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GORDON'S GAMBIT: Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has a lot of explaining to do.
He's in for a whirlwind of questions from House impeachment investigators — and even potential legal trouble — when he returns to Capitol Hill next week to testify publicly for the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
A blockbuster moment: Acting Ukraine Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. described a previously unknown effort by the president to ensure Ukraine investigated his political opponent: An explosive call between Trump and Sondland.
- After a meeting with a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv,” Taylor testified.
- Key: “The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” This call was said to take place on July 26, just one day after the now-famous call when Trump pressed Zelensky to probe Democrats.
- There's more: The Taylor aide then asked Sondland what Trump thought about Ukraine. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of [former vice president Joe] Biden, which [Trump lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said.
Sondland on Nov. 20 will provide an opportunity for Democrats to counter Republican attacks that their witnesses are relying on secondhand information, since he apparently spoke directly with the president about his pressure campaign.
But former prosecutors say the stakes could also be high for Sondland: The hotelier and Republican donor now in a plum ambassador post could “be indicted on perjury” for misleading House investigators, according to Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, though such a case might be hard to make.
- “It really depends on what this person overheard exactly and how long was the call and how certain was he that it was Trump. I don't think we have all those details yet,” he told Power Up.
Sondland already made a significant revision to his closed door testimony: After initially testifying he had no recollection of any quid pro quo, Sondland amended his testimony to say he did actually recall telling a Ukrainian official that security assistance and an Oval Office meeting were conditioned on the investigations.
- But he said nothing about speaking with Trump on July 26: He told investigators he spoke with Trump on the day of the president's phone call with Zelensky. And he described it as “a nothing call.”
- “I said we’re headed to Kyiv to go see Zelensky and [Trump] was like, no, great, whatever,” Sondland originally testified. “That was sort of the end of the call. We never discussed anything substantive.”
- Sondland's attorney Robert Luskin, per our colleague Elise Viebeck, said “Sondland will address any issues that arise from this in his testimony next week.” See here for a timeline of the key events of July 25 and 26.
Democrats are doing the groundwork before Sondland appears: David Holmes, the embassy staffer in Ukraine who overheard Sondland's call with Trump, will testify this Friday behind closed doors, two sources told The Post.
- But: Akerman noted prosecution for perjury is difficult and not always worth the time. “If we prosecuted everyone who lied under oath [during Watergate], I would still be there now.”
'Woefully' unprepared: At a minimum, Sondland's preparation for his closed door deposition “was woefully inadequate,” said Jack Quinn, the former White House counsel for Bill Clinton. “A witness who testifies under oath usually is exquisitely careful to be accurate and careful,” Quinn told Power Up.
- “I think Mr. Sondland would do well to spend a good deal of time with his attorney explaining why his initial story seems to be at odds with his later recollections. This is important because the discrepancies appear to be highly significant.”
- From a former Department of Defense special counsel:
Taylor drops a bombshell— Ryan Goodman (@rgoodlaw) November 13, 2019
New evidence directly fingers President Trump.
July 26 phone call where Trump checks in with Sondland on status of Ukraine’s Biden investigation.
Side note: Sondland omitted this. Intentional omission of material facts is perjury.#ImpeachmentHearings https://t.co/BFY3XZmbMM
Akerman also tore holes in the GOP's arguments that the testimony from Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent was “hearsay” since they did not have first hand knowledge of the pressure campaign:
- “This is not hearsay. What you have is a bribery, a conspiracy,” Akerman told Brent. “All of this evidence is admissible. It's not even considered hearsay under the law because these people are all acting as agents of Donald Trump. So once you make Trump as part of the conspiracy and the chief guy and the conspiracy, around which everything centers, all of these statements are admissible and they’re not considered hearsay. It’s all statements in furtherance of a conspiracy.”
- Notable: Trump has blocked witnesses who do have such “first hand” knowledge of Trump's involvement, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and other White House staffers. These officials also were not on the GOP wish list of witnesses submitted to House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).
Sondland the scapegoat?: Trump denied that he knew anything about the call with Sondland that Taylor described.
- “I know nothing about that, first time I’ve heard,” Trump told reporters during a news conference with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “The one thing I know about Sondland is that he did speak to me for a brief moment, and I said ‘no quid pro quo.'"
- Trump has also said that he doesn't know Sondland, though he called him “a really good man and great American” on Twitter, Elise notes: “Let me just tell you: I hardly know the gentleman,” Trump said last week.
- Our colleagues Karoun Demirjian and Rachael Bade reported last week that House Republicans planned on using Sondland, Giuliani and Mulvaney as part of the plan to shield Trump from impeachment: “As Republicans argue that most of the testimony against Trump is based on faulty secondhand information, they are sowing doubts about whether Sondland, Giuliani and Mulvaney were actually representing the president or freelancing to pursue their own agendas. The GOP is effectively offering up the three to be fall guys.”
- If the phone call happened as described, that plan just got harder.
On The Hill
REPUBLICAN DEFENSES: GOP lawmakers and the Republican counsel relied on debunked conspiracy theories or the idea that the content of Kent and Taylor's testimony was simply too complicated and boring for the American public to understand.
- “ … Questions by the Republican attorney, Stephen R. Castor, as well as by Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, dwelled extensively on claims about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election, and the perception by some of the president’s allies that the nation’s government sought to undermine then-candidate Trump,” our colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker reports.
- “The malleability of facts emerged as a broader GOP talking point. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump ally, affirmed as much to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. 'I think what happens is, when we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is,' he said.”
- 💤: “Breitbart called the hearing a 'Snoozer.' The Gateway Pundit complained in a headline that Taylor 'Won’t Stop Talking!'" Stanley-Becker noted. “These outlets seemed to take their cues from the White House and members of the president’s family. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, tweeted that the hearing was 'boring.' Eric Trump, the president’s younger son, labeled the proceedings 'horribly boring.'"
- Republicans are also spending big on impeachment ads, a GOP source flagged for Power Up: “American Action Network launched a $2 million dollar advertising campaign … aimed at 37 House targets. The ads, which went live as cameras rolled [on the hearing], urge members of Congress to oppose impeachment,” per the source.
- AAN President Dan Conston said: “Congress should be working on the issues the American people care about — passing the USMCA, creating good jobs, and securing our border — not getting bogged down in what is clearly a partisan impeachment charade.”
- TFW you've lost the White House press secretary for President George W. Bush:
Whatever the GOP counsel is doing, it's not working. I don't undertand where he's going.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) November 13, 2019
In the Media
WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW: But first, your full recap: Our colleagues Allison Michaels and Elise Viebeck break down new information and major moments from the day on The Post's "Can he do that?" podcast. Listen here.
Taylor discussed the real world consequences of holding up aide to Ukraine: "First, Ukraine is a strategic partner of the United States, important for the security of our country as well as Europe. Ukraine is on the front line in the conflict with a newly aggressive Russia," he testified. "Second, even as we sit here today, the Russians are attacking Ukrainian soldiers in their own country and have been for the last four years. I saw this on the front line last week; the day I was there a Ukrainian soldier was killed and four were wounded."
- The aid is a "life and death" matter: “Ukraine would very much like to see a stable political situation in the States,” Oleksandr Turchynov, the previous Ukrainian president’s national security adviser, told the New York Times's Anton Troianovski. "The relationship between Kiev and Washington, he added, 'is a question of life and death for us.'”
- Additional context: "When [Trump] froze hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine in July, Oleksandr Markiv was in a trench defending his country’s eastern front line against Russia-backed separatist militias.Two months later, Markiv, 38, was dead, killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack on his battalion’s position in a notoriously dangerous defense point known as the Svitlodarsk Bulge," the Los Angeles Times's Sabra Ayres and Sergei L. Loiko report.
- Key, sobering stat: "Markiv was one of 25 Ukrainian fatalities on the front line since July 18, the day Trump quietly put on hold a $391-million military aid package appropriated by Congress for Ukraine last year," the LA Times reports.
Trump said he wasn't watching... but he was tweeting: "By sundown, more than three dozen tweets and retweets decrying the day’s events were posted on the feed of a president who said he had not 'watched a minute,'" our colleague Josh Dawsey reports on how Trump and the West Wing handled the historic day.
- The White House said aides were busy doing other things: "White House aides were also busy, officials said, working on policy issues," our colleague writes. "The vice president was on a plane to California. Phone calls were happening about e-cigarettes. The attorney general was working on guns. Aides were huddling with Hill staff about trade."
- But make no mistake, they were watching too: "But TVs were turned on throughout the West Wing, blaring the hearings and a nonstop cascade of negative headlines," our colleague writes. "A miniature war room was set up, with [Mulvaney] and chief lawyer Pat Cipollone making a visit to see communications and research staffers, a White House official said."
Reaction from Kent and Taylor when asked if they need a break: pic.twitter.com/KkN43USKF8— Peter Stevenson (@PeterWStevenson) November 13, 2019
Senate Republicans might just try Dems' patience: Democrats were once afraid Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not even hold a trial if Trump is impeached by the House. Now in the ultimate twist, Republicans and their aides are privately talking about holding a lengthy trial in January as a way to keep six Democratic presidential candidates stuck in Washington until the eve of the Iowa caucuses or longer, our colleagues Robert Costa, Michael Scherer and Seung Min Kim report.
“That might be a strategy,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told our colleagues with a coy smile when asked about the possibility of a trial that disrupts the Democratic campaign. “But I’ll leave that up to others. I’m just a lowly worker.”
But there's not agreement this is the best move: "While some Republicans favor a lengthy trial as a means of defending [Trump] and creating problems for Democrats, others are calling for swift dismissal or final vote," our colleagues write.
How candidates are responding: "The Democratic senators who remain in the presidential race have all said publicly that the impeachment proceedings are more important than political concerns," our colleagues write. "But advisers to multiple candidates have been inquiring about the potential timing behind the scenes ..."
“We will do our best to get back to Iowa, to get to New Hampshire, to get to all the states that we have to,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Sunday at an event in Charles City, Iowa, when asked about a potential trial in January. “But there’s no question it will make our life a little bit more difficult.”
Referring to the whistleblower, Rep. Jim Jordan says Congress will never get a chance to question the one "who started it all."— ABC News (@ABC) November 13, 2019
"I'd be glad to have the person who started it all to come in and testify," Rep. Welch replies. "Pres. Trump is welcome to take a seat right there." pic.twitter.com/QPnu6tETBQ
IN NON-IMPEACHMENT NEWS:
Patrick is jumping in today: Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick will announce his presidential campaign later today before heading to New Hampshire to secure his spot on the ballot in the first-in-the-nation primary there, the New York Times's Jonathan Martin reports.
- What's next: "After appearing in New Hampshire, [Patrick] will head to California, which is voting in early March, and then go on to three early nominating states: Nevada, Iowa and South Carolina," the Times reports.
Trump welcomes Erdogan: "Trump expressed optimism that the United States and Turkey are on their way to resolving the many differences between them, but he provided few details at a news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a day of White House meetings," our colleagues David Nakamura, Karen DeYoung and Seung Min Kim report.
Court hands Trump another loss in tax return fight: A federal appeals court "let stand an earlier ruling that [Trump’s] accounting firm must turn over eight years of his financial records to Congress, bringing the case to the threshold of a likely Supreme Court battle," the Times's Charlie Savage reports.
Superbugs are worse than we thought: "Drug-resistant germs sicken about 3 million people every year in the United States and kill about 35,000, representing a much larger public health threat than previously understood, according to a long-awaited report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," our colleague Lena H. Sun reports.
- Gruesome stat: "The new estimates show that, on average, someone in the United States gets an antibiotic-resistant infection every 11 seconds, and every 15 minutes, someone dies."
Amusingly, Walter Cronkite is now trending on Twitter -- apparently because so many folks are commenting that Bill Taylor's voice sounds like the late broadcasting legend's.— Felicia Sonmez (@feliciasonmez) November 13, 2019
THE LIGHTER SIDE OF THE IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS:
Tying it all together: Kent's choice to wear his seemingly favorite bow tie struck a chord with many fans off the oft-maligned accessory. But our colleague Robin Givhan, The Post's fashion critic, honed in on a frequent criticism: Jordan's lack of a jacket.
- Ill-suited for such a occasion: "All the other members of the House Intelligence Committee turned up in suits and ties or other business attire," our colleague writes. "But Jordan, in his role as a representative of the American people, couldn’t be bothered to suit up."
Our colleagues Anne Gearan and Elise Viebeck put it perfectly: Republicans wanted to lambast Taylor's turn as a star witness but instead William Brockenbrough Taylor Jr. became a meme. "Until Wednesday, the veteran diplomat had little public profile. But by the end of the hearing, Taylor’s low-key sincerity had made him a cult figure among observers online — the subject of memes, adoring tweets and articles that compared his vocal timbre to that of broadcaster Walter Cronkite."
A few good boys (and girls): On Capitol Hill's most stressful day, aides found solace in the one true friend people can have in Washington. Sure, they were scheduled months in advance, but just let us have this, OK?
Roll Call's Kathryn Lyons reports on the efforts of "Lola, Zamboni and Spumoni to soothe some of those, um, 'ruff' feelings."