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Washington Post: Putin got Trump's ear, planted Ukraine obsession

President Donald Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin

President Donald Trump with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. Credit: EPA/Michael Klimentyev

Vlad's bad directions

Why did President Donald Trump become so convinced of a Ukrainian plot to stop his 2016 election that he set in motion the scheme that led to his impeachment? Because that's what Vladimir Putin told him, former White House officials told The Washington Post.

Trump began voicing those suspicions almost immediately after he took office. After meeting privately in July 2017 with the Russian president at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Trump grew more insistent, the former officials said.

A former senior White House official said Trump even stated that he knew Ukraine, not Russia, was the real election-interference culprit because “Putin told me.” Two other former officials said that senior official related Trump’s comment to them.

“He would say: ‘This is ridiculous. Everyone knows I won the election. The greatest election in the world. The Russians didn’t do anything. The Ukrainians tried to do something,’ ” one former official said. Trump wouldn't offer any proof for the allegation.

U.S. intelligence officials have told lawmakers and congressional staff members that Russian security services played a major role in spreading false stories about Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, say there is no evidence to support the disinformation.

Trump's former homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, pleaded with the White House in a September ABC News interview to drop the Ukraine theory, which he called “completely debunked,” and added the warning: “If he continues to focus on that white whale, it’s going to bring him down.”

Yet Republicans defending Trump against impeachment have echoed his calls for investigations. Meanwhile, Putin on Thursday cast a vote for Trump's acquittal. In his annual end-of-the-year news conference in Moscow, Putin accused the Democratic Party of using "absolutely invented reasons" to try and remove Trump from office.

'Impasse' on Senate trial rules

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she's not sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial right away as the rules for the proceedings remain unknown. Democrats “haven’t seen anything that looks fair to us,” she said.

If Pelosi thought that would put pressure on him, it's not working, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. He taunted Democrats as “too afraid" to send the charges to the Senate, where Trump could expect acquittal by McConnell's GOP majority.

McConnell met later with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and said, "We remain at an impasse." Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Schumer, said the Democratic leader “made clear to Sen. McConnell that the witnesses and documents are necessary to ensure a fair trial in the Senate."

While McConnell professes indifference on whether Pelosi ever sends the articles over, Trump is "mad as hell" and "demanding his day in court," Sen. Lindsey Graham said after meeting with the president at the White House.

Trump then tweeted Thursday night: "I want an immediate trial!"

Janison: Pence for thoughts

The Republican argument that House Democrats impeached Trump to nullify the 2016 election has a Constitution-sized hole in it, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. In the very unlikely event that the Senate removed Trump from the Oval Office, Vice President Mike Pence would move right in.

Pence could be relied on to govern as Trump would on taxes, judges, immigration, abortion and regulatory rollbacks, all intact. That should give Republicans comfort unless what they'd really miss are the Trump-style personal scandals, fabulism and chaos.

Pence would be an incumbent only briefly before the next election — but with the potential to keep the GOP in office longer. 

Trump plays kick the widow

“What the president misunderstands is that cruelty is not wit,” Pelosi said. She was speaking about how Trump attacked Rep. Debbie Dingell at his Michigan rally Wednesday night by suggesting her late husband, a World War II veteran who served for 59 years in Congress, is in hell.

Trump said Debbie Dingell, who voted for impeachment, had thanked him for arranging customary honors after John Dingell's death at age 92 in February, saying her husband would be thrilled as he looked down. As he depicted the congresswoman from suburban Detroit as an ingrate, Trump said, “Maybe he’s looking up,” drawing groans from the crowd.

Soon after Trump's remarks, the widow tweeted: "Mr. President, let’s set politics aside. My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder."

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said on ABC's "Good Morning America" she was "very, very sorry" for the congresswoman's loss, but spun an alibi. Trump, "under impeachment attack," is a "counterpuncher" who was speaking before "a very, very supportive and wild crowd."

Meghan McCain, whose father, the late Sen. John McCain, has been bad-mouthed by Trump even in death, tweeted that the comments about Dingell were "utterly sick and cruel." Two House Republicans from Michigan, Paul Mitchell and Fred Upton, called on Trump to apologize. Trump ignored reporters' questions Thursday on whether he would.

Is Rudy giving Lindsey the willies?

Graham has invited Rudy Giuliani to testify before his Senate Judiciary Committee, but the Trump lawyer's fevered proselytizing about corruption and plots cooked up in Ukraine seems to be giving the Republican senator pause.

"It's just not good for the country to make these accusations on cable television without them being tested,” Graham said.

"I don't know what Rudy's got, but I'm going to send him a letter. If you're going to go on national television and tell the country that you've found evidence of a cover-up, then I hope you know what you're talking about,” Graham told reporters Wednesday. He said Giuliani also must be willing to answer questions about his own conduct in Ukraine.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Giuliani has entered a joint defense agreement with Igor Fruman, one of his indicted associates from the Ukraine ventures. Manhattan federal prosecutors are investigating whether Giuliani engaged in illegal lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian interests, the report said.

Darts fly in Democrats' debate

How is it that Joe Biden, the Democrats' front-runner, wasn't the biggest magnet for attacks in Thursday night's Democratic debate? Could it be that the rivals who jabbed him the hardest in past encounters — Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand — either are gone or failed to make the stage for the last debate of 2019?

Whatever the reasons, Biden coasted through most of the nearly three hours in Los Angeles while more arrows flew at Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. Buttigieg, suggesting Warren was too radical, said, "We can't measure ideas by 'how many fellow Americans it can antagonize.’ ” Warren attacked Buttigieg for a big-dollar fundraiser in "a wine cave full of crystals." He shot back that she seeded her 2020 war chest with a 2018 Senate race surplus raised in similar ways.

Amy Klobuchar questioned Buttigieg's experience and electability. To his retort that he was elected South Bend mayor as "a gay dude [in] Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Klobuchar pointed out that Buttigieg lost by 20 points when he ran a statewide race the year before.

Near the two-hour mark, Biden and Bernie Sanders got loud with each other over the practicality of the latter's "Medicare for All" plan. Sanders, pushing back against the idea he is too far left to beat Trump, said winning depends on driving turnout with "energy and enthusiasm," which hasn't been a characteristic of Biden's campaign.

Biden defended his desire for seeking bipartisan consensus. “If anyone has reason to be angry with Republicans, and not want to cooperate, it’s really me, the way they’ve attacked me, my son, my family,” he said, alluding to how he was targeted on Ukraine. “I know we have to … be able to get things done.”

NAFTA-math in impeachment's aftermath

The Democratic-led House gave Trump an overwhelming bipartisan victory Thursday on a renegotiated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico to replace the 1990s-era NAFTA.

By a 385-41 vote, the House approved a bill that puts in place terms of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

What else is happening:

  • Trump welcomed Rep. Jeff Van Drew to the White House and the Republican Party on Thursday, a day after the New Jersey congressman was one of only two Democrats to vote against both articles of impeachment. Van Drew, who has voted in line with Trump's positions 10% of the time, pledged his “undying support.”
  • North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a close ally of Trump and a leader of hard-right House Republicans, announced Thursday he won't seek reelection. He is expected to soon take a senior White House position.
  • Heading into Thursday night's debate, Biden remained atop the Democratic field, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The numbers: Biden, 28%; Sanders, 21%; Warren, 18%; Buttigieg, 9%; Klobuchar, 5%; Michael Bloomberg, 4%; Yang, 3%; Tulsi Gabbard and Booker, 2% each; and Tom Steyer and Castro, 1% each.
  • Graham said he told Trump during their meeting Thursday that his attack on Debbie Dingell was wrong. “It is not funny. There is nothing funny about this, Mr. President," Graham said. 
  • Bloomberg, following the path of other Democratic 2020 moderates, said Thursday he would create a public option to provide health insurance coverage to Americans, if elected.
  • Trump shared a rumination about low-flow toilets at his Michigan rally. Try to follow the flow: "Ten times, right? Ten times. … Not me, of course, not me, but you. You. But I never mention that. Because one time I mentioned all three. I said, 'sinks, showers, and toilets.' The headline was, ‘Trump with the toilets, toilets.’ That’s all they want. They don’t even mention the, so I didn’t mention that, OK?"

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