WILL HE STAY OR WILL HE GO … RUN FOR SENATE?: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now officially a key player in Ukrainegate — and he is quickly proving himself as one of President Trump's most loyal foot soldiers.
Pompeo has admitted he was also on the phone call in which Trump pressed Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a 2020 political rival. He's refused lawmakers' demands for State officials to appear this week for depositions for the impeachment inquiry, accusing Democrats of “bullying” his department's employees. And he's generally adopting Trump's scorched-earth approach.
But Republicans told Power Up that Pompeo's heightened role in the biggest challenge of Trump's presidency could actually help the top diplomat in his own political ambitions.
Top Republicans have been urging the former Kansas congressman to throw his hat in the ring for an open Senate seat. And many watching that race said Pompeo's profile in the red state could not be higher than as the president's wingman and defender.
- “I don't see this as a political liability in Kansas — this is nonsense and I think most Kansas Republicans would agree with that,” a longtime Kansas Republican political consultant told Power Up.
- If anything, the imbroglio is a chance for Pompeo to prove his loyalty to Trump: “It would hurt him politically if he abandoned the president.”
- Some key Kansans said Pompeo has already risen to the occasion by working to discredit the impeachment investigation: “I hope he runs — he is very important to the U.S. right now,” Alan Cobb, the president and CEO of the Kansas U.S. Chamber of Commerce who is also weighing a Senate bid, told Power Up.
The political backdrop: A Democrat hasn't been elected to represent Kansas in the Senate since 1930. But Republicans have expressed concern that former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach (R) is likely to win the primary. The controversial hard-liner and Trump ally was beat out by Democrat Laura Kelly in the gubernatorial race last year, giving the left hope that they'll be able to beat Kobach a second time around.
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he'd “like to see the secretary of state run for the Senate in Kansas” just one day after Kobach announced in July: “I’ve made it clear that [Pompeo's] my first choice,” McConnell reiterated last month.
- But Pompeo has demurred when asked whether he'd do it. He told the Wichita Eagle's Jonathan Shorman that he'll remain at the State Department “as long as President Trump will give me this incredible privilege.”
Those who are pulling for Pompeo to jump in say he can wait until 2020 to make a decision on whether to run — and that it would actually be politically wise to spend the next few months putting up a big public push to defend Trump as much as possible.
Already, Pompeo's get-tough approach with Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who has become the public face of Democrats' impeachment inquiry, has earned plaudits from the big boss. “Adam B. Schiff should only be so lucky to have the brains, honor and strength of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” Trump tweeted.
- Trump took issue with Schiff criticizing Pompeo and suggesting the secretary of state might interfere with witnesses in the impeachment inquiry: “That guy couldn’t carry his blank strap,” Trump said of Schiff. (As our colleagues reported, “Trump said he was trying to sanitize a common phrase about carrying a jock strap.”)
Counterpoint: Some Democrats working on Senate races said Pompeo's role in the impeachment inquiry is a serious political risk — especially in a state like Kansas that might be up for grabs.
- Potential attack lines: “I think that not just for [Pompeo] but for many Republicans on the ballot, the question is: Are you standing up for basic information?” a Democratic aide working on Senate races told Power Up. “And if you're not willing to find out the facts because you're worried about upsetting the president or protecting your political interests, that is not what is right and not what is patriotic.”
- The impeachment inquiry may not move some Republicans regardless of the findings, the source acknowledged, but predicted that a blind fealty to Trump might repel swing voters: “The problem for Republicans — considering how independent and swing voters fell in 2018 --- is that [loyalty] is not enough for them.”
From a tactical standpoint, Pompeo's own legal exposure won't really be affected if he leaves his current role, according to John Bies, the chief counsel at a liberal watchdog group American Oversight who served in the Department of Justice during the Obama administration.
- “Congress can still subpoena him when he's off in Kansas,” Bies told Power Up.
- Pompeo could, however, cede raw political power if the inquiry is still ongoing and he leaves his perch at State. Running for office, Bies said, “could affect the political calculus over what to claim privilege over — and if he is not at the State Department anymore, he wont be involved in making recommendations to the White House.”
Chatter: Of course, there's always the possibility that Pompeo — known for his political ambition — opts not to stay in the bull's eye of the fight between the executive branch and Congress for too long.
- Chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) accused Pompeo of obstruction in a statement this week: “The committee may infer that he is trying to cover up illicit activity and misconduct, including by the president.”
- “He likes to be close to the center but you get burned in the center. Maybe he bails out and runs for Senate … He's all about himself,” said a Republican operative who works on national races.
THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY: "Pompeo’s recently departed special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, is scheduled to meet with congressional investigators behind closed doors on Thursday. It remains unclear whether a transcript of the interview will be made public," our colleagues John Hudson and John Wagner report.
- 👀: "In advance of the appearance, Volker has turned over a number of documents to congressional staffers consisting of text messages with Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and other people, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record."
- Volker "agreed to sit for a deposition without a subpoena or any pre-conditions," per Bloomberg's Justin Sink and Billy House. "His deposition will be the first of five former and current State Department officials called by the House committees on intelligence, foreign affairs and oversight that are leading the probe."
TRUMP LASHES OUT IN FIERY NEWS CONFERENCE: "The East Room of the White House played host to a roller coaster display of the grievances, victimhood, falsehoods and braggadocio that have come to define Trump’s presidency — a combustible mix that has only become more potent as the president faces the growing threat of impeachment," our colleague Toluse Olorunnipa writes.
Things really seemed to go off the rails when Trump was pressed on a key question central to the impeachment inquiry: What he wanted Zelensky to do about the Bidens on the July 25 phone call. “Are you talking to me?” Trump said, glaring at Jeff Mason of Reuters. Trump dodged the question repeatedly. Instead he offered without evidence that former vice president Joe "Biden and his son are stone-cold crooked."
Trump engages in contentious back and forth with @JeffMason1 after he dodges Ukraine question:— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) October 2, 2019
Trump: We have the president of Finland, ask him a question.
Mason: I have one for him, I just wanted to follow up on the one I asked you—
Trump: Did you hear me? Ask him a question! pic.twitter.com/Co64SmxOmk
Here's what else you need to know:
- Trump also claimed without evidence that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) 'helped write' the whistleblower's complaint: "Well, I think it’s a scandal that he knew before. I’d go a step further: I think he’s probably helped write it. Okay? That’s what the word is,” Trump said. (He was responding to a New York Times report that the whistleblower met with a member of Schiff's staff before coming forward. Nowhere is there any evidence that Schiff helped "write” the complaint in any way, and the lawmaker's team has denied that.)
- He blasted the House speaker: "Nancy Pelosi hands out subpoenas like — you know, she has to approve it. She hands out subpoenas like they're cookies. 'You want a subpoena? Here you go. Take them.' Like they're cookies.”
- "Trump grew most animated as he listed his grievances and described all the forces he believed are arrayed against him and his presidency," Toluse writes. "He repeated words like 'hoax' 'scam' and 'fraud' as casually as another president might say NATO or 'shared values.'" Key quote: "The political storm, I’ve lived with it from the day I got elected. I’m used to it. For me, it’s like putting on a suit in the morning.”
- This is why the president said the U.S. actually held up aid to Ukraine: "Because I don’t like being the sucker country. We were the sucker country for years and years."
- Reality check: the U.S. is far from the only country to give money to Ukraine. "Since 2014, the European Community has provided Ukraine with $15 billion in aid, including over $2 billion in grants,” Politifact's Jon Greenberg wrote. The aid the Trump administration slow walked had already been approved by Congress and was to help the country fight back against Moscow-backed forces that invaded Crimea in 2014.
It wasn't just the press conference: Trump also flew off the handle on Twitter as well, tweeting a Nickelback video, an EXPLETIVE and other attacks on Democrats and Joe Biden:
The Do Nothing Democrats should be focused on building up our Country, not wasting everyone’s time and energy on BULLSHIT, which is what they have been doing ever since I got overwhelmingly elected in 2016, 223-306. Get a better candidate this time, you’ll need it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2019
WHERE'S THE VEEP IN ALL THIS?: “Trump repeatedly involved Vice President Pence in efforts to exert pressure on the leader of Ukraine at a time when the president was using other channels to solicit information that he hoped would be damaging to [Biden], current and former U.S. officials said,” our colleagues Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Ashley Parker report. “...Trump’s deployment of Pence is part of a broader pattern of using both executive authority and high-ranking officials in his administration to advance his personal or political interests — even in cases when those subordinates appear not to know that another agenda is in play."
- “Officials close to Pence insist that he was unaware of Trump’s efforts to press Zelensky for damaging information about Biden and his son, who had served on the board of an obscure Ukrainian gas company, when his father was overseeing U.S. policy on Ukraine.”
- 🤔: "Officials close to Pence contend that he traveled to Warsaw for a meeting with Zelensky on Sept. 1 probably without having read — or at least fully registered — the transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with the leader of Ukraine."
- Pence's aides claim that the veep was unaware of concerns around Trump's call with Zelensky. "Officials said Pence and his staff weren’t aware that the call had provoked alarm inside the White House — even though his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, had been monitoring it. It’s also not clear whether Pence failed to read the White House account of the call in his briefing book or read it and found it unremarkable."
FLASHBACK TO 2018:
Must-watch exchange between Mike Pence and @AshleyRParker, who asks in reference to Rob Porter: "Can you comment on why you often seem a little bit out of the loop on some of this major news?" (via CSPAN) pic.twitter.com/fS6UcjIWBS— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 8, 2018
2020 DEMS TUSSLE OVER GUNS: Nine 2020 candidates “expressed their collective support for sweeping new gun control measures, appearing at a forum in a city still grieving after a gunman massacred 58 concertgoers,” the Times's Glenn Thrush and Maggie Astor write of the forum co-hosted by two leading gun control organizations and held in Las Vegas just over two years after the deadliest mass shooting in the country's modern history.
- The forum was co-hosted by March for Our Lives and Giffords, the advocacy organization set up by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords and aired on MSNBC and included Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was also scheduled to appear, but canceled after he experienced chest discomfort during an event on Tuesday. He then had a heart procedure for a blocked artery. He is remaining off the trail for now.
The dividing lines: Disagreements over ideas like mandatory buybacks and nationwide licensing came up repeatedly, Vox's German Lopez reports.
Beto and Buttigieg tangle over mandatory buybacks: Buttigieg labeled the idea of a mandatory buyback of certain firearms a “shiny object" and O'Rourke was not having it. O'Rourke has reconfigured his campaign around gun violence after a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso. One of the key planks of his gun policies is a mandatory buyback of certain semiautomatic firearms.
- “I was really offended by those comments, and I think he represents a kind of politics that is focused on poll testing and focus group driving and triangulating and listening to consultants before you arrive at a position,” O’Rourke told reporters later.
Booker subtly digs Biden on licensing: “You should not be a nominee from our party that can seriously stand in front of urban places and say, ‘I will protect you,’ if you don’t believe in gun licensing,” Booker said. Biden released his gun plan just before the forum. It does not include a nationwide licensing requirement.
Booker also not so subtly attacks Beto: “Beto O’Rourke was not for gun licensing, criticized me when I came out for it,” Booker said.
- “He saw the horrors visiting his community. Are we going to have to wait until Hell’s lottery comes to your community?” (O'Rourke declined to respond to the criticism later, but Booker is correct about the congressman's changing views.)
Meanwhile, Biden had this to say as the Ukraine controversy heats up:
IN DEBATE QUALIFICATION NEWS: "Twelve candidates will take the stage on Oct. 15 for the first Democratic presidential debate this cycle to have more than 10 candidates on the same night," our colleague Kevin Schaul reports.