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Top Diplomat Blocked From Testifying in Impeachment Inquiry

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  • U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland was barred from giving a scheduled testimony before Congress regarding President Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Zelensky and other matters involving the impeachment inquiry.
  • Sondland was revealed to be a key organizer of the call with Zelensky in a series of released text messages between U.S. diplomats, Rudy Giuliani, and a top Zelensky aide.
  • Democrats have accused Secretary of State Pompeo, who recently revealed he was on the July call, of obstructing the inquiry by preventing witnesses in the State Department from testifying before Congress.

Sondland Barred From Testimony

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a key figure in the impeachment inquiry, was blocked by the Trump administration from giving a planned testimony before Congress in a last-minute move Tuesday.

“Early this morning, the U.S. Department of State directed Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to appear today for his scheduled transcribed interview before the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee,” the law firm that represents Sondland said in a statement hours before his deposition.

“Ambassador Sondland had previously agreed to appear voluntarily today, without the need for a subpoena, in order to answer the Committee’s questions on an expedited basis,” the statement continued.

“As the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the Department’s direction.”

The administration’s efforts to bar Sondland’s testimony angered Democrats, who have sparred with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over his attempts to prevent State Department officials from testifying in the ongoing impeachment investigations into President Donald Trump.

The Democrats impeachment inquiry centers around a whistleblower complaint that claims Trump pressured Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his 2020 opponent Joe Biden during a July phone call.

Democrats also are looking into whether or not Trump decided to withhold nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine so he could have leverage over Zelensky.

Pompeo Blocks Testimonies

On Sept. 27, Congress sent Pompeo a letter informing him of the dates they had scheduled testimonies from State Department officials.

Pompeo responded by writing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee accusing Democrats of “an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly” State Department officials.

Several representatives chairing the committees leading the impeachment inquiry responded in a letter shortly after. In the letter, the members noted that there were reports that Pompeo had been on the Ukraine call, and as a result, had a conflict of interest.

“Any effort by the Secretary of the Department to intimidate or prevent witnesses from testifying or withhold documents from the Committees shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry,” the chairs wrote. Obstructing an impeachment inquiry is an impeachable offense.

A few days later Pompeo confirmed for the first time that he was on the July call with Zelensky.

On Oct. 6, Pompeo said that the Department of State will follow the law in the impeachment investigation. But Democrats seem skeptical.

Following the news that Sondland’s testimony had been blocked, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that House Democrats are seeking “additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress.”

On the other side, some Republicans defended the move.

“The way [Schiff] treated Volker last week, that treatment is the reason why the State Department and the White House said we’re not going to subject Ambassador Sondland to the same treatment,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters Tuesday, referring to the testimony of the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

Trump also appeared to justify his administration’s efforts on Twitter Tuesday morning. 

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public,” he wrote.

Volker Testimony and Text Messages

In addition to upsetting Democrats, the administration’s endeavor to bar Sondland’s testimony will likely have major repercussions, especially because of Sondland’s role in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and Zelensky.

Before serving as the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Sondland was a major donor to Trump and reportedly donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Sondland was appointed to his position back in March 2018, despite the fact that he appears to have no official political or diplomatic experience.

Sondland was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint alongside 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.”

The complaint also notes that the two men, along with other State Department officials, “had spoken with Mr. Giuliani in an attempt to ‘contain the damage’ to U.S. national security”

Volker testified behind closed doors on Thursday. Later that night, the House released a set of text messages between Volker, Sondland, and other officials including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a top aide to Zelensky named Andrey Yermak, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.

In one of the exchanges between Sondland and Volker from July 19, a few days before Trump’s call with Zelensky, Volker texted Sondland about plans for the call. 

“Most [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation—and address any specific personnel issues—if there are any,” he wrote.

In another text preparing for the call two days after that, Taylor noted that Zelensky “is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”

To which Sondland responded, “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.” 

Then, on July 25, the morning of the call, Volker texted Yermak, “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck!”

Skipping ahead a month to Aug. 28, Yermak texted Volker a news story titled “Trump Holds Up Ukraine Military Aid Meant to Confront Russia” and said “we need to talk.”

A few days later on Sept. 1, Taylor pressed Sondland on the aid to Ukraine. 

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked. Sondland responded by asking Taylor to call him.

After that, the conversations started to shift heavily towards the decision to withhold aid. In a Sept. 9 text, Taylor expressed doubt about the plan in his messages to Sondland.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote. 

“I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland responded. “The President 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.”

House Democrats said Tuesday they plan on issuing a subpoena for Sondland’s testimony.

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

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House To Send Impeachment Article Monday, Starting Impeachment Trial Process

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  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the House will send the impeachment article against former President Donald Trump to the Senate on Monday, triggering the start of the impeachment trial process.
  • The news comes one day after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell requested that the trial be delayed until mid-February so that Trump’s legal team could have two weeks to prepare.
  • The senators could still come to their own agreement to delay the start of oral arguments and give Trump’s team more time to file pretrial briefs. 
  • Some Democrats have signaled support for this move because it would give them extra time to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominations before the trial starts.

Pelosi To Send Impeachment Article

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Wednesday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) will send the impeachment article against former President Donald Trump to the Senate on Monday.

The move will officially trigger the start of the impeachment trial process. The announcement comes one day after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) requested that the trial be delayed until mid-February so that Trump’s legal team could have two weeks to prepare.

Despite Pelosi’s decision, the senators still could come to their own agreement to start the ceremonial proceedings but delay the start of oral arguments and give Trump’s team more time to file pretrial briefs.

In fact, Democrats, who have been pushing for a schedule that would allow them to still confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees before the trial proceedings start each day, have signaled that they might not oppose a delay because it would give them extra time for confirmations.

During his announcement this morning, Schumer indicated that the details were still being hashed out.

“I’ve been speaking to the Republican leader about the timing and duration of the trial,” he said. “But make no mistake a trial will be held in the United States Senate and there will be a vote on whether to convict the president.” 

McConnell, for his part, responded by reiterating that his party will continue to press for Trump’s team to be given enough time.

“This impeachment began with an unprecedentedly fast and minimal process over in the House,” he said. “Senate Republicans strongly believe we need a full and fair process where the former president can mount a defense.”

While the leaders may not have worked out the particulars yet, according to reports, both parties have already agreed that this trial will be shorter than Trump’s first impeachment, which lasted three weeks.

Implications for Power-Sharing Deal

The new impeachment trial deadline could also speed up the currently stalled negotiations between Schumer and McConnell regarding how power will be shared in a Senate with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats effectively control the Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris will be the deciding vote, but she cannot always be there to resolve every dispute.

As a result, McConnell and Schumer have been working to come up with a power-sharing deal for day to day operations, similar to one that was struck in 2001 the last time the Senate was split 50-50. However, those negotiations have hit a roadblock: the legislative filibuster.

The filibuster is the long-standing Senate rule that requires a supermajority of at least 60 senators to vote to end debate on a given piece of legislation before moving to a full floor vote. Technically, all 50 Democrats and Vice President Harris could agree to change the rule to just require a simple majority to legislation advance, or what’s known as the “nuclear option.”

That move, in effect, would allow them to get through controversial legislation without any bipartisan support, as long as every Democrat stays within party lines. Many more progressive Democrats have pushed for this move, arguing that the filibuster stands in the way of many of their and Biden’s top priorities.

Given this possibility, McConnell has demanded that Democrats agree to protect the filibuster and promise not to pursue the nuclear option as part of the power-sharing deal. 

But top Democrats have rejected that demand, with many arguing that having the threat of filibuster is necessary to get Republicans to compromise.

In other words: if Republicans fear that Democrats will “go nuclear,” they will be more likely to agree to certain bills and measures to avoid that.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Politico) (The Wall Street Journal)

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Biden Signs 17 Executive Order During His First Day in Office. Here’s What You Need to Know

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  • In the first hours of his presidency, Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders and proclamations, many of which focused on rolling back Trump administration policies regarding immigration, the environment, and protections for minority groups.
  • Biden also implemented several measures to tackle the coronavirus, including requiring masks to be worn on federal property and by federal employees. He is also expected to announce a new national strategy aimed at restructuring the federal response to the pandemic.
  • On Thursday, Biden will also invoke the Defense Production Act, which would speed up the development and distribution of vaccine-related equipment.

Biden Rolls Back Trump Policies

President Joe Biden signed 17 executive actions and proclamations Wednesday afternoon. Many of his first acts in office are focused on rolling back several policies implemented by former President Donald Trump that Biden’s aides said have caused the “greatest damage” to the country.

“I thought there’s no time to wait, get to work immediately,” Biden told reporters present during the signed of several of the orders. 

Here is a breakdown of some of the key measures Biden implemented.

Immigration

Biden immediately ended all construction on the border wall by overhauling the national emergency declaration Trump had enacted to divert billions in federal funds to his central campaign promise.

The new president also expanded protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) and overturned a Trump policy that made immigration enforcement more strict and

In similar actions, he also ended the travel ban on multiple Muslim-majority countries and revoked a Trump administration order that would have excluded non-citizens from the 2020 Census count.

The Environment

One of the most significant actions Biden took was signing a letter to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. It will take 30 days for the return to go into effect.

The president also issued a sweeping order that reversed a number of the Trump administration’s environmental policies, including revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, re-establishing a working group to look into the social costs of greenhouse gasses, and temporarily banning oil and natural gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Justice for Minority Groups

In one far-reaching order, Biden directed all federal agencies to review equity in their programs and policies. They are required to issue a report within 200 days that, among other things, details how each will remove barriers to opportunities and ensure all Americans have equal access to federal resources.

Biden also ended Trump’s policy that limited federal agencies, contractors, and other organizations from holding diversity and inclusion training. The same order also disbanded the 1776 Commission created by Trump to study his claims that the education system was too liberal in its teaching of American history.

In a separate order, the president issued changes that will broaden federal protections against sex discrimination to include LGBTQ+ Americans, reversing a previous action by Trump.

Government Accountability

As part of a broad measure aimed at general accountability in the executive branch, Biden issued an order that will establish ethics rules for all people in his administration. The same order will also require all executive branch appointees to sign an ethics pledge. 

Separately, the president additionally froze all new regulations Trump had put in place during his last few weeks in office until they can be further evaluated.

Economy and Coronavirus

Chief among Biden’s first acts in office were his plans for the coronavirus pandemic and the damage it has caused to the American people.

In terms of financial relief, Biden extended the ban on evictions and foreclosures and paused student loan payments until September.

As for direct actions concerning the pandemic, the president imposed a mask mandate for all federal employees and anyone on federal property. He also signed an extensive order aimed at restructuring the federal response to the pandemic.

Biden is expected to enact more policies in regards to the coronavirus in the coming days, including taking more executive actions to ramp up testing and vaccine distribution, safely reopening schools and businesses, and provide more money to states to help carry out those efforts, among other things.

To achieve these goals, he will also invoke the Defense Production Act, which will compel American companies to manufacture supplies for the pandemic response such as PPE and other items needed for vaccines.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (ABC News) (The Washington Post)

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U.S. To Join WHO-led Vaccine Distribution Plan as Biden Implements a Flurry of COVID-19 Executive Orders

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  • Dr. Anthony Fauci indicated Thursday that President Joe Biden will join COVAX, a World Health Organization-led COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.
  • Fauci’s announcement comes one day after Biden signed an executive order reversing former President Donald Trump’s plan to remove the United States from the WHO. 
  • Among other orders, Biden plans to implement a mask mandate for airports, planes, trains, and other forms of interstate travel. He has already ordered masks to be worn on all federal property. 
  • Biden is also expected to invoke the Defense Production Act on Thursday, which would speed up the development and distribution of vaccine-related equipment.

U.S. To Join COVAX

Just one day after President Joe Biden signed an order to keep the United States in the World Health Organization, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the country will join its global COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.

That plan, COVAX, is a collaborative effort between 92 countries to ensure that COVID vaccines aren’t only distributed in wealthy countries.

The idea behind the plan is that establishing a global herd immunity will be much more effective at curbing the spread of the virus than just establishing herd immunity in countries that can afford to buy large quantities of the vaccine, especially when international travel picks back up. 

The plan is not without its shortcomings. Earlier this week, the WHO stated that some countries participating in COVAX have been disregarding the plan and buying large quantities of vaccines for themselves.

Nonetheless, in a video conference call Thursday morning with the WHO’s executive board, Fauci — now chief medical advisor to the president — said the Biden administration believes it can inoculate every American while also helping people in other countries.

Biden’s plan to join COVAX is a stark contrast from the Trump administration, which refused to participate in the program. 

Fauci said Biden will issue the directive to join COVAX later Thursday. 

Additionally, Fauci noted that the U.S. once again “intends to fulfill its financial obligations” to the WHO. 

In his attempt to leave the organization, Trump cut off payments from the U.S.; however, his administration never got the chance to fully cut ties with the organization because the U.S. wasn’t scheduled to officially leave until July of this year. 

Biden Signs Mask Mandate, Other Orders To Come

Among other COVID-related executive orders signed Wednesday, Biden implemented a national mask mandate for people on federal property. 

Sometime Thursday, Biden is also expected to sign another order requiring masks to be worn in airports, as well as on airplanes, trains, and other interstate transit systems.

Also on Thursday, Biden is also expected to sign an order that will establish a COVID-19 testing board. Once implemented, the board will be responsible for increasing testing rates, addressing supply shortfalls, and determining the rules and regulations for international travelers coming into the U.S. It will also have the power to distribute resources to minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

On top of that, Biden plans to sign an order that will direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse states and Native American tribes for their emergency response efforts. Notably, those reimbursements include costs related to reopening schools.

Finally, Biden is expected to invoke the Defense Production Act on Thursday. Such a move would speed up the production of masks and other equipment needed to help administer vaccines.  

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (Reuters) (CNBC)

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