Aloha, Power peeps. It's debate night in America 🇺🇸But first, let's get through more public hearings: Gordon Sondland and Laura Cooper are on today's schedule. Tips, comments, recipes? You know the drill. Thanks for waking up with us.
'THE GORDON PROBLEM': Loose cannon, wild card, unpredictable, cliffhanger.
Those were some of the words used by Republicans and Democrats to describe the key witness in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump: Gordon Sondland, who will testify on Capitol Hill this morning.
The Oregon hotelier whose political contributions led him to become Trump's ambassador to the European Union faces a big choice: whether to deny further direct contacts with Trump or to confirm details of a now infamous phone call overheard at a Kyiv restaurant directly tying the president to the effort to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations into his political opponents.
The stakes are high, and higher still than other past star witnesses in high-profile congressional probes: John Dean had a plea agreement when he testified against Richard Nixon; and Oliver North and Richard Poindexter had immunity when talking about the Iran-Contra affair, report my colleagues Aaron C. Davis and Rachael Bade.
Sondland has no such agreement and what he will say this morning is anyone's guess.
“We aren't sure what his posture will be,” a Democratic lawmaker told Power Up.
“There is going to be enormous pressure on Sondland to minimize the president’s role — even as we have people under oath saying Sondland has already misrepresented his position and the extent of the contacts he had with the president,” Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University and co-author of the book “Impeachment,” per Aaron and Rachael.
Second chance?: Lawmakers had not-so-subtle messages for Sondland, who has already provided seven hours of closed- door testimony in which he downplayed his relationship with Trump and omitted key details other witnesses have provided.
From Democrats: “If I was Ambassador Sondland, I would take a deep breath and start over,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told Aaron and Rachael. “Take into consideration everything we have learned from other witnesses. Tell us exactly what took place and his interactions with the president … It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) encouraged Sondland to “be truthful” in an interview with Aaron and Rachael: “It would be liberating for you to just be truthful. It’s amazing how many people rise to the occasion to do that. The fact that [Sondland] amended his testimony should be encouraging.”
From Republicans: “I expect Ambassador Sondland to tell us the same thing he said in his deposition,” House Intelligence Committee member K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) told Aaron and Rachael. “Asked what would happen if he does not, he said: 'Well, there are legal ramifications for that, for changing your [testimony]. He’s got to have good reasons.'”
- “The impeachment effort comes down to one guy, Ambassador Sondland,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who like many Republicans has argued that only a first-person account of Trump leveraging U.S. power for personal gain could give Democrats grounds to impeach. “All the other testimony has a Sondland core to it and a Sondland connection.”
“At this particular point, we have no reason to believe that he’s going to go back against a deposition that he gave and then revised,” Meadows told reporters on Capitol Hill yesterday, per Roll Call's Lindsey McPherson. “They have to either get him to turn on the president or attack his credibility."
And Trump allies sought to downplay Sonland's connection to the president. Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign official who now hosts a podcast with Steve Bannon, trashed the ambassador.
- “Amb. Sondland is a dilettante trying to seem more important to the president than he is, be a big shot," Miller said on the podcast.
The facts: Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council aide, corroborated that Sondland and Trump were in close contact in yesterday's testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
- “Among the discussions I had with Dr. [Fiona] Hill about Ambassador Sondland — I think she might have coined it the ‘Gordon problem’ — and I decided to keep track of what Ambassador Sondland was doing. I didn't necessarily always act on things Gordon suggested that he believed was important,” Morrison told lawmakers. “He wanted to get a meeting -- I understood that the president wanted to do and had agreed to a meeting so I was tracking that we need to schedule a meeting.”
- Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, amended his deposition to say that an investigation into Burisma was actually discussed during a July 10 meeeting at the White House with Sondland and Ukrainian officials.
- Sondland did make “a generic comment about investigations,” which “all of us thought was inappropriate,” Volker told lawmakers.
The discrepancies in Sondland's closed door deposition certainly present some credibility issues — he already made a significant revision to his testimony earlier this month:
- 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.
- Another discrepancy: "Witnesses have said Sondland pressured Ukrainian officials over the investigations, including at a White House meeting July 10. Sondland last month said he recalled no such exchange," per Rachael and Aaron.
Sondland's biggest decision will be to decide whether to confirm the account of a problematic phone call with the president that he failed to mention in previous testimony. David Holmes, a counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine who will testify publicly tomorrow after giving a private account to lawmakers, overheard a July 26 phone call between Sondland and Trump at a restaurant in Kyiv.
“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ ” Holmes testified, per the transcript. “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.’ ”
On The Hill
Some other highlights from yesterday: Trump’s July 25 call was not so perfect, according to yesterday's witnesses.
- “Three current and former Trump administration officials described Tuesday how they harbored a variety of concerns surrounding a July phone call in which President Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former vice president Joe Biden — boosting Democrats’ inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached and substantially undercutting the president’s assertion that the conversation was ‘perfect,’” per our colleagues Karoun Demirjian, Mike DeBonis and Matt Zapotosky.
- There was one official who did not view the call as problematic, though: Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Vice President Pence’s national security adviser, said in a rare public statement released Tuesday he had been on the call and heard “nothing wrong or improper.”
Volker defends Biden: While Volker claimed that he was not aware of a quid pro quo between Trump and the Ukrainians, he did offer an impassioned defense of Joe Biden and called the anti-Biden campaign inappropriate:
- “I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years. He is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard,” Volker told lawmakers.
- About the “conspiracy theory” peddled by Rudy Giuliani that the former veep was compromised in his duties because of his son’s involvement in Burisma: “The accusation that Vice President Biden was acting inappropriately didn’t seem at all credible to me...The allegations against Biden are self-serving and not credible.”
A tense exchange: Lt. Col Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an NSC expert on Ukrainel, spoke with a contact in the intelligence community about Trump’s July 25 phone call but refused to disclose the name of the official, per the advice of his attorney:
- “When Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, began asking for more details about the person, Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) interjected and warned about any attempts to out the anonymous whistleblower who first filed a complaint related to the call,” per our colleague Aaron Blake.
What corruption?: Trump didn’t raise the issue of Ukrainian corruption on his April call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, despite being provided talking points on the issue for the call from the NSC staff, Vindman testified.
- “Those were the recommended talking points that were cleared through the NSC staff for the president,” Vindman said.
How Vindman concluded his tear-jerker of an opening statement:
- “Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family,” he said. “Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
From the Courts
THREE COURT CASES YOU SHOULD BE WATCHING:
Trump could be deposed in Summer Zervos case: “Trump lost his latest bid Monday to delay a former 'Apprentice' contestant’s defamation suit as he faces a Jan. 31 deadline to undergo pretrial questioning in the case, which involves claims of unwanted kissing and groping,” the Associated Press's Jennifer Peltz reports.
- More details: “A New York appellate judge rejected Trump’s request, meaning that [Zervos’s] case can continue, at least for now,” the AP reports. “Trump’s lawyers signaled they intend to pursue more legal avenues to try to hold off [Zervos’s] case … Zervos, a California restaurateur, appeared on 'The Apprentice' when Trump hosted the show in 2006. She alleges the then-businessman subjected her to unwelcome advances when she sought career advice in 2007.”
McGahn subpoena case will be ruled on by Monday: “The House Judiciary Committee is planning to hold hearings on impeaching [Trump] that expand past the Ukraine investigation and wants former White House counsel Don McGahn to be forced to testify, according to a new court filing,” CNN's Katelyn Polantz reports.
- On the quick timeline: The Judiciary panel “asked a federal judge to make a ruling quickly on whether McGahn must testify in the House impeachment inquiry, citing a 'finite window of time' when he's needed,” CNN reports. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, an Obama appointee, said she will issue a ruling by Monday.
- Remember: House Democrats have viewed the McGahn suit as the best avenue to resolve the questions over whether congressional subpoenas carry more weight than the White House refusal to cooperate in the impeachment probe. A favorable ruling could convince Charles Kupperman, a former top national security aide, and possibly former national security adviser John Bolton to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry.
ICYMI: The Supreme Court delays fight over Trump's taxes: “The Supreme Court on Monday gave itself a little more time to decide whether a House committee gets to see [Trump’s] financial records,” our colleague Bob Barnes reports.
- The House itself had OKed holding off on obtaining the returns: “Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. put on hold 'until further order' a lower court’s ruling that said the accounting firm Mazars USA must turn over eight years of personal and business financial records to the House Oversight and Reform Committee,” our colleague writes. “The House itself had acquiesced to such a move earlier … Without the court’s intervention, the firm would have been required to turn over the records Wednesday.”
- The Supreme Court is under no obligation to hear the case: “But the president’s pleas to intervene and his argument that the decisions raise important, perhaps historic, separation of powers questions seem to make such a review a strong possibility.”
IT'S DEBATE NIGHT: The fifth Democratic presidential debate is tonight and will be co-hosted by MSNBC and The Post.
How to watch: Coverage starts at 8 p.m. Eastern time, and the debate will run from 9 to 11 p.m. The Demoratic face-off will air on MSNBC and will be streamed on msnbc.com and The Post’s digital platforms, including washingtonpost.com.
The state of the race: “Pete Buttigieg will take the stage at [tonight's] debate as a serious threat to the top Democratic presidential candidates for the first time. And that makes the debate a serious threat for him,” Politico's Elena Schneider reports.
- Who are Buttigieg's rivals?: " … It's hard to define who those rivals are,” our colleague Dave Weigel wrote in The Trailer last night. “Every other campaign has some level of contempt for the South Bend, Ind., mayor. Some have expressed it subtly, like Warren decrying 'consultant-driven' campaigns; some have been more direct, like former HUD secretary Julián Castro warning that Buttigieg can't excite nonwhite voters.”
Georgia on their minds: " … While Democrats see themselves as poised to take over the state, they are a long way from building the kind of coordinated effort that Georgia Republicans — and Democrats in places like Virginia and elsewhere — have long enjoyed. Turning the historically red state blue, it turns out, is harder to pull off than to predict,” our colleague Jenna Johnson writes of efforts to make the Peach State competitive in 2020.
- Stacey Abrams weighs in: “Any clear-eyed review of the numbers makes clear that Georgia is on the precipice of political change. Where Virginia sat a few cycles ago, Georgia sits today,” Abrams writes in an op-ed for The Post. 'Why is that? Here in Georgia, our rapidly diversifying population includes the youngest and most heavily African American population of any battleground state. Political participation among voters is increasing here. Among newcomers to the state, who are many, Democrats outperform Republicans by a 30-point margin. Multiple state polls have shown [Trump’s] approval underwater in Georgia.”
Biden facing troubles in Iowa: As Dave writes, the former vice president needs a solid debate performance. But he also has some serious ground to make up in the home stretch to the first-in-the-nation caucuses, a state that has doomed him before, our colleagues Matt Viser and Holly Bailey report.
- Key stats: Biden promised to visit all of Iowa's 99 counties, a commitment known as the “full Grassley," named after the state's senior senator. “Nearly seven months later, he has visited only about a quarter of those counties,” our colleagues write. “He has been in Iowa fewer times than any of the other top-tier candidates, and he is spending much less on advertising than several of his rivals.”
In the Media
WAYBACK WEDNESDAY: "This was the plan: The president would take a friend’s yacht from New York to his summer home in Cape Cod. While at sea, a team of doctors would perform a major surgery through the roof of the president’s mouth. And there was an important directive: No matter what, the doctors could not touch the president’s trademark mustache," our colleague Gillian Brockell reports.
- Trump's previously unscheduled trip to Walter Reed raised eyebrows: But the fears the president had some sort of procedure or operation aren't as far-fetched as you might think. White Houses have previously obscured and in some cases outright lied about a commander-in-chief's health and the story of President Grover Cleveland's secret 1893 operation to remove a cancerous growth in his mouth might be the biggest cover-up of them all.
The details: "At the time, the U.S. economy was declining and heading toward a depression. Cleveland feared — quite rightly, Algeo wrote — that if news of his diagnosis became public, the economic situation would get even worse," our colleague quotes of Matthew Alego's book on the entire episode.
- A different kind of yacht club: "The surgery was performed aboard the yacht Oneida on July 1, 1893. A team of six surgeons took only 90 minutes to extract the tumor, five teeth and large section of Cleveland’s left jawbone — all through the roof of his mouth," our colleague writes.
A gigantic scoop changed everything: “Then, on Aug. 29, the Philadelphia Press published what Algeo calls 'one of the greatest scoops in the history of American journalism.' The president, the newspaper reported, had had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor aboard his friend’s yacht. The reporter, E.J. Edwards, knew everything, right down to the names of each doctor on board," our colleague writes.
- The response? Lie.: The initial reporting spread the same panic the White House wanted to prevent. So, “Cleveland’s associates kicked into high gear," our colleague write. “The lead doctor, Cabinet officials and a presidential aide all released statements saying the story was untrue. A newspaper editor who was close friends with Cleveland said the problem had been nothing more than a toothache."
- Edwards's reputation was ruined: “ … But he lived long enough to be vindicated. In 1917 — 24 years after the surgery and a decade after Cleveland’s death from a heart attack — one of the surgeons on board published a book with the full details of the daring operation. His 'dispatch was substantially correct, even in most of the details,' the surgeon said."
PRESSED FOR TIME: Just out of the shot, you could see her. As Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was testifying, the cameras caught an unsuspecting reporter enjoy her morning caffeine fix -- until, well, the last drop. The viral star, McClatchy congressional reporter Emma Dumain, wants you to know "I'm just a tired workin’ mom trying to do it all," Slate's Heather Schwedel reports. Oh and the coffee, really wasn't that good.