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Ukraine plot and cover-up laid bare by key impeachment witness

William Taylor, center, the top U.S. diplomat to

William Taylor, center, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, arrives for closed-door testimony Tuesday in the House impeachment inquiry. Credit: EPA/Michael Reynolds

Sounds like a perfect quid pro quo

The top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine connected dots, filled in blanks and blew holes at the "no quid pro quo" alibis offered by President Donald Trump and his defenders.

William Taylor, appearing in a closed session with House impeachment investigators, said Trump insisted that "everything" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted — from a White House meeting to vital military aid — hinged on getting a pledge in return to investigate his 2016 election allegations against Democrats and a company linked to the family of Joe Biden.

Moreover, according to Taylor, Trump wanted Zelensky to say it publicly. That would have handed Trump ready-to-use political weapons even if the investigations he wanted went nowhere. (Read Taylor's full opening statement.)

Taylor testified that Rudy Giuliani was leading an "irregular" back channel to pursue Trump's personal political aims in Ukraine that were at odds with official policy. Others in the shadow group included Energy Secretary Rick Perry, special Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, the GOP megadonor who Trump named ambassador to the European Union and personally directed to squeeze Zelensky.

A previously disclosed exchange of texts showed Taylor complaining about holding up military aid for Trump's "domestic political reasons" and Sondland replying, "Call me." In Tuesday's testimony, Taylor described what Sondland told him by phone before and afterward — that "Trump is a businessman" and "when a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something ..., the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check."

Taylor had also found it "odd" when the usual participants from relevant government agencies were excluded from a call to Zelensky by Sondland, Perry and Volker. "Ambassador Sondland said that he wanted to make sure no one was transcribing or monitoring as they added President Zelensky to the call."

When Trump finally spoke to Zelensky on July 25, Taylor said, "Strangely, even though I was Chief of Mission and was scheduled to meet with President Zelensky along with Ambassador Volker the following day, I received no readout of the call from the White House." 

Filling in the puzzle 

Democrats who heard Taylor's testimony said he provided the most damning evidence yet of a presidential abuse of power.

"It’s like if you had a big, 1,000-piece puzzle on a table,” said Florida's Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “This fills in a lot of pieces of the puzzle.” Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts said, "This testimony is a sea change. I think it could accelerate matters." 

A Trump ally, Rep. Mark Meadows, said there is still no impeachment case and there was "nothing new here, I think."

A statement from White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said "this is just more triple hearsay and selective leaks" in a "coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.”

If she was referring to Taylor as one of those bureaucrats, it's worth noting that he is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran whose diplomatic service dates back to the Ronald Reagan administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Taylor, 72, to come out of retirement after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was ousted at the behest of Trump and Giuliani.

Fake Noose

When the going gets tough, Trump's playbook often calls for saying something inflammatory, and perhaps racially divisive, to provoke a reaction. So in a Tuesday morning tweet about the impeachment inquiry, he said, "All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here - a lynching."

Impeachment is a legal process provided for by the Constitution. Lynchings were acts of murder, often accompanied by torture and mutilation, by mobs acting outside the law. Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States, according to statistics from the NAACP, and most of the victims were black.

Revulsion at Trump's remark extended beyond Democrats in Washington. A woman whose father was killed by Ku Klux Klansmen in Alabama in 1957 called the comment “unbelievable,” The Associated Press reported.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who is African American, replied to Trump's tweet with a graphic photo of a black man hanging from a tree and wrote: "this is a lynching. Trump this is not happening to you and it’s pathetic that you act like you’re such a victim."

The Republican leaders of the Senate and House were mildly critical — an "unfortunate choice of words," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — but Sen. Lindsey Graham said Trump got it right. “This is a lynching in every sense,” stated Graham. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley maintained Trump was not comparing impeachment to “one of the darkest moments in American history.”

Janison: Radioactive Rudy

Attorney General William Barr, if not a completely unabashed Trump partisan, is at a minimum under-abashed about it. But it appears to be too much for him to get lumped in publicly with Giuliani and his netherworld of foreign intrigues.

Newsday's Dan Janison notes the belated distancing statement from the Justice Department over a meeting between high-level officials held with Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, about other clients he was representing in a bribery case. That was before two Giuliani associates were indicted in alleged Ukraine-tied schemes.

The department's statement said its officials, including the head of the criminal division. "were not aware of any investigation of Mr. Giuliani’s associates in the Southern District of New York and would not have met with him had they known."

Barr has also been reported to be "angry and upset" that Trump tied him to Giuliani in his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, asking him to work with both men in pursuing the political investigations he demanded. But Barr still seems on board with continuing the probe Trump wanted from Justice into the Russia investigation's origins.

Mulling Mulvaney ouster

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's quid pro D'OH! moments while arguing his boss did no wrong in the Ukraine scandal has stirred talk among Trump's allies that he needs to go.

Bloomberg News reports Trump has been musing for weeks about replacing Mulvaney, floating names such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, counselor Kellyanne Conway and a deputy chief of staff, Chris Liddell.

Obamacare's miracle recovery

Two years after Trump declared Obamacare dead, the Affordable Care Act is alive and thriving. Trump also wants credit for that.

New government figures show the average cost for the most common type of health insurance sold through the ACA federal marketplaces will drop by about 4%, extending a reversal of steep rate increases from Obamacare's early years. The number of available plans will grow 13%.

Competition is improving, too. Just 12% of ACA customers live in counties that will have only one insurer in the marketplace in the coming year, compared with almost 30% in 2018.

“The president who was supposedly trying to sabotage the law has been better at running it than the guy who wrote the law,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. But the administration is still asking a federal appeals court in New Orleans to overturn Obamacare in its entirety as unconstitutional.

'Anonymous' book ominous for Trump

Before "the whistleblower," there was "Anonymous," the senior official who wrote a New York Times op-ed in September 2018 describing a "Resistance" inside the Trump administration struggling to thwart the president's worst inclinations.

"Anonymous" now has a tell-all book coming out next month, The Washington Post reported. Titled “A Warning,” it is being promoted as “an unprecedented behind-the-scenes portrait of the Trump presidency," expanding on the original column.

That piece described Trump’s leadership style as “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective,” producing "half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”

The book will be published on Nov. 19 by Twelve, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group. The author intends to stay anonymous, according to the publisher.

What else is happening:

  • Earlier this month, Trump said McConnell told him his Ukraine call was "perfect" and "innocent." McConnell disputed that Tuesday, telling reporters "We have not had any conversations on this subject." Was Trump lying? "You'd have to ask him," McConnell said.
  • Russia and Turkey reached an agreement Tuesday to cement their power in Syria by deploying their forces across nearly its entire northeastern border to fill the void left by Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces.
  • Graham and a Fox News analyst, retired Gen. Jack Keane, went to the White House with maps after the pullout that cleared the way for Turkey's invasion and persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops around oil fields in northern Syria, NBC News reported.
  • The New York Times reports some influential Democrats looking anxiously over the party's field of 2020 candidates are wondering: "Is there anybody else?" Hillary Clinton and Michael Bloomberg have told people privately in recent weeks that they'd get in if they saw a chance but are skeptical.
  • A federal appeals court turned down a bid by longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone to overturn the gag order that has kept him off social media while his trial is pending for allegedly lying to Congress and witness tampering.
  • Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale explored the possibility of using facial recognition technology at rallies to help analyze reactions from supporters, The Wall Street Journal reported. He dropped the idea when told it wasn't reliable enough.
  • The two ice rinks owned by the Trump Organization in Central Park have removed nearly all signage displaying the Trump name in large letters, The Washington Post reports. No explanation was given, but an employee theorized that reason is that Trump branding was driving some customers away.

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