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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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World Health Organization Defends Its Relationship With China After Trump Threatens to Cut Funding

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  • President Trump announced Tuesday that he would cut funding to the World Health Organization; however, minutes later, he backtracked and said he was only considering cutting those funds. 
  • Trump criticized the W.H.O. for being “China-centric,” a criticism it has also faced from other Republican lawmakers over the course of the pandemic.
  • The W.H.O. responded Wednesday by defending its relationship with China and by urging the United States not to cut funding.
  • Loss of funding from the U.S. could cut deep, as that funding makes up 14% of the W.H.O.’s budget.

Trump Says The U.S. Is Looking at Cutting Funding to W.H.O.

President Donald Trump announced he would be cutting United States funding to the World Health Organization at a Tuesday coronavirus press briefing. However, a little more than 15 minutes later, he backtracked and said he was only considering cutting that funding.

“We’re going to put a hold on money spent to the W.H.O.,” he originally said.

“We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it and we’re going to see. It’s a great thing if it works but when they call every shot wrong, that’s no good. They called it wrong. They call it wrong. They really, they missed the call.” 

“So quick follow-up on that,” a reporter asked him later. “Is the time to freeze funding to the WHO during a pandemic?”

“Well, maybe not,” he said. “I’m not saying that I’m going to do it. But we’re going to look at it.”

A different reporter then pressed Trump by saying he had said funding would be cut. 

“No, I didn’t,” Trump said. “I said we’re going to look at it. We’re going to investigate it. We’re going to look at it, but we will look at ending funding, yeah.”

While, currently, no decision has been reached on whether or not to defund the W.H.O. on the U.S. side, if the country were to pull the plug, it could be a deep cut for the organization. The U.S. is the W.H.O.’s biggest donor, and according to its website, U.S. contributions make up 14% of the W.H.O.’s budget.

On top of that, Trump had already previously requested that Congress slash the country’s W.H.O. contribution from $122 to $58 million for the fiscal year in 2021. 

Trump Calls the W.H.O. “China-centric”

Part of the reason why Trump has threatened to cut the W.H.O.’s funding is because of the organization’s relationship with China and its opposition to Trump restricting travel with China back at the end of January.

“They actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it,” Trump said Tuesday. “And they were wrong. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things. They had a lot of information very early and they didn’t to want to — they seemed to be very “China-centric.” 

“They called it wrong,” he added. “They called it wrong. They really, they missed the call. They could have called it months earlier. They would have known, and should have known, and they probably did know.” 

In January, the W.H.O., cited evidence that it said “[showed] that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.”

“In fact, we oppose it,” W.H.O. Director General Tedros Adhanom said. 

On February 11th, the W.H.O did partially revise its stance on travel restrictions, saying that such restrictions “…may have a public health rationale at the beginning of the containment phase of an outbreak, as they may allow affected countries to implement sustained response measures, and non-affected countries to gain time to initiate and implement effective preparedness measures. Such restrictions, however, need to be short in duration, proportionate to the public health risks, and be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves.” 

Of course, U.S. travel restrictions haven’t been short. In fact, they’ve been in place for over two months now. That ban was also imposed well into the outbreak only after China had already reported thousands of cases.

Other public health experts have also argued that travel bans require strenuous amounts  of government resources and that there are more effective ways of fighting the spread of the virus, including measures like comprehensive testing.

However, some experts have praised Trump for closing the borders between the U.S. and China. That includes one of the lead members of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“One of the things that we did very early and very aggressively, the president put the travel restriction coming from China to the United States and most recently from Europe to the United States because Europe is really the new China,” Dr. Fauci said in a March 22 interview with CBS’ Face the Nation. 

Other Lawmakers Criticize the W.H.O. for Inaction Against China

Trump’s potential cut to the W.H.O. is just the latest in a series of criticism from Republican lawmakers. 

Monday night on Fox News, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) accused the W.H.O. of bending the knee to China, pointing to several instances including a January 14th tweet from the W.H.O. Notably, that tweet referenced a preliminary investigation from Chinese authorities who said there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.”

That statement has since been proven false. 

In that interview, Scott also mentioned that he had asked the W.H.O to investigate China but the organization turned him down.

“If they had done their job,” he said, “everybody would have gotten more ready. We wouldn’t have shut down this economy, and we wouldn’t have all these people dead all over the world.”

Scott then went on to say Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-WI) had agreed to investigate the W.H.O’s response.

Last week, Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) called for Adhanom to step down from the W.H.O. because, according to McSally, he’s assisting China in covering up underreporting.

W.H.O. Defends Its Relationship With China

The W.H.O. responded directly to Trump’s potential funding cut Tuesday morning. Its regional director for Europe said, “We are still in the acute phase of a pandemic so now is not the time to cut back on funding.”

Senior adviser to Adhanom, Bruce Aylward, also defended the organization’s relationship with China, saying, “It was absolutely critical in the early part of this outbreak to have full access to everything possible, to get on the ground and work with the Chinese to understand this.” 

“This is what we did with every other hard hit country like Spain and had nothing to do with China specifically,” Aylward added.

Aylward also defended the W.H.O.’s January recommendation to keep borders open, saying that Beijing had worked hard to identify and detect early cases and their contacts, ensuring they didn’t travel.

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (The New York Post) (CNBC)

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Court Decisions Force Wisconsin to Hold Primary During Pandemic. Here’s What You Need to Know

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  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state must hold its primary Tuesday, overruling Gov. Tony Evers executive order to postpone the election.
  • Separately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a lower ruling that would have let absentee ballots be cast until April 13.
  • Both decisions were the results of legal challenges from the GOP-led legislature, which refused to delay the election or allow for full mail-in voting and also objected to extending absentee voting.
  • Wisconsin is now the only state to hold a major in-person election since shelter-in-place orders have been implemented all over the country.

Wisconsin’s Legal Battle

After a dizzying legal back-and-forth, Wisconsin held its primary election Tuesday despite warnings from public health experts about gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin is now the only state to hold a major in-person election since it and the majority of other states issued shelter in place orders. More than a dozen other states postponed their primaries in response to the outbreak, making Wisconsin the only state to hold in-person elections in April.

That, however, is not for lack of trying on the part of Gov. Tony Evers. On Monday, Evers issued an executive order delaying the election until June 9.

According to reports, Evers held off on the move until the last minute because many local offices on the ballot start their terms in April, and Wisconsin state law says only the state legislature can change the date of the election. 

But the GOP-led legislature refused to change the date or allow the election to go forward with all mail-in ballots. When Evers went ahead with the executive order, the state legislature filed a legal challenge, saying the governor was exceeding his constitutional authority.

Shortly after, a conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court shot down the order, ruling that the election had to go forward on Tuesday.

In a separate ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal court decision that would have extended absentee voting until April 13. The lower court’s decision had also received a legal challenge from the state’s Republicans.

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that extending the deadline for absentee voting “fundamentally alters the nature of the election.”

All four of the liberal justices dissented. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a scathing review of the decision.

“The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic,” she wrote.

“With the majority’s stay in place, that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own.”

Poll Workers and Condensed Locations

Similarly, there were also many concerns about the safety of poll workers and election officials as well.

While officials said they were taking precautions to protect their health at voting precincts, many also told reporters that all the legal back-and-forth created confusion and logistical problems.

That was made worse by the fact that thousands of poll workers said they will not work, with some reportedly saying they were being asked to risk their health.

According to the New York Times, “roughly 2,400 National Guardsmen were being trained as poll workers as late as Monday, it still won’t come close to the more than 7,000 who have already said they cannot work.”

The lack of poll workers has also prompted officials to shut down hundreds of polling stations. One of the most dramatic examples was in Milwaulkee, where the number of polling locations was cut from 180 to just five, despite the fact that election workers expected more than 50,000 voters to turn out.

The move forced those who did decide to vote in-person to wait in long lines and further risk exposing themselves to more people.

 Response

Many people took to Twitter to share videos of lines wrapping around buildings or spanning whole blocks.

A number of users argued that holding in-person voting during a pandemic was undemocratic or amounted to voter suppression.

Some directly accused the state’s Republicans of endangering their people, while others also condemned the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Many of those points were echoed by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“It’s outrageous that the Republican legislative leaders and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in Wisconsin are willing to risk the health and safety of many thousands of Wisconsin voters tomorrow for their own political gain,” he wrote on Twitter.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has not said much since the decision, but on Thursday, he took a different stance.

“There’s a lot of things that can be done; that’s for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide,” he told reporters, adding that both in-person and mail-in voting could be done safely.

However, there were some who applauded the decision to keep in-person voting. 

Others appeared to downplay the move, like one Republican county chair, Jim Miller of Sawyer County, who said the voting process would be like picking up food under Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order.

“If you can go out and get fast food, you can go vote curbside,” he said. “It’s the same procedure.”

President Donald Trump, for his part, also chimed in Tuesday morning, encouraging people to go out and vote for a conservative state Supreme Court justice who supported the Second Amendment.

What’s Next?

Currently, it is unclear how voter turnout has been impacted. As for the election results, those are not to be expected for several more days.

The federal judge that initially allowed absentee ballots to be sent until April 13 also ruled that election officials had to hold results until that same date. According to reports, the U.S. Supreme Court decision does not seem to have changed that.

That said, Biden has been pulling out a strong lead over Sanders in Wisconsin’s polls for a while now. FiveThirtyEight predicts that the former vice president has a 90% chance of winning the most votes.

Wisconsin will likely be crucial to the future of Sanders’ campaign. In 2016, Sanders won the state, which has 84 pledged delegates up for grabs.

Wisconsin is also a key battleground state. Trump won the state in the general election in 2016, turning it red for the first time in 30 years.

Besides being an important state in both the primary and general, Wisconsin also has much bigger implications for both parties.

“The state stands as a first test case in what both national parties expect to be a protracted fight over changing voter rules to contend with the pandemic — potentially the biggest voting rights battle since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” the Times explains.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The New York Times) (Fox News)

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FLOTUS Calls for Public to Take Cloth Mask Advice Seriously, President Chooses to Go Without

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  • The CDC has recommended that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. 
  • The advice is aimed at stopping presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers from spreading the coronavirus to others around them.
  • Officials have released DIY instructions for homemade masks that can be made at a low cost and can be washed.
  • President Trump stressed that the guidance is voluntary and said he will not wear a mask himself, though the First Lady has called for people to take the advice seriously. 

New Recommendation 

President Donald Trump announced Friday that the Center for Disease Control is advising everyone in the U.S. to wear face coverings in public settings to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, though he himself has chosen not to follow the voluntary measure.

“CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” the CDC’s memo reads.

Previous guidelines only advised healthcare workers to wear masks, as well as those who are sick or caring for a sick person who is unable to wear one. However, the CDC’s new recommendation is aimed at stopping presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus to others around them.

To avoid taking critical supplies like N95 respirators and surgical masks from healthcare workers, the CDC is advising that people use cloth face coverings which can be washed and made from household items at a low cost.

Wearing face coverings is a voluntary decision and the CDC noted that they should not be placed on “children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

However, it’s important to note that wearing a face-covering is just an additional public health measure that can be taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It is not a substitute for social distancing. 

Homemade Masks 

Since that announcement, swarms of DIY instructions and videos have surfaced showing different ways to make masks at home. The CDC themselves posted both sew and no-sew instructions using items like cotton T-shirts, or a bandana and coffee filter. 

They even released a 45-second video with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams quickly putting one together with rubber bands and folded fabric.

Their guidance says to use a covering that fits snug, can be secured with ties or ear loops, includes multiple layers of fabric, and allows for breathing without restriction. These masks don’t offer full protection, but some is better than none and they can be especially helpful when paired with other tactics like hand washing, not touching your face, and social distancing.   

There is little data so far on cloth or homemade masks in general, but the material most often recommended by experts is a tight weave or quilted cotton. 

Experts also warn that you should wash or dispose of your masks after each use. Don’t fidget with your masks when wearing then, be sure to remove them by the ear straps to avoid touching whatever may have landed on the front surface, and wash your hands thoroughly before and after. 

Trump Says He Won’t Wear a Mask 

When making the announcement, President Trump said that he himself was choosing not to wear a mask. 

“With the masks, it is going to be really a voluntary thing,” he said at the daily coronavirus briefing. “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it. But some people may want to do it, and that’s OK. It may be good. Probably will — they’re making a recommendation. It’s only a recommendation, it’s voluntary.”

“I’m feeling good. I just don’t want to be doing it…I think that wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know,” he added. “Somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just dont, maybe I’ll change my mind.”

That was, of course, met with some backlash, but it highlighted the battle between the White House and CDC over the measures. For weeks, the White House coronavirus task force has debated whether or not to issue such a recommendation. 

Senior officials pushed to limit the guidance to high-transmission areas only, fearing that the call for the wide use of masks could cause unnecessary panic and provide a false sense of security. They also argued that even with the call for cloth coverings, the guidance might prompt people to try and get their hands on medical masks that are already in high demand at hospitals. 

But federal health officials and experts from the CDC said the guidance only makes sense if it is broadly applied. They argued that it is an additional way to slow the spread and prevent communities with low transmission from quickly becoming an area with a high volume of cases. 

FLOTUS Supports Cloth Masks

Despite the President’s remarks, First Lady Melania Trump has stressed the importance of wearing masks. On Friday, she tweeted, “As the weekend approaches I ask that everyone take social distancing & wearing a mask/face covering seriously. #COVID19 is a virus that can spread to anyone – we can stop this together.”

She made a similar call on Sunday, this time sharing the CDC’s information.

President Trump was asked about her tweets during a coronavirus task force press briefing on Sunday, replying, “It’s good, no, she feels that way.”

“Would you like me to wear one right now in answering your question?” He asked jokingly. “That would be a little awkward I guess. But no, I mean, I again, I would wear one if I thought it was important.” 

“She likes the idea of wearing it, yeah she does,” Trump continued. “A lot of people do. Again, it’s a recommendation, and I understand that recommendation, and I’m ok with it.”

Cities like New York and Los Angeles had already called for face coverings in public, but some areas are now strictly enforcing the measures. 

In Laredo, Texas, the city’s emergency mandate calls for anyone over the age of 5 to wear “some form of covering over their nose and mouth” when using public transportation, taxis, rideshares, pumping gas or when inside a building open to the public.  The penalty for violating the order is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000.

Other cities might soon start enforcing the measures as well, as numbers of cases and deaths continue to climb across the country. 

See what others are saying:(NPR) (CNET) (Vox

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