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Politics

One month in, we’ve learned a lot about the Ukraine scandal

Essential Politics

A madly spinning news cycle has characterized the Trump presidency since Day One: Controversies that might once have played out over a week rise and fall in a day, swept aside by another and another and another.

The White House announcement that President Trump would host next summer’s Group of 7 meeting at his Doral resort in Florida, for example, got overshadowed within the course of a single news conference, as White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney committed the classic Washington error of unintentionally speaking the truth.

And so, it’s worth pausing for a moment to note that we’re just now four weeks into the Ukraine scandal that has generated an impeachment inquiry in the House. The story, like few others in the Trump era, has dominated political news for a month. And already, it’s reached a stage of public knowledge and impact that in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s took a year.

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WHAT WE KNOW NOW

The initial White House strategy in the impeachment investigation was to stonewall.

In a letter 10 days ago, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone denounced the impeachment inquiry as “baseless” and “unconstitutional” and said the executive branch “cannot participate.” Administration officials attempted to block witnesses from appearing for depositions requested by House investigators.

That effort largely failed, foiled by quick subpoenas from the House and the willingness of current and former high-ranking officials to defy the White House and parade to the high-security room in the basement of the Capitol where Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and his colleagues and staff have interviewed them, often for 10 hours or more at a stretch.

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Trump, who offers no loyalty to those who work for him, has received little in return.

The White House has had more success in preventing House investigators from getting documents, as a host of executive branch agencies, including the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget, have refused to comply with subpoenas. That could lead to a battle in court but also may provide grounds for an impeachment count related to obstruction, Democratic leaders have warned.

Schiff has kept the full testimony under wraps, justifying the secrecy as necessary to prevent witnesses from coordinating their stories or concocting covers. The committees will release transcripts, redacted to remove classified information, once the investigative part of the impeachment process ends, he told House members this week.

Despite that, enough of the testimony has reached the public -- including opening statements from several witnesses and text messages among diplomats that Schiff released -- to significantly fill out the case. And the plethora of leads has complicated Democratic efforts to wrap up the case before Thanksgiving, Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

The evidence to date, much of which is not disputed, shows Trump personally played the central role in holding up military aid that the Ukrainians viewed as crucial to their security and insisting that the price of releasing it would be a Ukrainian announcement of investigations into his political opponents.

The evidence shows that in the spring, Trump told Mulvaney to hold up some $400 million in military aid to Ukraine that Congress had appropriated.

National security officials who asked about the delay in the aid did not receive an explanation. But Trump told U.S. diplomats and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who was one of the administration’s chief contacts with the Ukrainians, that to resolve the situation, they needed to discuss it with his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The message from Trump was direct, Perry told the Wall Street Journal in an interview: “Visit with Rudy.” On Thursday, Perry announced his resignation.

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Giuliani and two associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, meanwhile, held several meetings with Ukrainian officials aimed at getting the newly elected government of President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into a gas company, Burisima, on the board of which Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president, once sat.

They also wanted an investigation into whether Ukrainians had played a role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer system in 2015 and 2016 -- break-ins that U.S. intelligence have identified as coming from two Russian military cyber-warfare units. The theory that the hack came from Ukraine, not Russia, has circulated on right-wing media, without evidence, as a way of discrediting the investigations into Russian efforts to help Trump in the 2016 election.

Giuliani’s involvement so disturbed national security officials that John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, told one of his deputies, Fiona Hill, to report the matter to White House lawyers.

“I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton said, according to Hill’s testimony, referring to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, whom Trump had tapped to help coordinate the Ukraine effort.

Parnas and Fruman were arrested just over a week ago as they tried to leave the country and were charged with violating campaign finance laws. Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which Giuliani once headed, are handling that case and are also looking at Giuliani’s activities, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.

Sondland, testifying Thursday, explicitly implicated Trump.

“I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters,” he said in his opening statement.

“However, based on the President’s direction, we were faced with a choice: We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believed was crucial to strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian ties and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region; or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the President’s concerns.”

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He also testified that he knew Giuliani was demanding that the Ukrainians specifically say they were investigating Burisima but that he did not know until much later that Burisima was connected to Hunter Biden, a denial that Democrats find hard to believe.

Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker and other U.S. diplomats worked through the spring and early summer to get the Ukrainians to issue a statement that would meet Giuliani’s terms.

Then, on July 25, Trump spoke by phone with Zelensky. When Zelensky reminded Trump of his country’s desire to buy U.S.-made Javelin antitank weapons, Trump, according to the account of the call that the White House released last month, responded: “I would like you to do us a favor though.”

He then went on to ask Zelensky to meet with Giuliani and specifically mentioned Biden.

As that evidence has unfolded, the White House has backed away from its insistence that there was “no quid pro quo” in Trump’s statements. Mulvaney made that explicit Thursday in a briefing for reporters. He later tried to take back his statement, but his words were clear:

“Absolutely. No question about that,” he said, acknowledging that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate. “But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.”

To those who would see that as a problem, he had a simple response: “Get over it.”

HOW THE PUBLIC SEES IT

In the days immediately after the scandal first broke and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of the impeachment inquiry, polls found a significant shift in public opinion, moving toward support for impeaching Trump.

Since then, support appears to have hit a plateau, most polls indicate. Democrats, who were divided over impeachment before the Ukraine news, now overwhelmingly support it. A large majority of Republicans have consistently opposed it.

New data released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center show that about 9% of Americans have changed their views from opposition to support for impeachment since before the Ukraine stories broke. Most of those who shifted were Democrats, although about one in three were Republicans.

The number who have changed their minds is not huge, but in a country that’s deeply divided by partisanship, where the last election was determined by a tiny handful of voters in three key states, it’s a notable shift.

It’s also significant that multiple polls have shown Democrats more united on the issue than Republicans, with a significant minority of Republican voters seeing Trump’s actions as inappropriate and a smaller, but still notable, minority seeing them as impeachable.

“Get over it” may suffice to hold Trump’s core supporters -- and with them the senators necessary to stave off conviction in the Senate -- but it’s a risky strategy for ultimately saving Trump’s presidency.

SYRIA AND THE MELTDOWN

In the midst of the impeachment fight, Trump angered key Republican lawmakers by acquiescing in a Turkish attack against Kurdish forces in Syria who had served as key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State militants.

As Noah Bierman and Sarah Wire wrote, Trump’s move to pull out a small contingent of U.S. troops that had served as a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish forces brought angry denunciations from senior Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“This will be a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq,” Graham said.

On Wednesday, the House passed a resolution condemning Trump’s pullout, 354 to 60, with a majority of Republicans voting against the administration.

Later that day, Trump met with the congressional leadership and delivered an angry diatribe aimed mostly at Pelosi, which she characterized as a “meltdown.”

On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Ankara, Turkey, on an urgent mission designed to salvage something from a foreign policy debacle. After about five hours of talks, Pence signed off on an agreement that gave the Turks almost everything they wanted, Eli Stokols reported from the scene.

Trump’s words and actions on Syria show his core, isolationist beliefs on foreign policy and provide strong suggestions of what he might do if he’s reelected, Doyle McManus wrote in his column.

THE DEMOCRATIC CAMPAIGN

The Democratic candidates held their fourth debate this week, as Melanie Mason, Evan Halper and Bierman wrote. Sen. Bernie Sanders looked healthier, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar seemed feistier and Joe Biden didn’t commit any egregious faux pas, Mark Barabak noted in his takeaways from the debate. In short, the encounter seemed to largely cement the status quo.

The most notable aspect of the debate, as Janet Hook noted, was that rival candidates largely treated Sen. Elizabeth Warren as the front-runner.

As Hook wrote before the debate, Warren, 70, has succeeded in conveying an image of relative youth and vigor without ever specifically mentioning the ages of Biden, 73, or Sanders, 78. At least one recent survey found that most voters, asked to guess candidates’ ages, believed Warren was in her mid-60s while correctly pegging Sanders’ and Biden’s ages.

Halper reported on one of the most notable aspects of this year’s Democratic campaign: billionaires are the target to an extent that goes beyond any attacks on concentrated wealth seen since the 1930s.

Speaking of billionaires, Tom Steyer spent $47 million in 84 days on his presidential bid, Seema Mehta reported. That’s bought enough name recognition to get him into the debates, but going further will require the former hedge fund manager turned political activist to surmount some big hurdles.

Meanwhile, Mehta reported, Biden’s poor fundraising has left his campaign with much less cash on hand than his main rivals.

Of course, Biden’s fundraising isn’t so bad if you compare him with Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Fla. Messam says he’s running for president, but is he really? As Melissa Gomez reported, he reported raising $5 in the third quarter.

“I’m still technically in the race,” he told her.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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david.lauter@latimes.com


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