Day after Ukraine launches probe of ambassador’s alleged surveillance, Pompeo’s shamed into acting

If it's dire and urgent and directly related to duty and oath of office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is predictably missing in action. Take the hearing House Democrats planned earlier this week on the Soleimani assassination—Pompeo no-showed. Or how about the closed-door congressional briefings on embassy security State Department officials were scheduled to give? No such luck, no explanation given by Pompeo or his team.

So when new evidence emerged from the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday night indicating that former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch may have been surveilled in Kyiv and physically at risk, Pompeo sat on it. Because that's what you do when you're a garbage manager who couldn't even squeeze out a statement of support for a veteran State Department employee whose reputation was being smeared by Rudy Giuliani and his henchmen. 

As former Assistant FBI Director Frank Figliuzzi told MSNBC the day after the creepy texts exchanged by indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas and a GOP donor and Trump supporter came to light, "If we were living in any kind of normal world, we would have the Secretary of State & the Attorney General of the United States ordering the FBI and the diplomatic security service to investigate any assertion that someone inside the US embassy in Ukraine has somehow compromised the security of the ambassador."

But we aren't living in any kind of normal world, so the Justice and State Departments declined to lift a finger even has a House panel announced an inquiry into the matter. Finally Ukraine, not known for having the most robust legal system, launched it's own investigation on Thursday and requested assistance from the FBI in the case. 

Apparently even Pompeo felt a little shamed by the fact that Ukraine had shown more concern for his own employee than he has during this entire harrowing ordeal.  As CNN notes, "after more than 48 hours of silence," Pompeo says the State Department will finally launch its own inquiry.

"I suspect that much of what's been reported will ultimately prove wrong, but our obligation, my obligation as secretary of state, is to make sure that we evaluate, investigate. Any time there is someone who posits that there may have been a risk to one of our officers, we'll obviously do that," Pompeo said.

Wow, what a white knight in shining armor. 

McConnell readies nuclear option for shielding Senate trial from public view

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking extraordinary steps to keep what's sure to be a sticky impeachment trial for GOP senators out of the public eye. He's already roped off certain areas to pen up reporters so they can't wander the halls and ask the very questions GOP senators are loath to answer. Journalists will also pass through a newly added metal detector before taking their media seats in the chamber in case they try to "bug the chamber with surveillance equipment," reports the Washington Post. It's all under the guise of "security" that's supposedly intended to protect senators, but credentialed reporters have effectively been designated a security threat. 

Naturally, no digital devices such as cell phones or computers or cameras will be allowed in the Senate chamber to record the historical spectacle in real-time. That's standard practice in both the upper and lower chambers, but the House suspended the rule during the impeachment proceedings so journalists could better capture the moment. 

But McConnell and his caucus could also simply kill the only camera allowed in the chamber during some of the most important parts of the trial. As the New York Times writes, "Lawmakers could pull the C-Span plug and go into closed session at critical moments of debate over the conduct of the trial and the fate of the president." 

It's a procedure that was sometimes employed during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, but the circumstances of that trial were quite different. While Senate Republicans controlled the chamber, they weren't in any position to abuse their power or further anger the public as Clinton's approval had already soared and the GOP was taking a political beating. In addition, Republicans didn’t gain anything by shielding Clinton from the negative publicity that would naturally arise from a trial they were constitutionally required to hold in the view of many legal scholars.

This time around, Republicans have every incentive to use the mechanism to limit public view of a trial that could easily become a stain on the GOP caucus heading into November.  

The ‘blossoming’ of damning evidence is no accident—Pelosi’s strategy worked

As reporters grilled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week about whether she felt pressured to send over the articles of impeachment to the Senate, she laughed it off. “Absolutely total cooperation,” Pelosi offered, after 24 hours in which several Senate Democrats reversed themselves on challenging her strategy. “We have 1,000 flowers blossoming beautifully in our caucus.” 

But later that morning when Pelosi announced she would finally transmit the articles, Capitol Hill reporters were quick to declare her the loser in her face-off with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She hadn't extracted a single promise from McConnell on rules for the Senate trial. Some reporters were still crowing about it this week. In a hot take for CNN, Chris Cillizza wrote, "Pelosi's goal was simple: To try to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand. Pelosi wanted to use her possession of the articles of impeachment to yield promises and/or compromises from McConnell—most notably on the issue of witnesses being allowed to be called in the Senate trial. Except that McConnell wasn't playing ball."

Genius. McConnell triumphs again! Only that was never Pelosi's main goal. She knew McConnell wasn't going to let her dictate the terms of the Senate trial any more than she would have let him tell her how to run the House impeachment. What Pelosi really wanted was to give the impeachment articles enough room to breathe that McConnell couldn't sweep them under the rug and out of public consciousness before people had even awoken to the New Year.

Cillizza memorialized his insights on Tuesday. Fast forward two days and the Senate GOP caucus is cracking under the weight of new revelations further enmeshing Trump in the Ukraine scandal. Not only did the Government Accountability Office determine the Trump administration broke the law by freezing Ukraine funding, an explosive interview of indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas put Trump at the center of the imbroglio. Add those two revelations to the growing minefield of trouble spots for Senate Republicans—such as John Bolton's willingness to testify—and Pelosi's garden is beginning to bear fruit.

It's still unclear whether the Senate trial (set to begin next Tuesday) will end up including witnesses and documents, but what is undoubtedly true is that Pelosi's gambit has put the GOP caucus between a rock and a hard place. McConnell has put new restrictions on press access during the trial in order to insulate his members from pesky questioning. The White House was pushing for dismissal but the votes weren't there because vulnerable Republicans needed a trial with at least some semblance of decorum. But now those very same GOP lawmakers are desperately trying to thread the needle of staying loyal to Trump while still managing to win reelection. It isn't pretty. Just look at someone like Maine Sen. Susan Collins, whose approval ratings have dropped 36 points since 2015 from 78% to 42% now, according to Morning Consult's latest polling. She's now the most unpopular senator in America. 

If Pelosi had done as everyone expected and immediately transmitted the articles, McConnell would have dispensed with them in the first couple weeks of 2020 and the Republican caucus would be breathing a sigh of relief as they eyed November. Instead, we've got fresh reporting, Bolton, Parnas, the GAO, and polling showing that more than 70% of Americans and battleground state voters alike want a fair Senate trial with witnesses and documents. 

Pelosi was asked Thursday for a response to Senate Republicans who say they shouldn't have to consider new evidence such as Parnas' allegations because it wasn’t included in the House investigation. "They're afraid of the truth," Pelosi offered without missing a beat.

They sure are. And none of them are enjoying Pelosi's green thumb. 

x

Senate GOP caucus meltdown! Five-alarm fire engulfs the White House

Republican senators caught amid a battery of fires engulfing the White House are frantically searching for a way out. Between the Government Accountability Office report determining the Trump administration broke the law by withholding security assistance from Ukraine to the blockbuster Rachel Maddow interview of indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, vulnerable members of the GOP caucus are trying to claw their way to safety on the fly. No one solution has permeated the caucus, just a scattershot bid for survival. It's an impossible task when Republican lawmakers long ago decided their path to enduring power was to back Donald Trump and all his corruption come hell or high water. 

Turns out hell was their fate as the sun arose on the morning they would take their oaths to "do impartial justice" in the impeachment trial of the 45th president of the United States. The night before, Parnas, who desperately wants to testify before Congress, gave his firsthand account of the criminal enterprise Trump has been running from the Oval Office. "President Trump knew exactly what was going on," Parnas told Maddow. "He was aware of all of my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president."

Yes, Parnas has been criminally indicted and his account must be vetted. But that's the whole point—his account must be vetted. Parnas has too many receipts in the way of texts and handwritten notes not to be taken seriously, which is exactly why GOP senators are fumbling about looking for refuge from the facts—many facts. In fact, they want refuge from all the facts, including Parnas, the conclusions of the nonpartisan GAO, the potential testimony of John Bolton, the recently reported emails directly implicating Trump and his top deputies in the scandal, not to mention all the other evidence unearthed by the House inquiry.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins is trying to run a misdirection on the Parnas revelations, questioning why the House Intelligence Committee didn't address the very evidence it subpoenaed last October but didn't receive until two days ago. "Doesn't that suggest that the House did an incomplete job, then?" Collins offered. No, it does not. The materials had been seized by the FBI and unavailable during the House inquiry, so Democrats pressed forward with what was available to them.

Wanna join the effort to restore sane leadership to the Senate? Give $3 right now to flip the Senate and kick Mitch McConnell to the curb.

For his part, Texas Sen. John Cornyn is trying to keep the illegality of withholding aid to Ukraine from reaching Trump by compartmentalizing it. “It’s a civil matter, it’s not a criminal matter... It’s not directed at the president, it’s the Office of Management and Budget,“ Cornyn told reporters of the GAO report. “The GAO report identifies the OMB, not the president,” he adds. Oh, okay, so how about all those emails showing that Trump ordered the freeze?

And Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, already facing an uphill climb in her reelection bid, has clearly concluded there's simply no way to deal in facts and acquit Trump. Therefore, it's time to start demonizing the press, just like Trump does. When asked by CNN's Manu Raju if the Senate should consider new evidence in Trump's impeachment trial, McSally disparaged Raju. 

"Manu, you’re a liberal hack—I’m not talking to you," she said as she brushed past him and into a hearing room. McSally was so proud of herself, she tweeted out the video from her own account with the words, "You are," as in a liberal hack, in case anyone missed it the first time. Classy.

In short, Republicans are all searching for the exits as Trump's five-alarm fire of corruption rages on, but no one knows exactly where they are and who will survive. 

x

Trump’s impeachment defense team is announced, and Giuliani didn’t make the cut

Donald Trump is just dying to have his impeachment trial be a D.C. mash up of COPS and Jersey Shore, but apparently some sanity crept into the script he's been preparing and his gaffe-a-minute personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani didn't make the cut

Instead, Trump's defense team will mainly include White House counsel Pat Cipollone as his chief advocate, another Trump personal attorney Jay Sekulow, and Cipollone's deputy Pat Philbin, an alum of George W. Bush's White House.

Politico reports that Cipollone is "a well-respected litigator within conservative circles"—never mind that he's put his name on a series of legally unsound, garbage opinions that have flowed from the White House counsel's office under his direction. But none of that really matters to Trump. The biggest problem is that Cipollone might be a ratings dud. 

Politico reports that the decision to make Cipollone Trump's front man is "the biggest gamble."

"I don’t know how much TV Pat has done,” a former administration official said. Yikes ... red alert, red alert!

“The president is very attuned to how people perform on TV,” a senior administration official said. “He knows he will be acquitted, but is itching to get his side of the story told under oath and in front of the world. He’s itching to have a robust defense be the best offense.”

Whether Cipollone turns in a good performance surely won't be a mystery, as Trump will be following along and likely tweeting in real time. If Cipollone is bombing, Trump will be the first to let the world know that he's never even met that man.

House panel releases trove of damning new evidence from Giuliani associate Lev Parnas

The House Intelligence Committee released a trove of new impeachment-related information Tuesday supplied by indicted Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas. The new documents, which had been subpoenaed by the House panel last fall, appear to include a wealth of information. They range from Parnas’ handwritten notes about getting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, to a letter Rudy Giuliani penned to Zelensky in May requesting a meeting with Donald Trump’s “knowledge and consent,” to some creepy surveillance of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine who was abruptly removed from her post following a Giuliani-led smear campaign.

Here’s where you can find all the stuff:

Transmittal letter with description of materials Materials 1 Materials 2

Let’s all remember that this came out just before the impeachment trial is set to begin in the Senate, where vulnerable GOP senators will have to grapple with producing the appearance of a fair proceeding. It’s another strategic win for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Here’s a sampling of some of the evidence circulating on Twitter.

x

x

x

x

Russian spies hacked Ukrainian gas company central to Trump’s impeachment

Russian military spies have hacked the Ukrainian gas company that became central to Donald Trump's impeachment after the revelation that Trump demanded Ukraine open an investigation into the company. The board members of the gas company, Burisma, included the son of Trump's chief 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump hoped to raise questions about that board post and any potential corruption on the part of the Bidens, though there has been zero evidence of foul play. 

The hacking effort began in early November when the GRU, Russia's intelligence agency, began a cyber "phishing" expedition that sent bogus emails to employees of Burisma Holdings, according to the California-based company Area 1 Security. The goal was to get Burisma employees to click on the emails so GRU spies could gain access to internal information and data about the company. The phishing campaign's timing paralleled the congressional impeachment inquiry into Trump. Area 1 Security's chief executive, Oren Falkowitz, says the GRU successfully breached Burisma and several of its subsidiaries and partners, according to the Washington Post

Falkowitz couldn't be certain exactly what kind of information the GRU accessed or what the Russians planned to do with it, but the discovery sets off alarm bells as the United States barrels toward the 2020 election. 

“The timing of the GRU’s campaign in relation to the 2020 U.S. elections raises the specter that this is an early warning of what we have anticipated since the successful cyberattacks undertaken during the 2016 U.S. elections,” Falkowitz told the Post.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in hopes of electing Trump over Hillary Clinton. In the years since the election, it's become clear that Russia conducted a concerted and pervasive effort at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, Trump has latched on to a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election in an attempt to boost Clinton's candidacy. It's a completely idiotic and unsupported notion that Trump just can't let go of.

House Intelligence chair Adam Schiff said Tuesday that it appeared Russia was preparing to help Trump win reelection in 2020. "It certainly looks like they are at it again with an eye towards helping this president," Schiff told a cadre of reporters on Capitol Hill. "We all have to denounce any further meddling in our elections. Americans should decide American elections." 

In more bad news for McConnell, two-thirds of voters want to see John Bolton testify

In the wake of multiple polls showing strong majorities of Americans believe the Senate impeachment trial should include witnesses and documents, a Quinnipiac survey finds that 66% of voters want to hear from one person in particular: former Trump national security adviser John Bolton. That 66% includes 39% of Republicans, 71% of independents, and 91% of Democrats.

Bolton’s willingness to testify in the Senate if subpoenaed is among the biggest prizes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acquired while delaying transmission of the articles of impeachment. Along with being quoted by his subordinates as calling Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani a "hand grenade," Bolton had unique proximity to Trump during some of the most critical episodes in the Ukraine scandal. His testimony could send shockwaves through the GOP, based on his outsized stature within the party and all the information he was privy to.

At least some Republican senators are showing interest in having witness testimony in the Senate trial, even as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does everything in his power to quash it. The White House reportedly fears that as many as four GOP senators might defect and vote in favor of hearing from witnesses, which would be enough to secure witness testimony. So as two-thirds of the public shows interest in hearing from Bolton and several Republican senators mull voting in favor of witness testimony, McConnell is now stuck trying to figure out how to appease GOP caucus members mired in vulnerable reelection bids while ensuring that no witnesses are heard from. 

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas turns over ‘trove’ of information to congressional investigators

Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas has turned over photos, texts, and thousands of documents to the House Intelligence Committee, which subpoenaed the information last fall. 

Parnas, who has been indicted for violating campaign finance laws and pleaded not guilty, had originally declined to comply with the congressional subpoena. But after being arrested and changing attorneys, Parnas began a charm offensive with Congress in order to testify on the Ukraine matter and hopefully gain some leniency in his federal case.

"After our trip to DC, we worked through the night providing a trove of Lev Parnas' WhatsApp messages, text messages & images—not under protective order—to #HPSCI, detailing interactions with a number of individuals relevant to the impeachment inquiry," Parnas' attorney, Joseph Bondy, tweeted with the hashtags #LetLevSpeak and #LevRemembers.

Bondy did not offer any specifics in terms of the substance of the information that was relayed, but federal investigators had reportedly confiscated more than a dozen electronic devices, including cell phones, iPads, laptops, and a hard drive in their investigation. As Parnas tries to convince the House panel to hear his testimony, he is facing the prospect of additional federal charges.

White House, reportedly fearing 4-plus GOP defections on Senate trial vote, pushes dismissal

The White House reportedly believes as many as four-plus GOP senators will vote with Democrats to call witnesses in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, according to CBS News. If true, that's a whopper of a turnabout. CBS names Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, and possibly Cory Gardner of Colorado as the first four potential defections, with Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee as two other possibilities. 

This development would explain a lot of things, chief among them why Trump went from pushing for testimony from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday morning to several hours later tweeting his support for a Senate vote to dismiss the trial altogether. It was quite an evolution, even for Trump.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't have the votes for dismissal, according to CNN, and he's stalling on laying out a timeline on a vote to set the parameters for the trial. Naturally, McConnell went to the Senate floor Monday to take a victory lap on Pelosi agreeing to send over the impeachment articles before the Senate's parameters were clear. He said she had accomplished "nothing." 

But at the last minute, at least, it seems more like a “Republicans in disarray” moment. Trump's switching horses on the Senate trial midstream because he's freaked. The White House is pushing McConnell to take a vote on dismissal for which he doesn't have enough GOP support. At the same time, top Republicans are trying to publicly dissuade Trump from insisting on incorporating the House GOP clown car in his defense team.

“My advice to him would be: Let's not infect the Senate trial with the circus-like atmosphere of the House,” Cornyn told reporters. 

Sorry, but it looks like Pelosi has at least given the White House and Republican senators a touch of heartburn, among other things she accomplished.