Home News Trump faces twin crises as Congress returns – POLITICO

Trump faces twin crises as Congress returns – POLITICO

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Congress returns Tuesday to an impeachment inquiry moving into high gear and a rapidly unfolding foreign policy disaster in Syria that’s undermining President Donald Trump’s standing in his own party.

House investigators are scheduled to hear crucial testimony this week from several key witnesses in the Ukraine scandal, including Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a major GOP donor. Fiona Hill, formerly Trump’s top adviser on Russia and Ukraine, testified for more than nine hours on Monday before members and aides of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

And a number of top Trump officials and associates — including Vice President Mike Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney — are facing deadlines this week to comply with Democratic demands for documents related to the president’s efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate the Biden family.

Yet as Democrats enter the fourth week of their impeachment inquiry, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other party leaders are wrestling with a number of key decisions, including when — and how — to take their case to the American public. So far, polls show support rising for Trump’s impeachment, yet the public remains ambivalent about actually removing him from office. And the GOP base remains solidly behind Trump, as do Republican lawmakers.

For Republicans, Trump’s behavior is growing more unpredictable even as his reelection campaign moves forward, making it harder to defend the president even as their political futures are increasingly tied to his own. Trump’s pullout from Syria, which has left the U.S.-allied Kurds to fend for themselves, has angered Republicans more than any action he’s taken since assuming office in January 2017, rattling the GOP national security and foreign policy establishments to the core.

His rhetoric on the campaign trial is increasingly raw and uncensored. Trump said Pelosi was “either really stupid or she’s really lost it” during a Minneapolis rally last week, while repeating fringe right-wing conspiracies centered on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). And even top Republicans will privately admit that the White House’s blanket refusal to cooperate in any way with Democrats on the Ukraine probe challenges the fundamental power of Congress to oversee the executive branch.

At the heart of the impeachment inquiry is whether Trump withheld military aid and a coveted White House meeting in exchange for Ukrainian officials investigating the Bidens. Trump has denied an explicit “quid pro quo,” yet the White House’s own summary of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows Trump pressing the Ukrainians to move ahead with a Biden probe. Text messages released by former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Kurt Volker also buttress the Democrats’ case.

While congressional investigators are unlikely to make much headway in their quest for documents from the White House, Democrats got a boost last Friday when Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted former ambassador to Ukraine, defied the Trump administration’s non-cooperation strategy and testified to Congress under a subpoena. Her closed-door deposition has given new hope to Democrats that other current and former Trump officials may feel empowered to come speak to the committees.

“It’s clear we have plenty when it comes to the president’s admission of a crime. The challenge we have is that the public has to be part of this. And you saw things significantly change after the revelation of the Trump-Ukraine call,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “We have to proceed at a pace that helps the public understand why we feel a sense of urgency.”

So far, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other senior Republicans have attacked Democrats on procedural grounds, repeating the White House line that the probe is “witch hunt” by Democrats angry over Trump’s 2016 victory.

“Impeachment is different than anything else you do. You literally are changing the course of an election,” said one senior GOP lawmaker.

The GOP has been ratcheting up pressure on Democrats to hold public hearings, formally vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry – as has been done in the past – and release the transcripts of their closed-door briefings, accusing Democrats of trying to shroud their impeachment investigation in secrecy.

“What you’re seeing is a strategy by Adam Schiff and the Democrats to have closed-door depositions in his bunker here in the basement of the United States Capitol, and then to cherry pick out facts that they think can be spun to best help make their case by also withholding other key facts,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) told reporters Monday ahead of Hill’s scheduled deposition.

Trump and Republicans have seized on one text message that Sondland sent to another U.S. diplomat saying there were “no quid pro quo’s of any kind” with Ukraine. But the Washington Post reported that Sondland will testify this week that the president told him to deny that there was a quid pro quo, knee-capping one of the GOP’s chief talking points.

Democrats have thus far resisted calls to formally vote on opening an impeachment inquiry, saying Republicans are just trying to distract from the substance of the allegations against Trump and pointing out it’s not required by the constitution.

Another pressing issue for Democrats is securing testimony from the whistleblower who brought the entire Ukraine episode to light. Yet House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) signaled Sunday that the whistleblower may not even end up testifying, due to safety concerns. Some Democrats also believe they have enough evidence to move forward without the whistleblower. Trump has repeatedly called for the whistleblower’s identity to be publicly revealed while demanding the right to question his accuser.

“Our primary interest right now is making sure that that person is protected,” Schiff (D-Calif.) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation“ on Sunday. “We do want to make sure that we identify other evidence that is pertinent to the [investigation] — the withholding of the military support, the effort to cover this up by hiding this in a classified computer system.. It may not be necessary to take steps that might reveal the whistleblower’s identity to do that.”

Democrats may also be tempted to expand the scope of their investigation as new revelations continue to pop up. But most members are preaching a tightly focused and disciplined message and appear to be coalescing around a limited number of articles of impeachment related to the Ukrainian scandal.

“I think their current stonewalling and obstruction almost compels us to have more than one article – not a laundry list, a small number of clear articles of impeachment, one of which I think will form around obstruction,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

Republicans will face their own set of challenges. GOP lawmakers — many of whom have avoided questions over the past two weeks about whether it was appropriate for Trump to solicit foreign assistance for political gain — will be confronted by reporters in the Capitol with the latest revelations in the Ukraine scandal.

While lawmakers were at home with their constituents during the two week recess, Justice Department prosecutors arrested a pair of Giuliani associates who helped dig up dirt on Biden in Ukraine and accused them of campaign finance violations. And Democrats released a trove of text messages between U.S. diplomats who were trying to secure a public commitment from Ukraine that it would look into the Biden family.

The Turkish military attack on Kurdish forces in northern Syria is another crisis for Trump. Republicans are fuming over Trump’s decision to abandon a U.S. ally who offered invaluable aid in the fight against ISIS, a rare public rebuke of Trump by his own party.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) promised to move quickly on two legislative packages related to Syria. Democrats will move a resolution condemning Trump’s action, a measure that is expected to pass on a party line vote.

But Engel and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member on Foreign Affairs, are planning a bipartisan bill to impose economic sanctions on Turkey. Top Republicans believe there will be an “overwhelming vote” on that package. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) are pushing a similar bill in the Senate.

With even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasting Trump’s move – although McConnell was careful to avoid criticizing Trump by name – the White House moved Monday to try to preempt the congressional backlash by imposing sanctions on Turkey on its own.

“The United States will aggressively use economic sanctions to target those who enable, facilitate, and finance these heinous acts in Syria,” Trump said in a statement. “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.”

Trump said the U.S. government will target “those who may be involved in serious human rights abuses, obstructing a cease-fire, preventing displaced persons from returning home, forcibly repatriating refugees or threatening the peace, security or stability in Syria.”

Tariffs on Turkish steel imports will be raised by 50 percent, and U.S. negotiators will abandon talks around a $100 bill trade package with Turkey. And Pence on Monday afternoon told reporters he’ll travel to Turkey to “bring violence to an end.”

Trump’s Syria decision has fueled speculation on Capitol Hill about whether the move will alienate Republicans and prod them into supporting impeachment.

Retiring Rep. John Shimkus went so far as to say he no longer supports Trump after he pulled troops from Syria. But the Illinois Republican, however, hasn’t backed the impeachment inquiry — despite saying he was “troubled” by the Ukraine call.

Heather Caygle and Andrew Desiderio contributed.

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