CAFE Brief 10/18: From very, very, bad to much, much worse

CAFE Brief 10/18: From very, very, bad to much, much worse

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IMPEACHMENT UPDATES

Mulvaney’s Press Conference

In a combative 40-minute press conference, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that the Trump administration held up $391 million in congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 theft of Democrats’ emails, a discredited conspiracy theory pushed by Trump. “But that’s it,” Mulvaney insisted, saying “the money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden.”

When pressed by reporters if he was describing a quid pro quo with Ukraine, Mulvaney responded: “[W]e do that all the time with foreign policy,” ignoring the difference between quid pro quo aimed at furthering U.S. interests versus the president’s personal interests. He further elaborated: “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy…That is going to happen.”

Reacting to Mulvaney’s comments, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) told reporters: “I think Mr. Mulvaney’s acknowledgment means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.”

Mulvaney also announced that the U.S. will host the 2020 Group of Seven summit at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. Rebuffing criticisms that Trump is trying to personally profit from the presidency, Mulvaney said that the administration assessed 10 sites before choosing the Trump golf resort, insisting that “Doral was far and away the best physical facility for this meeting.”

Gordon Sondland’s testimony

Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, told House impeachment investigators on Thursday that Trump had delegated U.S. foreign policy on Ukraine to Rudy Giuliani, a directive that he said he was “disappointed by,” but adhered to nonetheless. In his prepared remarks to Congress, Sondland said: “I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters. However, given the President’s explicit direction, as well as the importance we attached to arranging a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, we agreed to do as President Trump directed.”

Sondland stated that he “did not understand until much later” that Giuliani’s agenda might have included an effort to urge the Ukrainians to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. He added: “I recall no discussions with any State Department or White House official about Former Vice President Biden or his son, nor do I recall taking part in any effort to encourage an investigation into the Bidens.”

Sondland repeatedly distanced himself from Giuliani during the testimony and said that he had objected to the decision to dismiss Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, from her post in May. Some lawmakers who heard the testimony said that Sondland’s story appeared to be designed to insulate himself from blame.

Michael McKinley’s testimony

Michael McKinley, who resigned last week as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told Congress on Wednesday that career diplomats had been sidelined on Ukraine. McKinley described his disappointment with how politicized the State Department had become under Trump, and that he “was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents.”

Addressing his decision to leave his role, McKinley said in this opening statement: “The timing of my resignation was the result of two overriding concerns: the failure, in my view, of the State Department to offer support to Foreign Service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry on Ukraine. And, second, by what appears to be the utilization of our ambassadors overseas to advance a domestic political objective.”

George Kent’s testimony

According to reports from lawmakers, George Kent, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, told House investigators on Tuesday that he was instructed by administration officials to “lay low” on Ukraine matters and to focus on the five other countries in his portfolio because “three amigos” tied to the White House would run the Ukraine policy. Kent reportedly said that Mulvaney organized a May 23 meeting during which Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker—who called themselves the “three amigos”—announced that they would be responsible for Ukraine policy.

Kent reportedly also told investigators that he had warned others about Giuliani as far back as March, and that he “found himself outside a parallel process” that undermined decades of foreign policy and the rule of law in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, one of the “amigos”—Rick Perry—informed the President on Thursday that he will resign as Energy Secretary. His response to a subpoena issued by Democrats is due today.

Fiona Hill’s testimony

According to The New York Times, Fiona Hill, a former top National Security Council aide and expert on Russia, testified on Monday that she and John Bolton, the President’s then-national security adviser, fervently objected to the White House’s back-channel activities in Ukraine. Bolton was reportedly so concerned about the rogue effort by Sondland, Giuliani, and Mulvaney, that he urged Hill to discuss the matter with National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg. Hill said that Bolton told her that he wasn’t a part of “whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” and that Giuliani was a “hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up.”

Hill also testified, according to the Times, that she viewed Sondland, a hotelier and Trump-donor turned EU ambassador, as a risk to national security because of his lack of preparation for the role, expressing particular concerns that he was a vulnerable target for foreign governments who might exploit his inexperience.

Congressional standoff

Declaring the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry illegitimate, Vice President Mike Pence, the Office of Management and Budget, the Pentagon, and Giuliani refused to hand over documents on Ukraine, defying their congressional subpoenas.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that she’s not planning to hold a full House vote to formally authorize an impeachment inquiry. During a press conference, she said: “There’s no requirement that we have a vote, and so at this time, we will not be having a vote… We’re not here to call bluffs.”

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republican senators to be prepared for the President’s impeachment trial as soon as Thanksgiving, and that the Senate should try to dispose of the issue by Christmas.

Note: The New York Times has a comprehensive tracker of the growing number of witnesses and the investigators’ requests or subpoenas for documents and testimony that are a part of the impeachment investigation into Trump.

Politician and Maryland congressional representative Elijah Cummings at his campaign headquarters, 1988. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

RIP REP. CUMMINGS

U.S. House Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) died on Thursday at the age of 68 due to complications from long-standing health problems. Cummings—a sharecropper’s son who rose to become a civil rights champion—gained national attention as Chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee. In a statement, former President Barack Obama said that Cummings inspired Americans through his acts of civil service and that he “stood tallest and most resolute when our country needed him the most.”

GIULIANI & HIS ASSOCIATES

Investigation into Giuliani

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that SDNY prosecutors are investigating Giuliani’s business dealings in Ukraine, examining his bank records, meetings, and work for a Ukrainian mayor. Though the scope of the probe is unclear, The New York Times reported last week that federal prosecutors are also looking into whether Giuliani violated lobbying laws in his efforts to oust Yovanovitch. Additionally, Giuliani is the focus of a counterintelligence investigation that stretches back to at least February, examining the possibility of a foreign influence operation targeting Giuliani.

On Tuesday, former GOP Texas Representative Pete Sessions was subpoenaed for information on his interactions with Giuliani, as well as Giuliani’s indicted associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. The unsealed indictment of Parnas and Fruman revealed that the pair lobbied “Congressman-1,” since identified as Sessions, to push for the removal of Yovanovitch as ambassador just as Sessions’ campaign was benefiting from their financial support. Sessions denies any knowledge of the scheme and plans to cooperate fully with the subpoena.

Giuliani pushed Gülen’s extradition

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Rudy Giuliani repeatedly pressed Trump to extradite Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Giuliani raised the issue so often that White House aides were concerned that he was lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government. Obtaining Gülen’s return to Turkey is a top priority of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has accused Gülen of orchestrating a failed military coup against him in 2016. While The Post reported that Trump was receptive to the idea of extraditing the cleric, the President shot down the idea on Saturday, saying: “It’s not under consideration. We’re having a very good moment with Turkey.”

Correia and Kukushkin released on bail

On Thursday, David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin—two of the four defendants in the alleged campaign finance scheme involving business associates of Giuliani—pleaded not guilty in federal court in New York. Correia and Kukushkin made brief court appearances to enter their pleas to a conspiracy charge for using straw donors to make illegal contributions to politicians they thought could further their political and business interests.

Kukushkin was arrested in California last week, and Correia was arrested at a New York airport on Wednesday when he flew back to the U.S. Kukushkin was released on $1 million bond secured by $100,000 cash, and was ordered to turn over his two passports and remain under home detention once he returns to California. Correia was released Wednesday on a $250,000 bond.

TURKEY-SYRIA RECAP

Turkey recently launched its long-threatened incursion into Kurdish-held Syrian territory after Trump ordered a small contingent of about 50 US troops to be pulled back from the Turkish-Syrian border. Trump has faced intense criticism for the decision, which critics say gave Turkey the green light to launch a military attack against Kurdish forces that have been a critical ally to the U.S., fighting on the front lines against ISIS. There are fears that the destabilisation of northern Syria could now fuel a jihadi resurgence. On Wednesday, Trump told reporters at the White House that the U.S. should not be intervening in Turkey’s military operation in Syria because it is “not our border,” adding that the Kurds are “no angels.”

On Wednesday, the House voted 354-60 to pass a largely symbolic resolution that condemns the President’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, signaling the widespread disapproval among lawmakers over Trump’s recent actions. The non-binding resolution underscores Congress’ opposition to the withdrawal of U.S. troops, calls on Turkey to stop its military action, and asks Trump to present a plan to combat and defeat ISIS in the region.

On Wednesday, Fox News’ Trish Regan first reported that Trump sent a letter—dated October 9—to Turkish President Erdoğan warning that he could destroy Turkey’s economy if the situation in Syria is not contained and resolved in a humane way. Infusing the letter with his unconventional approach to diplomacy, Trump tells Erdoğan: “Let’s work out a good deal,” urging him: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Trump ends the letter with: “I will call you later.”

On Thursday, Vice President Pence announced—alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Ankara—that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed on a five-day Turkish cease-fire in exchange for permitting Turkish military presence in parts of northern Syria. Pence said that negotiations lasted more than five hours with Erdoğan and his team.

Pence’s announcement came as Congressional Democrats walked out of a bipartisan White House meeting with Trump on Wednesday after a heated discussion about the President’s abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops out. Pelosi said that Trump had a “meltdown,” looked shaken, “and was not relating to reality.” Trump returned Pelosi’s insult on Wednesday night, tweeting: “Nancy Pelosi needs help fast! There is either something wrong with her ‘upstairs’… she is a very sick person!” Trump also tweeted a photo of Pelosi pointing a finger at him during the contentious meeting with the caption “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!” which Pelosi later turned into her Twitter account’s background picture.

FURTHER READING

“Indicted Giuliani associate worked on behalf of Ukrainian oligarch Firtash,” Reuters, 10/11/19

“New York governor signs law aimed at foiling Trump pardons,” The Washington Post, 10/16/19

“Appeals court revives Trump emoluments lawsuit,” NBC, 10/15/19

“Trump loses appeal to stop House subpoena of his tax documents,” CNN, 10/11/19 (Appellate court ruling)

“Judges Strike Several Blows to Trump Immigration Policies,” The New York Times, 10/11/19

“Trump’s latest Homeland Security secretary will resign,” Politico, 10/12/19

“Macabre Video of Fake Trump Shooting Media and Critics Is Shown at His Resort,” The New York Times, 10/13/19

“House lawyers: Trump trying to ‘obstruct his own impeachment’,” Politico, 10/16/19

“McConnell tells Senate Republicans to be ready for impeachment trial of Trump,” The Washington Post, 10/16/19

“Census Bureau seeks state data, including citizenship info,” The Associated Press, 10/14/19

“Ronan Farrow says National Enquirer shredded Trump-related documents,” CNN, 10/15/19

“Never-Before-Seen Trump Tax Documents Show Major Inconsistencies,” ProPublica, 10/16/19

“California law bans for-profit, private prisons, including immigration detention centers,” NBC News, 10/11/19

Stay Informed,

Adrienne Cobb & the CAFE team: Tamara Sepper, Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, David Kurlander, and Aaron Dalton

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