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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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Trump Extends Social Distancing Guidelines to April 30, Says He’ll Rely On Health Experts

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  • The Trump Administration is extending social distancing guidelines to April 30, President Donald Trump announced from the White House Rose Garden on Sunday.
  • The announcement comes a week after Trump announced that he wanted to reopen the country by April 12; now, he says that date will likely be around the peak of deaths in the United States. 
  • Earlier in the day, Doctor Anthony Fauci said that a potential 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die of the coronavirus.
  • Trump then said while that number is “horrible,” if his Administration can ensure that number doesn’t reach the millions, it will “altogether have done a very good job.”

Trump Extends Social Distancing Guidelines to April 30

As President Donald Trump’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” social distancing guidelines were set to expire, Trump announced on Sunday that he would be extending those guidelines until April 30.

Trump’s announcement from the White House Rose Garden comes after Trump last week said he wants to see a significant portion of the country return by Easter (April 12). As of yesterday, Trump now says the death rate is expected to peak in two weeks., or right around the Easter holiday.

“The modeling estimates that the peak in death rate is likely to hit in two weeks,” he said, “so, I’ll say it again: the peak, the highest point of death rates—remember this—is likely to hit in two weeks. Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all.”

Trump’s announcement also comes after he sent a letter to governors on Thursday in which he announced he would be releasing new social distancing guidelines. Notably, in that letter, he said, “We will suggest guidelines categorizing counties as high-risk, medium-risk, or low-risk.” 

Trump said those classifications could help states make decisions about “maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures.”

Trump’s comments and actions last week worried many public health experts, who argued that returning to normal by April 12th wasn’t feasible. Even one of Trump’s top medical advisors, Doctor Anthony Fauci, tried to walk back Trump’s Easter’s timeline by saying that Trump was “flexible” on that date. 

Despite criticism and concern, Trump had said he would consult with his Administration’s medical experts. On Sunday, Fauci said he and Coronavirus Task Force Doctor Deborah Birx originally approached Trump and asked for the deadline extension. Reportedly, they told Trump that if those guidelines expired, even more people would die.

“I guess we got to do it,” Fauci said Trump told him and Birx after looking over the data. 

Fauci Says Coronavirus Could Kill 100K-200K Americans

Earlier in the day, Fauci spoke with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the union. In that interview, Fauci warned that the outbreak is likely to keep pushing hospitals to their limit.

Tapper also asked Fauci how many millions of people he expects to contract the virus, and while Fauci gave his current predictions, he also warned against making such predictions because of how easily they could change. 

“I’ve never seen a model of the diseases that I’ve dealt with in which the worst-case scenario actually came out,” Fauci said. “They always overshoot, so when you use numbers like a million, a million and a half, two million, that almost certainly is off the chart. Now, it’s not impossible, but very, very unlikely. So it’s difficult to present.”

“I mean, looking at what we’re seeing now, you know, I would say between 100- and 200,000 cases,” he continued, “but I don’t want to be held to that… We’re going to have millions of cases, but I just don’t think that we really need to make a projection when it’s such a moving target that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people.” 

At his announcement yesterday, Trump then referred to those numbers, mentioning the prediction that 1.6 to 2.2 million people could die if there were no intervention efforts at all.

“Think of the number, potentially 2.2 million people if we did nothing,” Trump said. “If we didn’t do the distancing, if we didn’t do all of the things that we’re doing.” 

Trump then called the current prediction of even 100,000 deaths “horrible” but said, if the death count stays between 100,000 to 200,000 people, “we altogether have done a very good job.” 

When Will the Outbreak Ease?

At his announcement, there was concern that Trump might try to continue to push potentially easing restrictions by region or by county. After being asked by a reporter if he would do this, Trump said no, saying that it wouldn’t be good and that he was listening to Fauci and Birx, who weren’t comfortable with the idea. 

Prompted by another question, Trump called his original goal of Easter “aspirational.”He did, however, give a bit of a timeline as to when he thinks the coronavirus outbreak could die down.

“We can expect that by June 1, we will be well on our way to recovery,” he said. “A lot of great things will be happening.”

Monday morning, Trump continued to reinforce the idea that he will be listening to health experts like Fauci and Birx.

“I’ll use my head and I’ll make a decision but I’m going to rely on experts,” he said on Fox & Friends. “Anthony and Deborah have been doing this for many years, and I’m going to rely on them.”

Also Monday morning, Dr. Birx spoke with NBC, where she explained more of the basis for that 100- to 200,000 deaths prediction

“If we do things together well, almost perfectly, we could get in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities. We don’t even want that,” she said.

“The best-case scenario would be 100 percent of Americans doing precisely what is required,” she added, “but we’re not sure… that all of America is responding in a uniform way to protect one another, so we also have to factor that in.” 

Regarding when the outbreak may begin to die down, Birx said that is still too early to know. She said health experts must still wait for more data to come in, also saying that she and others would be looking at that data over the next month to try to answer that question.

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NPR) (NBC News)

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Senate Democrats and Republicans Reach Agreement With White House on $2 Trillion Stimulus Package

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  • After a long day of talks, Senate Democrats and Republicans reached an agreement with the White House on a stimulus package that would now cost the government $2 trillion.
  • On Monday, Democrats shot down a stimulus package designed by Republicans and the White House.
  • The revised package would include an increase in unemployment pay as well as an extension to unemployment insurance.
  • It would also provide $500 billion to companies but would bar President Donald Trump, White House officials, and Congress from taking out loans for their businesses.

Senate Leaders and the White House Reach a Deal

After long talks and worries that lawmakers would go home empty-handed Tuesday, Senate Democrats finally reached a historic $2 trillion stimulus package with Senate Republicans and the Trump Administration around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The agreement, which comes after Senate Democrats blocked a different version of the bill on Monday, includes several noticeable differences.

While Republicans had sought to extend unemployment insurance for up to three months, Democrats convinced them to extend that program for up to four months. Additionally, the bill would reportedly expand eligibility to cover more people, including gig economy workers. 

People eligible for benefits will also see an additional $600 each week from the federal government, on top of their state benefits. On average, people receive $385 in state benefits each week while on unemployment.

The bill also includes $150 billion to hospitals and other health-care providers for equipment and supplies. According to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the bill will also increase Medicare payments to all hospitals and providers.

As for direct checks, that breakdown remains unchanged. Adults making under $75,000 would receive two $1,200 checks and two $500 checks for each child. The first of those payments would go out on April 6.

People making above $75,000 would see a dip in that assistance, with payments phasing out altogether for people making more than $99,000 a year. 

Trump and Congress Can’t Benefit From Business Loans

The bill also provides loan options for both small and large businesses. 

Small businesses would receive more than $350 in aid. Notably, those loans would be federally guaranteed as long as a small business pledges not to lay off workers. If an employer continues to pay workers for the duration of the crisis, those loans would then be forgiven.

Big businesses would still receive about $500 billion to be used as back loans and assistance, a provision that originally led Democrats to vote down the previous version of the bill on Monday. 

However, this bill also contains a few key limitations.

The most buzzworthy is that Democrats won language barring any business owned by President Trump from applying for those loans. That includes both Trump hotels and Mar-a-lago. Democrats sought such a measure because of their concern that Trump might try to use this bill to help his businesses, especially since many of them are connected to the travel industry.

Because they barred Trump, the bill also went a step further by also barring White House officials as well as any member of Congress. 

Another limitation is that if a company does take out a loan, it will then be subject to a ban on stock buybacks through the term of the loan and for one year after. 

Republicans also agreed to allow for an oversight board and to create a Treasury Department special inspector general for pandemic recovery. That is largely an attempt by the Democrats to ensure companies limit executive bonuses as well as take steps to protect workers.

Will the Bill Help the Economy and Will It Pass?

As far as if this bill actually will help the economy, that’s still unclear. With an economy that is slowing down every day and with stocks plunging over the last month, there is worry that it may not do enough; however, with more of the details of this package, stocks did see an uptick Tuesday morning. 

Still, Congress is trying to move this bill into law as soon as possible. Reportedly, they’re rushing it through without public hearings or a formal review of the full bill.

If it passes through the Senate as expected, then it moves to the House of Representatives. Here, things could get a little trickier.

“This bipartisan legislation takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday. “House Democrats will now review the final provisions and legislative text of the agreement to determine a course of action.”

While Pelosi did say that the bill meets some of Democrats’ demands, she didn’t say how the House would vote. On Tuesday, as the agreement was being discussed among Senators and the White House, Pelosi said on CNBC that she hoped the House would pass it with unanimous consent.

While lawmakers are under extreme pressure to get a bill like this passed, unanimous consent may be a tall order for a $2 trillion bill that covers every aspect of the U.S. economy, especially because while the details of the bill have been released, the full document is still under wraps.

Because of that, it’s very possible that some lawmakers might hold off on passing the bill until a formal vote is held, and there have already been some concerns from both sides of the aisle.

If unanimous consent isn’t possible, some version—possibly a very similar version—of this bill will likely get passed; however, taking a formal vote could extend this process by several days. This is because representatives will likely be encouraged to wait an extended amount of time between their trips to the floor to vote.

From there, a couple things could happen. The House could pass a slightly different version. The House and the Senate would then need to hash out those details.

Or, the House could pass the legislation as is and go directly to Trump, who Mnuchin said would “absolutely, absolutely, absolutely” sign the bill.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Los Angeles Times) (CNN)

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Trump Wants to Reopen the Economy by Easter, Experts Say It’s a Bad Idea

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  • President Trump indicated that he would like to reopen the economy by April 12, despite objections from public health experts who say doing so would make the coronavirus pandemic worse.
  • Speaking at a press conference, the president said that keeping the economy closed will create “far bigger problems,” and claimed that more people will die from job losses than the coronavirus.
  • Meanwhile, cases continue to grow at a rapid pace in the U.S., which reported more than 100 deaths in a single day for the first time Monday.

Trump’s Economic Priorities

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he wants to ease coronavirus restrictions and reopen the economy by April 12, despite objections from public health experts.

“I would love to have the country opened up and raring to go by Easter,” Trump said during an interview with Fox News.

The president had previously indicated that he wanted to pull Americans out of recommended isolation and put them back to work sooner rather than later during a press conference the day before.

“America will again, and soon, be open for business — very soon — a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting,” he said.

“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem,” Trump continued. “We have to open our country, because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems.” 

Trump said that he would wait until the 15-day period of recommended closures and self-isolation expires on March 30, and then reassess whether or not restrictions should be lifted and people should be sent back to work. 

But when asked if any of the doctors on his team told him reopening the economy is the right move at this juncture, the president seemed to indicate that the medical experts should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Don’t forget, the doctors — if it were up to the doctors, they may say, ‘Let’s keep it shut down. Let’s shut down the entire world,’” he said.

When pushed on the question, Trump reiterated that keeping things shut down could create worse problems for the U.S. because of the size of the country’s economy and workforce.

“You have 160 — almost 160 million jobs in this country now — the most ever, by far,” he said. “So we can’t turn that off and think it’s going to be wonderful. There’ll be tremendous repercussions. There will be a tremendous death from that. Death. You know, you’re talking about death. Probably more death from that than anything that we’re talking about with respect to the virus.” 

Cases in America Grow

While the president may believe that job losses will cause more deaths than the coronavirus pandemic, health experts say otherwise.

The vast majority of doctors and other medical experts say sending people back to work is the opposite of what the U.S. should be doing. 

Despite what Trump may be telling the public, there is broad consensus that if the economy is reopened and people are forced to stop practicing social distancing, the coronavirus will continue to spread and there will be more deaths.

Trump’s remarks are especially concerning right now, as cases in the U.S. continue to grow rapidly. On Tuesday morning, the U.S. reported a total of 46,548 confirmed cases and 592 deaths— a significant jump in the death toll from just 24 hours prior. 

In fact, on Monday, the U.S. reported more than 100 deaths in one day, marking the highest number of deaths reported in a single day in the country since the coronavirus pandemic started.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said that the U.S. has the potential to become the next epicenter of the disease due to the “very large acceleration” in cases in the states.

Experts Object

But most health officials knew that the situation would get worse before it got better, including those on Trump’s team and in his administration. A majority of experts believe that the U.S. has not hit its peak yet.

The countries that are scaling back their restrictions are doing so because they have reported consistent decreases in numbers— but the U.S. is reporting consistent increases. As a result, the U.S. needs to be ramping up restrictions, not scaling them back.

And when it comes to the economy, many economists believe that pushing to reopen at the risk of spreading the virus more will actually be worse. The move, they argue, could overwhelm the already overburdened health care system, create uncertainty for customers, and do more long-term damage.

“If you don’t flatten the curve and minimize those who are getting infected, the amount of sickness will cripple business,” said John Auerbach, the president of the nonpartisan group the Trust for America’s Health.

Even some of Trump’s biggest allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) agree.

“Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all,” Graham tweeted Monday. “There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.”

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

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