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Political Wire logo White House Opens Internal Review of Ukraine Call
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The Fourth Democratic Debate
Democrats Won’t Hold Vote on Impeachment Probe
What the 2020 Candidates Must Talk About

Fiona Hill Piqued By Giuliani's Behavior

Another day, another former member of the Trump administration who apparently does not fear spilling her guts. On Monday, it was Fiona Hill, who talked to the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees for 10 hours about her work as the President's top advisor on Russia. She quit that post just days before the infamous Ukraine call, over concerns about what she was witnessing in the White House. In other words, the things she saw prior to the call were enough to make her quit, so the call is not the whole story by any means.

Hill's appearance was behind closed doors, and not open to the public. Heck, it wasn't even open to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who tried to horn in on the proceedings and then got escorted out because he's not a member of any of the three committees. Anyhow, despite the alleged secrecy, everyone already knows the gist of Hill's testimony. She said she was deeply concerned that nothing was being done to stop future Russian election interference, and also about the shady stuff that was taking place on the Ukraine front. Her most pointed observation was this one:

You had two parallel tracks. There was official U.S. foreign policy, and then there was the shadow foreign policy being run by [Rudy] Giuliani, which had all kinds of illegitimate purposes.

Undoubtedly, she expounded upon what those illegitimate purposes were, although that part of her testimony was not made public. Private citizens, like Giuliani, are not allowed to conduct U.S. foreign policy, so if a future Democratic administration wants to put Giuliani behind bars it could indict him for violating the Logan Act.

There were a few more very interesting bits throughout the 10 hours. Hill noted that on several occasions, she tried to warn White House lawyer John Eisenberg about what was happening, and her view that it was very problematic. Not exactly whistleblowing, but whistleblowing-adjacent. Hill also revealed that she had several conversations with former NSA John Bolton, who was similarly wary of what he was seeing, and who described Giuliani as "a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up." Was Bolton fired because of these objections? Does he also have dirt he would like to spill? Undoubtedly, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) will be looking into those questions.

Before Schiff can do that, however, he's got a lot of other work to do. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent will be on the Hill today to share what he knows. Later this week, it will be U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland, and then U.S. State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, to share what they know. Clearly, the administration's efforts to maintain total silence, and total non-cooperation, are not working out so well. (Z)

Trump Sanctions Turkey

When Donald Trump decided to quickly withdraw from Syria, he clearly did not know what he was getting himself into. The rage aimed in his direction is coming from all over the place, including Democrats, congressional Republicans, and even former U.S. soldiers who fought alongside the Kurds. In an attempt to quell the criticism (not to mention the violence in Syria being perpetrated by the Turkish armed forces), the President announced on Monday that he is going to impose new and harsh sanctions on the Turks, although specifics (beyond a big increase in steel tariffs) are still in short supply.

How does any of this make sense? Why would Trump do Turkey's bidding one week, and then sanction it the next? It's certainly possible that he's flying by the seat of his pants, and is putting fires out as they arise. However, in view of a few pieces added to the puzzle by Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), the likeliest explanation may look something like this: Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a bona fide strongman, while Trump is a wannabe strongman who is easily pushed around by the real McCoy. On the phone call that immediately preceded Trump's withdrawal announcement, Erdoğan likely made clear that he was going to invade Syria, with or without Trump's permission. The Turkish leader might also have pointed out that pulling the troops from Syria would fulfill one of Trump's campaign promises. Under those circumstances, it's not too hard to believe that Trump would go along, but then would also lash out at the Erdoğan administration just days later.

If we have the right of it, then Trump is hardly the first U.S. president to be put in this position. At Yalta, for example, the stakes were even higher when another strongman—namely Joseph Stalin—made clear that the U.S. could either leave Eastern Europe, or could fight him for it. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was just a tad bit better at dealing with bullies than Trump is, nonetheless concluded that he had no choice but to bow to reality. So he too turned his back on former allies, and he too responded by slapping sanctions on his new nemesis. That means it's very possible that there is nothing particularly corrupt going on here, and that Trump chose the best possible path he had available. However, that is not necessarily going to save him from some pretty serious recriminations, particularly if American soldiers die as a result of all this. (Z)

Trump Reportedly Wanted to Release His Tax Returns in 2013

Sam Nunberg, a former Donald Trump intimate who eventually turned against the President, had a talk with CNN on Monday. And during that talk, he revealed something interesting, namely that the Donald very much wanted to release his tax returns to the public in 2013, as he was slowly gearing up for a presidential run. The purpose of doing so, ostensibly, was to show off how little Trump pays in taxes, and thus how savvy a businessman he is. Eventually, the future president was talked out of it by Nunberg and others, later adopting the "nobody gets to see my taxes" stance that remains in place today.

So, does this revelation get us closer to the mystery of what Trump is hiding, since we now theoretically know it was something he was once willing to reveal? Maybe. One theory that has been floated is that the tax returns show that Trump is not nearly as wealthy as he claims to be, and so would be embarrassing on that front. This is Nunberg's explanation, though he says he never actually saw the tax returns. For our part, though, we're a little skeptical. There is nothing more important to Trump's self-image than the notion that he's a wildly successful billionaire, with cash oozing out of his very pores. It is very hard to accept that he would willingly allow that to be proven a mirage, just so he can show off how good he is (or, really, how good Mazars USA is) at sticking it to the IRS.

Another possibility is that the tax returns reflect a curiously low tax bill and/or piddling contributions to charity. Trump clearly thought the former was a selling point, and he may well have believed that nobody would care about the latter. Nunberg and others might well have convinced him that it is not well for a presidential candidate to look like a tax cheat and a skinflint at the same time, and so changed his point of view. This could be it, although are these things problematic enough that he's willing to go to the wall to keep the returns secret?

That leaves us with the last popular theory, namely that Trump is in the debt of one or more foreign powers, and the returns would show that. On one level, it seems inconceivable that he would be, or ever was, willing to put that kind of information out there for all to see. On the other hand, the Ukraine business makes clear that Trump has a funny idea of what is and is not illegal when it comes to his dealings with foreign countries. It's also possible that if there are dirty dealings with, say, Russia, they did not happen until 2014 or 2015. In that case, Trump might well have been willing to share his returns in 2013, but may have grown much more secretive thereafter.

Ok, so maybe we didn't learn a lot from this new nugget of information. 2013 is so long ago, and Nunberg is such an imperfect source (for so many reasons), that every explanation for Trump's secrecy is still on the table. Still, we think that the revelation of problematic connections to foreign interests remains the likeliest explanation for the President's unwillingness to share. (Z)

Administration Loses another Border Wall Ruling

This flew under the radar on Friday, since there was so much other big news unfolding. However, on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge David Briones cracked back pretty hard on the Trump administration's plans to re-route Dept. of Defense funds to build the President's border wall. Not only did the Judge (a Clinton appointee) find the use of funds to be unlawful, he also became the first judge to rule that the emergency declaration justifying the use of funds was also unlawful.

Fairly recently, the Supreme Court stayed another judge's decision that barred the use of the funds. They did not explain themselves, but the general assumption was that they felt the plaintiffs in that case (environmental and other activist groups) lacked standing to get involved in a dispute over the federal budget. In the case that Briones ruled on, by contrast, one of the plaintiffs is El Paso County, which would not only be home to a part of Trump's wall, but would also lose out on $20 million in construction projects planned for Fort Bliss. So, standing may be less of an issue this time around. Of course, only Chief Justice John Roberts knows for sure. (Z)

Hunter Biden Tries to Quell the Storm

Hunter Biden has made a lot of money for himself, and a lot of headaches for his father. Whether Uncle Joe is slipping in the polls because of the campaign he's running, or because some voters have caught a faint whiff of corruption, is hard to know. However, Hunter is doing what he can to put the genie back in the bottle. He already quit the Ukrainian company he was working for (Burisma), and on Monday announced he was also resigning from the board of the Chinese company (BHR Partners) on which he currently serves. The younger Biden also promised he would work for no foreign companies while his father is in office. Further, Hunter will give an interview to ABC News today, to air immediately before the debates, in which he will try to clear both the air and his father's good name.

At this point, in an effort to put all of this in some context, let us consider a partial list of presidential relatives who profited from their situations. We are going to limit ourselves to the last 50 years, and only to those who took advantage while their presidential relative was in office:

  • Richard Nixon's brother Donald took a $205,000 loan from billionaire Howard Hughes in an unsuccessful attempt to save his fast-food hamburger chain (called Nixon's). Perhaps Hughes just had an interest in nice, juicy hamburgers. Or perhaps he was in a business that sure would benefit from some nice, juicy defense contracts.

  • Gerald Ford's son Steven Ford was able to parlay his fame into a minor career as an actor. He even landed a part in the wildly successful movie Grease while his dad was still in office, but somehow lost it around the time his dad lost the election (Ford was replaced by Lorenzo Lamas).

  • Jimmy Carter's brother Billy was on the take through the Peanut Farmer's entire presidency, launching a number of branded products (e.g., Billy Beer), and later accepting $220,000 to act as a lobbyist on behalf of the Libyan government. Interestingly, the committee that looked into Billy's Libyan deal included, among its members, a promising young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.

  • Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis landed a book deal while her dad was in the Oval Office, which pleased the Gipper. After he left office, she also landed a Playboy cover, which did not please the Gipper.

  • George H. W. Bush's son George W. became part-owner and Managing General Partner of MLB's Texas Rangers in 1989, while pops was in the White House, despite the younger Bush's not having the finances or the experience to justify that arrangement. After five years of not-so-great teams, Bush Jr. left that job. Our staff researchers are looking into what became of him.

  • Bill Clinton's half-brother Roger tried (and failed) to sell presidential pardons to some of his associates. Roger did get a pardon for himself after being busted for drugs, though.

  • Barack Obama's brother Malik did not cash in financially, but acquired himself much fame, and many invites to swanky GOP shindigs, because of his willingness to bash Barack and to declare his support for Donald Trump.

  • Donald Trump's three kids and one son-in-law are making money left, right, and sideways; Ivanka and Jared Kushner's take in 2018 alone reportedly exceeded $80 million. How much of that is the children of Trump profiting off the presidency? Hard to say, but it's definitely not $0.

The point here is that this kind of behavior is extremely difficult for presidents (and presidential candidates) to control. Dick Nixon, for his part, tried—he had his brother's phones wiretapped. But the fact is that presidents do not own their siblings/children, and cannot order them not to take handouts. They can ask, of course, but when the handouts are juicy, and are going to be offered only for the short, short time that their relative is in the White House, the temptation is great. It is also the case that very little of what is listed here (the Trumps being the potential exception) is illegal, nor, very likely, is anything Hunter Biden did. Perhaps these arrangements should be illegal, but "should be illegal" and "are illegal" are very different things.

Indeed, on the whole, Hunter Biden's activities are probably on the less sleazy end of the scale. The positions he took were legitimate, at least, and he did quit once they became problematic. Compare that to Donald Nixon or Billy Carter or Roger Clinton or the Trumps, all of whom had their hands out for as long as was possible, with little regard for the consequences. And again, to whatever extent Hunter does deserve censure, his father doesn't have control over him, any more than the presidents listed above had control over their problematic relatives. Our conclusion, then, is that this is definitely one of those non-scandal scandals. Naturally, the American public may decide they do not feel as we do. (Z)

Warren Gets Three Good Polls on the Eve of Debate #4

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is certainly on the upswing right now; heading into today's debate, she got three more favorable polls that will put just a little more wind in her sails: One was a national poll from Quinnipiac, the others were state-level polls, with Boston Herald/FPU surveying New Hampshire, and Firehouse Strategies-Optimus surveying Iowa. Here's all the candidates who got 2% in at least one of the three polls:

Candidate US NH IA
Elizabeth Warren 30% 25% 25%
Joe Biden 27% 24% 22%
Bernie Sanders 11% 22% 5%
Pete Buttigieg 8% 9% 17%
Kamala Harris 4% 5% 3%
Beto O'Rourke 2% 0% N/A
Andrew Yang 2% 1% N/A
Cory Booker 2% 2% N/A
Amy Klobuchar 2% 2% N/A
Tom Steyer 2% 1% N/A

It should be noted that Biden still leads Warren and everyone else by a country mile in South Carolina. And in the polls above, the margin between the two candidates—3%, 1%, and 3% respectively—is well within the margin of error, which means that the Senator and the former Veep are effectively tied. Still, that's a very big change from as little as a month ago, when Biden led in nearly all national polls, and most of the early-state polls. There is simply no question that, at least for the moment, Warren has assumed co-frontrunner status. (Z)

Will the Democrats Find New Ground to Cover Tonight?

Tonight's debate could be very interesting, indeed. As we wrote yesterday, there are a lot of things people will be watching for, including whether or not Joe Biden can find a way to last three hours without running out of steam, how Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will handle her new co-frontrunner status, whether Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will show any ill effects from his heart attack, and if any of the other nine candidates on the stage will break out. Oh, and it definitely will be nine additional candidates, as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) backed off of her threat to boycott the event.

So, there's a chance for some very big storylines. On the other hand, these folks are all politicians, and politicians tend to play things safe, relying on their tried and true pre-set talking points. So, there's also a chance that debate #4 looks a lot like debate #3, except with a peevish Tom Steyer on stage this time. The rather popular Internet game "debate bingo," which first arose during the 2015-16 debate cycle, reminds us of many of the clichés that we might anticipate. Here's the version that The Root has put together:

Among the items on the
debate bingo card are Barack Obama, Racism, Abortion, Healthcare for All, Tweets, I Have a Plan for That, Iran,
Voter Suppression, Trump, Black Women, Reparations, and Free College

The point here is that a wide range of possibilities is on the table, from "this changes everything" to "What a yawn; isn't NCIS supposed to be on tonight?"

In any event, the festivities will begin at 8:00 p.m. ET and will continue for three hours, with CNN as the lead broadcaster. The debate will also be viewable through various streaming services, including CBSN, which is free. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Oct14 It's a Real Mess in Syria
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Oct12 Saturday Q&A
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