing body of evidence that Trump sought to coerce the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of Joe Biden, his 2020 challenger, by holding up nearly $400 million in security assistance that had been approved by Congress and putting off a White House meeting with the country’s new president. Table the testimony that Trump told public officials to go “talk with Rudy,” his personal lawyer, to understand what he wanted from Ukraine, and unanswered questions about why Trump purportedly empowered Sondland to get involved in Ukraine policy, despite Ukraine not being part of the European Union. Look past the question of whether the president deserves to be impeached, an inherently political question.

Listen to Trump talk about this donnybrook specifically and the presidency generally, however, and it’s not at all clear that he thinks anything he’s accused of would have been inappropriate — if he did it. That’s not exculpatory, but it speaks volumes about his view of the presidency and raises a different set of questions about his fitness for the office.

Lawmakers asked the procession of witnesses this week whether the president’s purported behavior was inappropriate. They’ve asked, hypothetically, whether it’s okay for a governor to not fund a law enforcement agency if it doesn’t investigate an opponent. Even the witnesses called by Republicans agreed that this would be wrong.

Trump denies wrongdoing — as he always does — but it's unclear whether he thinks it's morally or legally problematic to seek foreign help for domestic political purposes. That might explain why he keeps describing as “perfect” the rough transcript of his July 25 call in which he asked for “a favor” as soon as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky broached his government’s desire to buy Javelin antitank missiles to fend off the Russian-backed separatists.

-- Trump likes to say he has an “absolute right” as president to do what he wants, whether it’s disclosing highly classified intelligence to Russian adversaries in the Oval Office, firing the FBI director and even pardoning himself. There are many more examples of Trump using this formulation and insisting that he has an “absolute right” to do what he wants as president.

The president has made increasingly provocative assertions of his own power since taking office almost three years ago. “Article II allows me to do whatever I want,” Trump said this summer. The president was making the point during an interview with ABC News that he could have fired Bob Mueller, who prepared the case against Stone, if he wanted to do so. He’s made variations of this statement several times in just the past few months, from a gaggle on the White House lawn to an 80-minute speech at a conference for pro-Trump students. “I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” Trump told the kids.

-- This, of course, is not true. Article II enumerates several specific powers for the president but by no means gives him total power. In fact, the impeachment clause is in Section Four of Article II. Removing a president for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” is literally, by definition, a constitutional act.

During an appearance on Fox News two years ago, Trump was asked why he had left unfilled so many key political appointments at the State Department. “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me,” he replied. “I’m the only one that matters. Because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. We don’t need all the people that they want.”

-- It’s not just Ukraine. Trump often mixes, or at least conflates, his private interests with the national interest. He’s shown no compunction about doing so. Trump pushed aides to choose his own resort in Doral, Fla., to host next year’s Group of Seven summit — and then backed off in the face of public backlash. Vice President Pence stayed at a Trump-owned property in Ireland that was hours away from his official meetings in Dublin because the president encouraged him to do so. The Air Force has scheduled up to 40 overnight stays at Trump’s property in Turnberry, Scotland.

-- Consider these three stories that have broken in the past 24 hours:

1) Trump is essentially charging the Secret Service to protect him. The U.S. Secret Service paid more than $250,000 to the president’s private businesses in just the first five months of his presidency — paying Trump’s company an average of nearly $2,000 per day. These new numbers come from credit card receipts obtained by the group Property of the People after an open-records lawsuit and detail additional revenue that Trump has taken from U.S. taxpayers. “The president has set up an extraordinary arrangement: He kept ownership of his businesses — and then visited them repeatedly, bringing along aides and security officials, and charging the government for what they bought,” David Fahrenthold, Jonathan O'Connell and Joshua Partlow report. “The documents do not give much detail about the spending. … The White House declined to comment. … The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment. … A Secret Service spokeswoman declined to comment. …

“Previously, other records have shown that taxpayers covered the cost of Trump aides staying in the guest suites at Mar-a-Lago, at $546 per night. Taxpayers also paid for a $1,000 liquor tab rung up by Trump aides in a Mar-a-Lago bar. The Secret Service records released Thursday cover only the first five months of Trump’s term, during which he made 21 visits to Trump properties … Since then, Trump has made more than 100 additional visits to his properties. The Secret Service has not released records about those visits.”

2) The foreign emoluments clause gets most of the attention, but there’s also a domestic emoluments clause that legal experts say Trump may have violated. The president’s businesses have taken taxpayer money from governors seeking to curry favor with the president. The latest example: Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stayed at Trump’s hotel when he came to Washington in January for two nights. Records obtained by The Post show that Kentucky taxpayers initially footed the $686 bill.

“Although Kentucky’s Republican Party reimbursed the state for Bevin’s stay two months later, the transaction may still run afoul of an anti-corruption provision of the Constitution,” O’Connell and Fahrenthold note. “In two cases wending their way through federal court, plaintiffs have alleged that Trump — by retaining his financial interest in his companies and doing business with state governments — has violated the Constitution’s domestic emoluments clause.

“A central example cited by plaintiffs has been visits to the hotel by … Republican Paul LePage, while he was governor of Maine. … Other guests have acknowledged staying at the hotel as a way of trying to curry favor with the president. … Judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit are scheduled to hear arguments in the case Dec. 12 in Richmond, and legal experts expect that because no court has ever previously ruled on the emoluments provisions, the case is likely to reach the Supreme Court.”

3) A far-right group that believes Islamists are infiltrating the U.S. government will hold a banquet tomorrow at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. Fahrenthold reports: “The group, the Center for Security Policy, has also spread the false idea that former president Barack Obama is a Muslim and alleged that mainstream Muslim organizations in the United States are secretly agents of anti-American jihad. The group has rented a ballroom for Saturday at Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla., for its annual Freedom Flame Award Dinner. The 200-person event, named after the group’s flaming-torch symbol, previously was held in New York City and Washington. … At this gala, a conservative group that wants to shape Trump’s public policy will also become his private customer. The permit says the Center for Security Policy event will cost $53,000.”

-- To channel a mentality Trump expressed in another context: When you’re a president, they let you do it.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Where is Howard Baker?" asked House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, as he lamented the lack of House GOP defections. 

 

THE LATEST ON THE INVESTIGATIONS:

-- No additional Intelligence Committee hearings are scheduled, though that can change if they can lock down additional witnesses. Committee staffers plan to release a report summarizing their findings based on the evidence that’s been presented during the hearings. Then the House Judiciary Committee will draft articles of impeachment, as soon as the week after Thanksgiving. (Karoun Demirjian, Elise Viebeck, Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky)

-- Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), the most moderate member on the Intelligence Committee, who is retiring and formerly served in the CIA, said as yesterday’s hearing wrapped up that what the president did was clearly “inappropriate” but not impeachable. If Hurd is toeing the line, it’s hard to see many — or any — House GOP defections.

-- The hearings have cemented House Democrats’ determination to proceed with impeachment. Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade report that the hearings have galvanized rank-and-file members and put the House on a clear trajectory toward impeachment: “‘The picture has been painted,’ said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.). ‘This is a president who clearly tried to bribe a foreign government to investigate his opponent. I mean, and it’s almost like everyone in the room understands that. But some [Republicans] are arguing that the burden of proof is so high that it can’t be met.’ Some Democrats — including those holding some of the most vulnerable seats — said they were waiting to consider all the evidence before coming to a conclusion, but they also declined to identify any major gaps in evidence that they would want to see filled before a vote.”

-- A group of Republican senators and senior White House officials met privately Thursday afternoon to map out a strategy for a potential impeachment trial of President Trump, including rapid proceedings in the Senate that could be limited to about two weeks. Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey report: “The prospect of an abbreviated trial is viewed by several Senate Republicans as a favorable middle ground — substantial enough to give the proceedings credence without risking greater damage to Trump by dragging on too long. Under this scenario, … the Senate trial could begin as early as January if the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach Trump next month as appears increasingly likely. … 

“Even a two-week trial could run counter to what Trump has expressed privately. The president is ‘miserable’ about the impeachment inquiry and has pushed to dismiss the proceedings right away. … Still, administration officials are readying all options to present them to Trump, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone is preparing to mount a full defense of the president for an impeachment trial. … ‘I don’t want them to believe there’s an ability to dismiss the case before it’s heard,’ said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who was among the group of half a dozen GOP senators who met Thursday with White House officials to begin mapping out a trial strategy. ‘I think most everybody agreed, there’s not 51 votes to dismiss it before the managers get to call the case.

In addition to Graham, the meeting Thursday included Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.), John Neely Kennedy (La.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), along with Cipollone; acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner; and counselor Kellyanne Conway … Ultimately, Trump will make the final call on trial strategy, a senior administration official said.”

-- Graham, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Pompeo to provide documents related to the Bidens, Ukraine and Burisma. Colby Itkowitz reports: “Graham’s document request suggests he is seeking to legitimize Trump’s accusations that Joe Biden, then vice president, put pressure on Ukraine to fire its lead prosecutor to protect his son, a claim without evidence that has been disputed by officials familiar with the investigation. Graham [said] in late October that he was under intense pressure to launch an investigation into Biden by Trump and his allies. But he said he would not ‘turn the Senate into a circus’ and would instead focus his committee’s work on the investigation into the Justice Department’s launch of the Russia investigation.” Apparently he's changed his mind after receiving pressure from the White House.

-- No precedent shields Trump from releasing his financial records, the top lawyer for the House argued in a filing with the Supreme Court. Robert Barnes reports: “House General Counsel Doug N. Letter said in a brief that the court’s precedents involving Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton make clear that the chief executive enjoys no special privilege to be free from investigation or legal action. The Supreme Court ‘has established that even a private citizen may invoke the courts’ subpoena power against the president in appropriate cases,’ the brief states. ‘In light of that settled law, it would hardly make sense to say that Congress, a coordinate branch, cannot use its own subpoena power in a matter involving the president.’” Letter added: ‘Each day of delay harms Congress by depriving it of important information it needs to carry out its constitutional responsibilities.”

-- The Justice Department inspector general found evidence that an FBI employee may have altered a document connected to court-approved surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser. Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima and Matt Zapotosky report: Inspector General Michael Horowitz “concluded that the conduct did not affect the overall validity of the surveillance application. … The person under scrutiny has not been identified but is a low-level FBI lawyer who has since been forced out of the FBI. … The employee was forced out of the FBI after the incident was discovered, two U.S. officials said. Horowitz found that the employee erroneously indicated he had documentation to back up a claim he had made in discussions with the Justice Department about the factual basis for the application. He then altered an email to back up that erroneous claim, they said.

“That conduct did not alter Horowitz’s finding that the surveillance application of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had a proper legal and factual basis, the officials said. … Separately, Attorney General William P. Barr tapped U.S. Attorney John Durham to explore the origins of the FBI probe and U.S. intelligence agency activities aimed at the Trump campaign, and Durham is expected to pursue the allegation surrounding the altered document to see whether it constitutes a crime. ... Durham’s work is expected to continue well after publication of the inspector general’s report.”

-- Prosecutors behind an investigation into the Trump Organization have zeroed in on Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer, and his connection to the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. From ProPublica: “Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, or SDNY, contended that the Trump Organization had improperly booked reimbursements for the hush-money scheme as 'legal expenses,' with the aid of sham invoices. They granted legal immunity to Weisselberg and later closed their 18-month investigation with the guilty plea of one Trump associate, Michael Cohen. But Weisselberg’s immunity deal applied only to federal proceedings. Now [Cyrus] Vance’s state grand jury is examining whether Weisselberg, among others — and even the Trump Organization — should face state criminal charges for falsification of business records, according to a source familiar with the investigation. … Neither the president nor his sons appear to be in Vance’s crosshairs at this point in the investigation, which is at an early stage, according to the source familiar with the investigation. But, the source added, New York prosecutors are far from ruling that out.”

-- A new book written by Glenn Simpson and his partner Peter Fritsch, two operatives at Fusion GPS whose lives were upended by their role in the dissemination of the Steele dossier, vigorously defends their work. From the Atlantic: “Accustomed to writing the story, the two ex-journalists, Simpson and Fritsch, had now become one. Since the dossier’s publication, they have been sued and hauled before Congress. They’ve had company bank records examined by Republican-controlled congressional committees and been targets of sustained attacks by the opinion writers at their old newspaper [the Wall Street Journal]. They feared the firm would be bankrupted by legal fees, and they worried for their safety. That wasn’t paranoia: Trump used his Twitter feed to repeatedly attack the firm by name and discredit the dossier. …

Some important assertions in the dossier remain unconfirmed. No pee tape has surfaced, nor is there any evidence that [Cohen] traveled to Prague during the 2016 campaign to meet with Kremlin officials and discuss payments to hackers, as the dossier alleged. Still, Simpson and Fritsch argue that the report was accurate in its warnings about Trump’s conduct and Russia’s willingness to undermine Western democracies. They note that the dossier mentioned how Russia had sought to woo Trump through real-estate deals. Trump long denied that he had any business dealings in Russia, though evidence emerged last year that Cohen had been talking with Russian figures about a Trump real-estate deal in Moscow deep into the 2016 campaign. 'After three years of investigations, a fair assessment of the memos would conclude that many of the allegations in the dossier have been borne out,' the authors write in the book’s epilogue. 'Some proved remarkably prescient. Other details remain stubbornly unconfirmed, while a handful now appear to be doubtful, though not yet disproven.'”

-- Hill also testified that conspiracy theories are as effective at advancing Russia’s agenda as they are at dividing Americans. Greg Miller reports: “‘Our nation is being torn apart,’ she said. ‘Truth is questioned.’ … Trump’s allies … [have] used the impeachment hearings to advance murkier claims that Ukraine sought to undermine Trump in the 2016 election. Hill treated such claims with scorn. ‘I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,’ she said.”

-- In Ukraine, the U.S. impeachment inquiry has been met with a big yawn. Michael Birnbaum and David L. Stern are on the ground: “Ukrainian leaders have done their best to stay out of it, seeing only peril in commenting for fear that Democrats or Republicans could use them as cudgels in their partisan brawl. Local media is filled with domestic intrigue about leaked corruption-related recordings, uncertain prospects for peace in eastern Ukraine and questions about where Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president … is taking the nation. And in the capital, Kyiv, ordinary citizens are far more focused on their own pocketbook concerns. … Protesters plan to mount a rally Thursday evening to press Zelensky to hold firm against Russia in his effort to bring peace to eastern Ukraine — the issue that is probably the biggest and most divisive in the country right now.”

-- The witnesses’ testimony was pointed but their clothes were reassuringly dull, fashion critic Robin Givhan writes.

-- Notable commentary from The Post’s opinion pages:

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DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS THAT SHOULDN’T BE OVERSHADOWED:

-- Pentagon officials were mostly kept out of the loop as outsiders lobbied Trump for war crime pardons. Dan Lamothe and Josh Dawsey report: “Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, who faced a murder trial next year in the 2010 death of a suspected Taliban bombmaker, said he expected the call to be quick. But Trump talked to him for nearly 15 minutes, asking questions about his plans for the future and the Pentagon’s application of military justice. ‘I’m paraphrasing here, but he asked, ‘Did you feel like you were going to get a fair shake or that it was slanted or biased against you?’’ Golsteyn said in an interview. ‘I told him, ‘Sir, it was quite clear that the outcome was fixed.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that was my thought, as well.’’ Trump’s intervention in the cases prompted a sharp backlash from some veterans and legal experts, who said that it will undermine the military justice system and weaken U.S. credibility abroad. But on Thursday, Trump weighed in again, saying in a tweet that he will not allow one of the service members [Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher] to be ejected from the Navy SEALs. Rear Adm. Charles Brown, the Navy’s top spokesman, said in a statement Thursday night that the service is aware of the president’s tweet and awaiting further guidance.

“How Trump came to believe that the Pentagon could not handle the cases fairly, and ultimately issue the pardons, reflects his tendency to accept the advice of people outside his administration. The president mostly left defense officials out of his discussions about the issue until a few weeks ago and told his top advisers that his supporters would back the move, according to five officials familiar with the situation. Instead, the officials said, Trump discussed the issue with other people in his orbit, including Pete Hegseth, a Fox News personality who highlighted the cases on his show and described the service members as heroes facing malicious prosecution. Trump called Hegseth numerous times to discuss the issue and told others about the conversations, according to one current and one former administration official.”

-- Trump made an unannounced visit to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive the remains of two soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Toluse Olorunnipa reports: “David Knadle and Kirk Fuchigami Jr., who each held the rank of chief warrant officer 2, were killed Wednesday in a helicopter crash … Both men are Bronze Star recipients and both deployed to Afghanistan in October. … Trump traveled to Dover with first lady Melania Trump; Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and White House aides. After meeting with the families of the fallen soldiers, Trump stood silently and saluted as the men’s remains were carried by a group of service members and transferred into a waiting van. The actor Jon Voight, whom Trump awarded the National Medal of the Arts on Thursday, also attended the dignified transfer ceremony. Voight told reporters he did not meet with family members of the fallen soldiers. He said Trump invited him to attend the ceremony.”

-- The Department of Veterans Affairs put “millions of people at risk of identity theft” by not deleting personally identifying information from records released while responding to a request for documents. Eric Yoder reports: “That information included names and Social Security numbers of people such as other military personnel and doctors who had treated the veteran, said an inspector general report issued last week. The report said people whose names were in the records were not informed that their information had been released, ‘meaning individuals at risk of identity theft might not be aware of that risk.’ Under a policy that started in May 2016, the Veterans Benefits Administration, a sub-agency of VA, stopped redacting personal information on other people from those files, which can be requested under the Privacy Act.”

-- A government shutdown has been averted — for now. Erica Werner reports: “Trump signed a short-term spending bill Thursday to keep the government open through late December, staving off a shutdown that would have begun at midnight. Trump’s signature on the stopgap spending bill came following Senate passage of the legislation on a bipartisan 74-to-20 vote. The House passed it earlier in the week in the midst of public impeachment hearings. … The bill extends government funding through Dec. 20, setting up a fight over money for Trump’s border wall that could happen around the same time the House is voting on articles of impeachment. ... It is the second stopgap spending bill Congress has been forced to pass to keep the lights on in government for the 2020 budget year that began Oct. 1. … Trump and Senate Republicans want $5 billion for the wall, but House Democrats included no such money at all in the spending bills they passed. It remains unclear where a compromise might lie. By extending funding through Dec. 20, lawmakers hope to give themselves time to come up with a deal on that issue and others that would allow them to pass full-year bills to fund the government for the rest of the budget year that ends Sept. 30, 2020.”

-- White House officials will present Trump with a plan to crack down on homelessness in California as soon as next week, and a top federal housing official who was appointed during the Obama years has been ousted. Jeff Stein, Josh Dawsey and Tracy Jan report: "Trump will be able to select ideas for how to address the growing homeless problem in several major cities. One person involved in deliberations said the administration’s plans are likely to target homelessness in Los Angeles and could include repurposing existing federal property, but the exact set of policy options to be presented to the president could not be learned. … The accelerating plans follow Trump’s demands to aides over the summer to do something about the homeless crisis in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. …

Rumors of the crackdown have generated concern among career officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as national housing experts, who worry Trump is trying to exploit the issue for political gain while offering solutions that could make the problem worse. Those fears flared up again when Matthew Doherty, who until Friday served as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, was told ‘the administration no longer wishes to have me,’ according to an email Doherty sent to colleagues outside the government. On Tuesday, career staff at HUD were told at an internal meeting that Doherty was not willing to compromise his principles and follow the Trump administration’s lead on homelessness policy, according to a person who attended the meeting.”

-- Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has weakened safety rules dictating how companies need to store dangerous chemicals. The rules were enacted in the wake of a 2013 explosion in West, Tex., that killed 15. Juliet Eilperin reports: “Under the new standards, companies will not have to provide public access to information about what kinds of chemicals are stored on their sites. They also will not have to undertake several measures aimed at preventing accidents, such as analyzing safer technology and procedures, conducting a ‘root-cause analysis’ after a major chemical release or obtaining a third-party audit when an accident has occurred. In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the revised ‘Risk Management Program’ rule addresses concerns raised by security experts, who feared that releasing the location of the country’s chemical stores could provide a road map for terrorists, as well as others.”

-- The Trump administration unveiled a plan that could allow oil drilling on over three-quarters of the nation’s largest piece of unprotected wilderness, overhauling a 2013 plan that limited development on the Alaskan reserve. Eilperin reports: “The 23-million acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which is roughly the size of Indiana, has attracted relatively little public attention compared with the neighboring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But it ranks as one of the most ecologically valuable and promising oil prospects in the country. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management announced it is considering four possible options for the reserve, from slightly scaling back the 11.7 million acres eligible for development to expanding the leasing area to 18.3 million acres. The Obama administration had put half of the reserve off limits to development six years ago, on the grounds that specific areas provided crucial habitat for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds and tens of thousands of caribou. But it is also the site of significant oil deposits, and recent findings suggest that it could hold as much as 8.7 billion barrels in undiscovered oil.”

-- Anthony Kennedy suggested Brett Kavanaugh as his replacement to Trump, according to a new book by deputy editorial page editor Ruth MarcusKennedy had a secret meeting with the president at the White House after a Rose Garden ceremony in April 2017 to swear in Neil Gorsuch, who like Kavanaugh was a former law clerk. Kennedy requested the private moment, Marcus reports, and told Trump that Kavanaugh should be on his shortlist. “The justice’s message to the president was as consequential as it was straightforward, and it was a remarkable insertion by a sitting justice into the distinctly presidential act of judge picking,” Marcus writes in “Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover.” Kennedy announced his retirement 14 months later — after Kavanaugh’s name was added to Trump’s public list by Don McGahn, Robert Barnes notes. “Marcus’s book, to be published Dec. 3, is at least the fifth to examine Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation. It does not attempt to prove or undermine the allegations against him …

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway reported to Trump and her colleagues [in the spring of 2017] that she had spoken with Kennedy’s son Gregory Kennedy at the annual white-tie Alfalfa Club dinner. No one was happier about the outcome of the election than his father, Gregory Kennedy said, according to the book. … Marcus writes he wanted to be replaced by another Republican. ‘That’s good to know,’ Conway replied, according to the book. ‘That happiness has consequences.’ (In a footnote, Marcus says that Gregory Kennedy denied in an email this summer that he talked to Conway that night about his father.) … When Kennedy met with Trump on June 28, 2018, to say he was retiring, Kennedy suggested Kavanaugh as his replacement, Marcus reports …

She quotes an anonymous White House official as saying he ‘had the most intense lobbying campaign inside and outside the White House.’ … She writes that a ‘delegation’ of former Kavanaugh clerks made a presentation to the influential Leonard A. Leo of the Federalist Society to try to persuade him that Kavanaugh was sufficiently conservative. Still, the nomination was not in the bag. Leo continued to advocate for a more conservative candidate, although his well-publicized role in the process annoyed Trump, the book says. ‘That [expletive] Leonard Leo yapping his mouth,’ the book quotes Trump as telling an adviser after seeing Leo on television. ‘Everybody should just keep quiet. I make the decisions here.’”

-- Former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh pleaded guilty to fraud-and-tax-evasion conspiracies to illegally hide profits from sales of her children’s books to enhance her political and personal fortunes. Pugh’s acknowledgment of guilt in four of the 11 charges filed against her came during a court hearing in downtown Baltimore, the city the disgraced 69-year-old once led. Peter Hermann, Lynh Bui and Ann E. Marimow report: “Authorities in April searched Baltimore City Hall, Pugh’s homes and a nonprofit organization tied to her, seeking financial documents and other information related to almost $800,000 she allegedly was paid for her self-published books. … Most of the books in Pugh’s transactions were marketed and sold directly to nonprofit organizations and foundations, many of which did business or tried to get business with the state and city of Baltimore. … In all, court records show, Pugh took purchase orders for roughly 124,000 books but had printers produce only 63,210. ... 

Pugh’s hearing surfaced new details about at least one book purchaser, who Pugh said in her plea agreement was aware his payments were being diverted to aid Pugh personally. In the lead-up to the 2016 mayoral primary, J.P. Grant, the owner of Grant Capital Management — a financing company in Columbia, Md., that did business with the city — wrote a $50,000 check to Healthy Holly LLC, court filings show. Grant understood, according to Pugh’s agreement, that the money was intended to produce books for Baltimore students, with the balance going to her campaign. One month after the general election, Pugh told Grant she 'wanted to buy a larger house so she could entertain people when she became mayor' and she took Grant to see the property, according to the agreement she signed. Pugh suggested that Grant write another check to Healthy Holly LLC, this time for $100,000, with the understanding that some money would help her buy the home. None of the money went to print or deliver books to school students.”

2020 WATCH:

-- Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg filed papers to join the Democratic race. Michael Scherer reports: “Advisers said Thursday that the filing was a step toward running for president, following several state ballot registrations, but not an official announcement or public signal that he had made a final decision. An adviser said the timing of the filing was triggered by his earlier application for a spot on the Alabama ballot. But Bloomberg’s team has been moving swiftly over the past two weeks to rebuild a presidential campaign operation that was scuttled after he decided earlier this year not to run. … Bloomberg is positioned to be a force to counter the candidates who emerge from the first four nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. In defiance of the traditional nominating calendar, Bloomberg has planned to skip those contests to spend heavily in states that will vote in March — including California, Texas and 12 other states that will award delegates on Super Tuesday.”

-- Terrible advance work: Deval Patrick canceled an event at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he showed up on Wednesday night and only two people had come to see him speak. It's an illustration of how little appetite there is for the former Massachusetts governor and also a reminder of how hard it is to jump into the contest so late. (Katie Mettler)

-- The moderates already in the race are striking back in a presidential contest defined so far by liberal litmus tests and one-upmanship. Sean Sullivan reports: “Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in a well-received debate performance, railed against the costs of the government giving too much away. Sen. Cory Booker cast doubt on a tax on the super-wealthy. … The presidential campaign’s ideological battle is far from settled, however, with staunchly liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) showing a resurgence since his Oct. 1 heart attack. His improvement has put pressure on the other leader on the left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to stand firmly behind liberal priorities as she seeks at the same time to broaden her appeal to more traditional Democrats. …

“The tone of Wednesday’s debate stood in contrast to earlier showdowns that had more anti-establishment, leftward bents. Where there was once criticism from Obama’s left about the former president, Wednesday brought nothing but praise for him, including Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s calls to ‘rebuild the Obama coalition.’ The name of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who routinely has counseled a middle course, was invoked positively. The heated exchanges over highly charged issues such as gun buybacks and decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings that headlined earlier debates were nowhere to be found.”

-- It seems as if the Democratic candidates have heeded Obama’s warning and discovered that ordinary voters matter more than social-media warriors. From Politico founder John F. Harris: “It often seemed like the candidates had taken to heart Obama’s paternal sermon last week, in which he said is not worried about a long and 'robust' primary process, but urged candidates not to orient their appeals around ‘left-leaning Twitter feeds’ and to recognize that the ‘average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.’ Even Sanders, who has described himself as a revolutionary, said he agreed with Obama. ‘We don’t have to tear down the system but we do have to do what the American people want,’ he said, especially with a health care system that is ‘cruel’ and ‘dysfunctional.’”

-- In Atlanta, Democrats made an urgent bid to court black voters. Chelsea Janes and Sean Sullivan report: “Booker was roaring through metaphors Thursday, quoting Scripture and Langston Hughes to a chorus of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Preach!’ in a room full of African American ministers, when a door opened a few feet away. A staffer ushered in South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who hunched over to sneak past Booker, trying not to interrupt or offend. He took a seat next to the Rev. Al Sharpton, then stood and clapped politely as the audience rose to its feet in raucous applause for Booker’s stemwinder. Toward the back of the room, an attendee observed the entrance of Buttigieg, who was set to follow Booker onstage. ‘Pete’s like, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?!’’ he mused to a friend, and the two dissolved in laughter. Buttigieg and Booker were just two of the Democratic candidates fanning out across Atlanta and the South on Thursday … in an increasingly urgent effort to court black voters. The multiple events highlighted a puzzle central to the Democratic primary: Can anyone chip away at black voters’ support for [Biden] — and if not, what does it mean for the Democrats’ ­chances?”

-- Some Latino debate-watchers were disappointed by the few answers the debate offered to their most important questions. Jenna Johnson reports: As the debate “neared its second hour and paused for a commercial break, Diana Vela turned to her friends: ‘I’m waiting for the immigration question. I want to know: Am I getting deported or not?’ Although [Trump’s] wall along the southern border was mentioned, fixing the immigration system was not. … Trump made immigration — and the demonization of immigrants who came to the country illegally — a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign and of his presidency, so Vela is surprised that Democrats have not made countering his message one of their top priorities, something deeply discussed at every debate, like health care. … As they watched Democrats churn through another event in the lengthy process of picking a presidential nominee, Vela and other young Latino voters with whom she watched the debate said they often feel forgotten. … Most campaigns have not spent the time and money to fully engage Latino voters, who participate in elections at much lower rates than whites or African Americans. In Georgia, about 2 percent of voters in 2018 were Latino, even though Latinos make up about 10 percent of the population.”

-- Wednesday’s debate on MSNBC captured only 6.5 million viewers overall, making it the least-watched of this cycle. It's a reminder that impeachment has frozen the 2020 race in many ways. (Variety)

-- Biden’s verbal stumbles have some voters worried about his mental fitness. But maybe they’d be more understanding if they knew he’s fighting a stutter, writes the Atlantic’s John Hendrickson: “His eyes fall to the floor when I ask him to describe it. We’ve been tiptoeing toward it for 45 minutes, and so far, every time he seems close, he backs away, or leads us in a new direction. There are competing theories in the press, but [Biden] has kept mum on the subject. I want to hear him explain it. I ask him to walk me through the night he appeared to lose control of his words onstage. ‘I — um — I don’t remember,’ Biden says. His voice has that familiar shake, the creak and the croak. ‘I’d have to see it. I-I-I don’t remember.’ … He stutters — ­if slightly — on several sounds as we sit across from each other in his office. Before addressing the debate specifically, I mention what I’ve just heard. ‘I want to ask you, as, you know, a … stutterer to, uh, to a … stutterer. When you were … talking a couple minutes ago, it, it seemed to … my ear, my eye … did you have … trouble on s? Or on … m?’ Biden looks down. He pivots to the distant past, telling me that the letter s was hard when he was a kid. ‘But, you know, I haven’t stuttered in so long that it’s hhhhard for me to remember the specific — ' He pauses. ‘What I do remember is the feeling.’”

-- Buttigieg’s campaign staff is unionizing. From the HuffPost: “Buttigieg’s campaign still needs to reach a contract agreement with the workers, who are joining the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2321, which is based in North Andover, Massachusetts. The union will only represent campaign staff with the title of ‘organizer.’ The agreement means three of the four leading Democratic presidential campaigns are now unionized. [Biden’s] campaign is not. ”

-- Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is resisting pressure from Trump on the person to appoint to an interim U.S. Senate post. From the Journal: “In recent days, the president has spoken to Mr. Kemp at least twice — once face-to-face in Atlanta and once on the phone — urging him to pick Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.), a vocal supporter of the president in Congress ... Mr. Collins, a white conservative from north Georgia, has pushed for months to get the seat that Sen. Johnny Isakson, 74 years old, is leaving at the end of the year because of health problems. But the governor is leaning toward appointing a female or minority candidate to improve the GOP’s chances in Atlanta’s burgeoning suburbs, key battlegrounds in the 2020 elections.”

-- Campaigns say Google’s new restrictions on political advertising just sidestep the company’s problem with disinformation. From the Times: “The decision to limit campaigns from targeting users based on political affiliation or voter record, which Google announced Wednesday night, was aimed at addressing concerns about invasion of privacy and the exploitation of voters through hyperspecific targeting. But the policy will most likely have little impact on the thornier challenge of disinformation, which campaigns and cybersecurity experts say will be the more urgent problem facing the major social media platforms during the 2020 election. Google’s new policy restricts a tactic — microtargeting of voters — that campaigns heavily rely on, while not aggressively addressing misinformation. … On Thursday, two separate groups of digital strategists — a bipartisan coalition from the University of Chicago, and a group of roughly 40 Democratic and progressive strategists — released letters criticizing Google’s new policy. The letters … both fault Google for not adequately addressing disinformation.”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, making him the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office and sending the country’s stalemated political system deeper into disarray. Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash report: “Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit capped almost three years of investigation and months of speculation by issuing a 63-page indictment against the country’s longest-serving prime minister and its center of political gravity for the last decade. The cases against Netanyahu center on allegations that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods in exchange for political favors and that Netanyahu interceded with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of two media companies in exchange for positive news stories.

Netanyahu, 70, has steadfastly denied wrongdoing during a wide-ranging probe that he has dismissed as a politically motivated ‘witch hunt.’ … Few here expect the pugnacious prime minister to do anything ­other than ferociously fight the counts that emerged. Many predict he will seek a vote in parliament granting him some measure of immunity. In a combative address Thursday night, Netanyahu called the indictment ‘a coup attempt’ driven by a corrupt set of prosecutors. He demanded that an independent body review the prosecution. ‘It’s time to investigate the investigators,’ he said.” Sound familiar? It's the same language Trump uses.

-- In Hong Kong, protesters trickled out from a besieged campus as the city prepares for elections. Simon Denyer, Tiffany Liang and Anna Kam report: “Half a dozen protesters, holding hands and wearing face masks, walked out of a besieged Hong Kong university campus and surrendered to police early Friday, leaving only a handful inside after a week-long standoff. Two more followed later, news agencies reported, bringing to around 30 the number who have surrendered in the past day at the Polytechnic University, which front-line pro-democracy protesters had occupied and transformed into a fortified base. … Surrounded by riot police, around 800 protesters surrendered Monday, with adults immediately arrested by police and hundreds of minors allowed to go free after having their names taken, but around 100 were believed to have remained inside.

“Police have said those who surrender could face charges of rioting, which carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence, and there have been fears of more violence if police storm the campus. So far, though, the police have been content to wait out the remaining protesters, whose supplies are diminishing. … On online forums and message groups, protesters advised each other not to wear black — the unofficial uniform of the pro-democracy movement — on Election Day for fear of being detained and denied the right to vote.”

-- Under U.S. pressure, South Korea said it would maintain an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan for now. Min Joo Kim and Simon Denyer report: “Seoul announced Friday it would suspend its decision to terminate the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA), hours before the pact was due to expire at midnight local time. Its initial decision not to renew the pact, announced three months ago, came under intense criticism from Washington, which believes that intelligence sharing between its two most important Asian allies is crucial to counter threats from North Korea and China. Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris told the Yonhap news agency that South Korea’s actions put U.S. troops at risk. But Seoul’s decision to postpone its exit from the pact was conditional, again restating a demand that Tokyo reverse an earlier decision to place controls on its exports to South Korea. Friday’s announcement could be seen as giving the two sides breathing space to find a solution to their spat, or as simply kicking the can a little farther down the road.”

-- In Iran, “rage is escalating” as economic stress reaches new levels. Erin Cunningham reports: “The protests have flared in many of the same areas that experienced unrest two years ago, when demonstrators protested a similar proposal to slash state subsidies. Then, as now, lower-income Iranians rose up against a system that they said had failed them economically. But a wider spectrum of society may have joined the revolt this time around, analysts say, pointing to demonstrations in major cities and at universities, including the University of Tehran. Protesters have also clashed with police in urban centers such as Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz and Tabriz. Over the past two years, Iran’s economy has worsened because of U.S. sanctions and declining oil sales — revenue the government uses to pay salaries and fund imports. Iran’s economy is expected to contract by 8.7 percent this year, according to the World Bank.”

-- Argentine prosecutors are calling for the international arrest of Gustavo Zanchetta, a Catholic bishop who worked closely with Pope Francis and who’s being accused of sexual abuse. Authorities claim he has gone dark inside Vatican City. Chico Harlan reports: “‘The [request] was imposed after the accused did not respond to repeated phone calls or emails, to the phone number and email voluntarily shared by him’ with authorities, according to a statement from an Argentine provincial prosecutors’ office. The attempt to bring Zanchetta back to Argentina sets up a potential conflict with the Vatican. It raises pressure on the pope to comply with a criminal justice proceeding, after outside experts have called on the church to be more cooperative with civil authorities. And it puts Francis’s judgment under the spotlight. Italian news media reported that Zanchetta is accused of abusing two adult seminarians. Zanchetta, 55, could not be immediately reached for comment. A Vatican spokesman, who is traveling with the pope in Thailand, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”

-- Thousands of union members and anti-government protesters took to the streets of Colombia, making the Andean nation the latest in South America to break out in large-scale civil unrest. Anthony Faiola and Rachelle Krygier report: “The protesters, who waved flags and banners, represented a range of disgruntled sectors of society — students, unions, and leftist and indigenous groups — that share rising anger against the increasingly unpopular government of conservative President Iván Duque. In Bogota, the capital, protesters waved the flags of Chile and Ecuador and carried banners that read ‘South America woke up’ and chanted ‘without violence.’ Videos circulating on social media showed riot police firing tear gas and apprehending demonstrators. Initially called by unions, the strike grew as other sectors joined in, furious over labor, pension and tax reforms being discussed in the national Congress, the killings of community organizers and indigenous leaders, and general dissatisfaction with the government’s failure to fully implement the historic 2016 peace accord with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.”

-- Graphic videos and images showed a vehicle driving into crowds of Chilean protesters, an incident that could intensify already violent clashes in the country over inequality and economic disparities. Michael Brice-Saddler and Rachelle Krygier report: “The attack appeared to take place Thursday evening in Chile’s northern province of Antofagasta. In videos, protesters dive out of the way as a car speeds down the street into demonstrators. It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were injured as a result. … In response to the protests, which have already resulted in as many as 20 deaths as well as thousands of injuries and arrests, President Sebastián Piñera declared the country was at war — which only served to intensify the protesters’ furor. As videos of Thursday’s attack circulated on social media, people attempted to identify the car and its driver. Some pointed out that after the car drove off, a similar-looking vehicle was seen entering a local police station in Antofagasta. By Thursday night, the Chilean national police force confirmed the attack took place, tweeting that the person responsible had been delivered to their headquarters in Antofagasta.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

The Republican National Committee bought enough copies of Donald Trump Jr.'s book to catapult it onto the bestseller lists. An RNC spokesman previously said that “we haven't made a large bulk purchase” of the new book by the president's son, but new FEC records show that was a false statement. The committee used donor money to buy copies:

Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter who has a job in the White House, continues her pattern of sharing made-up quotes that were never actually said. I wrote about this two years ago. This time, the victim is Alexis de Tocqueville:

Trump insulted the Democrats behind the investigation and told Republicans they are “winning big,” and he described the Republican-controlled Senate as “our turf”:

A reporter dug out tweets showing that Giuliani's mission against the Bidens wasn't exactly a secret:

Republicans had this sign up during the latest hearing, which suggests the opposite of the message they want to get across:

And the Trump campaign is now selling these shirts:

An Atlantic editor addressed a common criticism from members of the GOP, noting that times have changed:

After the U.S. ambassador to the European Union revealed that he ordered a bottle of wine at lunch, other ambassadors chimed in: 

The recently departed French ambassador to Washington said he let the wine flow freely, though not at breakfast:

A Democratic congressman was inspired by Fiona Hill, even though she's actually only one year older than he is:

So was the husband of Trump right-hand woman Kellyanne Conway: 

The “tell-all” book written by an anonymous Trump staffer came out this week, and the timing couldn't have been worse:

And this New Yorker cartoon crystallized the week:

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Stephen Colbert came up with a jingle to make impeachment easier to understand:

Seth Meyers has found this week of impeachment hearings jaw-dropping:

Trevor Noah profiled 2020 hopeful Andrew Yang:

Jimmy Kimmel thinks Biden didn’t do himself any favors during the debate:

And Bernie Sanders met with himself: