The Hill's Morning Report - Sondland stuns; Dems pull punches in fifth debate




Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report. Happy Thursday! 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!

The House impeachment effort took a major turn on Wednesday as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandGOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' Top Democrat slams Trump's new EU envoy: Not 'a political donor's part-time job' Trump names new EU envoy, filling post left vacant by impeachment witness Sondland MORE testified that there was a clear quid pro quo linking Ukraine announcing investigations into political rivals to a meeting between President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.  


Sondland also told investigators during his eyebrow-raising opening statement that not only was he aware of the arrangement, but others throughout the administration were as well. Among those, he rattled off a list of who’s who in the government ranks: Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Trump's push for win with Sudan amps up pressure on Congress  Putin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize MORE, Vice President Pence, White House acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyOn The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security Blockchain trade group names Mick Mulvaney to board Mick Mulvaney to start hedge fund MORE and outgoing Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryEnergy secretary questions consensus that humans cause climate change OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push resolution to battle climate change, sluggish economy and racial injustice | Senators reach compromise on greenhouse gas amendment stalling energy bill | Trump courts Florida voters with offshore drilling moratorium OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs major conservation bill into law | Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official | Trump Jr. expresses opposition to Pebble Mine project MORE (The Hill).


“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said during a lengthy opening statement.


In the view of Democrats on the panel, Sondland’s testimony represented a seminal moment in the impeachment push. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff to subpoena top DHS official, alleges whistleblower deposition is being stonewalled Schiff claims DHS is blocking whistleblower's access to records before testimony GOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power MORE (D-Calif) told reporters that Trump and Pompeo are engaged in a “concerted” effort to obstruct the investigation (The Hill).


The Hill: Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep.


Politico: Democrats say new Sondland leads won't slow impeachment drive.


The Hill: Pence's office denies he spoke with Sondland about investigations.


Looking back at the ambassador’s day before lawmakers, The Hill’s Mike Lillis and Scott Wong note that Sondland added to what has become a damning picture of the involvement of Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThe Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting CIA found Putin 'probably directing' campaign against Biden: report Democrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate MORE, the president’s personal lawyer. 


“We weren’t happy with the president’s directive to talk with Rudy. We did not want to involve Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. “I believed then, as I do now, that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for Ukraine matters.”


Meanwhile, Republicans — along with the president — hung their hat on a part of Sondland’s testimony: that there was no promise of unlocking military aid for Ukraine in exchange for investigations into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida MORE and his son Hunter Biden


GOP lawmakers hammered the point home during multiple exchanges with the ambassador, including Reps. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikRepublicans cast Trump as best choice for women The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Pence rips Biden as radical risk GOP women offer personal testimonials on Trump MORE (R-N.Y.).


"Mr. Sondland, let's be clear: No one on this planet — not Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pompeo — no one told you aid was tied to political investigations, is that correct?" Turner asked Sondland. The ambassador responded, That's correct.”


The New York Times: 5 key things we learned from Gordon Sondland.


The Associated Press: How Sondland’s testimony stacks up to his past statements.


Tom Rogan: Why Gordon Sondland’s testimony won't change much. 


Sondland was not the only witness to offer up consequential testimony. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, revealed to investigators that the Ukrainians were aware of the hold on the military aid by the administration on July 25. 


Cooper told the panel that that her staff received two emails on July 25 in which the State Department said the Ukrainian Embassy and House Foreign Affairs Committee were “asking about security assistance.” The emails came on the same day as Trump’s call with Zelensky.


As Brett Samuels writes, Cooper's revelation could be problematic to a main GOP line of defense — that the hold on Ukraine aid was ultimately lifted and that the Ukrainians were not aware of the freeze in funding early enough for there to have been a quid pro quo. 


With testimony from Sondland, Cooper and David Hale, a top diplomat, out of the way, investigators will speak publicly with Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, and David Holmes, counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.





POLITICS & CAMPAIGNS:  Following the whirlwind day on Capitol Hill, the political circus continued in Atlanta as Democratic candidates took part in the fifth Democratic debate. 


In a departure from the first four debates, Wednesday night’s affair was more civil as most of the candidates trained their fire on the president rather than each other. However, as always, there were multiple key battles between candidates on certain issues. 


Following routine exchanges in the opening 90 minutes, Biden found himself tangled with Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point Watchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump 3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing MORE (D-N.J.), who panned the former vice president for opposing legalizing marijuana during a campaign stop this week. Booker told the former VP that he thought he “might have been high” when he made the comment because marijuana is already legal in America for “privileged people” (The Hill). 


Biden, who celebrated his 77th birthday on Wednesday, touted his support from African American voters and key Democratic figures, but made a verbal blunder, saying that he was supported by the only African American female senator in history, referring to former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), even though Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTexas Democratic official urges Biden to visit state: 'I thought he had his own plane' The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements A game theorist's advice to President Trump on filling the Supreme Court seat MORE (D-Calif.) stood footsteps away from him on stage (The Hill). 


Despite the misstep in the back-and-forth, it remains to be seen whether Biden’s advantageous support among African American voters will hold through the primaries. In multiple instances during the campaign, Biden has faced potential landmines that could have derailed his standing with the key voting bloc, including his discussions about the 1994 crime bill and bussing. None has appeared to have damaged his strength as a presidential contender among black voters. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and a survey of primary voters in South Carolina, Biden leads overwhelmingly with African Americans, taking 49 percent and 44 percent, respectively.


The ongoing impeachment hearings arose as a subtext but not a central subject of Wednesday’s debate. Biden said the president’s interest in securing investigations by Ukraine of his actions as vice president show that “Trump doesn't want me to be the nominee (The Hill). Notably, the words “Hunter Biden” were not mentioned once during the two hour contest. 


Niall Stanage: Five takeaways from the Democratic debate.


Elsewhere, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds On The Money: Half of states deplete funds for Trump's 0 unemployment expansion | EU appealing ruling in Apple tax case | House Democrats include more aid for airlines in coronavirus package Warren, Khanna request IG investigation into Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters Republicans not immune to the malady that hobbled Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election MORE (I-Vt.) held their own without making any major missteps that will harm their campaigns down the road and continued to push for their signature progressive agendas.


In the centrist lane, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttgieig turned in a solid performance as he makes headway in polls, headlined by surveys that show him leading in Iowa and New Hampshire. While some expected bitter disputes between him and Warren on myriad issues, those were largely avoided.


However, Buttigieg did find himself in a sparring match with Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardRepublicans call on DOJ to investigate Netflix over 'Cuties' film Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates Gabbard says she 'was not invited to participate in any way' in Democratic convention MORE (D-Hawaii) after she claimed that Buttigieg was interested in sending U.S. troops to Mexico. The criticism was based on a comment the Indiana mayor made in Los Angeles over the weekend. Buttigieg labeled the attack “outlandish” (The Hill).


The Hill: As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target.


The Hill: Harris rips Gabbard over Fox appearances during Obama years.


The Associated Press: Wednesday’s debate revisited well-plowed ground over “Medicare for All.”


Issues of particular importance to female voters arose throughout Wednesday’s debate, including paid family leave and abortion. The conversation also led to talk about the role of women in politics and the level of experience needed to become president. Buttigieg’s age (he will be 38 in January) and his experience to be president were featured in that discussion. The exchanges led Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE (D-Minn.) to defend her recent remarks that women are treated differently in politics (The New York Times).


“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,” she said. 


The debate featured four female debate moderators, only the third time a debate has featured women-only questioners: MSNBC’s Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power Schiff urges Trump administration members to resign: 'You cannot maintain your silence' Michael Cohen: Trump hates Obama because he's everything he 'wants to be' MORE, Andrea Mitchell and Kristen Welker, and Ashley Parker of The Washington Post.


The New York Times: The electability debate, brought to you by the people who want to be elected.


The next debate and final meet-up of the year will take place in Los Angeles on Dec. 19. While Wednesday’s back-and-forth did little to reshuffle the top-tier among Democratic contenders, one latecomer — former Massachusetts Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickRalph Gants, chief justice of Massachusetts supreme court, dies at 65 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Top Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden MORE — would like to get on that stage in California but is unlikely to meet thresholds set for fundraising and polls.  


> Former President Obama, who is tiptoeing into 2020 politics, headlines a fundraiser this afternoon in Los Altos Hills, Calif., to benefit the Democratic National Committee. Associates say the 44th president nudged back into politics sooner than he imagined because of concerns that the diverse electorate his party brought together is being split by “Medicare for All” and immigration proposals — ideas that he thinks could alienate moderate voters in the 2020 election (The New York Times).





MORE CONGRESS: Surprise medical bills: Lawmakers are feeling pressure to pass legislation protecting patients from surprise medical bills (The Hill). But the effort faces major obstacles, including from an intense lobbying campaign from doctors and hospitals, and the difficulty of getting anything done in the divided political climate (The Hill).


Autonomous vehicles: Senators heard from the federal government's top regulators about their efforts to put self-driving cars on the nation's roads. During a Wednesday hearing, the focus was on supporting the speed of innovation balanced against federal safety regulations (The Hill).


Marijuana decriminalization: A divided U.S. House committee approved a proposal Wednesday to decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level, a vote that was simultaneously described as a momentous turning point in national cannabis policy and a hollow political gesture. The House Judiciary Committee approved the proposal 24-10 after more than two hours of debate (The Associated Press).


“Madam chairwoman!”: Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyPelosi, Democrats unveil bills to rein in alleged White House abuses of power Government watchdog recommends creation of White House cyber director position Top Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence MORE (D-N.Y.) formally won the gavel of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday, becoming the first woman to chair the powerful panel that is at the forefront of investigations into the Trump administration (The Hill).




WHITE HOUSE & ADMINISTRATION: The Education Department released wage data for university degrees on Wednesday for the first time, detailing the median debt and earnings for specific programs at colleges and universities across the country. For example, a student could research whether engineering majors graduate with higher amounts of debt at one school or another or whether graduates of the English language program or the nursing program at one school receive greater monthly earnings one year after graduation (The Hill). 


> Bureau of Land Management employees who decide to take severance instead of accompanying the agency as it moves out West will have to be out of their jobs by Jan. 31 (The Hill). 




The Morning Report is created by journalists Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver. We want to hear from you! Email: and We invite you to share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!


Is Joe Biden finished? by pollster John Zogby, opinion contributor, The Hill.


Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBillionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice MORE has now lost all confidence from black voters, by Shermichael Singleton, opinion contributor, The Hill.


Hill.TV’s “Rising” program features The Hill’s political journalist Julia Manchester, who recaps the Democratic presidential debate while reporting on-site in Atlanta; Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, with reaction to the fifth presidential primary debate; and Republican National Committee spokeswoman Liz Harrington, who offers GOP debate reaction. Coverage starts at 9 a.m. ET at or on YouTube at 10 a.m. at Rising on YouTube


The House meets at 9 a.m. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Overnight Health Care: New wave of COVID-19 cases builds in US | Florida to lift all coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, bars | Trump stirs questions with 0 drug coupon plan Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Calif.) will hold a weekly press conference at 10:45 a.m. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Ginsburg becomes the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol McCarthy says there will be a peaceful transition if Biden wins MORE (R-Calif.) will hold his weekly news conference at 11:30 a.m. The House Intelligence Committee will hold a sixth day of impeachment hearings beginning at 8 a.m. with witnesses Hill and Holmes.


The Senate convenes 10 a.m. Senators face a midnight deadline to pass a government funding measure through Dec. 20.


The president and first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Ginsburg becomes the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol Rabbi memorializes Ginsburg: Her dissents were 'blueprints for the future' MORE will present the National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight and other recipients, and bestow the National Humanities Medal to novelist James Patterson and chef Patrick J. O’Connell, famous for celebrated Virginia restaurant Inn at Little Washington, among others. 


Pompeo is in Brussels.


The National Archives in Washington today will mark the 15th anniversary of the film “National Treasure,” which was a successful box office franchise starring Nicolas Cage as Benjamin Franklin Gates, who steals the Declaration of Independence and searches for the Knights Templar Treasure. Information about the screening from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., complete with family activities and optional costume dress code, is HERE


Israel: Election challenger Benny Gantz on Wednesday announced he failed to form a coalition government within the allotted time, just as Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE failed before him. The paralysis in government could lead to an unprecedented third election in Israel. Netanyahu wants the power to shift back his way, especially because he awaits an expected indictment on corruption charges as early as today (The Associated Press).  


Climate science: The Supreme Court on Friday will consider whether to take up a prominent climatologist’s defamation suit against a venerated conservative magazine, in a case that pits climate science against the free speech rights of global warming skeptics. The dispute between Michael Mann and National Review has attracted attention from lawmakers, interest groups and the media as the court weighs whether to add a potentially blockbuster First Amendment showdown to an already politically charged docket (The Hill).


Genetically modified rice: Bangladesh appears to be the first country to approve genetically altered golden rice for planting, a crop altered to help prevent blindness by providing half the beta carotene children need daily. The modified food staple has been controversial for decades (Science). 





And finally … It’s Thursday, which means it’s time for this week’s Morning Report Quiz! Inspired by this week’s start of the third season of “The Crown,” we’re eager for some smart guesses about fact and fiction behind the Netflix version of British royals in the 1960s and 1970s (The New York Times).


Email your responses to and/or, and please add “Quiz” to subject lines. Winners who submit correct answers will enjoy some well-earned newsletter fame on Friday.


When was Prince Charles’s investiture and crowning as Prince of Wales, a title he was given initially in 1958?


  1. 1966
  2. 1969
  3. 1972
  4. 1975


Princess Margaret announced her separation from Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1976. What was the main cause of the split?


  1. Antony was constantly traveling
  2. An affair with Roddy Llewellyn
  3. Queen Elizabeth pushed for the separation for the good of the crown. 
  4. None of the above


In 1965, former President Lyndon Johnson hosted Princess Margaret at the White House. Did Johnson ever host Queen Elizabeth during his presidency?


  1. Yes
  2. No 


While Prince Charles met his first wife, Diana Spencer, in 1978, when did he meet his eventual second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he married in 2005?


  1. 1971
  2. 1975
  3. 1979
  4. 1983