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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued on Thursday that President Donald Trump’s actions in the Ukraine scandal constitute “bribery” and that Trump has admitted to it himself. She’s the latest and most high-profile Democrat to use that word when describing Trump’s conduct on the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which Trump has called “perfect.”
“What the President has admitted to and says it’s perfect, I’ve said it’s perfectly wrong. It’s bribery,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference.
Why is it bribery?
“The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That’s bribery,” she said.
What does the Constitution say?
Getting technical, bribery is just an example of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” But it’s one of only two specific examples the Constitution lays out.
Article II, Section 4:
“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Side note: The Framers loved to capitalize things, just like Trump.
What can’t Gordon Sondland remember?
Friday will see testimony behind closed doors from a US Embassy official who says he heard European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland talk to Trump the day after the July 25 call.
Sondland is at the heart of everything
It’s an unfortunate development for Republicans, since it ties Trump in a more direct way to the specific request for investigations. And it shows the level to which he was invested in pushing Ukraine. He didn’t just call Zelensky and move on. He followed up.
Sondland is a key figure in all this. He delivered the ultimatum to the Ukrainians about aid for investigations. He made Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman uncomfortable back in July with his open talk in front of Ukrainians about “deliverables” needed for a White House meeting. He told diplomat Bill Taylor, who testified on Wednesday, that there was no quid pro quo. That was in the text messages released in October.
Now Sondland appears to be the link between Trump and all the things Republicans have argued the President isn’t linked to. Trump, recall, was confused when he was asked about that particular call.
Sondland’s phone calls tie Trump directly to the fact pattern
We already knew Sondland had spoken with Trump right before Trump spoke with Zelensky, since Sondland talked about it on Ukrainian TV on July 26.
“I actually spoke with President Trump just a few minutes before he placed the call,” Sondland said.
Now it seems he spoke with Trump the day after, and that Trump specifically asked about investigations, a call at a Ukrainian restaurant that likely violated security precautions.
Sondland has tried to jog his memory about exactly how many times he spoke with Trump in the period between September 6 and 9, when he was denying quid pro quo at Trump’s behest, but as he swore to House impeachment investigators last week, the White House won’t let him access call records.
Hardly knew the gentleman
Regardless of exactly how many phone conversations it was, it seems like a lot for somebody who Trump had dismissed last Friday. “Let me just tell you: I hardly know the gentleman,” the President told reporters.
Of course, as CNN’s fact-checking machine Daniel Dale noted at the time, that was a pivot for Trump – from previous praise of Sondland to apparent amnesia.
New facts actually complicate the Democrats’ case
This week’s revelation of Trump’s direct conversation with Sondland after the July 25 Zelensky call suggests a couple of things that might give Democrats pause.
There are clearly facts not in evidence
First, they haven’t conducted that thorough an investigation, even though they’ve already begun public impeachment hearings. They’re rushing to impeach when they are still uncovering new elements of the story. Do they know enough?
There is a very real question about whether they should slow down and do the most thorough job possible, or carry on and try to get this done on their accelerated timetable. Why the rush? So they can move on to the kitchen table issues they hope will win them the White House and the Senate in 2020.
What does the public think?
CNN’s campaign team was out in the country, in Wisconsin, talking to people who vote about whether impeachment will change anything.
The value of righteous futility
There probably aren’t many – or maybe even any – Democrats who will say there isn’t enough evidence to impeach Trump.
But it doesn’t exactly feel like any of the testimony is geared at changing minds, assuming there are minds out there to be changed about Trump. Democrats privately concede that point, CNN’s Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb reported today.
People either see the need to impeach or they don’t. As a result of that, or maybe directly because of it, the public hearings have not been framed as a vehicle for changing the dominant political calculus – that Trump will be impeached by the House and let off by the Senate to face voters in 2020.
Democrats almost surely won’t be able to remove Trump from office. But they can’t make a compelling case to voters unless they try.
For more: I did an Instagram story for CNN touching on this (quick, before it disappears).
Talking to the one guy who can relate
Only one man knows what this is like for Trump. Jake Tapper talked to former President Bill Clinton about how to govern during an impeachment.
On the podcast
Democrats think they have wounded Trump, but they’ve thought that before. In an era of political bubbles and fragmented media, Wednesday’s seemingly damning testimony might not have moved the needle at all. Plus, is the case for impeachment weakened by its reliance on hearsay? And does Rudy Giuliani have a Trump card to play? CNN political director David Chalian dives into these questions and more with CNN political analyst Stephen Collinson and CNN political commentator Matt Lewis.
Coming up Friday
Public hearing #2 – Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine. Watch it on CNN or stream it from CNN.com
Private hearing – The committee will also take closed-door testimony from David Holmes, the State Department employee who overheard Trump’s call with Sondland on July 26.
Private hearing – The committee will work Saturday to depose OMB official Mark Sandy behind closed doors. He’s the first official offering testimony from the agency, which was responsible for releasing the security aid for Ukraine.
Unknown – Let’s assume Trump is impeached. What would a Senate trial look like and when would it happen? Nobody yet knows, according to CNN’s Phil Mattingly. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are going to meet soon and start hashing it out.
What are we doing here?
The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election.
Democrats want to impeach him for it.
It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what’s acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.