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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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Highlights From the Nevada Democratic Debate

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  • Six 2020 presidential candidates took the stage at the Democratic Debate in Nevada ahead of the state’s highly anticipated caucus this Saturday.
  • Here are some highlights from Wednesday’s debate.

Candidates Target Bloomberg

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made his first debate appearance, and the other candidates used it as an opportunity to target the controversial political figure right out of the gate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) all went after Bloomberg in their opening statements.

Sanders and Biden criticized the mayor for expanding New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which gave police the authority to stop and search anyone they suspected of committing a crime and disproportionately targeted people of color.

Warren, for her part, had some of the sharpest rebukes of the former mayor.

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” she said.

“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk,” she continued. “Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is. But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Bloomberg’s Nondisclosure Agreements

Warren also questioned Bloomberg’s record with sexual harassment after a moderator asked him about “sexually suggestive remarks” he had made when confronted about the fact that several former employees of his company had described the workplace as hostile for women.

“The mayor has to stand on his record. And what we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace,” she said. 

“So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?” she asked.

“We have a very few nondisclosure agreements,” he responded. 

“None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he continued. “There’s agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet and that’s up to them. They signed those agreements, and we’ll live with it.”

Warren continued to push Bloomberg to release the individuals from their nondisclosures, a demand that was eventually echoed by Biden. 

 Klobuchar and Buttigieg Spar

Warren was not the only person who sparred with the other candidates.

Another notable moment from the night came from a tense interaction between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, after one of the moderators asked Klobuchar about an interview from last week where she was unable to remember the name of the president of Mexico and had trouble discussing his policies.

Klobuchar said that a moment of forgetfulness did not reflect what she knows about Mexico. 

“I said that I made an error,” she added. “I think having a president that maybe is humble and is able to admit that here and there maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing.” 

Buttigieg, however, saw it as an opportunity to pounce.

“But you’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience. You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade,” he said. “You’re literally in part of the committee that’s overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”

“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” Klobuchar responded. 

“I have passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat since being in the U.S. Senate. I am the one, not you, that has won statewide in congressional district after congressional district,” she continued. “And I will say, when you tried in Indiana, Pete, to run, what happened to you? You lost by over 20 points.”

Buttigieg Goes After Sanders’ Supporters 

Buttigieg, who is competing with Sanders for the title of frontrunner after the elections New Hampshire, also used his time on stage to attack Sanders and his supporters.

Sanders supporters, also known as “Bernie Bros,” have come under fire recently for their response to a flyer made by Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union that said Sanders would “end Culinary Healthcare” under his Medicare-for-all policy.

After posting the flyer on Twitter, the union accused Sanders’ supporters of “viciously” attacking members of the group, and the organization’s top leaders told reporters they received threatening phone calls, emails, and tweets and that their personal information was doxxed.

“We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion, and love,” Sander’s said of his supporters. “And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.” 

“Senator, when you say that you disown these attacks and you didn’t personally direct them, I believe you,” Buttigieg said. “But at a certain point, you got to ask yourself, why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters that this happens?”

“I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others,” he continued. 

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

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Court Rules Florida Can’t Bar Felons From Voting Over Unpaid Fines and Fees

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  • On Wednesday, a federal appeals court in Florida upheld an injunction on a law that bans felons from voting if they haven’t paid their legal fees. 
  • In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. 
  • Then, in 2019, Florida’s legislature and Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law mandating former felons to pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.
  • With the help of voting rights groups, 17 felons sued DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn this law.
  • The latest ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, but it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons who wish to vote.

Injunction Upheld

A federal appeals court in Florida said on Wednesday that for now, felons can no longer be barred from voting if they haven’t paid fines or fees from their cases. 

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction of a state law that requires convicted felons to settle all legal fines and fees before they are able to get reinstated to vote. The panel agreed to suspend the law until there’s a final ruling on it. 

The decision of the appeals court only applies to the 17 felons who sued Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn the law. The plaintiffs and the voting rights groups that represent them argued that the legislation equates to an unfair poll tax.

The appeals court judges agreed, and said that the legal financial obligations (LFOs) law “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”

While Wednesday’s ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons. A trial for the plaintiffs is still pending but slated to begin in April, and that’s when the overall constitutionality of the LFO law will be decided.

“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy,” Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, told NBC.

Background on Felon Voting Restrictions

Until recently, Florida automatically prohibited all felons from the right to vote ever again. This changed in late 2018 when an overwhelming majority of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. Those with murder or felony sex convictions were exempt from this change. 

The passing of Amendment 4 restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people. 

Last year, the Republican-led legislature and Gov. DeSantis passed the law that mandated that former felons pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.

Supporters of the LFO law argued that Amendment 4 was not meant to restore voting rights for all felons, but only those who have “paid their debt to society,” including monetary fees.  

Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Communications Director for DeSantis, responded to the Wednesday decision in a tweet.

“We disagree and will appeal en banc,” Ferré said. 

Looking Ahead to 2020 Election

The recent ruling is especially significant as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Wednesday’s decision means that the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are eligible to vote in Florida’s presidential primary next month, though other felons with outstanding legal fines or fees are still not.

However, it is possible that by the end of the upcoming April trial, the legal financial requirement law will be deemed unconstitutional, which will allow all Florida felons to vote whether or not they’ve paid the fines and fees from their cases. But if that’s the case, DeSantis and the defendants are still likely to appeal that ruling as well to a higher court.

It is unclear how this is all going to end. Some believe that the courts will move quickly to get it settled before the 2020 election, but the timeline is not fully set. Many expect that this particular case could be taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately be decided on there. 

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NBC) (Wall Street Journal)

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Attorney General Barr’s Credibility Questioned Over Roger Stone Case

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  • Attorney General William Barr is facing backlash over his decision to overrule the sentence recommendation for Roger Stone, a close ally of President Trump, after Trump tweeted that the suggested sentence was “unfair.” 
  • Both Barr and Trump have said the decision was made independently and before Trump’s tweet, but accusations that Barr intervened in Trump’s favor have continued.
  • A group of 2,000 DOJ officials signed a letter condemning Barr and calling for him to resign.
  • Barr defended his decision in an interview with ABC, but he said Trump’s tweets made it “impossible” for him to do his job. 

Barr Overrules Prosecutors in Stone Case

Challenges to Attorney General William Barr’s credibility have escalated over the last week following his decision to overrule a sentence recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime advisor and friend of President Donald Trump.

The sentence recommendation, announced by Justice Department prosecutors Wednesday, suggested that Stone serve seven to nine years in jail for the seven charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress that he was found guilty of in November.

The indictments stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Following the announcement, Trump responded to the charges in a tweet, calling them “horrible and very unfair” before adding, “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

Shortly after that, the Justice Department announced that it was changing the sentence recommendation. An anonymous DOJ official told the Washington Post that the recommendation was “not what had been briefed to the department.”

“The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses,” the official added.

Following the announcement, four prosecutors withdrew from the Stone case. One of the four prosecutors quit his job at the DOJ altogether. 

The department’s highly unusual decision to overrule career lawyers was criticized by many, including former DOJ officials under both Democrat and Republican administrations, who accused Barr of intervening in Trump’s favor to lighten the sentence recommendation for an ally of the president.

The Justice Department, for its part, defended the move.

A spokeswoman for the department told reporters that DOJ officials did not discuss the stone case with the White House and that the decision to overrule the recommendation was made before Trump’s tweet.

Trump also denied the claims that he directed the DOJ to change its recommendation, though he later congratulated Barr on Twitter, prompting more allegations of political interference. 

Barr’s ABC Interview

Barr defended his actions regarding the Stone case in an interview with ABC on Thursday. The Attorney General reiterated that his staff made the decision before Trump’s tweets and denied that Trump played a role in it.

However, in an unusual rebuke of the president, Barr also said that Trump’s tweet complicated the situation and that the incident “illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be.” 

“The president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job.”

“I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” he added.

Trump, however, did not seem to be deterred by the attorney general’s remarks.

“The President wasn’t bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

Trump, for his part, has continued to tweet about the case, going on the offensive Tuesday morning and threatening to sue “everyone” involved in the special counsel’s inquiry.

“Everything having to do with this fraudulent investigation is badly tainted and, in my opinion, should be thrown out,” he said. “The whole deal was a total SCAM. If I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place… BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!”

Trump also tweeted comments made by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano, who said that Stone’s defense team asked for a second trial because a member of the jury was biased against Trump. Because of that, Napolitano said, “almost any judge in the country would order a new trial.”

Letter From Former DOJ Officials.

Barr has still continued to face mounting criticisms and incredulity regarding his credibility.

Since Sunday, a bipartisan group of more than 2,000 former DOJ officials have signed a letter condemning both Trump and Barr and calling on Barr to resign.

“Mr. Barr’s actions in doing the President’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words,” the letter states. “Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign.”

Such behavior is a grave threat to the fair administration of justice,” the officials continue. “In this nation, we are all equal before the law. A person should not be given special treatment in a criminal prosecution because they are a close political ally of the President.” 

“Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies.”

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Washington Post) (Fox News)

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