Republicans are freaking out and Pence is dragged into Trump's mess as the Ukraine scandal worsens
Much of the news day revolved around a pair of truly bizarre press conferences and a day of tweet-ranting by a visibly furious and flailing Donald Trump. Trump's behavior is almost certainly the product of a rapidly unfolding impeachment inquiry now underway in the House of Representatives. Among today's developments:
• The Washington Post reports that Trump used Vice President Mike Pence multiple times to increase pressure on the Ukrainian government, most notably by instructing Pence to tell Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, after Trump’s phone call with Zelensky complaining about alleged Biden “corruption,” that desperately needed military aid was being withheld until Zelensky got tougher on “corruption.” Zelensky would certainly have taken this as a Biden reference; whether Pence himself understood it as such is still unknown, but “one of Pence’s top advisers” was on the Zelensky phone call. The Post story appears to be an effort by the Pence camp to paint Pence as a (spectacularly?) naive tool of Trump before further details are uncovered—but offers more proof that the White House linked the withheld aid explicitly to Trump’s demanded anti-corruption “favor.”
• Still in Italy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted that he was one of the administration officials who listened in on Trump's call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as it happened. Pompeo had previously dodged press questions by claiming he was not familiar with the reports of the call's contents; as it turns out, he didn't need to be. He had firsthand information.
• Trump Attorney General William Barr now appears to be a central figure, if not the primary figure, in Trump administration efforts to discredit U.S. intelligence community conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, a discrediting of special counsel Robert Mueller's own conclusions about that interference, and attempts by Donald Trump to repeatedly obstruct justice during that investigation. Barr personally traveled to Italy to listen to a recording of the still-in-hiding Joseph Misfud, an extraordinary deviation from the usual actions of a U.S. attorney general. Barr's insistence on traveling himself, rather than relying on trained intelligence officials or even on immediate Department of Justice underlings, is the stuff of movie plots—but not of a true government investigation.
• It also suggests the White House is increasingly relying on a mere handful of Trump-trusted officials to carry out Trump's orders after recent purges of anyone in the administration who had balked at his pronouncements.
• House Oversight Committee chair Elijah Cummings indicated he will now be subpoenaing the White House for relevant documents after months of White House stonewalling. In a morning press conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff emphasized that further delays would be seen by House investigators as an intent to obstruct, and blasted Trump for "a blatant attempt to intimidate witnesses" with his talk of "traitors and spies." Schiff and Pelosi emphasized that the inquiry was to be fast, but deliberate: "There is a great deal more we need to know to appreciate the depth of the president’s misconduct," said Schiff.
• The State Department inspector general briefed Congress this afternoon on an "urgent" matter apparently involving a package of "propaganda" intended to damage former U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled by an angry Trump in May. The details, however, remain murky.
• The New York Times reported that prior to making their formal complaint and after believing that the CIA's chief legal counsel was not taking their information seriously, the Ukraine call whistleblower contacted a staffer for Rep. Adam Schiff with a "vague" description of the complaint. The staffer advised the whistleblower to move forward by obtaining a lawyer and submitting a formal report. All of this is, despite the Times' apparent effort to sensationalize the story, precisely in accordance with the relevant rules and laws, but was immediately seized upon by Trump who embellished it into yet another conspiracy theory—this one suggesting Rep. Schiff "helped write" the whistleblower's report.
• The House Oversight Committee is now examining money paid to Trump hotels ostensibly to book rooms, after which the payers did not actually use those rooms. Two such instances have been discovered, involving a foreign government and a trade group, but the committee appears to believe they will discover others: "We're looking at near raw bribery," Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said.
• Trump's team didn't just misuse a codeword-level classified server to hide transcripts and readouts of Trump's calls with world leaders, including Ukrainian president Zelensky, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman. The White House apparently further upgraded the security on the server last year as additional precaution against "leaks" of that information.
• Republicans continue to privately freak out at Trump's inability to mount a coherent impeachment response. (Not the crimes, mind you—just the "optics" of how he's going to best weasel out of the consequences.) It's not likely today's back-to-back press meltdowns will settle those nerves. Democrats, on the other hand, are no longer as fearful of an impeachment "blowback" as they were in past months.
• As officials like Barr and Pompeo continue to refuse House demands for testimony and documents during the now-active impeachment inquiry, Congress' power of inherent contempt may be the only way to break the administration's unconstitutional stonewalling.