with Brent D. Griffiths

Good morning, Power People and welcome back. As my wise colleague Shane Harris tweeted about the impeachment inquiry saga: "if it feels hard to keep up, it's because it is." Tips, comments, recipes? You know what's up. Sign up for this newsletter here.

At The White House

TRUMP GOES THERE: White House counsel Pat Cipollone laid down the gauntlet yesterday on behalf of President Trump, announcing the White House will not cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry. It was a bellicose move that seemingly bets Trump's odds of being impeached on the court of public opinion and the GOP-controlled Senate. 

Cipollone's eight-page letter to House Democratic leaders called the impeachment probe “a partisan and unconstitutional inquiry” and an attempt by Democrats to “overturn the democratic process.” It was rebuked by Democratic lawmakers and legal experts alike as a political document that packs little legal punch. 

  • “I've read the constitution a number of times and am having a hard time remembering where in the constitution it says that there has to be any formal vote by committee or by the Congress or the [House] to commence an investigation whether it might lead to or be motivated by the possibility of an impeachment,” Jack Quinn, the former White House counsel for Bill Clinton, told Power Up. “The problem for the White House is that there really is no appealing the process of impeachment the House uses.” 
  • “I'm really surprised Pat Cipollone put his name on this letter,” Quinn added, referring to the flat White House refusal to provide any more witnesses or records. 
  • Not just Democrats: “Wow. This letter is bananas,” Gregg Nunziata, Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) former general counsel tweeted. “A barely-lawyered temper tantrum. A middle finger to Congress and its oversight responsibilities. No Member of Congress should accept it, no matter his or her view on the behavior of Pelosi, [Adam] Schiff, or Trump. Things are bad. Things will get worse.” 

Not happening: There is no requirement that the House vote to open a formal impeachment inquiry, as the letter demands. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears unlikely to be swayed.

  • “The lengthy letter all but dares [Pelosi] to hold a formal vote opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump, though it does not explicitly call on her to do so,” CNN's Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju, and Pamela Brown report. “But Pelosi has said that Democrats don't need to take a vote and has shown little interest in doing so after she announced last month the House would open an impeachment inquiry, accusing the White House of trying to play politics and arguing that House rules don't require a vote.”
  • Caveat: Nonetheless, Trump's decision highlighted “the limitations of Democrats’ ability to exercise their oversight authority of an administration that appears unfazed by flouting subpoenas,” per our colleagues Karoun Demirjian, Josh Dawsey, Shane Harris and John Wagner. 

Bolstering their case: Pelosi said in a statement the White House failure to comply “is only the latest attempt to cover up his betrayal of our democracy, and to insist that the President is above the law."

  • And she warned the lack of cooperation could be used as evidence for an article of impeachment. “Despite the White House’s stonewalling, we see a growing body of evidence that shows that President Trump abused his office and violated his oath to ‘protect, preserve and defend the Constitution.’ 
  • “The White House should be warned that continued efforts to hide the truth of the President’s abuse of power from the American people will be regarded as further evidence of obstruction,” Pelosi wrote.

SHOT: Cipollone's letter argues the current impeachment inquiry is invalid because it diverges from precedents set during previous impeachment inquiries. 

CHASER: The White House is correct in asserting that a formal floor vote preceded impeachment inquiries into Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But such a step is not constitutionally required. We should also point out that the House voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson before it established a special committee and voted on formal articles. 

And in a background call with reporters as the letter was released, a senior administration official refused to specify what conditions are necessary for the White House to cooperate with congressional investigators. 

  • “I don't want to speculate about what would happen in various hypothetical situations,” the senior administration official said. “If the House wants to engage and alter the current circumstances, then we'll have to evaluate that as it goes along.” 
  • Phil Schiliro, who is currently advising Democrats on their approach to investigations of the Trump administration, called the legal merits of the letter “as good for holding water as a colander: It’s a frivolous position that would mean a President acting illegally would be accountable to no one. That’s the opposite of what the founders of our country designed and has no precedent in our history,” he wrote in an email.

Schiliro, the former director of legislative affairs under President Obama and a former staff director of the House Oversight Committee, also pointed to the past:

  • “Twenty years ago Rep Dan Burton, as Chair of the House Oversight Committee, issued 1,052 unilateral subpoenas over six years to the Clinton Administration and the Democratic Party. No matter how unreasonable many of those subpoenas were, either the information was provided or a compromise reached. Every previous Administration has recognized the legitimate and constitutional role Congress has in oversight. This Administration is asserting a radical legal position based on nothing.” 

Some argued the bold White House move could ultimately prove a major misstep.

  • “A lot of people who will wonder: why is the White House refusing to provide evidence -- what are they hiding?" Quinn told Power Up. “Enough people will be wondering why the president refuses to rebut what is being said. And if more whistl blowers come forward than it could go downhill fast."
  • “Remember what happened with Nixon: his Republican party stayed with him until it didn’t and it didn’t when public opinion turned," Quinn added. 
  • Reminder: We detailed our latest Washington Post-Schar school poll out yesterday showing that 58 percent of voters favor the impeachment process, including 57 percent of independents.

Meanwhile, a federal judge seemed baffled by the Justice Department's position the House Judiciary Committee should be denied materials from Robert Mueller's grand jury investigation -- because courts were wrong to provide grand jury information surrounding Nixon.

  • “Wow, okay,” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of Washington responded, sounding unpersuaded. “As I said, the department is taking extraordinary positions in this case," reports our colleague Spencer S. Hsu.

In the Agencies

U.S. PUTS VISA RESTRICTIONS ON CHINESE OFFICIALS: "The Trump administration put visa restrictions on Chinese officials," CNBC's Jacob Pramuk reports amid ongoing abuses of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo excoriated China on Twitter for its actions.

  • The restrictions came just a day after the U.S. blacklisted Chinese companies and just as trade negotiations are set to resume in Washington: “Both moves come as U.S.-China trade talks are slated to resume Thursday in Washington,” the Wall Street Journal's Jessica Donati and Eva Dou report. “State Department officials didn’t respond when asked whether the action was linked to the trade talks. The State Department didn’t identify by name any Chinese official affected by the new visa restrictions.”
  • The Chinese respond: “A spokeswoman for China’s embassy in Washington told the Journal the move "'seriously violates the basic norms governing international relations, interferes in China’s internal affairs and undermines China’s interests.'”
  • More on the blacklisting: “The U.S. decision to add eight Chinese companies to its trade blacklist strikes directly at China’s ambitions in artificial intelligence, threatening its companies’ access to crucial components and relationships with U.S. firms,” WSJ's Dan Strumpf and Yoko Kubota report.

Global Power

IT BEGAN WITH A PHONE CALL: "The furor over the decision to pull U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria began late Sunday night with a poorly conceived White House statement about an ominous telephone conversation between [Trump] and the Turkish president," our colleagues Karen DeYoung and Kareem Fahim report. "The results have been rapid and remain unpredictable — and, in the view of critics, amount to the abandonment of America’s Syrian Kurdish allies to a massive Turkish military assault."

  • What's happening on the ground: "As Turkish forces hovered on the Syrian border ... U.S. officials said the attack could come within hours," our colleagues write.
  • ISIS seizes the opportunity: "Early Wednesday morning, the Islamic State sought to take advantage of the focus on the border to the north by staging an attack shortly before 2 a.m. in the group’s former capital, Raqqa, according to a statement from the SDF," our colleagues report. "Three suicide bombers attacked SDF military positions in the city and a gun battle erupted with an unknown number of militants nearby, the statement said." The SDF or Syrian Democratic Force is largely Kurdish based and has previously been backed by the U.S. military.

What happens to the ISIS prisoners: "The U.S. military has no plans to intervene if Syrian Kurdish forces abandon a constellation of Islamic State prisons in Syria to confront a possible Turkish invasion, officials said," our colleagues Missy Ryan and Liz Sly report. "Of the more than 11,000 prisoners, about 2,000 are from more than 40 countries, most of which refuse to take them back. The remainder are from Syria and Iraq."

  • Plan B is murky: "It’s unclear whether the U.S. military would change course if the SDF’s response to a large-scale operation were to result in a major prison break. Officials said at least some senior militants are now being held in Iraq, under more stable conditions."
  • Kurds might not abandon the prisoners after all: "Analysts have also questioned whether the SDF would follow through with its threat to withdraw guards at the prisons, if only because nearby Kurdish communities would be the first targets of any escaping militants."

On The Hill

REPORT SAYS MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE TO STOP RUSSIA FROM INTERFERING IN 2020"A bipartisan panel of U.S. senators Tuesday called for sweeping action by Congress, the White House and Silicon Valley to ensure social media sites aren’t used to interfere in the coming presidential election, delivering a sobering assessment about the weaknesses that Russian operatives exploited in the 2016 campaign," our colleagues Craig Timberg and Tony Romm report.

  • Key quote: “Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairman. “Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government. By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
  • Among the report's recommendations: "...  Lawmakers urged their peers in Congress to act, including through the potential adoption of new regulations that would the disclosure of ad buyers more transparent," our colleagues write. "The report also called on the White House and the executive branch to adopt a more forceful, public role, warning Americans about the ways in which dangerous misinformation can spread while creating new teams within the U.S. government to monitor for threats and share intelligence with industry."

From the Courts

TRUMP-APPOINTED JUSTICES COULD PLAY BIG ROLE IN LGBT CASES: “The Supreme Court appeared divided about whether federal discrimination laws protect gay and transgender workers, and President Trump’s appointments to the court could play the pivotal roles in deciding the outcome,” our colleagues Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow report.

  • Background: “The issue, one of the most significant facing the court this term, concerns the reach of ­Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, besides protecting against workplace discrimination because of race, religion and other characteristics, also prohibits discrimination 'because of sex,'" our colleagues write. “The court has since interpreted that definition to include discriminating on the basis of sex stereotypes.”

Inside the court: “Lawyers for the gay and transgender individuals challenging their firings seemed to pitch their arguments to Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, a conservative who advocates a close textual reading of statutes,” our colleagues write. “There seemed little doubt that the court’s four liberal members would find that Title VII covered gay and transgender workers. But one of the court’s five conservatives would have to join them to form a majority.

  • Neil Gorsuch mused: The justice "wondered if 'when a case is really close, courts should make decisions that might cause 'massive social upheaval' rather than leave it up to Congress.”
  • Brett Kavanaugh kept a low profile: He asked only one question.
  • John Roberts remained an enigma: The chief justice “was careful with pronouns, at one point using the neutral 'they' to refer to an individual,” our colleagues report.
  • A historic day: “The word 'transgender' made its first appearance in a Supreme Court argument, as did 'cisgender' — the term for a person whose gender identity matches how they were identified at birth.

The scene outside: