Kemp Resists Pressure from Trump on Senate Pick
FBI Official Altered Document In Russia Probe
How the Secret Service Spends at Trump Properties
How Donald Trump Jr. Made the Bestseller List
‘Domestic Political Errand’
Extra Bonus Quote of the Day
• It Wasn't Just the Gordon Sondland Show
• Hearings Aren't Moving the Needle
• Democrats Debate in Atlanta
• Americans Don't Believe Campaigns Are Based on Facts
• Nikki Haley Goes Full Trumpist
• Wayne Messam Is Out
• Republicans Still Want Pompeo to Run for the Senate in Kansas
• Carolyn Maloney Will Become Chair of the House Oversight Committee
To lie or not to lie, that was the question EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland had to resolve before his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday. It appears that he decided not to lie, or even plead the Fifth Amendment. As a consequence, Donald Trump's problems just got quite a bit harder to manage.
In his 23-page opening statement, Sondland declared that he is a lifelong Republican. However, he also noted that he was testifying against the wishes of the White House. To make his testimony more difficult, the State Dept. would not let him access key documents or discuss his testimony with his staff. The claim that he couldn't prepare adequately for his previous (private) testimony cleared the way for Sondland to contradict what he had said earlier, since he now knows more (from other people's public testimony) than he knew then. He also said his memory is not perfect. All of this should have been a red flag to Trump that he was about to contradict what he had said in his earlier deposition.
Having laid that groundwork, Sondland said Trump forced him to work with Rudy Giuliani and that if he had known then what he knows now, he would have refused. He wanted to know why the military aid to Ukraine was suspended, but said no one was willing to tell him. Now he knows it was suspended in an (unsuccessful) effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens, something that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was fully prepared to do until events got out of hand when the whistleblower's complaint went public. Sondland believes that Trump didn't actually care about the investigation or whether Zelensky even did it. All he really cared about was a public statement that Zelensky was going to investigate the Bidens.
Sondland also said that what he, Giuliani, and various amigos and non-amigos were cooking up was no secret. Pretty much everyone in the administration was in the loop and knew exactly what they were up to. Sondland also repeatedly pointed out that Giuliani was de facto the person running Ukrainian policy and not the State Dept. At the end of his opening statement, he asked the rhetorical question: "Was there a quid pro quo?" He then answered it directly: Yes. He then went on to explain how he got Zelensky to agree to Trump's demands and how he conveyed that to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-NSA John Bolton, again repeating that everyone was in the loop.
Sondland said that he regretted that the Ukrainians were put in a position where if they didn't agree to investigate the Bidens, they wouldn't get needed military aid. He claimed that his main concern was to get Ukraine the aid, namely by having Zelensky make a public statement that he was going to investigate the Bidens. In other words, Sondland understood he was helping extort Zelensky but felt it was justified in order to get them the military aid they so desperately needed (and which Congress, by law, had appropriated). Cynics might say that Sondland didn't actually care about the aid but cared a lot about giving Trump what he wanted.
During the cross examination, Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman frequently quoted from testimony given by other witnesses, including Kurt Volker and David Taylor. He asked Sondland if their testimony was truthful. Sondland often said he didn't remember, but when Goldman asked him if he had reason to doubt what the other witnesses had said, Sondland conceded that he did not. The technical legal term for this is: "Cover your ass." His ass was never on camera but it must be quite large because he said "I don't recall" many, many times.
Goldman also brought up a meeting attended by Vice President Mike Pence and others in which the whole Ukraine situation was discussed. Goldman asked Sondland if Pence seemed surprised when he heard that Ukraine wasn't going to get any military aid until Zelensky announced an investigation of the Bidens. Sondland said that Pence was not. At the very least, it will now be harder for Pence to claim he was out of the loop and knew nothing about the whole attempted extortion. Pence met Zelensky in Poland on Sept. 1, but claims they didn't discuss the aid package. That seems dubious. And any claim that the VP didn't know about the July 25th phone call is not plausible since his aide, Jennifer Williams, told Congress on Tuesday that she included the redacted transcript in his briefing book.
When it was his turn, Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-CA) basically talked about the conspiracy theory that Ukraine helped Hillary Clinton in 2016 and called for testimony from Hunter Biden. Every time Nunes asked Sondland if he knew about some "fact" that was presented without any evidence, Sondland said he didn't know about it. But Nunes didn't care if Sondland knew about these theories. He just wanted to get them into the record and provide video clips right-wing news outlets could use later.
By far, the most aggressive Republican was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who was made a member of the Intelligence Committee just before the hearings started. In a rapid-fire tempo, he asked Sondland many leading questions. For example, Jordan duly noted that both Trump and Zelensky said there was no QPQ and asked Sondland if he agreed. He meekly agreed that they have both said that. He could have added "but Trump has lied 13,000 times as president so he might have been lying again and if Zelensky had said he was pressured, that would have been the end of the military aid and White House meeting."
All in all, there is no doubt left that there was an attempt at a quid pro quo of military aid for dirt and that Trump, Pompeo, Giuliani, and others were well aware of it. The only remaining question is how Senate Republicans will respond. They could easily say: "Yeah, there was an attempted quid pro quo but it doesn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense." Whether they will come to that conclusion will depend almost entirely on whether going there will help them keep their Senate majority. Probably nothing else really matters (see below).
Was Sondland's testimony a "John Dean" moment? Well, CNN had John Dean on yesterday and he said yes, it was. Dean also brought up the Watergate concept of a "modified limited hangout," by which he meant that Sondland was pulling his punches and not telling all he knew (referring to the same dynamic that we labeled "CYA" above). However, in the case of Watergate, there were the tapes with Nixon's own voice that proved his guilt beyond all doubt. In contrast, Trump is still denying a quid pro quo. In fact, after the first part of Sondland's testimony Trump lashed out at the ambassador, saying that he hardly knew the guy and there was no QPQ. In a very narrow sense this is true because Trump got caught before Zelensky made his announcement. But had it not been for the whistleblower, there would have been.
What about Pence? Sondland insisted that the VP knew about everything. Pence's office responded with an extremely strong non-denial denial, saying that the vice president: "never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations." That is probably true, but Sondland didn't say he personally had a conversation with Pence. Sondland said that there was a meeting during which the whole matter was discussed, Pence was present, and didn't react at all. Surely he would have done so if that had been the first time he had learned of it.
Sondland's demeanor during the whole hearing was very odd. All the previous witnesses understood the gravity of what they were doing and were extremely serious. In contrast, Sondland seemed to think the whole thing was a big joke. He kept looking around the room, smiling, sipping from his cup, scratching his cheek, and generally appearing to be having a fine time. Even worse, whenever the Republicans made points that seemed to exonerate the President, Sondland smiled and agreed. Then when the Democrats destroyed those arguments, Sondland smiled and agreed. He was acting like it's no big deal one way or the other.
One theme that pervaded the hearings was the Republicans repeatedly asking Sondland if Trump ever told him that there was a QPQ. He admitted that Trump never personally directly connected the military aid to the public statement he wanted from Zelensky. However, he did say that Giuliani told him that Trump was not going to give the Ukrainians anything unless Zelensky did his bidding. Democrats and others have pointed out that Trump never gives direct orders, just as a mob boss would never say: "Pay up or I'll burn your house down." But the message to everyone in the administration and to the Ukrainians was crystal clear: "If there is no announcement of an investigation into the Bidens, there will be no military aid and no Oval Office visit."
All in all, Sondland's testimony is the most damaging to Trump so far, as Sondland said there was definitely a QPQ and that Pence, Pompeo, and many others knew about it and were OK with it. It remains to be seen whether any Republican senators now see the light. So far, the stronger the evidence has been, the more they have dug in their heels. (V)
While Gordon Sondland was the blockbuster witness yesterday, he wasn't the only one to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. In the afternoon, Laura Cooper, a Russia and Ukraine expert who works for the Dept. of Defense on long-term strategy, also testified. She said that on July 25th, the Ukrainians asked her staff where the military aid was. This certainly strengthens the case that they understood the aid might just be contingent on their doing Donald Trump the "favor" he asked for in the phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky the same day. This is important, because Republicans have argued there couldn't be a quid pro quo, as the Ukrainians didn't know until August that the aid had been blocked. Cooper's testimony shows that they knew it in July. Put another way, the Ukrainians aren't stupid. On July 25th they were asked for a favor and they knew they hadn't gotten the aid Congress had appropriated. Putting 2 + 2 together isn't so hard, especially since they undoubtedly know that Trump never makes direct demands but always gives himself some room for plausible deniability.
Cooper wasn't the only problem the President had in the afternoon. David Hale, the top professional diplomat at the State Dept., also testified. Under questioning by Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), Hale said that holding up military aid to get Ukrainians to investigate a political opponent of the president would be inconsistent with American foreign policy and not something he would do. He also was asked point blank by Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) if the firing of former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was wrong and Hale said: "Yes, sir." (V)
Two new polls show that the impeachment hearings are not changing public opinion. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that 47% of respondents want Donald Trump impeached and 44% don't want that to happen. A spokesman for Morning Consult said that opposition to impeachment is higher than it has been at any point since Morning Consult began asking the question. The reason for this may be that 55% can't tell all the various investigations apart. To the extent the Republicans' plan is to throw up dust and confuse the voters so they don't really understand what is going on, it is working.
A second poll, from NPR/PBS/Marist College, found similar views. Here 47% want Trump impeached and 46% do not want this. These polls and others have shown that the vast majority of Americans have made up their minds and are not interested in hearing new facts that might make them change their positions. This applies to both Democrats and Republicans. Nevertheless, there is a small slice of the electorate that is open to learning more about what happened with respect to Ukraine and might change their minds based on new information. (V)
Given that Gordon Sondland spent much time on Wednesday dropping bombshells on the Hill, Wednesday night's Democratic debates were kind of like the guy who played right field for the Yankees immediately after Babe Ruth, the album that succeeded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on top of the Billboard charts, and the second person to orbit the Earth: anti-climactic, and ultimately pretty forgettable. Nonetheless, debate they did; here's how we saw it:
Who helped themselves the most? Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend). He wasn't the only person on stage who had a good night, but he definitely had the best night among the four folks who look like they could plausibly land the nomination. As per usual, Buttigieg delivered clear and compelling answers to pretty much all of the questions he was asked, including a very tough one about his own electoral record (it takes relatively few votes to win a mayoral election in South Bend, and he got trounced when he ran for state treasurer). He also trial ballooned a possible bridge to black voters (the Democratic constituency that is least excited about him), very carefully parallelling the inequality they have experienced with some of the limitations that have been imposed on LGBTQ Americans.
Perhaps equally important, the anticipated all-out assault on Buttigieg did not materialize, as his main rivals were basically content to leave him be. The only person who hit him hard was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). However, that didn't happen until late in the debate, and when it did, she badly garbled his position on Mexican drug cartels, suggesting that he was planning to send the U.S. army to attack them. The Mayor quickly turned her into the butt of the joke, fixing the Representative with a withering look, and asking "Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?" That got a big laugh.
Who helped themselves the least? Joe Biden. It's true that 80% of his answers are somewhere between "perfectly fine" and "really, really good." However, that's not a particularly strong batting average, since Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), as well as Buttigieg, tend to give answers in the "perfectly fine" to "really, really good" range between 90% and 95% of the time. Further, for a fellow who is battling the perception that he's scatterbrained, that he's too old, and that the cheese is slipping off the cracker, the other 20% of answers when Biden's not so good are really hurting him. He produced what were, hands down, the two biggest gaffes of the night on Wednesday.
First, while discussing domestic violence, Biden delivered a very passionate answer. That is a good thing, but it caused him to lose track of his vocabulary choices, with the result that he eventually declared: "And so we have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it." The audience noticeably tittered at this, and because Biden didn't understand why, he insisted that he "really means it," which made them laugh all the more. The second gaffe came when he tried to brag that he has the endorsement of the first black woman to be elected to the Senate (Carol Moseley Braun). However, what he actually said was that he has the endorsement of "the only African-American woman that's ever been elected to the United States Senate." Needless to say, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who was standing just 10 feet away, begged to differ on this point. And again, the crowd laughed at Biden, and not with him. That's not good.
Anyone else worth mentioning? Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) and Andrew Yang both had their best debate performances so far. Probably too late to change their trajectory in a meaningful way, unfortunately for them.
How did the moderators do? Overall, they were very good. They asked good questions, maintained discipline fairly well, and avoided beating some of the same dead horses. There is some chatter that having an all-female moderator panel gave a different "tone" to the debate (CNN's Danielle Campoamor made this point, for example), and it certainly caused greater attention to be paid to women's issues.
That said, there are a couple of criticisms to be made. The debate was relatively thin on issues of concern to black voters, which is somewhat odd, given that it was held in a city that is majority black (53%) and hosted by one of the nation's most prominent black entrepreneurs and entertainers (Tyler Perry). Also, Rachel Maddow & Co. did a pretty poor job of making sure that everyone got a regular turn to speak, such that there were several occasions where one candidate or another was silent for 30-40 minutes.
Issue of the night: Electability. With the exception of Gabbard, the folks on stage decided to leave their boxing gloves at home, and largely did not attack one another. Instead, they focused on how electable they all are, and how very important it is to send Donald Trump packing.
Snarky line of the night: From Klobuchar: "I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends. And I'd like to point out, it is not an expanding base." That brought down the house.
Non-snarky line of the night: Again from Klobuchar: "Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise, we could play a game called name your favorite woman president, which we can't do, because it has all been men. And including all vice presidents being men. And I think any working woman out there, any woman that's at home knows exactly what I mean. We have to work harder, and that's a fact."
Yang also had a winning line on the same basic theme (gender equity): "There are only two countries in the world that don't have paid family leave for new moms, the United States of America and Papua New Guinea. That is the entire list. And we need to get off this list as soon as possible."
We can't decide which of these was better, so we present them both.
Reddest meat of the night: Again, two lines we cannot pick between. First, from Harris, in response to criticism from Gabbard: "I think that it's unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama." That's a Democratic two-fer: Barack Obama is awesome, and Fox News isn't.
And then there was this from Buttigieg, in response to a question about whether he would continue Trump's subsidies to farmers: "We shouldn't have to pay farmers to take the edge off of a trade war that shouldn't have been started in the first place. I will support farmers, but not long ago, I was in Boone, Iowa, a guy came up to me, he said I got my Trump bailout check, but I would have rather spent that money on conservation." Another Democratic two-fer: Conservation is awesome, and Donald Trump isn't.
Blunder of the night: We already noted Biden's two errors above, so we'll talk about the bronze medal winner here. Sanders was asked about the "lock him up" chants that are heard at many Democrats' rallies, particularly his. This is a softball, the correct response is to castigate such behavior as inappropriate and even somewhat dangerous. Instead, the Senator essentially shrugged and said "What're ya gonna do? They don't like Trump." Not a good answer.
A little historical perspective: Bernie Sanders described Donald Trump as "likely the most corrupt president in the modern history of America." That phrasing implies that there is some non-modern president who was even more corrupt than Trump. Does the Senator have someone specific in mind? Maybe, maybe not (he does have a degree in political science). In any case, we thought we'd at least take a shot at identifying a plausible candidate for that "honor."
To start, the modern era usually begins at 1920 (a.k.a. right after World War I). So, that rules out all of the presidents from Harding onward (including, obviously, Richard Nixon). Meanwhile, most of the presidents who had corrupt administrations, like Ulysses S. Grant, were not themselves corrupt, they just trusted their friends too much). Even the pre-modern presidents who were corrupt before they assumed the big job managed to keep their noses clean and fly right once they got to the White House. Chester A. Arthur, who looted the Port of New York left, right, and sideways, and then signed a major civil service reform bill into law as president, leaps to mind.
Anyhow, we're going to go with a president who is generally known for being a failure more than he is known for being corrupt: James Buchanan. As a three-decade politician who occupied a wide variety of offices (state legislature, House of Representatives, ambassador, Secretary of State, etc.), he was about as swampy as it gets, and had his tentacles in all kinds of Democratic Party pies. During his ambassadorial tenure, he co-wrote an extremely inappropriate memorandum called the Ostend Manifesto that advocated purchasing Cuba from Spain and making it into a slave state. It fanned the flames of sectional animosity and badly wounded the Pierce administration; Buchanan successfully hid his authorship and let his co-author take the fall. And then, upon being elected president (but before taking office), he mucked around with the Supreme Court, and persuaded them to make the notorious Dred Scott decision a 7-2 vote (it otherwise would have been 5-4) and to make it a very sweeping defense of the legality of slavery. Though Buchanan was not himself a slaveowner, his political power was very much dependent on slave-owning interests.
Once he officially took office, Buchanan staffed his administration with crooks and then, in a further attempt to please his pro-slavery backers, botched the messy situation in Kansas. Consequently, by March 1860, Buchanan was the subject of...wait for it...an impeachment investigation. He was not impeached, of course, but several members of his administration were forced to resign. The 15th president finished his rotten-to-the-core term by looking the other way while Southerners illegally seized federal forts, federal arms, and other federal property after declaring their independence from the United States (7 states were gone by the time Abraham Lincoln took office, 4 more left afterward). On the day of Lincoln's inauguration, Buchanan said to him: "Sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to [my house] Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed." Abe did not coin the phrase "Don't let the door hit you on the way out" in response, but he really should have.
A detail that may fly under the radar: One of the undercurrents of the whole evening was the reminder that Stacey Abrams is a rising star in the Democratic Party. The debate was held in her back yard, and she was name-checked twice during the proceedings (by Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ). That's more times than, for example, Hillary Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), or another local, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), got mentioned. Knowing that this is her moment, Abrams was very visible on TV on Wednesday night, and quite visible in the online/print media in the days leading up to the debate, including an interview with Politico, an op-ed for CNN, and an op-ed for the Washington Post.
On a scale of 1-10, how contentious was it? 3. Gabbard had venom to spare, but she was really the only one who was on the offensive. She's not likely to make the cut for the next debate, and if she doesn't, her fellow candidates undoubtedly won't lament her fate.
On a scale of 1-10, how much will this debate move the needle? 2. With declining viewership for the debates, the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and Sondland's testimony grabbing all the 1A headlines, we just don't see how this debate could move the needle all that much.
The bottom line: Not only is this debate going to be overshadowed, but the next one, to be held just days before Christmas, is going to get overshadowed too. We're going to have to wait until the field thins and ballot-casting is imminent before there's any real chance that what happens on stage affects what happens in the polls.
So, there you have it. And incidentally, it was George Selkirk who succeeded Ruth in right field, Ode to Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry that dethroned Sgt. Pepper's, and Gherman Titov who followed in Yuri Gagarin's footsteps and became the second person to orbit Earth. And before anybody complains, the song "Ode to Billie Joe" is pretty good and pretty famous (and was written and performed by a UCLA alumna, incidentally), but the album of the same name on which it appeared is almost completely forgotten today. (Z)
A new AP/NORC/UAFacts poll shows that only 9% of Americans think that campaign messages are based on facts, and a mere 14% think that policy decisions are based on facts. An equal number think that voters base their choices on facts. Facts are so 20th century. Reporters score a bit higher, with 2 out of 10 respondents saying that news stories are based on facts. Half think that facts do play a role, although a third say that journalists never write stories based on facts.
Given the much greater popularity of television personalities like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, than that of actual journalists, it is not surprising that people have a lot of trouble telling what a fact is. (V)
It is no secret that former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley is politically ambitious. She is also savvy enough to know that there is at least a possibility that Donald Trump will dump Mike Pence and look for a new running mate in 2020. In addition, she is smart enough to know that should Trump need a new running mate, the top characteristics he would look for in potential candidates are (1) complete loyalty to Donald Trump, (2) total loyalty to Donald Trump, and (3) unconditional loyalty to Donald Trump. So to make it clear to Trump that she can pass the test, she appeared on CBS News for an interview with Norah O'Donnell. During it, she accused former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly of insubordination and putting their views of what was good for the country ahead of Trump's. Then she added that they should have explained their views to Trump and if he didn't accept them, they should have resigned. Haley's statement is precisely the kind of loyalty Trump likes.
In other words, she has already made the calculation that her political future, either in 2020 or in 2024, depends on convincing Trump's base that she is with him. Whether she really is with him is arguable, but as long as she makes public statements that he likes, that's good enough. Even if Pence is not further implicated in Ukrainegate, Trump might dump him to put a woman on the ticket in 2020. In short, by writing a book in which she said nice things about Trump and appearing on television and saying things he surely likes, we can probably best interpret her actions as actively running for the Republican nomination for vice president. (V)
If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make any noise? Technically, yes, because sound is a pressure wave and it occurs when a tree falls, even if nobody is there. Now let's try the political variant of that. If a candidate who nobody knew was even running drops out, does anyone notice? In this case the answer is probably no and it certainly applies to the completely pointless campaign of Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, who dropped out of the Democratic primary just before the start of the latest debate to which he was not invited. (V)
On Nov. 8, the NRSC held a "Save the Senate" event at Donald Trump's D.C. hotel in which executive director Kevin McLaughlin urged the politicians, donors, and lobbyists present to call Mike Pompeo and get him to run for the Senate seat Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) is vacating in Jan. 2021.
It isn't that Republicans aren't aware that Pompeo is up to his ears in Ukrainegate. They know that very well and know that it could come back to haunt him during a Senate campaign. But absent Pompeo's entry into the Senate race, they are scared witless that right-wing firebrand Kris Kobach could get the Republican nomination and then lose the general election. These fears are hardly baseless. In 2018, Kobach got the Republican gubernatorial nomination and then proceeded to lose the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly.
Democrats haven't won a Senate seat in Kansas since 1932, so maybe Kobach could win, but at the very least, Republicans would have to spend money to help him over the finish line. And every dollar they spend in Kansas is a dollar they can't spend in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Maine, and other states where a Republican incumbent is in serious danger. So far, Pompeo has given no indication that he is planning to run. (V)
After former House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings died, there was a battle for his chair between Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney (NY) and Gerald Connolly (VA). Yesterday, the House voted to elevate Maloney to the top slot on the committee. Given the role of the Oversight Committee in the ongoing impeachment hearings, Maloney will now become a major player. Ironically, her district includes Trump Tower, so until Donald Trump "moved" to Florida, he was one of her constituents. (V)
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Nov20 Trump Reverses Policy on Israel
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Nov17 John Bel Edwards Is Reelected
Nov17 Sunday Mailbag
Nov16 Yovanovitch Testifies, Republicans Obfuscate, and Trump Instigates
Nov16 Stone Is Guilty as Charged
Nov16 Saturday Q&A
Nov15 The Day After...
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Nov15 The State of the Democratic Race, Part I: National Polls
Nov15 The State of the Democratic Race, Part II: Early State Polls
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Nov14 Giuliani Writes an Op-ed Condemning the Impeachment Inquiry
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Nov13 Today's Completely Unsurprising News, Part I: Of Course Trump Knew Giuliani's Indicted Associates