🚨Breaking news this AM from Kabul: “An American and an Australian held hostage by the Taliban for the last three years were freed Tuesday just hours after rebel commanders were also released as a long awaited prisoner exchange took place,” Afghan officials told The Post's Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan.
- “American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were instructors at the American University of Kabul when they were kidnapped in 2016 … The exchange is intended to be a goodwill gesture that would help restart peace talks between the insurgent group and the United States.”
And the White House released a statement late last night about Trump's unnannounced visit to the hospital over the weekend: “Despite some of the speculation, the president has not had any chest pain, nor was he evaluated or treated for any urgent or acute issues,” Cmdr. Sean P. Conley, Trump's Navy physician, wrote in a memo. “Specifically, he did not undergo any specialized cardiac or neurological evaluations.”
On The Hill
Republican lawmakers have yet to effectively counter the substance of allegations that President Trump tried to trade access and aid for political favors. But they hope at least two of the witnesses they will today grill will blow some holes in the Democrats' case that Trump used his office improperly.
That includes Morrison (this afternoon), the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, and Volker (this afternoon), the State Department’s special envoy to Ukraine who resigned abruptly last month. They are the first two witnesses requested by Republicans to publicly testify.
A risky strategy: But first, expect GOP lawmakers to attack Vindman (this morning) — a decorated Iraq War veteran and the NSC's top Ukraine expert — as a leaker and deep stater who refused to resign when he didn't like Trump's foreign policy. They believe Vindman was one of the White House aides who described the key July 25 phone call to the whistleblower.
On Monday, Republican lawmakers previewed some of this slash-and-burn strategy:
- Breaking with the president: In a 10-page letter to House Intelligence, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) shared his experience with Vindman during a U.S. delegation meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky following the newly elected leader's inauguration. During that meeting, Johnson recalls Vindman stating “it was the position of the NSC that our relationship with Ukraine should be kept separate from our geopolitical competition with Russia.”
- Profiling: “I do not know if Vindman accurately stated the NSC's position, whether President Trump shared that viewpoint, or whether Vindman was really just expressing his own view,” Johnson writes. “I raise this point because I believe that a significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch have never accepted Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their 'turf.' They react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office. It is entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile.”
- The crux of the GOP defense: “If any bureaucrats disagree with the president, they should use their powers of persuasion within their legal chain of command to get the president to agree with their viewpoint. In the end, if they are unable to carry out the policy of the president, they should resign. They should not seek to undermine the policy by leaking to people outside their chain of command.”
- Vindman’s lawyer, Michael Volkov, told our colleagues Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig and Rachael Bade that the criticism is “such a baseless accusation, so ridiculous on its face, that is doesn’t even warrant a response … Lt. Col. Vindman is a patriotic veteran, awarded the Purple Heart, who has selflessly served this country for over 20 years.”
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), also released a letter claiming “concern regarding the credibility and judgment” of Vindman. The letter highlights a portion of Morrison's deposition in which he told investigators that concerns were brought to him that “Colonel Vindman may have leaked something.” Collins also claims that a portion of Vindman's behavior during his deposition was “contemptuous.”
- “GOP lawmakers are also expected to spend some of their time Tuesday highlighting how differently Vindman interpreted and reacted to the July 25 call, compared to two other witnesses who were also listening in and are scheduled to testify Tuesday,” according to Tom, Carol and Rachael. “Neither [Williams], an aide to Vice President Pence, nor [Morrison] lodged a complaint with their superiors or warned White House lawyers, as Vindman did.”
- Morrison was also critical of Vindman, “telling lawmakers that Vindman had gone directly to a White House lawyer to complain rather than through the chain of command. However, White House attorney John Eisenberg had previously told Vindman to report any concerns to him. Morrison also questioned Vindman’s 'judgment,' including a willingness to speak freely about sensitive matters,” Tom, Carol, and Rachael report.
Substance not process: Republicans also hope Morrison's testimony will be helpful to Trump. Tony Sayegh, a former top Treasury Department official enlisted by the White House to help with the impeachment strategy and messaging (along with former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi), yesterday advised Senate aides to focus on Morrison.
- A source present for the meeting told Power Up that Sayegh advised senators to focus on the substance of the allegations. The source told us that Sayegh pointed to Morrison's testimony as proof that Trump committed no impeachable actions.
- “I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed,” Morrison claimed in his opening statement during his private testimony about the July 25 call. Morrison did say, however, that Trump's mention of investigations on the call “seemed unusual.”
- A mistake: Morrison also testified that the transcript of the July 25 call was put in the highly classified system unintentionally. Morrison and Eisenberg agreed that access to the call should be restricted. But Morrison says Eisenberg told him his staff mistakenly put the call on the highly restricted server.
- Eisenberg could be facing his own problems, reports the Wall Street Journal's Vivian Salama.
- Morrison said he believed access to the call should have been restricted because of how it would play out “in Washington’s polarized environment” and affect the U.S.-Ukraine bipartisan relationship. Morrison told investigators he “grew concerned that the call was not the full-throated endorsement of the Ukraine reform agenda that I was hoping to hear.”
Republicans will likely also highlight Volker's closed-door deposition.
- “I was never asked to do anything that I thought was wrong. And I found myself in a position where I was working to put together the right policies for the administration and using all the friends and network and contacts that you have, Pentagon, State Department, NSC, to stitch that together, and I feel that we were successful at doing that,” Volker privately told lawmakers.
- Volker also claims “he was not aware that Vice President Biden’s name was mentioned or a request was made to investigate him until the transcript of [the phone call between Trump and Zelensky] was released on September 25, 2019.”
Out of the loop: The New York Times's Peter Baker, Catie Edmondson and Nick Fandos report that Volker “plans to tell lawmakers on Tuesday that he was out of the loop at key moments during President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to turn up damaging information about Democrats, according to an account of his prepared testimony.”
- " … Mr. Volker will say that he did not realize that others working for Mr. Trump were tying American security aid to a commitment to investigate Democrats,” per Baker, Edmondson, and Fandos. “His testimony, summarized by a person informed about it who insisted on anonymity to describe it in advance, will seek to reconcile his previous closed-door description of events with conflicting versions offered subsequently by other witnesses.”
WATCH: In an interview with @JudyWoodruff at an event in San Antonio, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized Pres. Trump’s actions now at the center of the impeachment inquiry: "Clearly, asking for personal favors and using United States assets as collateral is wrong" pic.twitter.com/8Yn2DDz6BP— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) November 18, 2019
ABOUT LAST NIGHT: Two more transcripts were released of the closed door depositions of a State Department counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale.
The phone call: David Holmes told lawmakers he was shocked to overhear a phone call in which Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland assured Trump “that Ukrainian officials would pursue an investigation of interest to the U.S. commander in chief — a probe that the diplomat later suggested was of former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival,” according to our colleagues Matt Zapotosky, Karoun Demirjian, Ellen Nakashima, and Elise Viebeck.so
“The encounter, Holmes testified, was so 'extraordinary' that he immediately told his direct supervisor at the embassy, 'You’re not going to believe what I just heard,' according to the transcript of his testimony.”
“Sondland, Holmes said, had assured Trump that [Zelensky] 'loves your a--' and 'will do anything you ask him to,' including conduct an investigation that Trump seemed to want. When the call was over, Holmes asserted, Sondland said that a probe of Biden was of greater interest to the president than other matters having to do with Ukraine,” per Matt, Karoun, Ellen and Elise.
Hale, meanwhile, corroborated the effort to oust Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from her post in Kyiv — a smear campaign propagated by Rudy Giuliani, conservative outlets and eventually Trump himself. Hale said that he pushed for State to defend Yovanovitch's “exceptional” job but that he was overruled, “most likely” by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
- “He said he had reviewed records and determined that Pompeo and Giuliani twice had calls in the time frame when the statement was being considered, around March,” per Matt, Karoun, Ellen, and Elise.
- “The impression we had was that it would only fuel further negative reaction. And our plan at that point was to try to contain this and wait it out,” Hale said. “One point of view was that it might even provoke a public reaction from the President himself about the Ambassador.”
- He also testified that he and fellow ambassadors had no knowledge of the backchannel campaign to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations into Trump's political opponents.
“Now what led you to believe the President didn’t give a shit about Ukraine?” (p.55) pic.twitter.com/jf6i31ZXMi— Eli Stokols (@EliStokols) November 19, 2019
At The White House
HOUSE DEMOCRATS INVESTIGATING IF TRUMP LIED TO MUELLER: "House investigators are examining whether President Trump lied to former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the House general counsel told a federal appeals court in Washington," our colleagues Ann E. Marimow, Spencer S. Hsu and Rachael Bade report.
What happened?: "The statement came during arguments over Congress’s demand for the urgent release of secret grand jury evidence from Mueller’s probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference, with House lawyers detailing fresh concerns about Trump’s truthfulness that could become part of the impeachment inquiry," our colleagues write.
- This also comes after longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was convicted for lying to Congress: "Testimony and evidence at his trial appeared to cast doubt on Trump’s written answers to Mueller’s questions, specifically about whether the president was aware of his campaign’s attempts to learn about the release of hacked Democratic emails by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks," our colleagues write.
- Key quote: “Did the president lie? Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” General Counsel Douglas N. Letter said in court. “The House is now trying to determine whether the current president should remain in office. This is something that is unbelievably serious and it’s happening right now, very fast.”
U.S. REVERSES POLICY ON ISRAELI SETTLEMENTS: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Trump administration had determined that Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law, a decision he said had 'increased the likelihood,' of a Middle East peace settlement," our colleagues Karen DeYoung, Steve Hendrix and John Hudson report.
This is a major policy shift: "The move upends more than 40 years of U.S. policy that has declared Israeli expansion into territories occupied since the 1967 war a major obstacle to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," our colleagues write. "More than 700,000 settlers have taken up residence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the 1967 war. Both areas are claimed by Palestinians for a future state."
- The context: "Since Israel first occupied the territories, only the Carter administration, based on a 1978 State Department legal opinion, has outright declared settlements illegal, although all administrations since then have described them as an impediment to peace and have called for freezing settlement expansion and new construction."
- Key quote: "Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations, said that 'in essence, this has validated and greenlighted the entire settlement enterprise . . . at a time when the peace process is all but comatose, and they know it probably won’t reemerge,'" our colleagues write.
Reaction from around the world: Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Army chief Benny Gantz, who are each vying to form a government following deadlocked elections in September, hailed the shift, our colleagues write. But the announcement "was met with dismay by Palestinian leaders as well as peace advocates who view the expansion of settlements as lessening the likelihood — and the size — of a possible future Palestinian state."
- It's a critical moment for Bibi: "Softening the U.S. stance on settlements comes as a late-breaking boost to Netanyahu as he clings to power at a dicey political moment; his rival Gantz has less than two days left to form a government before the process opens to free-for-all negotiations by the entire parliament. Netanyahu is also widely expected to be indicted on corruption charges in coming weeks, if not days."
- The E.U. also slammed the move: "The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, criticized the American policy shift and maintained that the settlements were illegal and eroded the chances for peace. She called on Israel to “end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power," the Times's Lara Jakes and David M. Halbfinger report.
THE LATEST FROM HONG KONG: "About 100 protesters remained holed up inside a Hong Kong university on Tuesday, as a standoff between the students and the police stretched into a third day," the Times's Elaine Yu and Steven Lee Myers report.
- More details: "Hundreds more who had spent days clashing with the police were detained after heavily armed officers surrounded the school and gave the protesters few options but to surrender and face arrest," the Times reports. "Nevertheless, a number of students managed a daring escape, rappelling from a nearby bridge to be whisked away by waiting motorbike drivers."
VIDEO: Dozens of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters dramatically escaped a two-day police siege at a university campus by shimmying down ropes from a bridge to waiting motorbikes pic.twitter.com/jDnmbhd6P1— AFP news agency (@AFP) November 19, 2019
The current protests started in June: "But the movement has grown into a wider pushback against China’s growing reach into Hong Kong, encompassing demands for full democracy and police accountability," Casey Quackenbush, Anna Kam, Gerry Shih and Tiffany Liang report for The Post. "And what had started as weekend protests in the city’s business district have now taken on new life as protests have spilled into the workweek and taken on new life in the university campuses spread throughout the city."
- There's now growing pressure for Trump to speak out: “The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave men and women,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. In Hong Kong, he added, “the world is seeing the true face of the Chinese Communist Party.”
- Pompeo said he is "gravely concerned" about the situation:
.@SecPompeo: The U.S. is gravely concerned by deepening political unrest and violence in #HongKong. The CCP must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people, who only want the freedoms & liberties they have been promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-filed treaty. pic.twitter.com/d7vVsWZkUS— Department of State (@StateDept) November 18, 2019
NEW THIS MORNING, BUTTIGIEG GETS BIG GQ SPREAD: “By the fall, Buttigieg had become so recognizable, so fast, that it’s almost easy to forget just how unusual his arrival was — or gloss over just how deeply his impact may be felt for years ahead. It’s how Mayor Pete has fashioned himself into a serious contender for the White House that has made his campaign so consequential,” Jason Zengerle writes in his lengthy examination of the rise of the “not-yet-40-year-old mayor of the fourth-largest city in the country’s 17th-largest state — a man who started the race as a virtual unknown.”
Key quotes and sections: You should take the time to read the entire profile, but here are a few highlights:
- On how his views on race have evolved: “When we spoke in July, he mentioned to me that he had lost 'a lot of my illusions about color blindness here at home in South Bend.” He added, 'You can’t take a racist policy and replace it with a neutral policy and expect everything to get better on its own. I think people believe that. I think at one time I would have believed that,'" Zengerle writes of talking to the mayor after Eric Logan's death.
- On how he can a run campaign about how the elites have failed with Harvard and McKinsey on his resume: “Who’s the bigger problem in the world right now? A place like Harvard that’s figured out a way that if you’re a low-or-middle-income student and you get in, you don’t even pay to go there, and has produced a lot of the kind of scientific knowledge that’s powering our advancements? Or an elite figure like Donald Trump, who literally sits on gold-plated furniture, stiffs workers, and relishes the fact that he’s wealthy and you’re not, and got his start in adult life using that privilege to avoid military service? Let’s talk about exactly which flavor of elite we ought to be mad at right now.”
- Why innovators like Mark Zuckerberg are struggling to confront challenges: “A whole generation of tech people who … are making policy and they’re not equipped to make policy. They’re making public policy with none of the accountability and, I think they would say, with none of the apparatus that’s required.”
- Understanding why people are so fed up with politicians and institutions: “You can’t blame people,” he said, “because as long as I’ve been alive the political system really hasn’t delivered for us … “But the point is,” he finally said, “it can, and more importantly, it has to.” He gave it a little more thought. “Or we’re screwed.”
BREAKING WIN ... NEWS: Lest you fear that nothing can unite us, fret no more. It turns out that fart jokes still resonate with Boomers, Millennials, the MAGA crowd and the left alike. Last night an errant sound (some would say a fart) sparked an all out scandal (#Fartgate) as Twitter sleuths tried to deduce whether Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) was the, uh, source, BuzzFeed News's Addy Baird reports.
But fear not, Hardball later tweeted that sound was a mug scraping a table -- an explanation that left many wondering, including us, if were are all being gaslighted.