January 16, 2020

Where can you even start today? The weirdest thing is that so much has happened, the opening of the third Senate impeachment trial in our nation’s history seems like one of the day’s little stories.

Last night, on the eve of the opening of the Senate impeachment trial for Trump, indicted political operative Lev Parnas gave an interview to Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC television show. Parnas was not under oath, of course, and has reason to slant things his own way. But he is also eager to cut a deal with the judge assigned to his case, so it is unlikely that he will deliberately lie. He also seems to believe that the president’s men were setting him up to take the fall for them.

With that warning in mind: his allegations were blockbusters. Both his statements and the documents released Tuesday and Wednesday undermine the argument that Trump's friend and sometime lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his team were operating without Trump’s knowledge. A letter from Giuliani to Ukraine President Volodymyr asks for a meeting in Giuliani’s “capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent.” Parnas insisted that there was no reason for anyone to listen to him without the power of Giuliani and Trump behind him, an argument that is quite believable. Trump, he says, “knew exactly what was going on.”

Parnas also implicated Vice President Mike Pence, who, Parnas alleges, was in charge of the Ukraine project—getting Zelensky to announce an investigation into the Bidens—and Attorney General William Barr, who, you will recall, Trump mentioned explicitly as someone that Zelensky should talk to after he asked for a favor in the infamous July 25 phone call. Parnas also implicated California Representative Devin Nunes, Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee (which means he’s the top Republican on the Committee), of being in on the scheme.

Shortly after the Parnas segment aired, Nunes went onto the Fox News Channel to admit that he did, in fact, talk to Lev Parnas, although when records of their calls first came out during the impeachment investigation, he insisted that he had never heard Parnas’s name.

Then, this morning, the Government Accountability Office, the GAO, the nonpartisan government agency that investigates spending, concluded that the White House Office of Management and Budget broke the law when it froze the US aid to Ukraine. Although we know that officials at OMB were concerned they were breaking the law, Trump supporters have repeatedly said that the hold was a lawful exercise of presidential authority. The GAO says it wasn’t, and that the Impoundment Control Act was broken. “Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” it said in its report.

It went further, though noting that the OMB and the State Department had refused “to provide the information we need to perform our duties,” a stance the GAO believes has “constitutional significance.” The Constitution gives Congress—not the Executive—power of the purse, and this attack on that power is an assault on the Constitution, the report concludes.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who took Russian money from Lev Parnas, says that even though withholding the aid broke the law, “I think it was the rightful thing to do.” Despite the GAO report, which spells out in detail that there is no way the funds were withheld to fight corruption (and really, who are we kidding here when we pretend Trump cares about corruption?), McCarthy instead cites a counterargument by OMB (which is, of course, under the control of acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who was in charge of organizing the Ukraine Scandal) that says Trump was just trying to stop corruption. Rather like asking the fox if it was legal to dine on the chickens.

Today, the Senate received the articles of impeachment from the House and began the Senate trial of the president. Chief Justice John Roberts swore in the Senators as jurors.

While the trial was going on, Trump first tweeted, in all caps: I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” then announced a trade deal, and used the time in front of cameras to try to grab headlines away from what had just gotten underway nearby. He called out attendee after attendee, and when he got to a lawyer, he said “I could use some good lawyers, right? Ah, to hell with it. I just have to suffer through it the way I have all my life.”

Trump insists he has no idea who Parnas is, a claim belied by the many, many photos of the two of them together in settings that are clearly not usual meet and greets.

Republican supporters of Trump are trying to pretend that the Parnas information doesn’t matter. Indeed, Susan Collins (R-ME) faulted the House for not uncovering the information during the impeachment hearings, but as conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin pointed out in the Washington Post, the Department of Justice has had those documents since October and has sat on them. It was only earlier this month that a district judge permitted Parnas to share them with the House. So it’s a little unclear exactly what the House should’ve done differently. In any case, it seems a complete no-brainer now to call Parnas as a witness. Nonetheless, Republicans Senators are trying to argue that they have no duty to do anything but hear what the House produced.

But their position isn’t tenable. Sure, they can vote to acquit Trump—and it is still likely they’ll do so—but to what end? There is simply no way that the information dumps are over, and who knows what’s in them? If senators acquit in exchange for Trump’s short-term support (which they need. Did you see how fast he turned on Matt Gaetz over the War Powers vote?), they have to assume they are doomed in the long term, unless Americans just decide we don’t care about the corruption that is now associated with the entire Republican Party.

I don’t think that’s gonna happen.

With all this going on, things are just weirdly out of kilter.

Our Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who has been implicated in the Ukraine Scandal and who refused to defend US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch when she needed official support to push back on the smears coming from Giuliani, Parnas, Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity, and journalist for The Hill, John Solomon, has gone to ground. The cache of texts the House Intelligence Committee released on Tuesday night revealed that operative Robert Hyde, currently running for Senate from Connecticut, appeared to have Yovanovitch under surveillance before she had to be removed abruptly from her position. Today, Ukraine announced it was opening an investigation (ironically!) into the conditions of her apparent surveillance. Yet the Secretary of State, under whom ambassadors work, has said nothing. While Pompeo has gone on Fox News Channel a lot recently to defend the killing of Iranian Qassem Soleimani, he skipped a briefing on that killing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week, and the State Department cancelled two classified briefings yesterday.

And more on that front: the Iranian attack on January 8 did, in fact, result in injury to eleven soldiers, who are being treated for traumatic brain injuries, or what a spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad called “concussion symptoms from the blast.” He said they are “still being assessed” after being medically evacuated to U.S. military hospitals in Kuwait and Germany.

Officers at the office of the Director of National Intelligence do not want their people to go on television and contradict Trump, so they have asked Congress to drop the public portion of the annual briefing on the greatest security threats in the world. Last year’s hearing touched on Russia’s attacks on the 2016 election, and sent Trump to Twitter to call leaders of the Intelligence Community “passive” and “naïve,” and said they “should go back to school!” (we do not have a director right now, but rather an acting Director Joseph Maguire, who took office August 16 and thus was the one who refused to release the whistleblower’s report to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as required by law).

Tonight the Justice Department announced it is investigating former head of the FBI James B. Comey for the second time, for leaking classified information in 2016, in what appears to be an attempt to calm Trump, who has repeatedly called Comey a “leaker” and says he should be prosecuted for “unlawful conduct.” (There is no evidence for this accusation.)

Today is my first day even vaguely vertical in a week (thanks for all your concern and I do think I’m getting better), and all I can see is a news tornado that looks an awful lot like growing outrage over Trump’s attacks on our democracy, and growing desperation in Trump’s camp. According to MSNBC, last night’s episode of Rachel Maddow was the show’s highest rated show ever, with 4.5 million viewers.

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Notes:

MSNBC ratings:

Nunes:

Parnas: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/16/lev-parnas-revelations-trump-100216

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/giuliani-associate-parnas-says-trump-knew-exactly-what-was-going-n1116731?fbclid=IwAR26skGin7L-8RgKdRpA4WczPOOXPONkuMUym_aAvZ7uNK9qJCiEyOBZ8D8

https://www.newsweek.com/lev-parnas-says-mike-pence-was-tasked-getting-ukraine-president-announce-investigation-bidens-1482456?fbclid=IwAR3j5wv2MeAv4lzI1pFq6FwwSCyChPTEMKHRe5AB7mqtXbnQ5ab2KzYrP8U

https://www.salon.com/2020/01/16/lev-parnas-implicates-mike-pence-bill-barr-and-devin-nunes-in-trump-ukraine-scheme/

GAO https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/16/white-house-violated-the-law-by-freezing-ukraine-aid-gao-says-099682

GAO report: https://www.politico.com/f/?id=0000016f-aee6-dda2-af6f-efef31580000

Trump on parnas: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/16/lev-parnas-trump-relationship-100058

Pompeo: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/01/mike-pompeo-masha-yovanovitch-ukraine-state-department?utm_brand=vf&mbid=social_facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_social-type=owned&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR2AILSwjdOgLWi8riBqH-cBh7pdXGBVwlMquHrw9P5xU7-2y9Muu_ekjXU

https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/16/politics/pompeo-state-department-silence-new-evidence/index.html

Ukraine investigation: https://abcnews.go.com/International/ukraine-opens-criminal-investigation-surveillance-marie-yovanovitch/story?id=68324113&cid=social_fb_abcn&fbclid=IwAR2AEnjlSmwZv7gpEAEMe7H5AMKOqAXTnjLmF_LqO00B98udfUjrQkbAMp8

Soldiers: https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2020/01/eleven-us-troops-were-injured-jan-8-iran-missile-strike/162502/?oref=DefenseOneTCO

GOP https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/senate-impeachment-trial-begins-with-rancor-over-witnesses-and-new-evidence-about-trumps-ukraine-dealings/2020/01/16/1a700436-3899-11ea-9541-9107303481a4_story.html

Comey: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/16/us/politics/leak-investigation-james-comey.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share

McCarthy: https://americanindependent.com/kevin-mccarthy-donald-trump-ukraine-gao-investigation-military-aid-house-gop-impeachment/

Intelligence threat hearing: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/15/intel-agencies-threats-hearing-trump-099494

Trump transcript: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-signing-u-s-china-phase-one-trade-agreement-2/

Rubin: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/16/susan-collinss-willful-blindness-already-looks-awful/