End of the Year Impeachment Wrapup

 

Dec. 20th, 2019
 

BY JAMES HOHMANN
with Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wants to see the documents being concealed by the White House even more than he wants to hear from the list of current and former aides who followed President Trump’s order not to testify during the investigation that led to his impeachment.

The House Intelligence Committee chairman recounted the texts and emails provided by Kurt Volker, the former envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union.

“The few messages we did get were remarkably incriminating,” Schiff said in an interview on Thursday night. “So you can only imagine, if this is what the small sample of documents that we have shows, just how damning many of the other documents the administration refuses to turn over may be.”

The second article of impeachment that passed on Wednesday is for obstruction of Congress. It notes that not a single document was provided in response to subpoenas by the departments of State, Defense and Energy, as well the Office of Management and Budget.

Contemporaneous emails don’t perjure themselves. The report Schiff’s committee released on Dec. 3 outlined, from pages 217 to 230, specific records that the administration refused to produce after witnesses testified about their existence. Among them are call logs, briefing materials provided to the president and notes taken by the National Security Council’s top legal adviser when employees expressed alarm about what the president was doing vis-à-vis Ukraine.

“If this were a logical and fair trial, it would begin with the production of documents,” said Schiff, a former federal prosecutor. “And those documents tell you what questions you need to ask the witnesses. Sometimes they lead to other witnesses.”

He’s not holding his breath, but Schiff’s continuing quest to unearth more material is freshly relevant against the backdrop of the stalemate between the House and Senate and the continuing negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) over the rules of the looming trial that will decide the president’s fate.

Pelosi announced Thursday that she will refrain from transmitting the articles of impeachment until McConnell sets rules for the trial that are accepted by Senate Democrats. The House then voted to adjourn for the holidays until Jan. 7, leaving uncertainty about when the Senate might be able to start proceedings.

“This is a matter that we are discussing,” Schiff said. “I think the speaker is appropriately giving Senator Schumer time to negotiate with Senator McConnell and hopefully arrive at the terms of a trial that’s fair to the president and the American people.”

Schiff is almost certain to be one of the impeachment managers presenting the case against Trump during the Senate trial, though Pelosi has not named the House’s emissaries. “I certainly think it makes sense to force the Senate to vote on whether they’re going to deprive the American people of these witnesses and tell the American people they’re not interested in seeing the documentary evidence,” Schiff said. “They just want to sweep this under the rug. If that’s McConnell’s position, then the members of his conference should have to vote on it and be held accountable.”

The Washington Post reported last month that a confidential White House review of Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and a debate over whether the delay was legal. The research by the White House Counsel’s Office includes early August email exchanges between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation for withholding the funds after the president had already ordered a hold in mid-July on the nearly $400 million in security assistance.

Schiff believes the Senate is entitled to whatever materials that the White House counsel collected in his review. “The trial should begin with the documents being provided finally to Congress,” he said.

The Post-ABC News poll released on Monday showed that, while Americans remain divided over impeachment, overwhelming majorities across the ideological spectrum want the Trump administration to cooperate. A 71 percent majority of respondents said the president should allow his aides to testify. Indeed, almost 2 in 3 Republicans said Trump should allow them to appear before the Senate. The poll found that 55 percent of Americans thought the House hearings were fair, while 38 percent said they were unfair. Just over 6 in 10 said they are confident that the president will receive a fair trial in the Senate.

— White House officials and informal presidential advisers reiterated on Thursday that Trump is continuing to push his Senate allies to call a range of Republican-approved witnesses because he believes their testimonies could damage the Democratic case. “Trump has long been eager for Senate Republicans to mount a full and vigorous defense of his conduct, even if the trial takes on a circuslike atmosphere,” Bob Costa, Phil Rucker and Rachael Bade report. “But McConnell has reminded the president and his team that every witness request would need to be approved by a majority vote, saying that could put some Senate Republicans in a difficult political spot and that Democrats could also unearth embarrassing information with their questioning, according to several people familiar with the talks.”

— Schiff said he doesn’t buy this “parlor game.” He believes Trump does not actually want witnesses to testify and thinks this is part of a coordinated messaging effort by the White House to redirect some of the blame for intransigence toward McConnell. “I think we can rely on one thing McConnell has said, which is that he’s working hand in hand with the White House,” Schiff told me. “If he’s saying he doesn’t want witnesses, that means the president doesn’t want witnesses. … I think it’s clear why: What those witnesses have to say would only incriminate the president. … And I think because that evidence is likely to be so graphic, of course the administration is doing everything they can to avoid any witnesses testifying or any documents being provided to Congress. If they thought it would be exculpatory, they’d be happy to do it.”

McConnell responded that Democrats withholding the articles shows they have a weak case that won’t hold up to Senate scrutiny. “A political faction in the House of Representatives has succumbed to a partisan rage,” he said on Thursday, calling it “the most rushed, least thorough and most unfair impeachment inquiry in modern history.”

Fiona Hill says Bolton ‘drug deal’ remark was reference to quid pro quo

— Schiff argued that no additional evidence is needed to know the president abused his power and tried to cover it up. “We know what the president did, and we know when the president did it. But there are witnesses that could relate conversations with the president, and conversations among each other, about the execution of the president’s scheme,” he explained. “There’s a whole other layer of detail that could be revealed to the public. And the public would also get a better sense of just how active other high-level administration officials were in this corrupt scheme to press Ukraine to interfere in the next election to help the president. … The American people deserve to know who else was involved in this corrupt plan, and that’s what’s being withheld from the public right now.”

Mulvaney essentially admitted to a quid pro quo during his notorious October appearance in the White House briefing room, Schiff noted, even though he tried to walk it back later. He added that the documents and testimony his investigators collected leave no doubt that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in the loop about what was going on. Schiff also recalled former NSC official Fiona Hill’s testimony that her boss, John Bolton, referred to the shadow foreign policy toward Ukraine as a “drug deal” being cooked up by Sondland and Mulvaney.

— Bolton declined to comment about impeachment during an interview with NPR“There’s obviously a lot swirling around in that department, including some litigation that could affect my status, so I think although I have a lot to say on the subject, the prudent course for me is just to decline to comment at this point,” he told Steve Inskeep.

The former national security adviser, who also held important jobs under the previous three Republican presidents, said the judicial branch should adjudicate the dispute between the legislative and executive branches over whether he should obey the president’s order not to answer questions. “I think that’s a very important issue that needs to be resolved,” Bolton said, prompting the host to note that Bolton also has a multimillion-dollar book contract.

Said Schiff: “It’s hard to imagine someone who is a more pertinent witness than the one that decried the ‘drug deal’ and told his staff to go talk to the White House lawyers.”

— Vice President Pence has also refused to declassify testimony that Schiff says is “directly relevant” to the impeachment debate. Schiff wrote in an open letter to Pence earlier this week that the classified witness testimony gathered during the inquiry “raises profound questions about your knowledge of the President’s scheme to solicit Ukraine’s interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.” The testimony from Jennifer Williams, Pence’s Russia adviser, was provided as a supplemental written submission to the Intelligence Committee through her lawyer on Nov. 26. Ten days later, Schiff asked Pence to declassify it. Apparently it relates to a September phone call Pence had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

— Pence criticized Schiff when he was pressed by ABC News on Wednesday about why he won’t declassify the information. “Well, we may,” Pence told Rachel Scott on a campaign bus in Michigan before the president’s rally in the state that night. “But the fact that after his sham investigation is over, Adam Schiff is now asking for more information … says everything you need to know about this investigation, about this partisan impeachment.”

Pence also disputed Sondland’s claim about when he knew that the military aid to Ukraine was conditioned on Zelensky’s willingness to announce an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. Sondland testified that Pence was made aware before a Sept. 1 meeting with the Ukrainian president. “I was never aware of the allegation that military aid was tied to investigations until it became public,” Pence told ABC. “And to this day, I don’t believe it ever was.”

Schiff suggested that it’s telling Pence’s denials come on television, not under oath. “They also don’t want the country to see the records of their communications,” he said. “If Vice President Pence thought there was nothing to hide, then he would support our efforts to declassify what one of his own staff had to say. Not to mention the record of his call, or calls, with the Ukrainian president.”

— When we spoke last night, shortly after the House recessed for the rest of the year, Schiff was in a reflective mood. He recalled warning Democrats not to “take the bait on impeachment” last year and explained how his views evolved.

“I was not an early enthusiast of going down this road, but what changed my mind was when this new and most egregious conduct came to light,” he said. “It was one thing when Donald Trump, as a candidate, sought to get foreign help in his election. It was another when he was able to use the power of his office to try to make it so. But it was also the fact that he engaged in this conduct [on the July 25 call] the day after Bob Mueller testified. That told me that the president believes he is completely unaccountable [and] can do whatever he wants. That’s a really dangerous thing for the country, particularly when the president has no moral compass.”

The chairman singled out Marie Yovanovitch for praise. The former ambassador to Kyiv, who was recalled by Trump, gave a deposition, and then testified publicly, despite being warned not to by her superiors at Foggy Bottom. “That really paved the way for these other courageous people to come forward, and I’m glad the country got to see who they are and what a high caliber they are made of,” Schiff said. “And because of that courage, we were able to tell the American people about one of the most serious abuses of presidential power in a generation, and probably far longer, because I think what Nixon did really pales by comparison with what Donald Trump did.”

— Programming note: The Daily 202 is taking a holiday hiatus. We’ll be off the next two weeks and return on Monday, Jan. 6. Thank you for reading, and we’re look forward to chronicling 2020.

— Christianity Today, an influential evangelical magazine founded by the late evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, said Trump should be “removed from office.” Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Kayla Epstein report: “The piece, which appeared to draw so many readers that the magazine’s website crashed briefly, was written by editor in chief Mark Galli, who called Trump ‘a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.’ ‘Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election — that is a matter of prudential judgment,’ the editorial said. ‘That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.’ Galli, who will retire from the magazine Jan. 3, wrote that the facts leading to Wednesday’s impeachment of Trump are unambiguous. … But the editorial didn’t just call out Trump. It called out his devout Christian supporters. ‘To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve,’ Galli wrote. ‘Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior.’”

— Notable commentary from The Post’s opinion page:

— But, but, but: To beat the rap in the Senate, Trump needs senators representing only seven percent of the U.S. population to stay loyal. It’s hard to imagine that’s what the Founders intended. The House impeachment vote, however, largely mirrored what Americans in those districts wanted, notes Phillip Bump.

— The White House is preparing for Mulvaney to step down after the trial. From Politico: “Trump allies and White House aides, who have been nudging the president in recent weeks to find a new leader for the team as it delves into a crucial reelection campaign, have been circulating lists of potential replacements for weeks. Mulvaney no longer wields much control over White House staff. Lately, he has been left out of major personnel and policy decisions, and he is not driving the strategy on impeachment even though he occupies what is historically the most powerful job in the West Wing. ‘He is there. I’ll leave it at that,’ said a Republican close to the White House when asked about Mulvaney’s status. ‘He’s like a kid. His role at the dinner table is to be seen and not heard.’”

— Former White House officials say they feared Vladimir Putin influenced the president’s views on Ukraine and 2016 campaign. Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Carol Leonnig, with Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, have a story packed with scoops that underscore how the Ukraine affair should be viewed against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing disinformation warfare against the United States: “Almost from the moment he took office, President Trump seized on a theory that troubled his senior aides: Ukraine, he told them on many occasions, had tried to stop him from winning the White House. After meeting privately in July 2017 with [Putin] at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Trump grew more insistent that Ukraine worked to defeat him … The president’s intense resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin himself helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability … One former senior White House official said Trump even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because ‘Putin told me.’ Two other former officials said the senior White House official described Trump’s comment to them. …

“This article is based on interviews with 15 former administration and government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer their candid views about the president. … John Kelly, who served as Trump’s chief of staff from mid-2017 until the end of 2018, marveled to other aides that Trump expressed far less skepticism of Putin, whom Trump sometimes called ‘my friend,’ than other leaders, said a former senior White House official. Kelly tried to get U.S. experts to speak to Trump before his scheduled calls with the Russian president to push back on some of Trump’s misconceptions…

Early in the administration, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was eager to secure a White House meeting with Trump — ideally before he met publicly with Putin — to demonstrate U.S. commitment to defending Ukraine against Russia. But Trump resisted the meeting … White House aides were confused: Ukraine was an ally in a war against a country that had just undermined the U.S. elections. Meeting with Poroshenko was a ‘no-brainer,’ one former official said. ‘It was utterly mystifying to us why Trump wouldn’t agree.’ … Poroshenko came to the White House on June 20, 2017, to meet with Vice President Pence. Trump had a short ‘drop-in’ with the Ukrainian leader, allaying some U.S. officials’ concerns that he wouldn’t bother to say hello. … The meeting stood in stark contrast to Trump’s warm reception a month earlier of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergey Kisylak, who was then Russia’s ambassador to the United States. …

On July 7, 2017, Trump had his first in-person encounter with Putin, at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg. Their highly anticipated formal conversation lasted more than two hours. But later that day, they met informally for an additional hour, at a dinner for heads of state and their spouses. At the time, U.S. and Russian officials didn’t disclose the conversation. During the meal, Trump left his chair and sat next to Putin. Trump went alone, and Putin was assisted by his interpreter. For some White House officials struggling to understand Trump’s obsession with Ukraine, the Hamburg meetings were a turning point. Three former senior administration officials said Trump repeatedly insisted after the G-20 summit that he believed Putin’s assurances that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 campaign. …

Trump repeatedly told one senior official that the Russian president said Ukraine sought to undermine him … White House aides were not part of Trump’s private conversation with Putin in Hamburg, or a later meeting he had in Helsinki for two hours with the Russian president, when they were accompanied by only their interpreters. Trump also took steps to conceal the details of his formal meeting with Putin in Hamburg, taking the notes away from his interpreter and instructing her not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials …

This fall, U.S. intelligence officials informed lawmakers about what they have concluded has been an organized campaign by Russian propagandists to spread the Ukraine theory on social media … The reports by intelligence analysts cite evidence that the propagandists were taking credit for helping to spread disinformation that equated Ukraine’s actions to Russia’s, and celebrating the traction it was getting, particularly with conservative news organizations. The intelligence reports were shared with members of Congress and their staff, including lawmakers who have in recent weeks become some of the most vocal advocates for investigating Ukraine’s alleged interference…”

— The Trump administration is quietly trying to kill a new package of sanctions on Russia. The Daily Beast reports: “A Trump State Department official sent a 22-page letter to a top Senate chairman on Tuesday making a wide-ranging case against a new sanctions bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham—usually a staunch ally of the White House—introduced the legislation earlier this year. It’s designed to punish Russian individuals and companies over the Kremlin’s targeting of Ukraine, as well as its 2016 election interference in the U.S., its activities in Syria, and its attacks on dissidents. … The administration’s letter says it ‘strongly opposes’ the bill unless it goes through a ton of changes. It argues the legislation is unnecessary and that it would harm America’s European allies–potentially fracturing transatlantic support for current U.S. sanctions on Russia. The bill ‘risks crippling the global energy, commodities, financial, and other markets,’ the letter says, and would target ‘almost the entire range of foreign commercial activities with Russia.’ … Despite Trump’s strong opposition, the bill passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday morning. Five senators opposed it, all Republicans: Chairman Jim Risch, Rand Paul, Johnny Isakson, John Barrasso and Ron Johnson.

— Bill Barr’s handpicked prosecutor, who is scrutinizing the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation, is examining former CIA director John Brennan’s role in how the intelligence community assessed the Kremlin’s 2016 election interference. From the Times: John “Durham, the United States attorney leading the investigation, has requested Mr. Brennan’s emails, call logs and other documents from the C.I.A. … He wants to learn what Mr. Brennan told other officials, including the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, about his and the C.I.A.’s views of a notorious dossier of assertions about Russia and Trump associates. Mr. Durham’s pursuit of Mr. Brennan’s records is certain to add to accusations that Mr. Trump is using the Justice Department to go after his perceived enemies. The president has long attacked Mr. Brennan as part of his narrative about a so-called deep state cabal of Obama administration officials who tried to sabotage his campaign, and Mr. Trump has held out Mr. Durham’s investigation as a potential avenue for proving those claims. Mr. Durham is also examining whether Mr. Brennan privately contradicted his public comments, including May 2017 testimony to Congress, about both the dossier and about any debate among the intelligence agencies over their conclusions on Russia’s interference, the people said.”

— The Justice Department is investigating the founder of Sci-Hub, a major Internet piracy operation, on suspicion that she may be working with Russian intelligence to steal U.S. military secrets from defense contractors. Shane Harris and Devlin Barrett report: “Alexandra Elbakyan​, a computer programmer born in Kazakhstan, is the creator of Sci-Hub, a website that provides free access to academic papers that are usually available only through expensive subscriptions. Elbakyan’s supporters have favorably described her as a ‘Robin Hood of science.’ … The investigation has both criminal and intelligence-gathering elements … A former senior U.S. intelligence official said he believes Elbakyan is working with Russia’s military intelligence arm, the GRU, the same organization that stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and then provided them to WikiLeaks in 2016.

— Attorneys for longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone asked a federal judge to postpone his scheduled Feb. 6 sentencing by at least one month, saying he needs more time to collect financial and other records needed for a sentencing advisory report. Spencer Hsu reports: “Stone, 67, was convicted by a federal jury in Washington last month of one count of tampering with a witness and six counts of lying to Congress … Stone faces a maximum 50 years in prison for the charges, although a first offender would face far less time under federal sentencing guidelines. … Stone, who is free pending sentencing, was convicted of charges resulting from his September 2017 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, which was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election … Stone’s indictment was the last brought by [Bob] Mueller, which charged him of lying to conceal the Trump campaign’s interest in his efforts to learn about [the emails that WikiLeaks was given].”

— Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the son of Russian spies is entitled to Canadian citizenship. Amanda Coletta reports: “The unanimous ruling in the case of Alexander Vavilov, who grew up in Canada and the United States as Alexander Foley, brought an end to a nearly decade-long legal battle. Vavilov, 25, said the ‘relief’ he felt at his ‘vindication’ was ‘indescribable.’ … The victory for Vavilov, who had been barred from returning to the country of his birth, was a defeat for the government, which had said it was fighting for ‘the integrity of Canadian citizenship.’ Vavilov and his brother Timofey, 29, were born in Toronto to what appeared to be an ordinary Canadian family. But they lost their citizenship after their parents pleaded guilty in a 2010 FBI sweep of Russian spies working under deep cover in the United States. The brothers say they didn’t know their parents were working for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.”

— A gunman opened fire at Russian FSB state security headquarters. The lone attacker was killed. Robyn Dixon reports: “The FSB is one of the successor agencies to the KGB. At least one FSB officer died in the gun battle in the heart of Moscow, the agency said. The Health Ministry confirmed that five people were wounded in the incident. No immediate details were made public on the gunman or possible motives. Russian media initially cited an FSB statement saying three attackers opened fire, and all were killed. Later, the FSB said there was only one gunman.”

wealthy campaign donors dominated the Democratic presidential debate Thursday, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg tangled over each other’s ability to govern with integrity,” Matt Viser, Michael Scherer and Amy B Wang report. “The confrontation, which ignited after weeks of simmering disagreements between the two, provided the biggest fireworks in a night filled with elevated voices, waving arms and some of the most aggressive exchanges of any of the debates this year. Seven candidates onstage — the smallest debate of the year — fought over health care policy, age and experience and whether they had the ability to defeat Trump. …

Warren’s assault on Buttigieg for holding fundraisers with wealthy donors, including a recent event in Napa, Calif., which took place in a catered wine cave with a crystal chandelier, marked a dramatic shift in her past practice of avoiding debate-stage conflict with her rivals. ‘Think about who comes to that,’ the senator from Massachusetts said, making the case that big-dollar donors don’t have the same concerns as those who are struggling with student loan debt or medical debt. ‘Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.’ … [Buttigieg] accused Warren of ‘issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,’ since she held closed-door fundraisers during her 2018 Senate campaign and transferred $10.4 million of that money into her presidential account. …

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who separately targeted Buttigieg for having a thin political résumé, quickly joined in. ‘I did not come here to listen to this argument!’ said Klobuchar, who made her most forceful debate appearance. She added: ‘I have never even been to a wine cave.’ …

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who like Warren does not hold high-dollar events in the current campaign, targeted [Joe] Biden for a fundraising strategy similar to Buttigieg’s. ‘He’s received contributions from 44 billionaires,’ Sanders said. ‘Pete, on the other hand, is trailing. . . . You only got 39 billionaires contributing.’ …

“From the opening answers, the party’s differences were on display, with Sanders saying he will oppose the new trade deal passed by the House, while Klobuchar praised the deal’s labor and environmental standards. … Businessman Andrew Yang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, was the only racial minority onstage in a state where nonwhites are propelling the Democratic Party. ‘It’s both an honor and disappointment to be the only candidate of color on the stage,’ Yang said, before mentioning [Kamala] Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), who did not make the cut for the debate. ‘I miss Kamala, I miss Cory — though I think Cory will be back.’ … ‘I guarantee if we had a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month, I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight,’ Yang said. … Billionaire investor Tom Steyer, who has been running on a platform of combating climate change and getting money out of politics, did make the debate stage.”

— The debate started off slowly and collegially. It ended with fireworks. Dan Balz’s take: “The sharpened tone of the debate reflected the fact that the Democratic nominating contest is entering a more critical phase, with the first votes in Iowa little more than six weeks away. It also was a sign of the fluidity of the contest and the ups and downs of individual candidates after nearly a year of campaigning. … That Buttigieg wore the biggest bull’s-eye was not unexpected. His rise this fall has threatened the candidacies of many of his rivals, but perhaps none more so than [Warren] and [Klobuchar] … When Warren then said, ‘I do not sell access to my time,’ Buttigieg fired back, noting that she had raised money in her Senate campaigns with the same kind of high-dollar fundraisers she was now criticizing. … In the moment, on the stage, it seemed advantage Buttigieg. Whether he sustains that between now and when the voters begin to cast their ballots is another question. … 

“Klobuchar’s disdain for the Indiana mayor had surfaced before. In last month’s Atlanta debate, she hesitated until the very end of the evening to challenge his youth, relative inexperience and male privilege, as she had done publicly along the campaign trail. Her exchange with Buttigieg was less focused but no less pointed than the clash between Buttigieg and Warren. It also was less conclusive. What it revealed was both candidates’ apparent visceral dislike for each other. Overall, Klobuchar delivered the kind of performance she wanted, one that emphasized her focus on middle-ground policies, Midwestern values, humor and a desire to produce results in office. … 

“Biden drew criticism, as he has before, for his vote to authorize the Iraq War and for his opposition to Medicare-for-all … Biden parried on health care and chose to let the Iraq issue slide by. … Biden was crisp in defending himself against criticism that he is naive to believe he can gain cooperation of Republicans if he becomes president. … He showed humor when he was asked whether he could commit to running for a second term, at age 82, if he wins the presidency in 2020. ‘No, I’m not willing to commit one way or another. Here’s the deal. I’m not even elected one term yet, and let’s see where we are. Let’s see what happens. But it’s a nice thought.’ When the topic of Afghanistan was raised, and the revelations published in The Post about how leaders had misled the public about progress in the war, Biden answered by explaining that he, almost alone among senior officials in the Obama administration, had opposed the troop surge.”

Name a gift each would give to a rival onstage or ask forgiveness from a fellow candidate. It put gender in the spotlight. Annie Linskey reports: “In a Democratic field with a historic number of top female contenders, the responses were revealing. Only the women chose to be contrite. ‘I will ask for forgiveness,’ said [Warren]. ‘I know that sometimes I get really worked up. And sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to.’ [Klobuchar] was similarly reflective: ‘Well, I’d ask for forgiveness, any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt, but I am doing this because I think it is so important to pick the right candidates here.’ The five men onstage, in contrast, offered the gift of their ideas. Several suggested giving others books they had written. Others focused on policy proposals they hatched. In a campaign that has emphasized policy differences, generational divides and geographical values, this single question illustrated another dimension — what many see as a double standard in the ways men and women are expected to behave. ‘It’s an ingrained gender stereotype that men don’t have to apologize for being labeled angry,’ said Amanda Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on electing more women to top jobs and promoting women in contemporary art. ‘Many of the women watching the debate could relate to feeling that pressure. … Women feel like they have to apologize if they appear angry or forceful, and men get the benefit of the doubt.’ … Biden didn’t try to sell a book. Instead, he appeared to get annoyed with Warren, who had won applause for explaining how deeply she’s affected by the stories of suffering she hears from voters who stand in line to take photos with her. ‘You’re not the only one whose done selfies, Senator,’ the former vice president said. ‘I’ve done thousands of them. Thousands of them.’”

— Among the other key moments from last night’s debate, via Sean Sullivan and Linskey: “Sanders said he won’t back off Medicare-for-all after being asked if he would be in favor of smaller, focused health-care measures. … Buttigieg and Warren said Trump has lowered America’s standing abroad. … Sanders called Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu a racist and said the U.S. must not just be about ‘being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian as well.'”

— Warren was asked how she felt about potentially becoming the oldest president ever inaugurated. She noted, to raucous applause, that she would also be the “youngest woman inaugurated.” (NYT)

— Biden appeared to stutter while speaking movingly about the stuttering children he has mentored. On Twitter, a former White House press secretary mocked him. Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports: “Biden grew up with a stutter, and talks often about the bullying he faced. ‘The little kid who says ‘I can’t talk, what do I do?’’ Biden said, affecting a stutter on the I. ‘I have scores of these young men and women that I keep in contact with.’ Minutes later, President Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Sanders sent a tweet with 15 I’s in a row – a typographical insult aimed at Biden. ‘I have absolutely no idea what Biden is talking about,’ she tweeted, adding the tag #DemDebate. Within moments, Biden’s twitter account engaged Sanders. ‘I’ve worked my whole life to overcome a stutter,’ he tweeted. ‘And it’s my great honor to mentor kids who have experienced the same. It’s called empathy. Look it up.’ A few minutes later Sanders responded, seeming to walk back her former comments. ‘To be clear was not trying to make fun of anyone with a speech impediment,’ Sanders tweeted. ‘Simply pointing out I can’t follow much of anything Biden is talking about.’ A few minutes later, Sanders apologized for her comments and deleted the offending tweet. ‘I actually didn’t know that about you and that is commendable,’ Sanders tweeted, in response to Biden’s missive about his work to overcome his stutter. ‘I apologize and should have made my point respectfully.’”

— What pundits are saying about the winners and losers: 

  • Aaron Blake at The Fix thinks Biden and Buttigieg — despite the attacks – had the best night. Sanders didn’t perform well when asked about race, making him the night’s losing candidate, while other losers include Democratic harmony and the debate’s scheduling.
  • CNN’s Chris Cillizza listed Klobuchar, Biden, Buttigieg and Yang as his winners, while Sanders, Buttigieg (he got both) and the first hour of the debate as losers.
  • National Review’s Jim Geraghty said Biden cruised while Buttigieg took a lot of fire.
  • USA Today’s Savannah Behrmann and Rebecca Morin think Biden, Yang and Klobuchar won the night, while the topic of health care was a loser for the amount of time it took candidates to finally debate it. Julián Castro and Tulsi Gabbard, two candidates who didn’t make it onstage, also did not have a good night because they didn’t even get name-checked.
  • Vox’s team also lists Biden as a winner, followed by Klobuchar. They don’t think Buttigieg or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a good night.
  • For Fox News, Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said Biden was the night’s big winner, followed by Warren and Klobuchar. She listed Buttigieg as the biggest loser, along with Steyer.

— The House passed the reworked North America trade deal in a victory for Trump and the Democrats. Erica Werner reports: “The legislation passed on an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 385 to 41, with a large majority of Democrats approving the deal. The bill’s success came despite intense partisanship on most other fronts in Washington. But these distractions appeared to create cover for negotiators to finalize a trade deal that Trump and Democrats would support. The revised pact upended the Democratic Party’s long-standing skepticism toward massive trade bills such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the new deal would replace. In a further reordering of the politics of trade, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement has the endorsement of major labor unions including the AFL-CIO. The Senate is expected to act on the package next year. … To circumvent the frayed relationship between the president and the House speaker, Democrats worked directly with U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, a globalization skeptic who agreed to make numerous adjustments to gain their support. On Thursday, when Trump was in the White House berating Democrats, Lighthizer stood in the House gallery, waving to lawmakers as the deal sailed through.”

— The House also narrowly passed a bill that would restore SALT tax benefits to higher-income Americans, repealing part of the 2017 Republican tax law two years after it passed. The effort is expected to falter in the Senate. Jeff Stein reports: “The bill, which passed 218-206, would allow Americans to offset more state and local payments from their income taxes. The bill is expected to amount to little more than a messaging exercise, however. Senate Republicans have signaled they won’t bring it to a vote, and the White House has also expressed opposition. The 2017 tax law has continued to vex Democrats, who have said it primarily helps wealthy Americans and corporations. But analysts and tax experts say the bill House Democrats advanced on Thursday would primarily benefit affluent Americans. That’s because it would repeal a cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, a change that would benefit people with large tax bills.”

— The Senate passed new limits on robocalls. Tony Romm reports: “The vote in the Senate, weeks after the House passed the legislation, sends the bill to Trump, who is expected to sign it. The measure won’t cut down on robocalls immediately, its backers acknowledge, but over time should lessen the unwanted interruptions — and take aim at the fraudsters behind them. Under the proposal, dubbed the TRACED Act, the government will gain new powers to find and prosecute criminals who place batches of calls under fake numbers without obtaining permission, remedying what law enforcement officials have said was a major weakness that inhibited their ability to punish those who contact Americans en masse.”

— A new federal study confirmed the racial bias many facial-recognition systems have, casting doubt on their expanding use. Drew Harwell reports: “Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men, depending on the particular algorithm and type of search. Native Americans had the highest false-positive rate of all ethnicities, according to the study, which found that systems varied widely in their accuracy. The faces of African American women were falsely identified more often in the kinds of searches used by police investigators where an image is compared to thousands or millions of others in hopes of identifying a suspect. Algorithms developed in the United States also showed high error rates for ‘one-to-one’ searches of Asians, African Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. Such searches are critical to functions including cellphone sign-ons and airport boarding schemes, and errors could make it easier for impostors to gain access to those systems.”

— Facebook will bar posts and ads that spread disinformation about the U.S. census. Tony Romm reports: “The new policies come as civil rights leaders urge Facebook to act more aggressively against content that targets vulnerable communities, including people of color and immigrants, who may be most influenced by social media misinformation about voting. Under the new rules, Facebook will ban posts from misrepresenting when and how the census occurs, who can participate and what happens to the personal information people submit to the government, company executives said. The policies also apply to ads, limiting even what politicians can say, despite rules that otherwise allow office seekers to lie in Facebook posts that they pay to promote to the company’s more than 2 billion users.”

— A Senate report faults the Consumer Product Safety Commission for failures related to dangerous baby products and elevators. Todd C. Frankel reports: “The report examines how the CPSC responded to safety problems with three products that were the subject of Post articles: Britax’s BOB jogging stroller, Fisher-Price’s Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper and residential elevators. It criticizes the agency for offering what it calls inadequate remedies for consumers who bought defective products, saying some were ‘incentive programs to bring the companies involved in the recalls more business.’ The senate investigation was buttressed by internal CPSC records requested by [Sen. Maria] Cantwell’s staff. Cantwell (Wash.) is the ranking Democrat on a Senate committee with oversight responsibilities for the CPSC. The report hints at the potential scrutiny that the agency’s operations and handling of product complaints could receive next year.”

— The $1.4 trillion budget deal approved this week by Congress boosts spending on early-childhood education and college access and affordability programs, rejecting deep cuts proposed by the Trump administration. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Laura Meckler report: “The agreement to fund the government through September and stave off a shutdown delivers $72.8 billion in discretionary funding for the Education Department, a $1.3 billion increase over 2019. That’s nearly $6 billion more than the administration — which has sought to squeeze money out of the agency — wanted. The spending priorities in the deal are a repudiation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s agenda to reduce the role of the federal government in education. Congress for the third year ignored the secretary’s request to slash billions of dollars from the agency’s budget. … Among the winners: the Title I program, which sends money to schools that have a significant enrollment of children from low-income families. The spending bill increases funding for those schools by $450 million, to a total of $16.3 billion. There’s also a boost for special education funding.”

— The House Ethics Committee released a report detailing how Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) used official funds for campaign activity and determined she must reimburse federal taxpayers $7,575.95. Colby Itkowitz reports: “McMorris Rodgers, who from 2013 to 2019 was the highest-ranking woman in the House GOP caucus, probably did not know the extent of the misconduct, the report says, but ‘she should have been aware that some of the misuse was occurring.’”

— A state representative in Washington, Rep. Matt Shea, engaged in domestic terrorism against the U.S., a report from the legislative body concluded. From the Seattle Times: “The 108-page report found that beginning in November 2015, Shea, working with militia leader Ammon Bundy, helped ‘in the planning and preparation’ of the Malheur takeover, a six-week conflict in which dozens of armed protesters occupied the refuge in rural Eastern Oregon. The standoff ended after one protester was shot and killed and dozens were arrested. ‘Representative Shea, as a leader in the Patriot Movement, planned, engaged in and promoted a total of three armed conflicts of political violence against the United States Government in three states outside the state of Washington over a three-year period,’ according to the report released Thursday. ‘In one conflict Representative Shea led covert strategic pre-planning in advance of the conflict.’”

— Kaja Sokola, a former model, sued disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein, alleging that he sexually abused her when she was 16. Deanna Paul reports: “The civil complaint, filed in New York under the state’s recently passed Child Victims Act, accused Weinstein, then 50, of sexual assault. It also named Miramax Films, the Walt Disney Co. and Robert Weinstein as enablers who ignored allegations of sexual misconduct made against the Oscar-winning producer. The new legislation, passed in August, opened a year-long window for survivors of child sexual abuse to file claims against their alleged abusers and against institutions that protected those abusers. New York’s statute of limitations previously barred victims from suing after they turned 23. Sokola is now 33.”

— Kentucky’s former governor Matt Bevin (R) pardoned a child rapist because the 9-year-old victim’s hymen was intact. Antonia Noori Farzan reports: “‘There was zero evidence,’ Bevin told talk-radio host Terry Meiners of WHAS. Already under fire for handing out pardons to relatives of his supporters, Bevin is now facing an onslaught of criticism from medical and forensic experts. Scientists have debunked the notion that inspecting an alleged victim’s hymen can prove if they were sexually assaulted, and found that most survivors of child sexual abuse do not have any physical damage. … Asked Thursday by Meiners how he could stomach pardoning a child rapist, Bevin responded, ‘Which one?’”

— The Pentagon completed a screening of all Saudi military students in the U.S. and found no additional security threats, nearly two weeks after a Saudi lieutenant killed people in Florida. Dan Lamothe reports: “Garry Reid, the director for defense intelligence, said the Defense Department will next vet students from other countries who are here for military training. The new layer of Pentagon screening includes an automated review of government databases, commercial data and publicly available information that is also examined by analysts, Reid said. The finding clears the way for the military services to resume training more than 850 Saudi students at the discretion of service officials. Training was suspended after 2nd Lt. Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, an aviation student, opened fire at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Dec. 6. A sheriff’s deputy killed him in a shootout, authorities have said.”

— The U.S. is closely watching North Korea for signs of a possible missile launch or nuclear test, which officials are referring to as a “Christmas surprise.” From the AP: “A significant launch or test would mean the end of North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium and raise tensions in the region. It would also be a major blow to one of the Trump administration’s major foreign policy initiatives: the drive to get North Korea back to negotiations to eliminate its nuclear weapons and missiles. Earlier this month, the North conducted what U.S. officials say was an engine test. North Korea described it as ‘crucial’ and experts believe that it may have involved an engine for a space launch vehicle or long-range missile. Officials worry that it could be a prelude to the possible launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in the coming days or weeks.”

— The U.S. issued more visa bans for Iranians tied to a crackdown on anti-government protests. Carol Morello reports: “In a speech at the State Department before members of the Iranian diaspora, ambassadors posted to Washington and members of Congress, Pompeo said the visa restrictions will also apply to the family members of those officials. … The ban reinforces existing visa restrictions that President Trump imposed in September on senior Iranian officials and their relatives, barring them from coming to the United States to travel, study or work. The earlier visa ban came after the families of Americans imprisoned in Iran gave the administration a list of Iranians living in the United States and purported to be related to senior Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani.”

— Lebanon has designated a new prime minister, who is backed by Hezbollah, which is triggering new strife in the country. Liz Sly reports: “Hassan Diab, a little-known engineering professor and former education minister who is from Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, was tasked Thursday with forming a government by the country’s Christian party president, Michel Aoun, after a day of consultations with political blocs showed that Diab commanded majority support in parliament. Few, however, expected his unexpected and controversial selection to survive either the immediate popular backlash that erupted on the streets or the scrutiny of the international community. His appointment not only runs counter to Lebanon’s long tradition of consensual politics but also appears to affirm that Hezbollah is indeed the most powerful political player in Lebanon, potentially deterring future Western aid.”

— Inside the Taliban’s Afghanistan, violence continues being the path to power. Susannah George reports: “Deep inside Taliban territory, high in the mountains that line the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a top-ranking militant commander cradling a Kalashnikov boasted of the group’s victory against the Islamic State here. He declared that ‘when the Taliban comes, the peace will also come.’ But a deadly Taliban attack on the U.S. military base in Bagram just hours earlier undermined his message of comity. Even as the group dispatched negotiators to forge a peace deal with the United States, commanders and fighters were describing a militancy committed to the use of violence to achieve its goal of regaining political power after more than 18 years at war with U.S. and Afghan forces.”

— After Elizabeth II delivered the Queen’s Speech, Britain’s newly empowered Boris Johnson boasted of his “radical” agenda that will leap ahead with Brexit after years of “dither and delay.” William Booth and Karla Adam report: “There was less pageantry, but more policy, and the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords offered a first glimpse of how Johnson intends to wield the sweeping power he won in a landslide election last week. With a broad majority in Parliament, Johnson has vowed not only to ‘get Brexit done,’ but to ‘transform’ Britain and get the country’s ‘mojo back.’ But still unanswered, even after a six-week campaign, is how the prime minister will govern, and which vision of the future will he chase after Britain leaves the European Union next month.”

— Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon laid out her case for a fresh independence vote. Karla reports: “Currently, Scotland needs the consent of the government in Westminster to hold a new vote on independence. Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party want that decision devolved permanently to Scotland’s semiautonomous government in Edinburgh. Speaking at Bute House, her official residence in Edinburgh, Sturgeon told reporters, ‘In a voluntary association of nations such as the U.K., it cannot be in the interest of any part for our right to choose our own future to be conditional, or time limited, or a one-off. Nor is it right for it to be overridden by a prime minister, or, indeed, a first minister. It is a fundamental right of self-determination.’ … Scotland had the highest anti-Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum, with 62 percent of people voting to stay in the European Union. And at least some portion of those pro-E.U. voters now hope Scotland can leave the United Kingdom and rejoin the European Union.”

— A top Indian official abruptly cancelled a meeting with congressional leaders after U.S. lawmakers refused to exclude a congresswoman who has criticized the Indian government’s brutish policies in Kashmir. John Hudson reports: “The decision demonstrates India’s sensitivity over the Kashmir issue as Prime Minister Narendra Modi defends moving in troops, imposing curfews, and cutting off mobile phone and Internet access in India’s only majority-Muslim state. During his visit to Washington this week, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was to meet the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.); the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.); and others, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). Indian officials informed the committee that Jaishankar would not meet with the lawmakers if the group included Jayapal, who is sponsoring a resolution urging India to lift communications restrictions, restore the Internet and preserve religious freedom. Engel refused, and the Indians pulled out, Jayapal [said].”

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