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The Hill's Morning Report - Wild Wednesday: Sondland testimony, Dem debate take center stage
Welcome to The Hill's Morning Report. It's a busy Wednesday across the political scene! Our newsletter gets you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch. Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver are the up-early co-creators. Find us @asimendinger and @alweaver22 on Twitter and CLICK HERE to subscribe!
House investigators kicked off the second week of public hearings in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, headlined by testimony from Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who has become a key witness regarding President Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
Vindman, who serves as the director for European Affairs for the National Security Council (NSC), and Jennifer Williams, a top aide to Vice President Pence, became the first White House officials to testify publicly. During their testimony, the pair of officials criticized the president for his request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Unlike the three officials who testified last week, both Vindman and Williams had first-hand accounts of the July 25 call, which Trump has repeatedly said was "perfect" since releasing the transcript. Vindman said it is "improper" for the president to call on a foreign government to investigate a political opponent, and Williams labeled the phone call "unusual" (The Hill).
Throughout the hearing, Republicans on the panel and Trump allies tried to call into question Vindman's character and allegiance to the United States. At one point, GOP counsel Steve Castor asked Vindman about suggestions that he could serve as Ukraine's defense minister, which a top Ukrainian official jokingly floated. Vindman retorted that he "immediately dismissed those offers," adding that he is an American.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) also noted that Vindman was in uniform for the hearing - which Trump commented on during the hearing - before asking moments later if he always insists on "civilians calling you by your rank." The question was referring to Vindman asking Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the panel's ranking member, to refer to him by his official title rather than "Mr. Vindman."
Niall Stanage: GOP plays risky game with attacks on Vindman.
The Hill: Vindman calls it "preposterous" that he would leak information.
The Hill: Five things to know about Tuesday's impeachment hearings.
The Washington Post: 7 takeaways from Tuesday's impeachment hearings.
In the afternoon portion, Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, made headlines when he admitted he has "learned many things" from other witnesses who talked to investigators behind closed doors throughout the impeachment process. Since becoming the first to testify to lawmakers in private as part of the inquiry, Volker has seen witness after witness add details. He initially told lawmakers he saw no indication that Trump had set up an arrangement to withhold military aid for Ukraine in exchange for investigations into his political rivals (Politico).
"I have learned many things that I did not know at the time of the events in question," Volker said, adding that his initial testimony was not untruthful, even if revised.
Volker, one of the witnesses requested by GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee, also said that he "should have seen" a connection between Ukraine investigating energy company Burisma and talk of investigating the Bidens.
"Had I done so, I would have raised my own objections," said Volker, who was testifying alongside Tim Morrison, an outgoing member of the NSC.
The Hill: Volker says he was never involved in "bribery" or "extortion."
Jonathan Allen: Witnesses take a toll on Trump's impeachment defenses.
The Atlantic: The GOP's witnesses aren't helping Trump.
Looking ahead to today, the Intelligence Committee will hear from Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who is likely to be the star witness of the week. The hearing will come a week after the biggest revelation of the public hearings thus far: that an official overheard a call between Sondland and Trump in which the president asked about "investigations." Instead, Sondland told David Holmes, an official who worked for William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, that Trump cared more about investigating the Bidens than about Ukraine.
"I've never seen anything like this," Holmes told House investigators in closed-door testimony last week.
Sondland's testimony is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. In the afternoon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale will appear before the panel.
The Associated Press: Unpredictable Sondland faces questions about Trump, Ukraine.
The Associated Press: How Sondland's account differs from other impeachment witnesses.
The Washington Post: A federal judge says she will rule by Monday on whether former White House counsel Don McGahn must testify under subpoena to Congress.
LEADING THE DAY
POLITICS & CAMPAIGNS: *** Joe Biden celebrates his 77th birthday today! ***
While impeachment takes center stage during the day, eyeballs will shift at night as the 2020 Democratic field takes to the debate stage in Atlanta and focus continues to center on the top four candidates, along with those who have either just jumped into the race or are looking to do so in the near future.
As Max Greenwood writes in his debate preview, much of the attention will be on Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has seen her support levels plateau in recent weeks amid criticism of her "Medicare for All" proposal and backlash from the centrist wing of the party. Whether Warren can parry attacks and effectively ease concerns about her candidacy and viability in a general election setting remain key questions she'll likely try to answer tonight.
With Warren slipping, the centrists in the field are sensing opportunity, regardless of whether they'll be on the debate stage tonight. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's recent (and late) entrance in the race is a prime example, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg potentially waiting in the wings as well.
Finally, it also remains to be seen what treatment South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg receives tonight as he continues to rise in early voting states, including New Hampshire, according to a new poll released today.
As Amie Parnes writes, Buttigieg is in a position to surpass Biden if his momentum holds, Democratic observers say. The polling surge, especially in Iowa, has created a new round of buzz around his candidacy, and while he's still struggling to build a coalition and draw support from black and Hispanic voters, Democrats say he could lure not only would-be Biden supporters but also undecided voters.
"It's true that right now Buttigieg has a lot of work to do to gain non white support but you don't need much of a rainbow coalition to win Iowa and New Hampshire, and the momentum he'll gain from that one-two punch, if he does win both, is substantial and maybe insurmountable," said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer.
The Hill: 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum.
The Associated Press: 7 key questions heading into the debate.
John F. Harris: The question for Democrats: Why do you suck?
Reuters: Warren on defense? What to watch for in the Atlanta Democratic debate.
The Washington Post: Biden plans Iowa push after concerns grow about his weakness in the first voting state.
The Wall Street Journal: Ahead of Democratic debate No. 5, some voters have seen enough.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
MORE CONGRESS: The Senate unanimously passed a bill on Tuesday aimed at supporting protesters in Hong Kong and warning China against a violent suppression of the demonstrations, in contrast with Trump's near-silence about the clashes. The vote marks a challenge to China and would require annual reviews of Hong Kong's special status under U.S. law to assess the extent to which China has chipped away at the city's autonomy (Bloomberg News).
Averting a shutdown: The House passed a month long continuing resolution on Tuesday, postponing another shutdown showdown until Dec. 20, even as progress over spending negotiations has stalled. The news ensures that lawmakers will be working toward a resolution before the expected Christmas break (The Hill).
Slow motion: Senators are fuming as major legislation has ground to a halt, fueling complaints by lawmakers about who is to blame. Republicans argue Democrats are too focused on impeachment and have coined a term, "Schumer's graveyard," pointing the finger at Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). However, 70 of the 100 most recent votes in the Senate were tied to nominations, a stated priority of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) (The Hill).
Vaping legislation is a new priority for some House Democrats who want to ban flavored e-cigarette products that appeal to young people. Lawmakers are responding to news reports this week that Trump, pressured by the vaping industry and worried about conservative opposition to tougher regulation, backed off a Food and Drug Administration proposed ban on flavored vaping products. Anti-vaping advocates are turning to Congress to act this year, responding to rising statistics about lung illnesses and deaths tied to e-cigarettes. As a legislative fallback, they point to a measure sponsored by McConnell in the Senate that would raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 (The Hill).
Opportunity zones for distressed communities, a provision included in the GOP tax law enacted in 2017, are undergoing new scrutiny among some lawmakers (The Hill). ... The HUBZone federal program funneled millions of dollars into Washington, D.C.'s richest rather than poorest areas because the Small Business Administration program relied on 1999 data that is now inaccurate, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
On track for chairwoman: Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday won the support of colleagues on the House Steering Committee to become the first woman to chair the House Oversight and Reform Committee following the death of former Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on Oct. 17. The House Democratic Caucus could make Maloney's role official with a vote today (The Hill).
WHITE HOUSE & ADMINISTRATION: U.S.-China trade: Trump on Tuesday threatened to again raise U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports if negotiators are unable to come to an agreement on a trade deal.
"I have a good relationship with China," the president said during a Cabinet meeting. "If we don't make a deal with China, I'll just raise the tariffs even higher. ...China's going to have to make a deal that I like. If they don't, that's it. OK?"
The president last month announced a "phase one" preliminary agreement in concept with China, but an accord remains up in the air (The Hill).
According to Reuters, two people briefed on the talks said Trump has decided that rolling back existing tariffs, in addition to canceling a scheduled Dec. 15 imposition of tariffs on some $156 billion in Chinese consumer goods, requires deeper concessions from China.
> U.S. and Iran: The Pentagon predicts that Iran will seek to purchase new fighter jets and tanks from Russia and China when an international arms embargo expires in October 2020. Tehran is expected to "go after fighters" because its "current air force is dated," a senior defense official said on Tuesday. Tehran will also seek to buy battle tanks, officials added (The Hill).
> Fitness and health: Trump, without prompting from reporters on Tuesday, brought up the subject of his health after he made an unscheduled visit on Saturday afternoon to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to undergo unspecified medical tests and lab work. The president assailed the news media for its attention to the matter. A statement released on Monday by a White House physician described tests the president did not undergo (no "specialized cardiac or neurologic evaluations") rather than account for "routine" examinations Trump received (The Hill).
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`Old World' demons are stirring again, by Will Marshall, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/2CZXXWM
Trump's trade war is unwinnable because he's no longer in charge, by Neil Baron, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/35gBSPz
WHERE AND WHEN
Hill.TV's "Rising" program features Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor for The Intercept, to react to the impeachment hearings; Cenk Uygur, host and founder of The Young Turks, and Julia Manchester, political reporter for The Hill - both of whom are live from Atlanta to preview tonight's Democratic presidential debate. Coverage starts at 9 a.m. ET at http://thehill.com/hilltv or on YouTube at 10 a.m. at Rising on YouTube. Additionally, Hill.TV will be hosting special debate pre and post-shows live on YouTube and Facebook tonight. The pre-debate show will run from 8:30 p.m. until 9 p.m., and the post-debate show runs from 11 p.m. until midnight.
The House meets at 10 a.m.
The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. and resumes consideration of the nomination of Barbara Lagoa to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
The president flies today to Austin to visit an Apple manufacturing plant in Texas at 2 p.m., and returns to the White House.
Pence will travel to Green Bay, Wis., to speak to employees at Fincantieri Marinette Marine, a shipbuilder. He will tour the USS Cooperstown at 11:30 a.m. From Wisconsin, the vice president heads to his home turf in Indianapolis to speak at a reception as part of the nonprofit Strada Education Network's national symposium (Indianapolis Star). Pence will return to Washington this evening.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Brussels to attend a NATO ministerial event and meet with representatives of NATO countries ahead of the NATO leaders' meeting in London next month. He participates in a press conference before a working dinner.
Second lady Karen Pence speaks to business leaders at 11 a.m. in the White House Eisenhower Executive Office Building about military spouse employment during an event in partnership with American Corporate Partners.
The Federal Reserve at 2 p.m. will release minutes from its Oct. 29-30 meeting.
➔ State Watch: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday cracked down on oil producers, halting approval of hundreds of fracking permits subject to independent scientific review while also temporarily banning another drilling method that regulators believe is linked to one of the largest petroleum spills in state history (The Associated Press). ... The statehouse in Indiana was surrounded on Tuesday by several thousand teachers dressed in red to demonstrate for better pay and more support from the GOP-dominated state government in a protest that closed more than half of the state's school districts for the day. The union-organized rally represented Indiana's biggest such teacher protest amid a wave of educator activism across the country over the past two years (The Associated Press).
➔ Back seat, buckle up: More than 800 rear-seat passengers who weren't wearing seat belts were killed last year in U.S. traffic crashes, and a highway safety group says states aren't making enough progress in getting people to buckle up (The Associated Press).
➔ In The Know: First lady Melania Trump met on Monday with country star Billy Ray Cyrus in the Red Room at the White House to talk about cyber bullying. The Hill's Judy Kurtz reports that Cyrus turned to Twitter on Tuesday to thank the first lady for meeting with him and the family of Tennessee teenager Channing Smith, who killed himself in September reportedly after finding out that sexually explicit messages he had exchanged with another boy had been posted on social media, allegedly by classmates. Cyrus, 58, performed at a Sept. 29 memorial event for the 16-year-old (The Nashville Tennessean). The first lady used her own Twitter megaphone to call attention to the meeting with the Smith family. "Teaching positive online behaviors can ensure a safer future for our children," she wrote (The Hill).
And finally ... Crossing the aisle to write and pass bipartisan legislation that becomes law is rare enough these days that in Washington, lawmakers receive awards for it.
This morning at an event on Capitol Hill, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.) will accept the 2019 Javits Prize for Bipartisan Leadership for their work on the First Step Act, hailed by Trump as a bipartisan criminal justice reform milestone he signed last year.
The late Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who died in April, will also be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award today, to be accepted by his son John Lugar, the executive director of the nonprofit Lugar Center in Washington. Indiana Sen. Todd Young (R) will help celebrate the senator's accomplishments, including 36 years of public service in the upper chamber.