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Turkey Prepares for Military Operation as US Troops Start Leaving Syria

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  • The Trump administration announced Sunday that it would be stepping aside to let Turkey launch a military operation against Kurdish forces in Syria.
  • Many condemned the move and argued that the U.S. was clearly abandoning U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that have been on the frontlines fighting against ISIS alongside U.S. troops in the region.
  • On Monday, U.S. officials confirmed that troops in Syria were already being removed following the announcement.

White House Announcement

U.S. troops began withdrawing from Syria on Monday, following a controversial announcement by the White House a day prior that U.S. forces will stand aside as Turkey launches a military offensive in Northern Syria.

The statement, made by White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, followed a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the statement said. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”

The statement went on to say that the U.S. has “pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused.”

“The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer,” it continued. “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States.”

It is unclear from that statement whether or not all of the nearly 1,000 troops in the region will be removed. What is clear is that the announcement comes as a major shift in U.S. policy in the region that many on both sides of the aisle oppose.

U.S. Kurdish Allies

The announcement comes as a clear sign that the U.S. is abandoning its main ally in the fight against ISIS: Kurdish forces near the Syrian border.

U.S. forces on the ground in Syria have recruited and trained the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for years. Those forces have done the majority of fighting on the ground against ISIS fighters.

That is also not all they have done. Despite the claim in the White House’s statement that the U.S. is holding captured ISIS fighters at the taxpayer’s expense, it is actually Kurdish forces, and not the U.S., that have kept ISIS fighters and their family members in makeshift camps in Northern Syria.

For a while, Erdogan has been critical of the U.S.’s alliance with the Kurdish forces. Turkey has a separatist movement near its border with Syria made of Kurds, called the PKK. Turkey claims that the YPG and PKK are allied and considers them both terrorists.

The Turkish operation is geared to use military force to clear “terrorists” east of the Euphrates river, a region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces and YPG.

When Turkey says it is going to target terrorists east of the Euphrates River, many believe it is a clear message that they plan to remove Kurdish forces from their borders.

Response

Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have also warned that allowing Turkey to go forward with a military operation will send a bad message about U.S. commitment to its allies.

But any bloodshed and damage a Turkish military operation against the Kurds in Syria will bring is not the only concern for the U.S.

Sunday’s announcement reportedly also goes against the recommendations of top U.S. officials in the Pentagon and the State Department.

Military officials have also argued that the U.S. needs the Kurdish forces to fight against an ISIS resurgence, as well as to guard the facilities where ISIS militants and their families are being held.

Those concerns were echoed in a series of tweets from the SDF on Sunday, where the group argued that a Turkish attack would “Reverse the successful effort to defeat #ISIS, where #SDF sacrificed 11K martyrs.”

The SDF also said that the move will lead to “The return of leaders of #ISIS” and that ISIS would break out the nearly 12,000 prisoners held by Kurdish forces.

A great number of prominent lawmakers, including some of Trump’s main allies, also responded to Trump, condemning the move.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wrote a laundry list of tweets Monday criticizing the move, calling it a “disaster in the making,” and claiming it “will be a stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds.”

“If this plan goes forward will introduce Senate resolution opposing and asking for reversal of this decision,”  he wrote. “Expect it will receive strong bipartisan support.”

“By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways,” he later added.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also responded while speaking Fox News.

“I want to make sure we keep our word for those who fight with us and help us,” he said. “If you make a commitment and somebody is fighting with you, America should keep their word.”

Speaker of the House Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also spoke out against the president’s efforts.

“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup,” he said in a statement. “American interests are best served by leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal.”

Trump Defends Himself

Trump still defended his decision on Twitter.

“When I arrived in Washington, ISIS was running rampant in the area. We quickly defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate,” he wrote, before going on to say that Europe has refused to take back captured ISIS fighters the U.S. is holding. “As usual, that the U.S. is always the “sucker,” on NATO, on Trade, on everything.”

 “The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades,” he continued. “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.”

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood,’” he added. “They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”

Withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria was a big campaign promise of Trump’s. In December 2018, the president made a sudden announcement that ISIS had been defeated and that he was withdrawing all military personnel from Syria.

That decision received significant backlash from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as military and foreign policy personnel in the Trump Administration. 

However both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence doubled-down on the claim that ISIS was defeated in the region, even after Islamic State agents took responsibility for a suicide bombing in January, that left 19 people, including four Americans, dead in a U.S.-controlled city in Syria.

Toward the end of February, the Trump administration made a significant reversal and announced that it would leave about 400 troops in the region. In early March, several members of Congress wrote Trump a letter urging him to keep troops in Syria. Trump responded to that letter, writing “I agree 100%” 

Now, the administration’s most recent decision seems to be a definitive shift towards troop removal, and critics of the plan appear to have similar precautions as last time Trump made a similar effort.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (Axios)

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Key Takeaways From Impeachment Testimony of Top U.S. Diplomat to Ukraine

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  • Testimony from William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, was released by the House on Wednesday.
  • In it, Taylor said it was his “clear understanding” that the Trump administration would not give Ukraine the nearly $400 of military aid already approved by Congress unless the country investigated Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden.
  • Taylor also detailed the role of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in crafting U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine in a way that was beneficial to Trump.
  • Many elements of Taylor’s testimony were corroborated by other testimonies from key witnesses also released publicly this week.

Taylor Testimony Released

The House Intelligence Committee publicly released the full transcript Wednesday of the testimony given by William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.

The career diplomat’s testimony joins the growing list of now-public transcripts from hearings with key witnesses in the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

The House also announced on Wednesday that it will begin public hearings next week. Taylor is expected to testify in the new wave of hearings, so the transcript of his closed-door testimony is likely to inform what he tells lawmakers next week.

Here are some key takeaways from the more than 300-page transcript of Taylor’s testimony.

Taylor Says “Clear Understanding” of Quid Pro Quo

Many of the most important excerpts from Taylor’s testimony centered around two key questions at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

The first question is: Did the Trump administration ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce that he would investigate Trump’s political opponent Joe Biden in exchange for a meeting with Trump at the White House?

And the second question is: Did the Trump administration withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in order to push Zelensky to investigate Biden?

Taylor addressed both of these questions in his opening statement, which was released a few weeks before the full transcript.

In the statement, Taylor said that U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland had told a top Zelensky aide “that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue” the investigation into Biden.

 “This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance — not just the White House meeting — was conditioned on the investigations,” Taylor said.

Arguably the most significant line from Taylor’s testimony was in response to a line of questions from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-NY), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Pointing to Taylor’s statement that the White House meeting was “conditioned on the investigations,” Schiff asked Taylor if he was explicitly saying that Ukraine would not get the meeting or the military aid if they did not announce the investigations.

“That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the President committed to pursue the investigation,” Taylor responded.

Taylor’s Military Aid Testimony Was Consistent With Others

Notably, Taylor’s testimony about military aid being used for leverage was also supported by several other testimonies released this week.

Taylor’s statement about Sondland and the fact that he was the one who told Zelensky’s aide that the military assistance would be conditioned on the investigation was also confirmed in a testimony by Tim Morrison.

Morrison, a former White House national security adviser, told lawmakers that he was present in the room when Sondland made that statement to Zelensky’s aide.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, also backed up the claim in his testimony.

“Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma,” Vindman said, referring to the Ukranian energy company Joe Biden’s son Hunter served on. “I stated to Amb. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate.”

Sondland had initially contradicted these accounts in his testimony, which was held before the others mentioned above.

But he later changed his testimony in a supplemental statement to the House, where he said Taylor and Morrison’s testimonies “refreshed my recollection about certain conversations.”

He went on to say that he now recalls a conversation on Sept. 1, 2019 with the same Zelensky aide the others referenced, and writing that during that conversation, “I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Giuliani Had a Huge Role

Another interesting comparison that can be drawn from Taylor and Sondland’s testimonies is the role of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

In his testimony, Sondland said that Trump had basically delegated Giuliani to lead the United States’ foreign policy in Ukraine and directed diplomats and others in the administration to talk to him.

“We were also disappointed by the President’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani,” he said. “Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the President’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine.” 

“However, based on the President’s direction we were faced with a choice,” he added, continuing to say that they chose to follow Trump’s directions and work with Giuliani.

While Sondland seemed clear that Giuliani was acting on Trump’s directions, Taylor was less sure.

In his opening statement, Taylor said that while it was clear to him the meeting between Trump and Zelensky was conditioned on the investigations: “It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”

When asked by Rep. Schiff, he later elaborated: “The irregular channel seemed to focus on specific issues, specific cases, rather than the regular channel’s focus on institution building. So the irregular channel, I think under the influence of Mr. Giuliani, wanted to focus on one or two specific cases, irrespective of whether it helped solve the corruption problem, fight the corruption problem.”

Schiff then asked Taylor if he believed Giuliani was doing that because he believed it would benefit his client, President Trump, Taylor replied, “That’s my understanding.”

However, when Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) asked Taylor if he believed the condition was coming from Trump, he said, “I think it was coming from Mr. Giuliani.”

Zeldin followed up asking “But not from the President?” to which Taylor responded, “I don’t know.”

See what others are saying: (Vox) (The Washington Post) (Axios)

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Key Diplomat in Impeachment Inquiry Changes Testimony to Say Quid Pro Quo Happened

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  • The House Intelligence Committee released several transcripts from testimonies in the impeachment inquiry on Monday, including one from U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, a key player in the investigation.
  • Sondland had originally testified that there was no explicit quid pro quo involving security assistance to Ukraine in exchange for the country announcing an investigation presidential presidential candidate Joe Biden, a political rival of President Trump.
  • But the now-released transcript shows that Sondland later changed his testimony in an amendment.
  • In the amendment, Sondland wrote that he told an aide to Ukrainian President Zelensky “that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Sondland Testimony Released

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the EU who is a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, changed his testimony to say that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine.

Sondland, generally considered a strong Trump ally, had previously denied that the U.S. withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Sondland was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint alongside the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that Volker and Sondland “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy.”

Sondland was also implicated in a set of text messages released by the House that involved key people organizing the call between President Donald Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the conversations that followed.

One of the most significant interactions from those texts was between Sondland and William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine where the two discussed the Trump administration’s decision to withhold aid.

During the conversation, Taylor texted Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Sondland responded to that concern, telling Taylor that Trump “has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”

“The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” he continued.

Sondland’s First Testimony

Sondland was supposed to testify on Oct. 8, but at the last minute, his testimony was blocked by the State Department. He ended up testifying about a week later.

Sondland initially told lawmakers that he knew Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had told Ukraine to announce an investigation into Biden in exchange for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky at the Oval Office.

However, he denied direct quid pro quo involving military aid, saying, “I do not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President’s 2020 re-election campaign.”

Sondland Changes Testimony

The now-released transcript shows that Sondland later went back and changed his testimony. 

In a supplemental statement, Sondland said that he remembered a conversation with a top Zelensky aide on Sept. 1, “where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Sondland’s amended testimony is significant for two main reasons. 

First, it shows a senior official who is a central figure in the impeachment inquiry directly saying that Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into his political rival. 

And second, Sondland changed his initial testimony after it was contradicted by testimonies from other top officials, and now his testimony matches up with theirs. 

Taylor and Morrison Contradict Sondland

One of the people that contradicted Sondland’s initial testimony was Taylor— the top diplomat to Ukraine who was implicated in the text messages.

In his testimony, Taylor said that Sondland told the same top Zelensky aide “that the security assistance money would not come until President Zelenskyy committed to pursue” the investigation into Biden.

Taylor also notably testified that Sondland later told him “that he now recognized that he had made a mistake by earlier telling the Ukrainian officials to whom he spoke that a White House meeting with President Zelensky was dependent on a public announcement of investigations — in fact, Ambassador Sondland said, ‘everything’ was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.”

Taylor’s testimony was also later confirmed in another testimony from Tim Morrison, a former White House national security adviser.

Sondland said in his revised statement that Taylor and Morrison’s testimonies prompted him to recall the series of events differently.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (The Washington Post) (Vox)

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Highlights From the 2019 Election

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  • Democrats took control of both Virginia’s state house and senate on Tuesday. With the party already holding the governor’s seat, this puts issues like minimum wage and gun control in the spotlight.
  • Democrats also saw a major win in Kentucky, taking the governor’s seat in a tight race with Andy Beshear beating incumbent Matt Bevin by less than a percent.
  • But Republicans did still snag a big win in Mississippi, with Republican Tate Reeves taking the governor seat. Experts say his win now makes the expansion of Medicaid unlikely in the state.

Virginia Goes Blue

Tuesday’s election led to a series of sweeping victories and flips for Democrats, as well as races where Republicans were able to hold onto their ground. 

In Virginia, Democrats took majority control of both the state’s house and senate which were formerly controlled by Republicans. The party how as 55-45 majority in the house, and a 21-19 majority in the senate. With their Governor Ralph Northam also a member of the Democratic party, for the first time in over two decades, the party is in control of this trifecta of their government. 

This could lead to major policy changes throughout the state that the GOP has long been rejecting. Over the summer, Northam announced plans for new gun control policies after a shooting in Virginia Beach left 12 dead. Republican lawmakers had no interest in the legislation, but now with Democrats in charge, it could see new life. 

State Democrats have also been fighting for a $15 minimum wage. Currently, Virginia follows the federally mandated wage of $7.25, so this would more than double the pay rate. In January, the state’s Senate voted against this increase, but a new door could open for it in the future. 

Other topics that could also now be visited include the Equal Rights Act, healthcare, and redistricting. 

Another notable blue moment for Virginia was Juli Briskman’s win. Briskman was a former government contractor who went viral in 2017 over a photo where she can be seen flipping off Trump’s motorcade while biking. 

She ended up losing her job over the matter, but Tuesday won a seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. According to the Associated Press, she beat the Republican incumbent with a lead of 52%.

Kentucky’s Governor Race

Another race getting national attention was the gubernatorial race in Kentucky. The state’s Democratic Attorney General, Andy Beshear challenged and defeated the incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin in a tight race. With 100% of precincts in, Beshear led with 49.2% while Bevin took home 48.8%. Just over 5,000 votes split the difference. Beshear claimed the victory, while Bevin has refused to concede.

The race between the two was always tight. One mid-October poll showed the two neck and neck, each with 46% of the vote. Just around a week after that poll, a new one gave Beshear the advantage of leading at 52-55%. Just days before the election, a separate poll gave Bevin a five-point lead. So, with tight fluctuating numbers, the results of this race were highly anticipated. 

In a Wednesday morning press conference, Beshear said it was time to go ahead with the transition.

“Last night, the election ended,” he said. “It ended and it’s time to move forward with a smooth transition that we are here to do so that we can do the people’s business.” 

President Donald Trump was very vocal about supporting Bevin and held a rally in Kentucky on Monday night. He implied that this election would be interpreted as a reflection of himself.

And if you lose, they’re going to say, ‘Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. This was the greatest.’ You can’t let that happen to me,” he told the crowd. 

When the results rolled in, Trump largely downplayed the loss to focus on other Republican victories in the state. He references a poll that indicated a 15 point lead, however, polling experts like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver have since indicated it was unreliable.

Trump also said that his rally helped the Republican party in the state and said this election boded well for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Republican Win in Mississippi

Over in Missippi, the closely watched gubernatorial race went to Republicans. Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, who had also been backed by Trump, beat the state’s Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.

While Mississippi is usually a reliably red state, Hood was considered a more moderate candidate and has been the Attorney General since 2004, winning four elections to do so.

Trump congratulated Reeves on Twitter, also noting a recent rally. 

As for what this means for the state of Mississippi, one of the most notable topics on the campaign was Medicaid, which Reeves is a vocal opponent of. So, this means the program is now unlikely to expand in Mississippi.

See what others are saying: (FiveThirtyEight) (Fox News) (Associated Press)

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