October 17, 2019

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified for 10 hours on Thursday as part of the House's impeachment inquiry against President Trump, telling lawmakers he was "disappointed" by Trump's order to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy.

Before starting his closed-door testimony in front of members of three House committees, Sondland released his opening remarks, and distanced himself from Giuliani and attempts to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. "For purposes of the impeachment inquiry, it really doesn't matter whether Sondland was a knowing participant in this scheme or if he was an unwitting pawn," Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said. "He was still executing the policies of Rudy Giuliani and Rudy was following the orders of the president."

Lawmakers said Sondland responded "I don't know" and "I don't recall" throughout his testimony, but Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told reporters that he was still able to shed light on something. "It is clear you have a shadow shakedown going on by Giuliani," he said. "I think it is just important for the American people to understand Rudy Giuliani is Donald Trump and Donald Trump is Rudy Giuliani. If Rudy Giuliani is doing something it is because he's the lawyer for Donald Trump, and lawyers don't take actions that are not authorized by their clients."

Sondland, a Trump donor and political appointee, has been mentioned by other witnesses, including George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary responsible for Ukraine. During testimony earlier this week, Kent said he was told in May by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney that he needed to "lay low," as Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker — who called themselves the "three amigos" — would now handle Ukraine policy. Catherine Garcia

8:53 a.m.

After five Democratic debates, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough wonders if former Vice President Joe Biden is being graded on a curve.

Scarborough on Thursday morning panned Biden's performance at the latest Democratic debate, saying he was once again "having trouble findings words" and his "sentences are jumbled." While Scarborough noted he still believes Biden is the Democratic candidate with the best chance of beating President Trump "if he's on his game," he wondered if the media is grading the former vice president on a "low curve" amid these subpar showings.

"Are we afraid to say that a lot of his sentences don't make sense?" Scarborough asked. "That he's having trouble completing thoughts?"

Willie Geist responded to Scarborough's question with a flat "yes," noting the Democrat's "performances publicly are shaky." Still, co-host Mika Brzezinski came to Biden's defense, arguing voters care about more than just these debate soundbites.

"You've got to be able to complete a sentence if you're running for president," Scarborough shot back. During much of this segment, the chyron on the screen was just as brutal as Scarborough himself, reading, "Joe Biden struggles through another debate." Brendan Morrow

8:24 a.m.

The last day of this hectic week's public impeachment hearings is about to get underway.

Former White House official Fiona Hill and David Holmes, the diplomat who overheard President Trump asking U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland if Ukraine was "going to do the investigation" on a July phone call, are set to testify Thursday in the fifth day of public impeachment hearings.

Hill, according to her prepared opening statement, is set to call out the "fictional narrative" that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 presidential election, an idea Trump had in mind when he pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to conduct investigations into 2016 on his infamous July phone call.

"Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did," she will say, calling out congressional Republicans. "This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves."

Hill will also tell Congress that "I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016."

Given this prepared pushback, and given the fact that she previously revealed that former National Security Adviser John Bolton called Rudy Giuliani "a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up," Politico notes Hill may "prove to be a colorful witness." Brendan Morrow

8:01 a.m.

The House overwhelmingly approved two measures Wednesday aimed at supporting anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, sending them to President Trump's desk. The Senate had unanimously passed both bills, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and another bill to ban the sale of non-lethal munitions to Hong Kong police forces, on Tuesday.

The White House has signaled that Trump will sign the bills, even though they come at an awkward time in ongoing U.S.-China trade talks. But the House passed the human rights bill 417-1 and the munitions ban 417-0, so even if Trump vetoed the bills, there would appear to be ample votes to override his veto.

China again warned the U.S. not to enact the measures, especially the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which threatens Hong Kong's special trade status authorizes sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong authors who carry out human rights abuses. "We urge the U.S. to grasp the situation, stop its wrongdoing before it's too late," and "immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Thursday. "If the U.S. continues to make the wrong moves, China will be taking strong countermeasures for sure." Peter Weber

7:01 a.m.

When reporters asked President Trump on Wednesday afternoon about U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland's House impeachment testimony earlier that day, he responded: "Well, I think it was fantastic. I think they have to end it now. He said there was no quid pro quo." That is not, in fact, what Sondland said, as a cursory glance at the front pages of major U.S. newspapers would show.

Trump is an avid, longtime, habitual consumer of media coverage of himself, though he may not see the print editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post, as he made a show of canceling the White House subscriptions to both newspapers. But the Times and the Post are hardly alone in their top headlines.

Not every news organization is on the same page, though. Peter Weber

6:04 a.m.

Ten Democrats gathered at Tyler Perry's studio in Atlanta on Wednesday for the fifth presidential debate, and Stephen Colbert took The Late Show live so he could cover it. Sen. "Amy Klobuchar had the first laugh of the night," recalling that in her first Senate race she "raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends," he said. "Now I'm sure you didn't mean it this way, senator, but technically, if they're giving you cash, they've not called boyfriends."

But Joe Biden had the toughest night, Colbert said. For example, he appeared to agree with Kim Jong Un that he's "a rabid dog who needs to be beaten with a stick," then he "emphasized the importance of ending violence against women, but with a really, really poor choice of words." Sen Cory Booker (D-N.J.) "had a little fun when he lit up Joe Biden," he added, "then Biden tried to brag about his appeal to African Americans," awkwardly. Colbert sighed: "You know somewhere out there Donald Trump is going: 'Oh my god, I can't believe I risked impeachment over Joe. Someone please tell me there's a Hunter Buttigieg!'"

"The major change from the last debate is the rise of Pete Buttigieg," Trevor Noah said at The Daily Show. "Between Buttigieg, Biden, [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren, and Bernie [Sanders], this has become a four-way race — and if you include Cory Booker, it's still a four-way race." A lot of the debate covered familiar ground, he said, "but one new thing we did see tonight was some brand new beefs, like Elizabeth Warren versus Cory Booker on the wealth tax," and "Kamala Harris versus Tulsi Gabbard."

"There were weird, odd bedfellows, like Tom Steyer and Joe Biden going after each other; Tulsi Gabbard was like Yosemite Sam in a white pantsuit," political analyst Alex Wagner told Colbert, but she saw little of the typical Democratic "outright cannibalization." John Heilemann said he thought Buttigieg had a good night, Harris and Booker had some cable-friendly moments, and Booker and Harris both openly mocking Biden made it a bad night for Biden.

The Daily Show's Roy Wood Jr. actually spoke with a panel of black voters in Atlanta, and nobody dug Biden. Watch below. Peter Weber

4:16 a.m.

"This was a huge day in the Ukraine scandal," thanks mostly to Gordon Sondland's "explosive testimony," Stephen Colbert said on Wednesday's Late Show. The U.S. ambassador to the European Union's "biggest bombshell" was his admission that yes, there was a "quid pro quo" with Ukraine, President Trump was calling the shots, and a who's who of senior officials "were in the loop," too. Sondland also explained why he called Trump from that restaurant in Kyiv. "Yeah, A$AP Rocky was the primary purpose of the call," Colbert deadpanned, "as in, 'Zelensky better launch the Biden investigation ASAP, or his life's about to get pretty rocky. Put a beat behind that.'"

Colbert's wish was The Late Show's command.

"We have moved past Watergate into floodgate," Jimmy Kimmel said on Kimmel Live. Since the beginning, "Trump's been saying Ambassador Sondland will say there was no quid pro quo," but then Sondland testified, "and just like that, Donald Trump's defense disappears faster than he downs a bucket of KFC."

"Staffers in the White House were said to be shocked and blindsided by the testimony this morning, as it appears our president has been caught orange-handed," Kimmel said. "Sondland screwed the president so thoroughly today, Trump reflexively paid him $130,000 to be quiet," and "the vice president, secretary of state, chief of staff, Rick Perry, John Bolton ... they all went under the bus," too. Comedian Jeff Ross stepped in to play Sondland, colorfully.

"Sondland's testimony was explosive, shocking, and jaw-dropping" — just watch Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) slack-jawed reaction, Seth Meyers said at Late Night. He provided "some context for why today was the most shocking day of testimony so far" and explained why it's bad news not just for Trump, but for "virtually everybody at the highest levels of the administration."

"I think we can all take our impeachment balls and go home now, because that is the whole ball game," said Full Frontal's Samantha Bee. "The Democrats have been going about this all wrong." Their previous passel of "cautious, sober" witnesses "laid out a damning case, but they didn't exactly give good soundbites," she said. It's now obvious that "in order to catch a selfish, idiotic hotel business guy you have to send a selfish, idiotic hotel business guy," and "if you're not Devin Nunes, it was honestly really fun to watch Gordon Sondland." Watch her NSFW case below. Peter Weber

1:51 a.m.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) traveled to Europe with three aides from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, 2018, on a $63,000 taxpayer-funded investigative trip, and Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani arrested last month on federal campaign finance and conspiracy charges, helped arrange meetings and calls for his trip, The Daily Beast reports, citing Parnas lawyer Ed MacMahaon and congressional records. Nunes aide Derek Harvey was involved in the Parnas meeting, and he accompanied Nunes to Europe along with fellow aides Scott Glabe and George Pappas.

At the time of the trip, Nunes was outgoing chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — he is now the committee's top Republican and lead voice in the public impeachment hearings. Nunes was visiting Europe as part of his investigation into the origins of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russia and President Trump's campaign. During the period Nunes was in Europe, Giuliani was in the middle of his ultimately successful campaign to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Maria Yovanovitch, a plot Parnas and partner Igor Fruman were also involved in, according to the federal indictment.

Parnas "believed that what he was doing was furtherance of the president's and thus our national interests," said Joseph Bondy, a member of Parnas' legal team. "President Trump's recent and regrettable disavowal of Mr. Parnas has caused him to rethink his involvement and the true reasons for his having been recruited to participate in the President's activities. Mr. Parnas is prepared to testify completely and accurately about his involvement in the President and Rudy Giuliani's quid pro quo demands of Ukraine." Read more at The Daily Beast. Peter Weber

See More Speed Reads