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The Investigations

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THIS MONUMENTAL WEEK: The House's blitz of public hearings for its impeachment inquiry against President Trump may be over. There are no more witnesses scheduled (so far) and explosive testimony from nine witnesses this week revealed the strongest evidence yet that Trump and senior members of his administration were directly involved in the pressure campaign to get Ukraine to announce political investigations into the president's political opponents. 

We waded through the sea of information (and misinformation) to bring you our top six things to know: 

1. “Domestic political errand”: Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on Trump's National Security Council, distilled the essence of the impeachment hearings into one simple phrase. She described her frustration with Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who she said was doing Trump's bidding in Ukraine to benefit him politically — at the expense of U.S. foreign policy carried out by national security experts such as herself.

“[Sondland] was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged,” Hill told lawmakers yesterday. (Our colleague Amber Phillips annotates this statement here.

  • Sondland's “feeling was that the National Security Council was always trying to block him,” Hill continued. “What we were trying to do was block us from straying into domestic or personal politics. And that was precisely what I was trying to do.” 
  • 🔥: “And I did say to him, 'Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.' And here we are,” said Hill. 

2. Conspiracy theory slayer: Our colleague Greg Miller notes that “above all, [Hill] spoke with palpable concern about the extent to which partisanship in the United States’ political system has weakened the country’s ability to agree on objective reality … Hill opened her testimony with a bristling rebuke of Republican lawmakers — and by extension Trump — who have sought to sow doubt about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.”

  • Hill meticulously dismantled their conspiracy theories: “[S]ome of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill testified. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” 
  • She asked lawmakers to put aside their partisanship in favor of facts: “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.” 
  • Hill also offered a rebuttal to the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee Rep. Devin Nunes's claim that it was “entirely possible for two separate nations [Ukraine and Russia] to engage in election meddling at the same time.” Hill argued that Ukraine's actions were not akin to Russia's “top-down effort … directed by Russian President Putin and involved the country's military and foreign intelligence services.” 
  • Hill also eviscerated a common line of attack from Trump's allies when she was asked about being labeled a “mole for George Soros in the White House”: “This is the longest-running anti-Semitic trope that we have in history, and a trope against Mr. Soros was also created for political purposes, and this is the new Protocols of The Elders of Zion,” Hill responded. She denounced the “whipping up of what is frankly an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about George Soros to basically target nonpartisan career officials, and also some political appointees as well.” 

3. “The Gordon problem” is now Trump's problem: One of the biggest moments from this week was when Sondland said in clear and explicit terms that Trump attempted to leverage an Oval Office meeting to get Ukraine's president to announce the investigations he wanted.  

  • Quid pro *quote*: “I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo’? … With regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.” 
  • Sondland said other officials knew about the presidentially directed plan to withhold the meeting and military aid in exchange for the investigation announcements“They knew what they were doing and why,” Sondland said of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Vice President Pence and others. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the presidential call [with Zelensky].”
  • The White House, Pompeo, Perry, and Pence all released statements that disputed Sondland's testimony. 

4. Laura Cooper's big surprise: The Defense Department's expert on Russia and Ukraine offered new information about when the Ukrainians might have known that their military assistance was being held up. Apparently, the Ukrainians reached out to members of Cooper's staff on July 25 to inquire about its status — the same day as Trump's now-famous call with Zelensky. 

  • She brought the emails: “The Hill knows about the FMF (foreign military financing) situation to an extent and so does the Ukrainian embassy,” read one email sent that day, from a State Department staffer. 
  • Why this matters: If the Ukrainians did know of the hold on military assistance a month earlier than originally known, it weakens a key GOP defense: That there could not have been a quid pro quo on military aid because the Ukrainians did not know that the $400 million was being held at the time of Trump's call. 

5. Immigrants were in the spotlight this week: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, had this to say as conservatives questioned the Purple Heart recipient and Iraq War veteran's loyalty to the U.S.: 

  • “Next month will mark 40 years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees … 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. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth,” Vindman said. 

Hill, a naturalized U.S. citizen whose British accent was mocked by conservatives, expressed immense gratitude for the opportunities that America has offered her: “I am an American by choice,” she said.

  • The daughter of a coal miner in northern England, Hill told lawmakers “that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America. For the better part of three decades, I have built a career as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical national security professional focusing on Europe and Eurasia and especially the former Soviet Union.”

6. Democrats aren't waiting for the courts — or other big Trump witnesses: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to say whether she was ready to move forward with the impeachment process. But she did say that Democrats could not wait on the Supreme Court decision to rule whether acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney or former national security adviser John Bolton should comply with congressional subpoenas and testify before moving forward on impeachment.

  • This week's hearings may be the last the House Intelligence Committee takes publicly: The committee has begun writing a report summarizing its findings, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Democrats’ next moves," our colleagues Karoun Demirjian, Elise Viebeck, Rosalind Helderman, and Matt Zapotosky report
  • “Once that has been completed, proceedings will move to the House Judiciary Committee, which will draft specific articles of impeachment. The Judiciary Committee could begin its work when lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving recess.” 
  • Republicans have also started to plan ahead — for a possible speedy trial: Our colleagues Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey report that a “group of Republican senators and senior White House officials met privately Thursday to map out a strategy for a potential impeachment trial of President Trump, including rapid proceedings in the Senate that could be limited to about two weeks, according to multiple officials familiar with the talks.”

The People

DUELING INVESTIGATIONS: Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), by opening an investigation into the Bidens, Burisma and Ukraine, may have just started the GOP's counter to the impeachment inquiry. Graham sent a letter to Pompeo "requesting documents related to former vice president Joe Biden and his communications with Ukrainian officials,” our colleague Colby Itkowitz reports.

  • “Graham’s document request suggests he is seeking to legitimize Trump’s accusations that Biden, then vice president, put pressure on Ukraine to fire its lead prosecutor to protect his son, a claim without evidence that has been disputed by officials familiar with the investigation,” our colleague writes.
  • The decision marks a reversal: He previously told our colleagues he would not heed pressure from Trump and his allies to open a probe into Biden. He said he would not “turn the Senate into a circus” and would instead focus his committee’s work on the investigation into the Justice Department’s launch of the Russia investigation.

Meanwhile, a former FBI lawyer is under investigation related to the Russia probe: “A former FBI lawyer is under criminal investigation after allegedly altering a document related to 2016 surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser, several people briefed on the matter told CNN,” Katelyn Polantz and Evan Perez report.

  • More details: “The finding is expected to be part of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's review of the FBI's effort to obtain warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide,” CNN reports. “Horowitz will release the report next month.”
  • What this means: “The possibility of a substantive change to an investigative document is likely to fuel accusations from [Trump] and his allies that the FBI committed wrongdoing in its investigation of connections between Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign,” CNN reports.

Global Power

NETANYAHU CHARGED WITH FRAUD, BRIBERY, BREACH OF TRUST: Benjamin Netanyahu is now the first Israeli Prime Minister in history to be indicted while an office, bombshell news that occurs “as the country continues to grapple with an election impasse,” our colleagues Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash report.

The details: “The cases against Netanyahu center on allegations that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods in exchange for political favors and that Netanyahu interceded with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of two media companies in exchange for positive news stories,” our colleagues write. The Netanyahu deny all of the allegations.

  • A look at the most serious charge: Bibi is alleged to “have had a 'quid pro quo’ arrangement with a tycoon who owned a popular news website, Walla, in which Netanyahu wanted favorable coverage,” our colleague Miriam Berger writes. The financial results for the parent-company of Walla “the indictment claims, were ‘huge,’ or about 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million).”

What’s next: Legally, Netanyahu only has to resign “after appeals have been exhausted — a process that could take years,” the New York Times’s David M. Halbfinger reports.

  • But it’s unclear if he will even remain as prime minister: Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz failed to form a government. If a member of parliament also fails to do so, the country would be forced to have its third national elections in a year.

Trumpian parallels: Netanyahu's turns of phrase may sound familiar. He has responded by calling the charges “an attempted coup” after previously referring to the investigation as “a witch hunt” -- a probe that was led by a former close political ally of the prime minister who became attorney general with Bibi’s backing. And, as the Times points out, Netanyahu’s political allies have called the investigation a “deep state” conspiracy.

On The Hill

TRUMP SHUTS DOWN CHANCES OF SHUTDOWN. At least for now. “Trump signed a short-term spending bill Thursday to keep the government open through late December, staving off a shutdown that would have begun at midnight,” our colleague Erica Werner reports.

  • Some key provisions are included in the bill: “ … Including a 3.1 percent military pay raise and money to conduct the Census. It also extends some expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act,” our colleague writes.
  • Funding now runs out on Dec. 20.

CHANCES OF USMCA PASSING THIS YEAR ARE DWINDLING: Pelosi said Democrats are “making progress” on passing Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 deal but they aren’t there yet signaling the steep climb ahead if the deal will be voted on in 2019,” Politico’s Sabrina Rodríguez reports.

  • Trump’s top trade negotiator later met with Pelosi: But U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, House Ways and Means Chair Richard E. Neal and Pelosi were unable to come to an agreement. Neal said that the two sides are about halfway there on the five outstanding issues, the Hill’s Niv Elis reports. Neal said talks will continue next week.
  • The main sticking point: Democrats want stronger enforcement mechanisms in the deal before they vote, Politico reports. Pelosi told reporters that she feels burned after voting for NAFTA because of side deals that failed to come to full fruition.

But even that agreement would be the end: Any changes to the deal itself would require Mexico and Canada’s approval. “I keep telling the freshman class: ‘This is about legislation. It takes time,’” Pelosi said. But she added: “I’m eager to get this done.”