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National Govt & Politics

    The first day of impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump will feature two State Department witnesses who raised questions about actions in Ukraine by the President's personal lawyer, with one alarmed by Rudy Giuliani's efforts to undermine the former U.S. Ambassador in Ukraine, and another who saw Giuliani leading an effort to press for investigations desired by Mr. Trump. 'Mr. Giuliani was almost unmissable starting in mid-March,' Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified, saying Giuliani conducted a 'campaign of slander' against former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. 'I worried about what I had heard concerning the role of Rudolph Giuliani,' said William Taylor, now the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who said he was worried about entering a 'snake pit' involving Giuliani. Here is some of what we might expect from these two witnesses in the first day of impeachment hearings. DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE GEORGE KENT - After working at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, Kent returned to the State Department in the second half of 2018, taking on a post where he was responsible for Ukraine and five other eastern European nations often targeted by Russia. It was in that position where Kent said he witnessed the media attack which unfolded, spurred by Giuliani and conservative news media organs. In his impeachment deposition, Kent said an article by conservative journalist John Solomon spurred a sudden attack on Ambassador Yovanovitch and the U.S. embassy in Ukraine in general, which was then amplified by Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Kent said much of what was alleged, that Yovanovitch was bad mouthing President Trump, that she was working against Ukraine prosecutors, was simply false. 'It was, if not entirely made up in full cloth,' Kent testified, 'it was primarily non-truths and non-sequiturs.' Kent described how U.S. diplomats were blindsided by what was clearly a concerted campaign against the U.S. Ambassador and the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, spread over four days in March of 2019. It started first with arrows aimed at Ambassador Yovanovitch, but then spread to accusations against former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter, along with other charges mentioning conservative bogeyman George Soros - all of it given a push by President Trump, his son, conservative websites, and Fox News. The attacks on Yovanovitch came two weeks after she had been asked by the State Department to stay on in Ukraine until 2020 - but her extension would not survive the conservative media attacks against her. 'I was then abruptly told in late April to come back to Washington from Ukraine 'on the next plane,'' Yovanovitch told Congressional investigators. She will testify on Friday. + WILLIAM TAYLOR, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires IN UKRAINE. With the recall of Ambassador Yovanovitch, Taylor is the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Ukraine - basically the acting Ambassador. Several months after Yovanovitch had been ousted, Taylor described how the work of Giuliani had seemingly led to a situation where U.S. military aid for Ukraine was being withheld - in an effort to gain a quid pro quo - where the government of Ukraine would launch investigations sought by President Trump. 'By mid-Ju1y, it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted was conditioned on investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian influence in the 2016 elections,' Taylor said, referring to a focus on the Bidens, and the debunked theory that Ukraine - and not Russia - was behind the hacks of Democrats in 2016. Taylor said the impetus for the situation was obvious. 'It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani,' Taylor said in his closed door deposition. Mr. Taylor said he had determined that link in 'mid-July' - it was on July 25 that President Trump spoke with the leader of Ukraine, and spelled out the need for Ukraine to launch investigations into the Bidens, and the Ukraine-2016 elections theory, which included the evidence-free allegation that the hacked computer server from the Democratic National Committee was being hidden in Ukraine. Some Republicans have mocked the choice of Taylor as an opening witness, saying he has no firsthand knowledge of why the President would want investigations conducted related to the Bidens or the 2016 elections. 'No, I've never talked to the President,' Taylor said in his deposition. Look for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) to bring this up during the first day of questioning with Taylor. Three hearings have also been set for next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with eight different witnesses.
  • Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is due to testify Wednesday in Congress about the outlook for the U.S. economy, giving his perspective two weeks after the Fed cut interest rates for a third time this year. The Fed signaled after its Oct. 29-30 meeting that it would probably hold off on any further cuts as long as the economy stays healthy and inflation moves closer to the central bank's target of 2%. The three cuts, which lowered the interest rate the Fed controls to a range of 1.5% to 1.75%, were intended to offset drags from slower global growth and the U.S.-China trade war. Powell is scheduled to appear Wednesday before Congress' Joint Economic Committee. He and other Fed officials have said they believe the cuts are working, as lower borrowing costs have encouraged more Americans to buy homes and splurge on appliances and electronics. Broader measures of the economy suggest that growth remains solid if not spectacular. The unemployment rate is near a 50-year low of 3.6% and hiring is strong enough to potentially push the rate even lower. Inflation, according to the Fed's preferred gauge, is just 1.3%, though most Fed officials expect it to move higher in the coming months. Many Fed officials in public comments this month have voiced support for Fed policy and have expressed confidence in the economy. Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said in an interview on CNBC last week that 'if the economy continues to perform as we expect' than the Fed is likely done cutting rates, 'but we need to see.' Kashkari is one of the most dovish officials on the Fed's 17-member policymaking committee, though he doesn't have a vote this year. John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and several other Fed officials last week said that the three cuts have left the benchmark interest rate low enough to support growth. Most analysts forecast that the Fed will hold rates steady when it meets next month. But some economists expect growth will slow in the coming months and the Fed will likely have to cut again next year.
  • Barely four months into his tenure, Defense Secretary Mark Esper is making his second trek across the Pacific. And yet it is the Middle East - most recently a near-war with Iran and an actual war in Syria - that in Washington commands more attention and demands more American troops. Esper's Asia visits illustrate the central feature of a revamped U.S. defense strategy: Focus first on China as a threat to U.S. global predominance, rather than remain bogged down in a generation-long fight against extremist groups. Esper was flying to South Korea on Wednesday for consultations on jointly defending against North Korea, whose nuclear arsenal remains a key focus for Pentagon war planners. His weeklong trip is expected to include a meeting in Bangkok with China's defense minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe — their first direct contact other than a Nov. 5 video phone call. With China's disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea in mind, Esper also will visit Vietnam, a former U.S. enemy, as well as the Philippines, a longtime ally. The Vietnamese, who contest some of China's claims in the South China Sea, have increasingly looked to Washington as a security partner, despite political differences. Esper's first overseas trip after winning Senate confirmation in July was to Asia. But since then the issues that have dominated his tenure include an unprecedented missile and drone attack on the heart of Saudi Arabia's oil industry that the U.S. blamed on Iran. It prompted the Pentagon to send additional fighter jets, troops and air defenses to the Saudi kingdom. Since May, the U.S. has sent about 14,000 troops into the Middle East, including Air Force bombers to Qatar and Navy ships to maintain maritime security in the Persian Gulf area. Late last year, the U.S. removed Patriot missile batteries from Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan in line with the new strategy of focusing first on China, but the spike in Iran tensions compelled the Pentagon to reverse those moves. And in July, the U.S. put forces back into Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base, which had been a hub of American air power in the 1990s but was abandoned by Washington after it toppled Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003. The U.S. also has 5,200 troops in Iraq to support the beleaguered Baghdad government's efforts to defeat remnants of the Islamic State group. The U.S. pulled its forces out of Iraq in 2011 but returned three years later after IS fighters swarmed across the border from Syria to capture control of large parts of the country. Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., says that although the Pentagon clearly is paying more attention to China and Russia, its overall approach leaves some Asian allies wondering how long they can count on U.S. support. 'The military folks I talk to in Korea, they tend to call the United States a flaky ally,' Bennett said. In their view, 'The U.S. might make a commitment and then step back from it' — a worry reinforced by President Donald Trump's musings about pulling American troops out of South Korea and his administration's insistence that the Koreans pay a bigger share of the cost of the U.S. military presence. Pentagon officials knew when they announced a new China/Russia-focused defense strategy in January 2018 that the Middle East would remain a strain, and officials say they are prepared to face that problem even as they focus more on Asia. 'We've got some real-world challenges going on, and so we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time while we're managing those situations in the Middle East,' Randall Schriver, Esper's top adviser on Asia and the Pacific, said last week. Esper says that implementing the new defense strategy, which he inherited from his predecessor, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is a work in progress. 'I need to engage more, I need to redeploy forces to the area, I need to be more present in the (Asia-Pacific) region,' he told reporters after meeting with his Australian counterpart at the Pentagon last month. This shift in focus has been long in coming. The Obama administration tried it, announcing in 2012 a 'pivot to the Pacific.' But then came the rise of the Islamic State group and a return to U.S. fighting in the Middle East, first in Iraq and later in Syria. In October, Esper announced that Trump had approved withdrawing all U.S. troops from northern Syria, but just days later the president authorized a broadening of the counterterrorism mission in Syria to include securing Syrian oil fields. The Pentagon is now sending an armored force into the oil fields, and the total number of American troops in Syria, even after the pullout from the country's north is completed, will likely be only a few hundred fewer than when Trump declared he was withdrawing. Gen. Mark Milley, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan also is likely to remain a draw on defense resources and troops. 'I suspect it will be ongoing into the future for several more years,' Milley said Sunday in an interview with ABC News.
  • The closed doors of the Trump impeachment investigation are swinging wide open. When the gavel strikes at the start of the House hearing on Wednesday morning, America and the rest of the world will have the chance to see and hear for themselves for the first time about President Donald Trump's actions toward Ukraine and consider whether they are, in fact, impeachable offenses. It's a remarkable moment, even for a White House full of them. All on TV, committee leaders will set the stage, then comes the main feature: Two seasoned diplomats, William Taylor, the graying former infantry officer now charge d'affaires in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary in Washington, telling the striking, if sometimes complicated story of a president allegedly using foreign policy for personal and political gain ahead of the 2020 election. So far, the narrative is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump's unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic, but vague, bar for impeachment, and there's no consensus yet that Trump's actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' Whether Wednesday's proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump's position, it's certain that his chaotic term has finally arrived at a place he cannot control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he cannot ignore. The country has been here just three times before, and never against the backdrop of social media and real-time commentary, including from the Republican president himself. 'These hearings will address subjects of profound consequence for the Nation and the functioning of our government under the Constitution,' said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the inquiry, in a memo to lawmakers. Schiff called it a 'solemn undertaking,' and counseled colleagues to 'approach these proceedings with the seriousness of purpose and love of country that they demand.' 'Total impeachment scam,' tweeted the president, as he does virtually every day. Impeachments are rare, historians say, because they amount to nothing short of the nullification of an election. Starting down this road poses risks for both Democrats and Republicans as proceedings push into the 2020 campaign. Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a 'cancer on the presidency' moment galvanizing public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton's impeachment ultimately didn't result in his removal from office. It's perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War. Trump calls the whole thing a 'witch hunt,' a retort that echoes Nixon's own defense. Republicans say Democrats have been trying to get rid of this president since he took office, starting with former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 election. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. As Democrats took control of the House in January, Pelosi said impeachment would be 'too divisive' for the country. Trump, she said, was simply 'not worth it.' After Mueller's appearance on Capitol Hill in July for the end of the Russia probe, the door to impeachment proceedings seemed closed. But the next day Trump got on the phone. For the past month, witness after witness has testified under oath about his July 25 phone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the alarms it set off in U.S. diplomatic and national security circles. In a secure room in the Capitol basement, current and former officials have been telling lawmakers what they know. They've said an earlier Trump call in April congratulating Zelenskiy on his election victory seemed fine. The former U.S. reality TV host and the young Ukrainian comedian hit it off. But in the July call, things turned. An anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to the phone call. 'I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election,' the person wrote in August to the House and Senate Intelligence committees. Democrats fought for the letter to be released to them as required. 'I am deeply concerned,' the whistleblower wrote. Trump insisted the call was 'perfect.' The White House released a rough transcript. Pelosi, given the nod from her most centrist freshman lawmakers, opened the inquiry. 'The president has his opportunity to prove his innocence,' she told Noticias Telemundo on Tuesday. Defying White House orders not to appear, witnesses have testified that Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was withholding U.S. military aid to the budding democracy until the new Ukraine government conducted investigations Trump wanted into Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter. It was all part of what Taylor, the long-serving top diplomat in Ukraine, called the 'irregular' foreign policy being led by Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, outside of traditional channels. Taylor said it was 'crazy' that the Trump administration was withholding U.S. military assistance to the East European ally over the political investigations, with Russian forces on Ukraine's border on watch for a moment of weakness. Kent, the bowtie-wearing State Department official, told investigators there were three things Trump wanted of Ukraine: 'Investigations, Biden, Clinton.' On Friday, the public is scheduled to hear from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who told investigators she was warned to 'watch my back' as Trump undercut and then recalled her. Eight more witnesses will testify in public hearings next week. 'What this affords is the opportunity for the cream of our diplomatic corps to tell the American people a clear and consistent story of what the president did,' said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence panel. 'It takes a lot of courage to do what they are doing,' he said, 'and they are probably just going to be abused for it.' Republicans, led on the panel by Rep. Devin Nunes, a longtime Trump ally from California, will argue that none of those witnesses has first-hand knowledge of the president's actions. They will say Ukraine never felt pressured and the aid money eventually flowed, in September. Yet Republicans are struggling to form a unified defense of Trump. Instead they often fall back on criticism of the process. Some Republicans align with Trump's view, which is outside of mainstream intelligence findings, that Ukraine was involved in 2016 U.S. election interference. They want to hear from Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine, Burisma, while his father was the vice president. And they are trying to bring forward the still-anonymous whistleblower, whose identity Democrats have vowed to protect. The framers of the Constitution provided few details about how the impeachment proceedings should be run, leaving much for Congress to decide. Democrats say the White House's refusal to provide witnesses or produce documents is obstruction and itself impeachable. Hearings are expected to continue and will shift, likely by Thanksgiving, to the Judiciary Committee to consider actual articles of impeachment. The House, which is controlled by Democrats, is expected to vote by Christmas. That would launch a trial in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, in the new year. ___ Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Donald Trump will meet as relations between the two NATO allies are at their lowest point in decades, with Turkey rebuffing the U.S. and turning toward Russia on security issues and Ankara facing a Washington backlash over attacks on Kurdish civilians during its incursion into Syria last month. Erdogan and Trump have a difficult agenda Wednesday that includes Turkey's decision to buy a Russian air defense system and its attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Their scheduled afternoon news conference, however, will give Trump a stage to counter the first public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry. Trump says Turkey has been a critical U.S. ally for decades, cites the strong economic upside to the relationship and maintains that the two countries have enough in common to overcome their differences. Some in Congress say Erdogan should never have been invited to the White House in the first place. Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to sanction senior Turkish officials and its army for the military incursion into Syria to fight the Kurds. Erdogan sees Kurdish forces in Syria as an extension of a separatist Kurdish group that's been fighting inside Turkey since the 1980s. In the Senate, two Democrats introduced legislation denouncing Turkey's targeting of journalists, political opponents, dissidents, minorities and others. They said the Turkish government had imprisoned more than 80,000 Turkish citizens, closed more than 1,500 non-governmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds and dismissed or suspended more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs. 'This is not the time or place to be extending hospitality and exchanging niceties with a dictator,' said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. In October, Trump moved U.S. troops in Syria out of the way of invading Turkish troops, a decision that critics said amounted to abandoning America's Kurdish allies to be attacked. 'It has upended what was an oasis of stability, damaged U.S. credibility and standing on the world stage and strengthened the hands of Russia, Iran' and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, Shaheen said. Trump administration officials have said the president told Turkey not to invade Syria. But when Erdogan insisted, they say Trump decided to move 28 Green Berets operating on the Turkey-Syria border so they wouldn't be caught in a crossfire between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurds. A State Department official said Trump is not rewarding Erdogan with a White House visit but is conducting diplomacy. The official said high-level consultations are needed because of the volatile situation in Syria that has displaced tens of thousands of people. Amnesty International recently released a report documenting killings, human rights violations and possible war crimes caused by Turkey-backed forces in northern Syria. 'There has been a callous disregard for civilian lives, including attacks on residential areas,' said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. 'Over 100,000 people have fled this offensive and there are fears that the displaced are not getting access to food, to clear water, or to medical supplies.' She said Trump must send a message to Erdogan that these actions and unlawful behavior must stop and that those responsible be held accountable. A senior State Department official said that the U.S. is following up on reports of human rights violations and indiscriminate killings. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Turkey to investigate reported cases of summary executions committed by a Turkish-backed armed group in northern Syria. The U.N. cited video footage showing fighters with the Ahrar al-Sharqiya armed group filming themselves capturing and executing three Kurdish captives on a highway in northern Syria. The State Department has looked into these killings and has asked Turkey to investigate. The Turks have told the U.S. that the Syrians have set up a commission, the official said, but it's unclear what, if any, action the panel will take. Turkey reached truce agreements with Russia and the United States last month that halted the incursion and forced Kurdish fighters to retreat from Turkey's southern border. But Erdogan claims the Kurds have not vacated border areas and says he will give Trump a list of attacks carried out by Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish-led force. On the U.S. side, Trump will be expressing continued concern about Erdogan's purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The U.S. and fellow NATO nations say the S-400 would aid Russian intelligence and compromise a U.S.-led fighter jet program. The U.S. has since kicked Erdogan out of a multinational program producing components of America's high-tech F-35 fighter jet. In response, Erdogan attended an annual Russian air show this summer in Moscow and expressed interest in buying the latest Russian Su-35 fighter jets. Trump has not yet decided whether to impose congressional sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase. During his visit, Erdogan will be trying to get Turkey back in the F-35 program and also try to end an ongoing prosecution against a major Turkish bank, said Max Hoffman at Center for American Progress. Halkbank is accused of carrying out a scheme to evade sanctions against Iran by moving billions of dollars of Iranian oil revenue illegally. Birol Baskan, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, says Turkey needs the U.S. on its side to balance Russia and Iran's interests in Syria. 'The problem is, the U.S. seems not to be interested in doing that,' Baskan said.
  • Millions of Americans are expected to watch on live TV Wednesday as the House kicks off public hearings on whether to impeach President Donald Trump. Just don't expect many Republican senators to be among them, if a quick sampling of them is to be believed. Of eight Senate Republicans questioned Tuesday evening, seven said they wouldn't watch Wednesday's start of the Democratic-led process or suggested it wasn't a priority. 'Tomorrow I'm going to be paying attention to what we're doing in the Senate,' said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he'd be chairing an Environment and Public Works Committee session. He invited reporters to attend — an offer that even on a slow day on Capitol Hill would likely garner few takers. 'I'll be doing something else,' said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an ardent Trump ally. Graham said he didn't want to legitimize a process that he twice called 'bulls---' because it was an unfair effort by Democrats aimed at weakening Trump. Of course, skeptics might say it was possible senators might privately sneak peeks, at least, of the hearing while claiming they'd not watched. That assertion could let them avoid answering reporters' questions about the day's developments. Yet even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the GOP senator who's seemed most open to considering impeachment, said he'd not be watching. He said he'd focus on it when, if it seems likely, the Senate holds a trial on whether to remove Trump, when the charges can be 'weighed in a balanced manner.' Among other Republican senators, Texas' John Cornyn said he didn't need to 'waste time going through all the drama over there' in the House. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he didn't have time on his schedule to watch while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, doubted he'd view the 'partisan circus.' Only Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she'd 'probably watch some of it.' 'I'll see what America's going to see,' she said.
  • For three years, Donald Trump has unapologetically defied the conventions of the American presidency. On Wednesday, he comes face to face with the limits of his power, confronting an impeachment process enshrined in the Constitution that will play out in public and help shape how the president will be viewed by voters next year and in the history books for generations. Trump accepted the Republican nomination, declaring that 'I alone can fix' the nation's problems. Once elected, he set about reshaping the presidency, bending and dismantling institutions surrounding the 230-year-old office. Now a parade of career public servants will raise their hands and swear an oath to the truth, not the presidency, representing an integral part of the system of checks and balances envisioned by the Founding Fathers. 'Trump can do away with the traditions and niceties of the office, but he can't get away from the Constitution,' said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University. 'During Watergate, many people feared that if a president collapsed, America is broken. But the lesson of Nixon is that the Constitution is durable and the country can handle it.' The Democrats will try to make the case that the president tried to extort a foreign nation, Ukraine, to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. But even if the House ultimately votes to make Trump only the third American president to be impeached, few expect the Republican-controlled Senate to eventually remove Trump from office. 'Even if reelected, it's a dark mark,' Brinkley said. 'He does not get off scot-free. There is a penalty you pay.' Trump enters the crucible of the public hearings largely alone — by his own design. He has killed the White House daily press briefing, likes to make announcements himself on Twitter and prefers to get his message out during chaotic jousting sessions with reporters in the Oval Office or as he comes and goes to his presidential helicopter. He has railed against the lack of support from his staff and Republicans on Capitol Hill, insisting that they stop limiting their complaints to the impeachment process and start defending his actions, a request that has unsettled some Republicans trying to get a handle on ever-shifting explanations coming from the White House. Although a number of the president's advisers believe that impeachment could be a political winner for Trump on the campaign trail next year, the president has reacted angrily to the probe. He defends his summer phone call with Ukraine's leader, which is at the heart of the inquiry, as 'perfect' while deriding the impeachment effort as a conspiracy among Democrats and the 'deep state.' Some help is on the way. The White House bolstered its communications team by hiring former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh. But Bondi and Sayegh may not be in place before Wednesday's hearings, owing to paperwork associated with entering White House employment, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters. The Republican National Committee will be lining up supporters to publicly defend the president, including a Thursday conference call for regional reporters with presidential son Eric Trump that is aimed at putting pressure on vulnerable House Democrats. Many of them represent districts that the president won in 2016. Although Trump teased Tuesday that he will soon release the transcript of his April phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, White House officials are not confirming that any such release is forthcoming. That first call to Zelenskiy is widely known to have been largely a congratulatory conversation after Zelenskiy's election. It was the rough transcript of Trump's second call with Zelenskiy, in July, that prompted a whistleblower's complaint . Releasing a transcript of the first call could be an attempt by the White House to distract from the congressional hearings, though the impeachment inquiry has moved well beyond the phone calls into broader attempts by the president and his allies to prod Ukraine to investigate Democrats by using U.S. military aid as leverage. Trump has his own version of counterprogramming ready to go up against the hearings. He is scheduled to hold a noon meeting Wednesday with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and hold a joint afternoon news conference with the Turkish leader. Their meeting comes just weeks after Trump's decision to pull most U.S. forces out of Syria led to a violent Turkish invasion. In the morning, Trump is expected to watch the impeachment proceedings from the White House residence and on a TV just off the Oval Office. The president's supporters, meanwhile, have been working to discredit the proceedings by finding fault with the way the process has played out and the cast of witnesses who have come forward to testify. 'At its core, this is an impeachment push by career bureaucrats to undermine President Trump's 'America First' foreign policy and politically minded Democrats who want to kneecap him ahead of the 2020 election,' said Jason Miller, senior adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign. 'If Republicans stick together, Trump will not just survive this, he will defeat the impeachment hoax and be re-elected. It's merely the latest episode in a pattern of Democrats and unelected bureaucrats trying to undermine the presidency.' The timetable for the impeachment proceedings is not firm. But a trial in the Senate, were it to occur, could stretch until the first presidential votes are cast in February's Iowa caucus. The final stakes could rest with the voters next year. 'Trump is now up against the Constitution, but he's not the only thing on trial: So are we the people, as the preamble described us so long ago,' said presidential historian Jon Meacham of Vanderbilt University. 'Impeachment is a political, not a legal, process, and those with a political stake in this presidency — which is to say, his supporters at large and in the House and the Senate — need to decide which is more important: the efficacy of checks and balances or the continued reign of a president who seems to take pleasure in flouting those checks and balances.' ___ Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report. ___ Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire
  • Republicans who lead the Wisconsin Assembly voted Tuesday to call the state Capitol evergreen a Christmas tree and formally recognize National Bible Week, moves they said were necessary to ensure Christianity isn't marginalized as the holidays approach. The 64-30 vote on naming the tree was a direct response to Gov. Tony Evers' declaration last week that it would be called a 'holiday tree.' Evers' Republican predecessor Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, declared the evergreen was a Christmas tree during his first term in 2011. 'It seems like the only religion we're willing to take shots at is Christianity,' Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke told reporters during a news conference. Democratic Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, who is Jewish, told Republicans if they want to help Christians they should pass gun control bills to keep them from getting killed. 'Instead of doing something substantive and helpful, we're trying to politicize a tree,' he said. The Assembly also voted 86-9 without debate to adopt a resolution recognizing Thanksgiving week as National Bible Week. 'Bible reading has been a great encouragement and comfort for many people throughout our state's history and has contributed to the molding of the spiritual, moral and social fiber of our citizenry,' the resolution states. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has called the resolution 'highly inappropriate.' 'Dedicating a week to the bible directly endorses Christianity over other religions, thereby telling non-Christian citizens we are second-class citizens for being the 'wrong' religion,' the foundation said in a statement released last week. 'Imagine the uproar were the Legislature to promote 'National Quran Week in Wisconsin.'' The spat over Christian symbols marks the latest chapter in an acrimonious relationship between legislative Republicans and the Democratic governor. It began before Evers even took office, when the Legislature pushed through — and Walker signed — measures in a lame-duck session aimed at limiting the Democrat's powers. After Evers called the tree a holiday tree on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald tweeted that the move was 'PC garbage.' The state Department of Administration has for decades placed a huge evergreen in the Capitol rotunda and decorated it with ornaments submitted by Wisconsin schoolchildren. The agency allows other groups to place displays celebrating end-of-the-year holidays in the rotunda as well, including a menorah and a Festivus pole, a nod to the fictional holiday in the 'Seinfeld' television series, but the tree towers over them all. Politicians called the tree a Christmas tree until the mid-1980s, when they started referring to it as a holiday tree to avoid accusations they were endorsing religion. Rep. Scott Krug introduced the resolution declaring the tree a Christmas tree on Monday. Republican leaders brought it to the Assembly floor Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours later. Krug said that Evers is trying to exclude Christians from the holiday season. 'This resolution is about inclusion of the Christian holiday,' he said. The Bible week resolution's author, Rep. Paul Tittl, said he's 'not just pumping out Christianity.' He said the Bible plays a role in other religions, such as Judaism, and a host of popular expressions stem from it, including the phrases going the extra mile and pride coming before a fall. Tittl described himself as a 'born-again Christian.' 'I am who I am,' he said. 'What am I going to do, change because I'm a lawmaker?' The Freedom from Religion Foundation said in a statement following the votes that legislators are misusing their secular authority to promote their own religious views and 'so-called holy book' over other religions and atheism. 'The Wisconsin Assembly seems to believe it's a time for good will to Christians and bad will to all the rest of us,' the foundation said. ___ Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/trichmond1
  • The closed doors of the Trump impeachment investigation are swinging wide open. When the gavel strikes at the start of the House hearing Wednesday morning, America and the rest of the world will have the chance to see and hear for themselves for the first time about President Donald Trump's actions toward Ukraine and consider whether they are, in fact, impeachable offenses. It's a remarkable moment, even for a White House full of them. All on TV, committee leaders will set the stage, then comes the main feature: Two seasoned diplomats, William Taylor, the graying former infantry officer now charge d'affaires in Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary in Washington, telling the striking, if sometimes complicated story of a president allegedly using foreign policy for personal and political gain ahead of the 2020 election. So far, the narrative is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump's unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic, but vague, bar for impeachment, and there's no consensus yet that Trump's actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' Whether Wednesday's proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump's position, it's certain that his chaotic term has finally arrived at a place he cannot control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he cannot ignore. The country has been here just three times before, and never against the backdrop of social media and real-time commentary, including from the president himself. 'These hearings will address subjects of profound consequence for the Nation and the functioning of our government under the Constitution,' said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the inquiry, in a memo to lawmakers. Schiff called it a 'solemn undertaking,' and counseled colleagues to 'approach these proceedings with the seriousness of purpose and love of country that they demand.' 'Total impeachment scam,' tweeted the president, as he does virtually every day. Impeachments are rare, historians say, because they amount to nothing short of the nullification of an election. Starting down this road poses risks for both Democrats and Republicans as proceedings push into the 2020 campaign. Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a 'cancer on the presidency' moment galvanizing public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton's impeachment ultimately didn't result in his removal from office. It's perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War. Trump calls the whole thing a 'witch hunt,' a retort that echoes Nixon's own defense. Republicans say Democrats have been trying to get rid of this president since he first took office, starting with former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 election. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. As Democrats took control of the House in January, Pelosi said impeachment would be 'too divisive' for the country. Trump, she said, was simply 'not worth it.' After Mueller's appearance on Capitol Hill in July for the end of the Russia probe, the door to impeachment proceedings seemed closed. But the next day Trump got on the phone. For the past month, witness after witness has testified under oath about his July 25 phone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the alarms it set off in U.S. diplomatic and national security circles. In a secure room in the Capitol basement, current and former officials have been telling lawmakers what they know. They've said an earlier Trump call in April congratulating Zelenskiy on his election victory seemed fine. The former U.S. reality TV host and the young Ukrainian comedian hit it off. But in the July call, things turned. An anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to the phone call. 'I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election,' the person wrote in August to the House and Senate Intelligence committees. Democrats fought for the letter to be released to them as required. 'I am deeply concerned,' the whistleblower wrote. Trump insisted the call was 'perfect.' The White House released a rough transcript. Pelosi, given the nod from her most centrist freshman lawmakers, opened the inquiry. On Tuesday, she laid out the message she wants people to hear Wednesday: 'The truth.' 'It's a calm day, it's a prayerful day, it's a solemn day for our country,' Pelosi told reporters. 'It's a sad day which I wish we never had to face.' Defying White House orders not to appear, witnesses have testified that Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was withholding U.S. military aid to the budding democracy until the new Ukraine government conducted investigations Trump wanted into Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter. It was all part of what Taylor, the long-serving top diplomat in Ukraine, called the 'irregular' foreign policy being led by Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, outside of traditional channels. Taylor said it was 'crazy' that the Trump administration was withholding U.S. military assistance to the East European ally over the political investigations, with Russian forces on Ukraine's border on watch for a moment of weakness. Kent, the bowtie-wearing State Department official, told investigators there were three things Trump wanted of Ukraine: 'Investigations, Biden, Clinton.' On Friday, the public is scheduled to hear from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who told investigators she was warned to 'watch my back' as Trump undercut and then recalled her. Eight more witnesses will testify in public hearings next week. 'What this affords is the opportunity for the cream of our diplomatic corps to tell the American people a clear and consistent story of what the president did,' said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence panel. 'It takes a lot of courage to do what they are doing,' he said, 'and they are probably just going to be abused for it.' Republicans, led on the panel by Rep. Devin Nunes, a longtime Trump ally from California, will argue that none of those witnesses has first-hand knowledge of the president's actions. They will say Ukraine never felt pressured and the aid money eventually flowed, in September. Yet Republicans are struggling to form a unified defense of Trump. Instead they often fall back on criticism of the process. Some Republicans align with Trump's view, which is outside of mainstream intelligence findings, that Ukraine was involved in 2016 U.S. election interference. They want to hear from Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine, Burisma, while his father was the vice president. And they are trying to bring forward the still-anonymous whistleblower, whose identity Democrats have vowed to protect. The framers of the Constitution provided few details about how the impeachment proceedings should be run, leaving much for Congress to decide. Democrats say the White House's refusal to provide witnesses or produce documents is obstruction and itself impeachable. Hearings are expected to continue and will shift, likely by Thanksgiving, to the Judiciary Committee to consider actual articles of impeachment. The House, which is controlled by Democrats, is expected to vote by Christmas. That would launch a trial in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, in the new year. ___ Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.
  • The Army's use of a China-owned video app called TikTok as part of a new campaign to recruit young people into the service is raising concerns on Capitol Hill. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer sent a letter to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy asking about potential national security risks posed by the social media platform. Schumer said national security experts have raised concerns about TikTok's collection and handling of user data, including personal information, locations and other content. And he noted that Chinese laws compel companies to cooperate with China's government and intelligence collection. 'While I recognize that the Army must adapt its recruiting techniques in order to attract young Americans to serve, I urge you to assess the potential national security risks posed by China-owned technology companies before choosing to utilize certain platforms,' Schumer, D-N.Y., said in the letter. His comments came in the wake of broader U.S. interest in TikTok, which is used by millions of young adults and teenagers. The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews acquisitions by foreign firms, has started a preliminary review of TikTok owner ByteDance's acquisition of another app, Musical.ly, according to an official. The committee does not comment on specific cases, but an official familiar with the matter said preliminary discussions are underway. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Lt. Col. Audricia Harris, a spokeswoman for McCarthy, said Tuesday that the Army is aware of the TikTok concerns. 'While these concerns are not unique to any specific social media platform, we take matters of security seriously and make every effort to ensure our force is safeguarding sensitive and personal information,' Harris said. TikTok has said its data is not subject to Chinese law and that it does not remove content based on 'sensitivities related to China.' On the app, people share short videos, often set to music. Faced with recruiting struggles, the Army over the past year has begun to shift to more online communications, saying that young people are now more interested in connecting online rather than in person. As a result, the Army is sending teams of recruiters into popular gaming contests such as Ultimate Fighter, Madden Football or the addictive Fortnite: Battle Royale, an online survival game. And recruiters are allowed to use online apps to reach young people. The issue has also been raised as a wider concern for Defense Department personnel. Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department doesn't provide specific guidance on individual social media platforms, but instead issues broader recommendations. 'Threats posed by social media are not unique to TikTok, though they may certainly be greater on that platform, and DoD personnel must be cautious when making any public or social media post,' he said. Schumer also asked the U.S. intelligence community to assess national-security risks of TikTok and other Chinese-owned content platforms in the U.S. In his letter to McCarthy, Schumer asked if the Army consulted with the intelligence community about TikTok and other China-owned platforms, or if there were future plans to do so. ___ Associated Press writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.