It wasn't just the whistleblower, and it didn't just start with Donald Trump's phone call in July with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky.
House impeachment investigating committees are learning that alarm bells were going off around the Trump administration as early as March that the president had subcontracted Ukraine policy to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in pursuit of dubious ploys to discredit Trump's political rivals.
It was back then that George Kent, who testified behind closed doors Tuesday, raised concerns with colleagues about Giuliani's role in waging what he called a "disinformation" campaign, according to The New York Times. Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, was alarmed by the “fake news smear” Trump allies pushed against the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. He called their claims about her “complete poppycock.”
Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s former top Russia and Europe adviser, told investigators on Monday that John Bolton, the national security adviser until five weeks ago, was infuriated with Giuliani's shadow operation.
Bolton told Hill that Giuliani was "a hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up" and instructed her to alert White House lawyers, the Times reported.
Kent's testimony Tuesday described how acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney organized a meeting in May to take Ukraine policy out of traditional channels, according to Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), who attended Kent's session.
Mulvaney put Energy Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker in charge instead. Sondland, due to testify Thursday, says those three were told by Trump to coordinate with Giuliani. Michael McKinley, a former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who resigned last week, is scheduled to testify Wednesday.
Rivals' aim turns to Warren
With the change of seasons, the Democratic primary race has entered a new phase. Joe Biden is no longer the attack magnet for other candidates. The one to beat on in Tuesday night's Democratic debate was Elizabeth Warren, who has edged ahead in the polls. Warren's center-left rivals, especially the second-tier candidates looking for a breakthrough, ripped her "Medicare for All" plan and her evasions on how she would pay for it.
"Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything — except for this," said Pete Buttigieg. Even Bernie Sanders, pointing out yet again that "I wrote the damned bill" on Medicare for All, chimed in: "I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up." Buttigieg also alluded to the electability issue crucial to Trump-loathing Democrats and said Warren's call to end private insurance would further divide a "horrifyingly polarized" nation. He favors a public option that would preserve private insurance for those who prefer it.
Amy Klobuchar also took part in the pile-on. "I appreciate Elizabeth’s work. But again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done." Warren stood fast, saying that only a government plan for all will "make sure that everyone gets health care."
Warren pushed buttons when she said "why ... does everyone else on this stage think it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation of Americans?" Biden shot back: "No one is supporting billionaires." Klobuchar said, "No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires." She was referring to billionaire Tom Steyer, participating in his first debate.
The candidates sparred over the best answers for curbing gun violence and reversing the rightward tilt of the Supreme Court. To varying degrees, they hit Trump's abandonment of Syria's Kurds, but Tulsi Gabbard said politicians from both parties were wrong for the U.S. being there at all in a "regime change war." There was agreement from each of the dozen on one point: Trump deserves to be impeached.
Rudy: I'll stonewall
Giuliani said Tuesday he will defy a House subpoena for documents in the impeachment inquiry.
“If they enforce it, then we will see what happens,” he told ABC News after his lawyer, Jon Sale, sent a letter informing the House investigating committees that he will not cooperate.
Giuliani also said he was parting ways with Sale, who has represented him in impeachment matters. CNN reported people close to Giuliani are urging him to hire a criminal lawyer as he faces investigation by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office, but he is resisting that advice. He has faced a cash crunch from his ongoing divorce proceedings, despite big paydays such as $500,000 he acknowledges getting from one of his associates in Ukraine schemes.
The Wall Street Journal reported a grand jury has issued a subpoena related to the investigation of Giuliani by Manhattan prosecutors. It is seeking documents from former Texas GOP Rep. Pete Sessions, who got big and allegedly illegal donations from Giuliani's indicted Ukraine collaborators and backed their efforts to oust the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv. Sessions has said he has been friends with Giuliani for more than three decades, and he did not know “what his business or legal activities in Ukraine have been.”
Also refusing to cooperate with subpoenas: Vice President Mike Pence and the Office of Management and Budget.
Janison: The Trump crossers
The list of government professionals Trump might see fit to demonize is getting longer, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
If the past is a guide, the president will find a way to impugn the motives of any or all of the impeachment inquiry witnesses or prospective witnesses who have run foreign policy operations in his executive branch and can shine light on his Ukraine intrigues.
Making it stick is another matter. One witness on deck, Sondland, wouldn't make a good suspect for deep-state subversion. He's a wealthy businessman and big Trump donor. Fiona Hill was a protégé of anti-communists in academia and is nobody's idea of a liberal Democrat.
The biggest name to emerge among potential nonhostile witnesses is Bolton, who seems the most suitable target for presidential invective. He comes from a rival GOP faction, the Bush-era neoconservatives, and did not exit on good terms.
Sanctions don't irk Turks much
Trump threatened to "obliterate" Turkey's economy if it did not wind down the war against Syrian Kurds, but its currency actually rose in value on Tuesday. There was relief in Turkey that the measures the U.S. announced were lighter than expected.
“Minimal sanctions. A few individuals. A trade deal which was years off anyway. And steel tariffs up to 50% — Turkey hardly exports any [steel to the U.S.]," markets strategist Timothy Ash told CNBC. “These appear to be relatively light sanctions — meant to appease Congress without sundering Trump’s relations with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” said Charlie Robertson, a top economist at Renaissance Capital.
Russia moved to fill the void left by U.S. forces in northern Syria, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government forces and Turkish troops, according to The Associated Press. The New York Times reported from Moscow on a top TV commentator mocking the Trump retreat.
“The Kurds themselves again picked the wrong patron,” Dmitri Kiselyov said. “The United States, of course, is an unreliable partner.”
Hunter's sorry, not sorry
Hunter Biden said in an ABC News interview that looking back, it was "poor judgment" on his part to accept a post with a Ukrainian natural gas company while his father was vice president.
“Was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is ... a swamp in many ways? Yeah.”
Hunter Biden said he “did nothing wrong at all" in the job. "Did I make a mistake based upon some ethical lapse? Absolutely not." But he said it created an opening for the political attacks on him and his father that Trump and Giuliani have pursued.
"I gave a hook to some very unethical people to act in illegal ways to try to do some harm to my father. That's where I made the mistake," said Hunter Biden. He also acknowledged that he "probably" would not have gotten the job if not for his family connection, but reiterated that he never discussed his foreign business dealings with his father.
At Tuesday night's debate, Joe Biden said: "My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the U.S. government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine. That’s what we should be focusing on.”
What else is happening:
- A tweet from Donald Trump Jr. mocked Hunter Biden's quote in the ABC interview that "I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life that if my name wasn’t Biden." To repeat, that was from Donald Trump Jr.
- Ronan Farrow, who exposed many of the #MeToo scandals, writes in his new book that American Media Inc. and the National Enquirer shredded sensitive Trump-related documents that had been held in a top-secret safe just before Trump was elected in 2016. The publisher had helped Trump suppress stories of extramarital affairs.
- A 55%-38% majority of New York State voters in a new Siena College poll support Trump's impeachment and removal, reports Newsday's Yancey Roy. By 62% to 34%, they agreed the impeachment inquiry is "justified."
- The Trump administration has hired a lobbyist for every 14 political appointments made, welcoming a total of 281 on board, according to a report by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations.
- Giuliani apparently brought Lev Parnas, an associate who was indicted last week, to former President George H.W. Bush's funeral last December, BuzzFeed reports. Jeb Bush said the family didn't invite Parnas and it's "disappointing" that Giuliani brought him along.
- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a hero for the Democratic left, plans to endorse Sanders for president at a rally in Queens Saturday.
- George Conway, an outspoken critic of Trump and husband of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, has donated the maximum $5,600 allowed to the long-shot presidential campaign of Republican challenger Joe Walsh.