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Key Witnesses Testify in First Public Impeachment Hearings

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  • William Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department official, became the first witnesses to speak in public hearings regarding the impeachment inquiry.
  • Both have testified privately, with Taylor largely supporting the existence of quid pro quo saying, “Security assistance money would not come until the President (of Ukraine) committed to pursue the investigation.”
  • The two repeated much of what they had said behind closed doors but added new details and painted clearer pictures. Kent also denied that there was any factual basis in the allegations against Joe Biden and the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
  • A public hearing raises the stakes of impeachment more, giving the public more opportunity to weigh in on if they think the process is worthwhile or not. 

Who is Testifying?

The first public hearings in the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry took off on Wednesday with two witnesses speaking before the House Intelligence Committee.

William Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a State Department official, previously testified behind closed doors. Both spoke of President Donald Trump’s apparent efforts to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch a series of investigations: One into Burisma, a Ukranian company Joe Biden’s son Hunter was on the board of, and another into alleged interference by Ukraine into the 2016 election.

Taylor made comments supporting the existence of quid pro quo. Democrats believe that a rough transcript of a phone call between Zelensky and Trump shows that Trump was withholding aid from Ukraine on the condition that these investigations begin. 

“That was my clear understanding,” Taylor said in his first closed-door testimony. “Security assistance money would not come until the President (of Ukraine) committed to pursue the investigation.”

While Kent did not speak about aid as much at the time, he did accuse Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, of leading attacks against both himself and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. He also spoke about Trump’s desire to have Zelensky announce investigations.

“POTUS wanted nothing less than President Zelensky to go to microphone and say investigations, Biden, and Clinton,” he said behind closed doors. 

What Happened at the Hearing?

Wednesday’s hearing was led by House Intelligence Committee and its Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA). He and the top Republican on the committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA) both were allotted 45 minutes of questioning while other members got five. 

As expected, much of what was said on Wednesday had been said previously. Key quotes, however, did rise to the surface of the event. In his opening remarks, Schiff acknowledged the circumstances were it could be proven that Trump did withhold official acts from Ukraine on the condition of the investigations.  

“If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” he asked. 

Nunes, on the other hand, called the impeachment inquiry a “carefully orchestrated media campaign.”

As far as witnesses go, Taylor mentioned an overheard phone call between Trump and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland pertaining to the investigations. 

“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward,” Taylor said. 

He claimed Sondland said Trump cares more about the investigation into Biden than he does about Ukraine. 

“Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine,” he continued. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.” 

Kent called the investigations “politically motivated”.

“In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine,” he said.

“I don’t believe the U.S. should ask other countries to engage in selective politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power because such selective actions undermine the rule of law, regardless of the country,” Kent added. 

Kent also denied that there was any factual basis in the allegations regarding both Joe Biden and the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

In another clip that went viral from the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) accuses Schiff of knowing the whistleblower’s identity. Schiff quickly turned this idea down. 

“You are the only member who knows who that individual is,” Jordan claims. “Your staff is the only staff of any member of Congress that’s had a chance to talk with that individual. We would like that opportunity. When might that happen in this proceeding?”

“First, as the gentleman knows, that’s a false statement,” Schiff responds. “I do not know the identity of the whistleblower and I am determined to make sure that identity is protected.” 

What’s at Stake and What’s Next?

The stakes for this hearing are higher than those of the private ones as they are the first the public is allowed to watch. They will likely have more eyes on them, allowing the public to further decide if they think Trump abused his power, or if the impeachment inquiry is a waste of Congress’ time. 

Trump’s Twitter feed has been relatively quiet during the hearing, with the president mainly retweeting clips and commentary from others. Wednesday morning, before they began he tweeted “NEVER TRUMPERS!” and “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”

In a video shared by the White House, he called the impeachment inquiry “the single greatest scam in the history of American politics.”

He also tweeted a campaign video as the hearings were taking place.

On the other side of the situation, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applauded Taylor and Kent for speaking out.

These hearings will be followed by remarks by Yovanovitch on Friday. More witnesses are also expected to be called to testify. Republicans also want to subpoena the whistleblower to testify, however, reports say a motion to do so was tabled after the hearing.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Fox News) (Politico)

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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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