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Political Wire logo Key Witness in Impeachment Probe Asks Court
Giuliani Ties Hunter Biden, and Himself, to Romania
Trump Fails to Defy Impeachment Probe
Trump Campaign Seeks to Soften Vaping Ban
Mueller Grand Jury Evidence Must Be Given to Congress
Graham Adds Co-Sponsors to His Resolution
TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Administration Did More than Withhold Aid
      •  Democrats Strategize on Impeachment...
      •  ...And So Do Republicans
      •  Barr Is Paying Dividends for Trump
      •  Warren Grapples with Funding Medicare for All
      •  Biden Will Accept Super PAC Money
      •  Sanders Unveils a Weedy Proposal
      •  Klobuchar Makes November Cut
      •  Ryan Drops Out

Trump Administration Did More than Withhold Aid

The good news for the Trump administration is that, because of the ceremonies in honor of late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) on Thursday, House Democrats did not collect any new and startling testimony from Ukraine-related witnesses. The bad news is that Thursday was not a day off for the fourth estate, and so there were new revelations nonetheless.

Courtesy of the Washington Post, we now have confirmation of something that was already suspected, namely that military aid was not the only leverage that the Trump administration tried to use in order to get Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to do its bidding. Team Trump also withheld trade privileges that were scheduled to be restored, apparently at the instigation of then-NSA John Bolton. Those trade privileges still haven't been restored, incidentally, although the administration announced on Thursday that they expect to do so later this month. Surely it's just a coincidence that announcement came on the same day as the Post's reporting.

When it comes to impeachment, this new revelation is probably a bit too much inside baseball for general consumption by the voting public. After all, most citizens are not familiar with things like the generalized system of preferences, or the International Intellectual Property Alliance. Heck, we write about politics daily, and we're not all that familiar with them. However, the new information does further weaken the administration's main defenses for the military aid quid pro quo, namely that (1) the withholding of aid and the request for investigations just coincidentally happened to take place at the same time, and (2) in any case, Zelensky wasn't aware that there was economic pressure upon him when the request was made. The trade policy maneuvering makes very clear that there were no coincidences here, and that Zelensky knew full well what risks he was taking if he did not bow to Donald Trump's will.

The other interesting aspect of this story is the involvement of John Bolton, who has thus far been a fairly minor player in this little drama. When he intervened in the trade situation, telling U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer not to make adjustments to Ukraine's trade status, it is not entirely clear if Bolton was doing the administration's bidding, or merely advising Lighthizer of the political realities inside the White House. It may well be the latter. In turn, this adds to the significant speculation swirling around Bolton. What does he know? Is he willing to show up on the Hill and share what he knows? He's undoubtedly sore about how he was tossed aside by Team Trump, and now he has motivation to get his version of events on the record, so as to protect his own neck. So, it's very possible he'll be willing to dish. Heck, he might even be the source for the Post story. In short, Bolton is definitely one of the impeachment wild cards worth keeping an eye on. (Z)

Democrats Strategize on Impeachment...

When it comes to impeaching Donald Trump, there are two big questions that Democrats are grappling with. The first is "when?" As we and others have noted, the blue team wants to make sure to conduct a thorough investigation, and to make sure they don't leave anything particularly serious un-examined. On the other hand, they also do not want to drag this out for too long, as they want to spend most of 2020 focusing on their platform and their proposals. The latest news on this front, from Thursday, is that House Intelligence Chair and leader-of-the-impeachment-inquiry Adam Schiff (D-CA) is going to try to "expedite" things, and that the blue team is viewing January 1, 2020, as a soft deadline. However, they also accept that if it takes longer than that, then it takes longer than that.

The second question is "what?" On one hand, the Democrats want to put together a substantive list of articles of impeachment, in part because they want to make sure their case appears meaty and consequential, in part because they want to cover the most concerning aspects of Trump's behavior, and in part because they want to force Republicans to cast as many uncomfortable votes as is possible. On the other hand, they don't want to put forward any articles that are a little shaky, and could bog the proceedings down, or could give opponents a talking point that might be used to undermine the whole process.

To take one example, consider the dismissal of former ambassador to Ukraine Masha Yovanovitch. It is true that ambassadors (and other executive employees) serve at the pleasure of the president. However, existing commentary and jurisprudence suggests that there are limits to that, specifically that a president cannot remove an underling for "corrupt" reasons. So, there is a good case to be made that Yovanovitch's removal was an illegal abuse of power. But do Democrats actually try to charge that? It could be a tough case to make, especially since past precedent is pretty thin.

In any event, the careful reader will notice that while the Democrats are thinking about "when?" and "what?," the question of "if?" is no longer on the list. It is abundantly clear, as we observed earlier this week, that impeachment is now inevitable. (Z)

...And So Do Republicans

We're not the only ones who know that impeachment is coming. The Republicans in Congress know it, too. For those GOP members in the House, things are a little easier, because they can engage in PR stunts and send anti-impeachment tweets, if that is what their base demands. Or, if they are in a more purple district, it's pretty easy to fly under the radar as a member of the minority party, and just one person out of 435.

For the folks in the U.S. Senate, life is a bit tougher right now. They will be Donald Trump's jury, eventually, which means one or more very high-profile, very controversial votes are in their future. They also owe fealty to a man who demands it on a regular basis, and who thinks nothing of launching vicious, base-angering public attacks on one or more members if he doesn't get it.

At the moment, the math is pretty easy for a lot of the senators—they will stick with Trump. We can put a precise number on how many senators that is, actually: 43. At least, that is the number of senators who co-sponsored the resolution that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced on Thursday that condemns House Democrats' impeachment investigation. These folks have noticed that the base (and its leader) are restless, and need to be calmed. For example, here's a rather threatening op-ed from Hugh Hewitt, who used to be pretty reasonable (think: a young Charles Krauthammer), but who has turned into a fire-breathing MAGA Man.

As a practical matter, Graham's resolution means nothing. House Democrats don't care one whit about the grandstanding that Senate Republicans do. However, the list of Republicans who did not jump on board the resolution is certainly interesting. Here are those names, along with our best guess as to why they said "no thanks!":

  • Mitt Romney (R-UT): Hates Trump, wants to be the leader of the NeverTrump GOP resistance
  • Susan Collins (R-ME): Up for reelection in 2020 in a state where she's unpopular (35% approval), and 53% of voters support impeachment
  • Cory Gardner (R-CO): Up for reelection in 2020 in a state where he's unpopular (40% approval), and 50% of voters support impeachment
  • Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): No fan of Trump, and more willing to vote her conscience than just about any member of the GOP caucus
  • Rob Portman (R-OH): Also no fan of Trump, and tends to be both a centrist and an institutionalist
  • Dan Sullivan (R-AK): See Portman.
  • Lamar Alexander (R-TN): He's retiring, and so has no need to take a stance on impeachment right now
  • Johnny Isakson (R-GA): See Alexander.
  • Mike Enzi (R-WY): See Alexander.

This is a list that should concern Donald Trump. Although most of these folks have offered mild public criticism of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry, it's telling that they weren't willing to join in on a pretty empty symbolic gesture that will largely be forgotten in a month. Also worrisome for Trump is that there is plenty of room for this list to grow. Quite a few senators, even though they joined in on Graham's resolution, are bending over backwards to avoid making their own public statements on the matter. And there are a number of them that, depending on how things unfold, could easily slot into the categories alluded to above, including those who face a tough reelection campaign (Joni Ernst, IA; Martha McSally, AZ), those who are traditional Republicans and don't especially care for Trump (Chuck Grassley, IA; Ben Sasse, NE; Jerry Moran, KS; Mitch McConnell, KY), those who are institutionalist and may decide this is a matter of country over party (Mike Lee, UT; Tim Scott, SC), and those who are retiring (Pat Roberts, KS).

As the various Republican senators try to chart a course through the very difficult next few months, and as they eventually make a decision on how they will vote, there are really two levels of bad outcome that the President should be concerned about. There is one version of events where he survives, but half a dozen Republicans join with the 47 Democrats to vote for conviction. Trump's presidency would continue in this case, and he'd continue his run for reelection, but it would give a fair bit of legitimacy to the whole proceeding if a majority of senators, including some Republicans, voted to kick him out of office. There is another version of events where we move past just the Mitt Romneys and Susan Collinses turning against him, and get into the Ben Sasses and Mike Lees and Chuck Grassleys turning against him as well. Every time a Republican senator goes against him, particularly a Republican senator who has no strong need to do so, it gives permission to other Republicans to do the same. A tipping point could be upon us more quickly than anyone realizes. Conviction is not the likeliest outcome, at least at the moment, but it's not impossible, either. (Z)

Barr Is Paying Dividends for Trump

Former attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is, to be blunt, a racist. Maybe not David Duke-level racist, but racist enough that he was turned down for a federal judgeship in the 1980s. Not too surprising for someone born in Alabama a decade before the Civil Rights Movement, to parents who named him after the president of the Confederacy. He's also plenty swampy. So, when he was cashiered and replaced by William Barr, many Democrats were persuaded that Barr would be an improvement, given the rather low bar set by Sessions.

To the chagrin of those folks, who presumably were not paying attention when Barr did yeoman work as a hatchet man for the George H.W. Bush administration during his first term as AG, Barr has proven to be considerably more swampy than Sessions. Or, at the very least, swampy in a different way. Sessions was not particularly willing to stick his neck out for Donald Trump, hence his recusal from the Russiagate investigation. Barr, for his part, is absolutely willing to stick his neck out for the President, hence his doing everything he could to undermine the Russiagate investigation.

Now that Robert Mueller has ridden off into the sunset, Barr has undertaken a new, Russia-related, Trump-friendly project. He wants to prove that the information that launched that investigation was both tainted and collected inappropriately. And on Thursday, the AG upped the ante, and announced that the inquiry has now been converted into a criminal investigation. That will give lead investigator John Durham more power to compel testimony, and will also generate more and bigger headlines.

This is all a distraction, of course. Durham and Barr are about as likely to come up with something criminal as the folks who just completed the (latest) investigation of Hillary Clinton's e-mail server. And even if they do come up with something, none of the key players in launching the Russiagate investigation is still in public office. Still, it is pretty clear that Donald Trump has weathered the Russiagate storm, at the same time that the Ukrainegate storm might be spinning beyond his control. So, redirecting some attention to "witch hunt" v1.0 works to the President's advantage.

And actually, it may also work to Barr's advantage. Like John Bolton (see above), Barr has thus far been a relatively minor player in the Ukraine investigation. However, in his damning testimony earlier this week, Bill Taylor pretty significantly implicated the AG in the whole scheme:

We also discussed the possibility that the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, rather than President Zelensky, would make a statement about investigations, potentially in coordination with Attorney General Barr's probe into the investigation of interference in the 2016 elections.

This has gotten limited attention, but you can bet your last dollar that Adam Schiff will be looking into it. Put another way, Barr's fate and Trump's fate are now pretty deeply intertwined, whatever may come. (Z)

Warren Grapples with Funding Medicare for All

The Medicare for All bill was actually written by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), but it has really become the central plank of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-MA) campaign. And, as she has risen to co-frontrunner status, it has caused many folks to take notice of the fact that the math surrounding the proposal is a little fuzzy. If she does become president, and if she does pursue this, how exactly does she intend to pay for it? GOP voters tend to tolerate non-answers to questions like this (see Donald Trump's Mexican wall); Democratic voters, less so.

There are at least three major issues Warren faces as she tries to put together a funding scheme. In no particular order:

  1. Taxes: A tax increase on the middle class is virtually unavoidable; even Sanders admits as much. The middle class—which is about 75% of voters—does not like to hear that their taxes will go up. They may actually come out ahead, long-term, due to reduced medical expenses, but that kind of trade-off can be a hard sell.

  2. Known Unknowns: A middle-class tax hike is not going to cover all the costs. Medicare for All would involve significant changes in the economic model of American healthcare, and when it comes to the effect of those changes, the best anyone can do is make an educated guess. For example, the amount of paperwork that doctors have to complete would be reduced, which would save money, but how much money? Similarly, prescriptions would get cheaper, but how much cheaper? The rather wide range of possibilities allows supporters to plausibly guess that the program might cost $10 trillion over the next decade, most of which would be offset by taxes and other gains produced by newly created efficiencies. However, it allows opponents to plausibly guess that the program might cost $30 trillion or more over the next decade, blowing a(n even bigger) hole in the federal budget. Donald Trump is not the slightest bit encumbered by the truth, but he could campaign against Warren by complaining that her plan would tax everyone and still wreck the budget, and he wouldn't even be lying, really.

  3. The Wealth Tax: Warren is particularly enamored of a "wealth tax" as a panacea that will paper over the funding holes in her plans. The problem is that wealth taxes can be tricky, in part because many forms of wealth are hard to identify and to value properly, and in part because once a particular type of asset becomes tax-disadvantaged, the rich are very good at moving their money elsewhere. Bloomberg had an article earlier this year pointing out that of the 15 European countries that have tried a wealth tax, only 4 still have it outright (Switzerland, Belgium, Norway and Spain), as many nations found it so difficult to collect, it was not especially profitable.

    One other country, the Netherlands, used to have a separate wealth tax but later just incorporated it into the income tax, with one section on income and another on wealth. Some of the others may also have done the same. Banks, brokers, and other holders of assets are required to report to the tax authorities everyone's assets and debts as of Jan. 1 of each year, making enforcement easier. While it is true one could have Rembrandts hanging in the living room and perhaps get away with it, these are not especially liquid assets and selling one would instantly get a lot of attention and raise questions about when you got it. In practice, the wealth tax is not so easy to evade.

    The U.S. has a pretty different economy and a pretty different tax (and tax collection) system than the nations of Europe, so the experience of those folks across the pond may not be definitive. However, if the laws are drawn carefully, it could probably pull in a lot of money because billionaires like to keep most of their assets in stocks and bonds, not fine art. Still, there is much to be sorted out.

In any case, Warren says she's going to announce details sometime soon. However, the issues above make clear why it's taking as long as it is. (Z)

Biden Will Accept Super PAC Money

The 2020 presidential campaign has really cemented three fundraising realities for Democratic presidential campaigns that were emergent as far back as 2008:

  1. Accepting support from corporations and super PACs is "out"
  2. Collecting lots of small donations, especially online, is "in"
  3. Progressives/activists are more likely to get out their wallets, both early and often, than centrists

Joe Biden tried to play by 21st century rules, at least to an extent. Although he has tended to focus on large, individual donations (often collected by bundlers), and has taken some corporate money, he swore off super PACs. But, as he is a centrist, that's left him in a much weaker financial position than his rivals. The cash crunch not only makes it harder for him to mount a campaign, it also makes it look like he's struggling against his rivals.

There is not a lot that Biden can do about his personal cash crunch, other than wait for the election to get closer, and hope that his supporters start to pay up. What he can do, however, is change course on super PACs. So, that is precisely what he did on Thursday, with a campaign spokesperson announcing that, "Those who are dedicated to defeating Donald Trump are organizing in every way permitted by current law." Needless to say, the specific legal precedent they had in mind—Citizens United—was not named, as it's rather unpopular with the base.

Undoubtedly, Biden will take some damage from this, as it will open him up to charges of being swampy, and in the pockets of the fat cats, and the like. Indeed, his campaign held a conference call on Thursday for key supporters who were disappointed with the change in direction. Still, it's clear why Team Biden felt they had no choice. It's also worth pointing out that Hillary Clinton accepted plenty of big donor, corporate, and super PAC support in 2016, and she got 66 million votes in the general election, so it's possible the risk that Biden is taking here is actually pretty small. (Z)

Sanders Unveils a Weedy Proposal

Since the last Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has really turned on a dime. His polling numbers were looking pretty dank after his heart attack, creating a sticky situation. But then he puffed out his chest and obliterated concerns about his health with a killer debate performance. Now, his support is as high as it ever was. As a politician with a lot of experience, Sanders is no dope, and he doesn't want his current momentum to be wasted, nor to risk his campaign going up in smoke. So, on Thursday, he rolled out a fresh new proposal for legalizing pot.

Even during the 2016 campaign the Senator had legal cannabis as part of his platform-just because he is an old man does not mean he's unaware that his young, progressive base includes many mellow folks who want to be able to consume wacky tobaccy at their leisure. What makes Thursday's announcement different is that it's something of a joint proposal, wherein the kush would be legalized, and the resulting green collected by the government in taxes would be redirected to the Senator's buds in minority communities, for investment in small businesses. So, it's two policy proposals for the price of one; a dub, you might say. And it should score him some brownie points with minority voters. Undoubtedly at the suggestion of his younger campaign staffers, Sanders made the announcement at exactly 4:20 p.m. on Thursday. To be blunt, we think that it's in poor taste to so obviously reefer to marijuana use like that. (And for those who are wondering, the grand total is 31.) (Z)

Klobuchar Makes November Cut

Quinnipiac released its latest national poll of the Democratic field on Thursday. In it, Sen. Amy Klobuchar was at 3%, which means that she now has four qualifying polls for the November Democratic debate. She cleared the fundraising threshold many weeks ago, which means she's in.

Klobuchar's qualifying means that there will now be at least nine candidates on stage on Nov. 20, as she will be joined by Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. Meanwhile, Beto O'Rourke is two polls away, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) needs three, and Julián Castro still hasn't gotten a single qualifying poll. All three have already checked the fundraising box; they have another three weeks to get the polls they need. O'Rourke tends to alternate between 2% and 3% in polls, and there will probably be at least one more poll of Texas in that time, so he'll likely make the cut. Gabbard is a coin flip, and Castro will probably end up on the outside looking in. So, we're looking at 10 or 11 people on stage in November. Thank goodness Tom Perez tightened up the qualification requirements so significantly. (Z)

Ryan Drops Out

If you forgot that Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) was still running for president, you are to be forgiven. He hasn't made the Democratic debate cut since round two, had no hope of making any future cuts, and hasn't made any headlines in months. Also, he's awfully similar to other centrist-white-guy members of the Democratic field, like Joe Sestak, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), and John Hickenlooper. Does anyone know for sure, without looking it up, which of those guys is still officially running? (Answer: Sestak, Delaney, Bullock, and Bennet are still in, Moulton and Hickenlooper are out).

In any event, Ryan decided the time has come to bow to reality, and to focus on his day job. So, on Thursday, he ended his presidential bid. His insistence on focusing on issues of interest to Ohio voters did not win him much of a national following, but it should continue to please the good people of OH-13. The district is D+7, Ryan has won election four times (each of them in a landslide), and the only 2020 competition he's drawn so far is a pair of unknowns. (Z)

For the record (and in order of appearance): weedy, turned on, dime, dank, sticky, puffed, obliterated, killer, high, experience, dope, wasted, up in smoke, rolled, fresh, pot, cannabis, m-j, old man, mellow, wacky tobaccy, joint, kush, green, buds, dub, brownie, 4:20, blunt, reefer, marijuana

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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Oct23 The Impeachment Drums Are Beating Louder
Oct23 Trump Says He's Being Lynched
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Oct23 Reports of Joe Biden's Demise May Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
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Oct22 Democrats Don't Want Impeachment to be a Turkey
Oct22 Supreme Court Sustains Political Gerrymanders Yet Again
Oct22 Trump's Hands Are Tied on DHS
Oct22 State Department Concludes that Hillary Clinton Did Not Break the Law with Her E-mails
Oct22 You Can't Make This Up
Oct22 Trump Likely to Lose a Close Ally...
Oct22 ...But He Gets to Keep A Nemesis
Oct21 What's the Current Version of the Administration's Story?, Part I: The Quid Pro Quo
Oct21 What's the Current Version of the Administration's Story?, Part II: The G-7 and Doral
Oct21 Life Gets Harder When You're the Frontrunner
Oct21 Gabbard and Clinton Take Off the Gloves
Oct21 Felons May Get to Vote in Florida, After All
Oct21 Mattis Hits Trump Where it Hurts
Oct21 Another Apostate Will Leave the House
Oct20 Sunday Mailbag
Oct19 Saturday Q&A
Oct18 Mike Pence Practices "The Art of the Deal"
Oct18 "Mick the Knife" Stabs Trump in the Back
Oct18 Sondland Points the Finger at Giuliani
Oct18 Perry Is Definitely Exiting the Administration
Oct18 2020 G-7 Summit "Awarded" to Trump Doral
Oct18 Biden's Biggest Problem? It Might Be Money
Oct18 Would a Biden Collapse Create a Lane for Another Centrist?
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Oct17 The Parade of Witnesses Goes Marching On
Oct17 Trump's Inner Circle Could Be in Big Trouble
Oct17 Trump Is Betting That Isolationism Is a Winner
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Oct17 ProPublica: Trump May Have Committed Financial Fraud
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Oct17 Ohio Debate Takeaways
Oct16 Democratic Debate Tour Stops in Ohio
Oct16 Kent: "Three Amigos" Ran Ukraine Policy
Oct16 No Formal Vote on Impeachment Inquiry, for Now
Oct16 Ocasio-Cortez to Endorse Sanders
Oct16 Aspiring Collins Challenger Is Raking It In