Dems walk out on Trump, House condemns troop withdrawal

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., speak with reporters after a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washing his hands of Syria, President Donald Trump declared Wednesday the U.S. has no stake in supporting the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as U.S. partners against IS extremists. Hours later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats walked out of a meeting at the White House, accusing him of having a “meltdown,” calling her a “third-rate politician” and having no plan to deal with a potentially revived Islamic State group.

Condemnation of Trump’s stance on Turkey, Syria and the Kurds was quick and severe during the day, not only from Democrats but from Republicans who have been staunch supporters on virtually all issues.

The House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Many lawmakers expressed worry that it may lead to revival of IS as well as Russian presence and influence in the area — in addition to the slaughter of many Kurds.

At the White House, Trump said the U.S. has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.

“They know how to fight,” he said. “And by the way, they’re no angels.”

After the House condemnation vote, the congressional leaders of both parties went to the White house for a briefing, which grew contentious, with Trump and Pelosi trading jabs. The Democrats said they walked out when the meeting devolved into an insult-fest.

“What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown,” Pelosi told reporters, saying Trump appeared visibly “shaken up” over the House vote.

“We couldn’t continue in the meeting because he was just not relating to the reality of it,” she said.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Trump for not having an adequate plan to deal with IS fighters who have been held by the Kurds. He said the meeting “was not a dialogue, this was sort of a diatribe, a nasty diatribe not focused on the facts.”

Republicans pushed back, saying it was Pelosi who’d been the problem.

“She storms out of another meeting, trying to make it unproductive,” said House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham called Pelosi’s action “baffling but not surprising.” She said the speaker “had no intention of listening or contributing to an important meeting on national security issues.”

Trump himself famously stormed out of a meeting with congressional leaders during the partial government shutdown last January.

In public appearances Wednesday, Trump said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from “endless wars” in the Middle East — casting aside criticism that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria betrays the Kurdish fighters, stains U.S. credibility around the world and opens an important region to Russia, which is moving in.

“We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. Syria’s not happy about it. Let them work it out,” Trump said. “They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”

Trump said he was sending Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara to urge the Turks to halt their weeklong offensive into northeastern Syria. But his remarks, first to reporters in the Oval Office and later at a news conference with his Italian counterpart, suggested he sees little at stake for America.

“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

“Let them fight their own wars.”

More than once, Trump suggested the United States has little concern in the Middle East because it is geographically distant — a notion shared by some prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida militants used Afghanistan as a base from which to attack the U.S. That attack set off a series of armed conflicts, including in Iraq, that Trump considers a waste of American lives and treasure.

But Republicans, too, made their concerns clear.

The current withdrawal is the worst decision of Trump’s presidency, said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who meets often with the president and is one of his strongest and most important supporters in Congress.

“To those who think the Mideast doesn’t matter to America, remember 9/11 — we had that same attitude on 9/10 2001.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he strongly disagreed with Trump and had told the president so. But he asked, “What tools do we have” to back up that disagreement?

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters he didn’t know what could be done to undo the harm he felt was resulting.

“There are some mistakes that are not easy to reverse. And there are some that are irreversible,” said Rubio, who was a Trump rival for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the area. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he wants to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) -deep “safe zone” in Syria.

Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, designate as a terrorist organization.

Trump mischaracterized the progress made thus far by the U.S. military in carrying out his instructions to withdraw all 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria. He referred to the approximately two dozen soldiers who evacuated from Turkey’s initial attack zone last week, but cast that as meaning the U.S. has “largely” completed its pullout.

A U.S. official familiar with planning for the withdrawal of the 1,000 said that they are consolidating onto two main bases but have not yet begun flying out of Syria in significant numbers. Military equipment is being gathered and flown out, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the withdrawal, which poses big security risks.

Trump downplayed the crisis that followed his decision to pull out of Syria, which critics say amounted to giving Turkey a green light to invade against the Kurdish fighters.

“It’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like you to believe,” Trump said, adding that he’s more than willing to let adversaries fight it out in that area of the Middle East.

In the meantime, he said, “Our soldiers are not in harm’s way, as they shouldn’t be.”

Trump did impose new sanctions on Turkey this week in an attempt to force Erdogan to end his assault. But he said Wednesday, “It’s time for us to come home.”

Even as Trump defended his removal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, he praised his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.

Trump said the U.S. is sending missiles and “great power” to the Saudis, and “they’re paying for that.”

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State Dept. aides reveal unease with Trump

Michael McKinley, a former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, to testify before congressional lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The House impeachment inquiry is exposing new details about unease in the State Department and White House about President Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine and those of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

One witness said it appeared “three amigos” tied to the White House had taken over foreign policy. Another quoted national security adviser John Bolton as calling Giuliani a “hand grenade” for his back-channel efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter.

On Wednesday, a former aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived to speak to the House impeachment panels behind closed doors. Michael McKinley, who resigned last week, is a career foreign service officer and was Pompeo’s de facto chief of staff.

He is expected to discuss concerns held by career State Department officials about the treatment of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and others who worked on the Ukraine portfolio, according to a person familiar with his testimony. A Latin America specialist, McKinley wasn’t directly involved in Ukraine policy, but as a senior adviser to Pompeo was generally aware of the situation, the person said.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters outside the closed-door hearing that McKinley was complimentary about Pompeo’s role but did raise other issues.
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“I think most of this is a concern by a colleague for an ambassador that he held in high regard,” said Meadows said, declining to provide more details of the closed session.

McKinley was expected to talk about demoralization in the ranks of career foreign service officers and what many have lamented as the politicization of the once-apolitical bureaucracy, according to the person, who was granted anonymity to speak about his remarks.

The 37-year veteran of the diplomatic corps was known to be unhappy with the state of affairs although his farewell note to colleagues mentioned nothing about the reason for his departure other than it was a “personal decision.”

Another key figure in the impeachment investigation, special envoy Kurt Volker, returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday. He and his lawyer were to review the transcript of his Oct. 3 testimony to investigators, according to a person familiar with his appearance who was not authorized to discuss it. Republicans say all the transcripts from the investigation should be released to the public.

Volker provided text messages to lawmakers that revealed an effort at the State Department to push Ukraine’s leader into opening an investigation of the gas company Burisma, connected to Joe Biden’s son, in return for a visit with Trump.

That effort soon escalated into what one diplomat feared was a quid pro quo for U.S. military aid. Trump has denied that, saying assistance to Ukraine was delayed to pressure the country into addressing corruption.

The testimony so far from the witnesses, mainly officials from the State Department and other foreign policy posts, is largely corroborating the account of the government whistleblower whose complaint first sparked the impeachment inquiry, according to lawmakers attending the closed-door interviews.

Trump’s July 25 phone call in which he pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate the Bidens is at the center of the Democrats’ inquiry.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, despite intensifying calls from Trump and Republicans to hold a formal vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry, showed no indication she would do so. She said Congress will continue its investigation as part of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances of the executive.

“This is not a game for us. This is deadly serious. We’re on a path that is taking us, a path to the truth,” Pelosi told reporters after a closed-door session with House Democrats.

Democratic leaders had been gauging support for a vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry after Trump and Republicans pushed them for a roll call. Holding a vote would test politically vulnerable Democrats in areas where the Republican president is popular.

Trump calls the impeachment inquiry an “illegitimate process” and is blocking officials from cooperating.

Trump and congressional leaders will be meeting later Wednesday at the White House on other matters.

The inquiry is moving quickly as a steady stream of officials appears behind closed doors this week, some providing new revelations about the events surrounding the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. It is on that call that Trump urged Zelenskiy to investigate a firm tied to political rival Joe Biden’s family and Ukraine’s own involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee overseeing the probe, has praised the State Department officials for stepping forward, under subpoena, to shed light on the matter.

“We have learned much of this thanks to the courageous testimony of the State Department officials who have been put in an impossible situation by the administration,” which is urging them not to comply with requests to testify to Congress, he said. “They are doing their duty.”

Career State Department official George Kent testified Tuesday he was told by administration officials to “lay low” on Ukraine as “three amigos” tied to the White House took over U.S. foreign policy toward the Eastern European ally.

Kent was concerned about the “fake news smear” against Yovanovitch, whom Trump recalled in May, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.

Kent told the lawmakers that he “found himself outside a parallel process” and had warned others about Giuliani as far back as March. He felt the shadow diplomacy was undermining decades of foreign policy and the rule of law in Ukraine and that was “wrong,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

Connolly said Kent described a May 23 meeting at the White House, organized by Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, where three administration officials — U.S. ambassador Gordon Sondland, special envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — declared themselves the people now responsible for Ukraine policy.

“They called themselves the three amigos,” Connolly said Kent testified.

Kent also told them that Trump, through the Office of Management and Budget, which Mulvaney previously led, was holding up military aid to Ukraine while pressing Zelenskiy to investigate a company linked to Biden’s son.

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Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker, Matthew Lee, Padmananda Rama, Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in Dallas contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

What if Trump wants to be thrown out?

Trump exits stage right.

Consider this:  Donald Trump may not want to remain president of the United States, and he privately hopes impeachment removes him from office before the 2020 election hands him the one thing he cannot abide:  A loss.

Losing is alien to Trump’s massive ego. Even when he loses, he claims a win.

But removal from office by Congress give him a platform upon which he can start a new, Trump-praising cable TV news service, and use it to build more power as a dissident.

Impossible? Maybe not.

Nancy Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, suggests just such a scenario.

She writes:

What if the president wants out? There’s much about the job he never liked, which is one reason he spends so much time watching TV rather than actually doing it. Under normal circumstances, it involves any number of things he once avoided; shaking hands with germy people, being talked at by experts who know more than he, sitting still for extended periods, being criticized no matter what he does, empathizing — all important parts of the job. He has gone to considerable lengths to reshape the role, fired the experts, cleared his schedule, kept up his golf game … but still. The campaigning was fun, but the best evidence of how little he likes presiding is how seldom he’s actually done it.

Trump escapes the frustration of failing to accomplish his agenda by not having ever had one, beyond his continued exaltation. He could count this moment as a high point: record-low unemployment, still soaring stock markets, judicial transformation. It’s easy to imagine it’s all downhill — and fast — from here. His confidence in his supreme wisdom leads him to make even reckless decisions, such as his abandonment of America’s trust with its Kurdish partners, with no evidence of regret or remorse other than disliking the criticism for doing it. But ever since the Ukraine scandal erupted, his rage-tweeting and Wagnerian self-pity suggest that the incoming fire for his misconduct, occasionally even from his defenders and enablers, has made these days even less fun than usual.

All of which raises the question: the release of the Ukraine information, the double-dare-you defiance of congressional oversight, the sellout in Syria, even the rising profanity of his Twitter stream each seem expertly suited to inflaming one constituency or another, and not just the people who have loathed him from Day One. The polls are moving for a reason: Republicans and independents, even those serving in Congress, may not agree where the line is, but they know there’s one somewhere, and it does not involve a shooting on Fifth Avenue.

Consciously or not, might he conclude that impeachment and removal is his least bad option for escaping the “great white jail”? Resigning is out; that’s for quitters. Defeat in 2020 is worse; losing is for losers. But being impeached and removed from office is the one outcome that preserves at least some ability to denounce the deep state and the quislings in the Senate who stabbed him in the back, maintain his bond with his tribe, depart the capital and launch a media business to compete with the ever more flaccid Fox News. (This all presumes that President Pence pardons him, for which there’s some precedent.) Impeachment lets him go down fighting, and he will call it rigged and unfair and illegitimate and a coup, all of which would be harder if the verdict was rendered next November by millions of voters.

Gibbs, a former managing editor at Time magazine, says we should look for signs that Trump want out.  If we see Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump leave Washington and return to Manhattan would be a big sign.  Trump renaming Reagan National Airport after himself is another (which fits into Trump’s massive ego and one to piss off the Republicans who still kowtow to him) is another.

She concludes:

When you think about it, with a choice of bad options, impeachment doesn’t look so bad, and gets you home to your gilded tower sooner. Assuming, that is, that you don’t think you can just burn the Constitution to the ground and be the last one standing.

Oh, we can dream.

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Trump: ‘I’m above the law. You cannot impeach me’

President Donald Trump (Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock)

President Donald Trump Tuesday declared himself above the law and is refusing to cooperate or even acknowledge the impeachment inquiry by the Congressional House or Representatives.

“To fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the executive branch, and all future occupants of the Office of the presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances,” White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone claimed in a scathing eight-page letter to top congressional Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is not surprise or deterred by Trump’s latest antics.

“The White House should be warned that continued efforts to hide the truth of the President’s abuse of power from the American people will be regarded as further evidence of obstruction,” Pelosi’s response said in a statement. “Mr. President, you are not above the law. You will be held accountable.”

Trump’s actions come as new polls show growing support for the impeachment inquiry.  A new poll from Washington Post-School says a clear majority of Americans now endorse the decision by House Democrats and close to half of all adults say Congress should move to remove Trump from office.

Legal scholars note that the letter from the White House counsel “lacks substantive legal arguments” and repeats Trump’s “political broadsides” instead of valid claims.  House Democrats say his failure to comply with the legal requests for information bolsters their case for at least one article of impeachment.

Trump’s latest actions come just a week he promised to cooperate with the inquiry.

“I always cooperate,” he said.  “We’ll work together.”

Instead, the White House blocked an appearance Tuesday of Gordon D. Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, to testify on the impeachment inquiry.

The White House has put “a full halt” on any cooperation.

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify,” the president wrote on Twitter Tuesday, “but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away.”

House leaders responded with a subpoena ordering Sondland to appear next week and turn over documents they are seeking.

“The president is obstructing Congress from getting the facts that we need,” Pelosi told reporters. “It is an abuse of power for him to act in this way.”

Text messages provided to Congress last week shows Sondland worked with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on a statement for the president of Ukraine committing to an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden while Trump was holding up $391 million in security aid to the country as leverage.

That effort led to the top American diplomat based in Ukraine to question Trump’s actions.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” William B. Taylor Jr., the diplomat, wrote in early September.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin later told The Wall Street Journal that Sondland confirmed to him that release of the aid was contingent upon Ukraine opening the investigation of Biden.

Robert Luskin, Sondland’s lawyer, said Tuesday that his client, as a State Department employee had to comply with Trump’s demand that he not testify, but added that Sondland was “profoundly disappointed” that he not allowed to appear and promised he would do o “in the future if allowed.”

“We were looking forward to hearing from Ambassador Sondland,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee.

Legal experts say Trump is on thin ice by trying to block what is considered a legal Congressional impeachment inquiry.

“I think the goal of this letter is to further inflame the president’s supporters and attempt to delegitimize the process in the eyes of his supporters,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, tells The Associated Press.  “It does not strike me as an effort to provide sober legal analysis.”

Philadelphia attorney Gregg Nunziata calls the White House letter a “direct assault on the very legitimacy of Congress’ oversight authority.”

“The Founders very deliberately chose to put the impeachment power in a political branch rather the Supreme Court,” Nunziata told The Associated Press. “They wanted this to be a political process and it is.”

University of Louisiana political science professor G. Pearson Cross calls the latter “an accelerant on a smoldering fire.”

“It’s a response that seems to welcome a constitutional crisis rather than defusing one or pointing toward some strategy that would deescalate the situation,” Cross added.

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More GOP Senators question Trump’s actions

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Now there are four: Are more wavering?

Ohio’a Rob Portman Monday became the fourth Republican Senator to admit president Donald Trump’s use of his office to seek help from Ukraine and China to investigate a political appointment is “inappropriate.”

Portman joins Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine to break from the Republican ranks in the Senate and raise questions about Trump’s actions that led to a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.

“We now have cracks in the wall,” says one GOP senior staff member in the Senate.  “Will it start crumbling?”

While Portman admits Trump’s actions are “not appropriate,” he still claims he does not see them as “impeachable offenses” and feels the House “rushed to impeachment assuming things.”

But Trump is running into increasing questions from his one-solid wall of support from the GOP Senate.  Majority leader Mitch McConnell Monday joined a rare bi-partisan group of Republican and Democratic Senator in rebuking Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troopers from Syria.

“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime,” McConnell said in a statement. “And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.”

McConnell says it is time for Trump to “exercise American leadership” by reconsidering his plans to pull troops back from the Syrian-Turkey border.  Other Republicans in the Senate agree.

“This betrayal of the Kurds will also severely harm our credibility as an ally the world over,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said. “President Trump should rethink this decision immediately.”

Democrats have also condemned the withdrawal plans but the growing Republican opposition shows a new area of concern from Republicans.

“The Trump has made a great administration has made a grave mistake that will have implications,” said Sen. GOP Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“So sad. So dangerous” says usually staunch Trump ally Sen Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Twitter. “President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam.  They are NOT tired of fighting us.”

At least one Republican says criticism of the Syria move wile standing fast with Trump on the Ukraine debacle that has resulted in formal impeachment probes is hypocritical, at best.

“The Ukraine issue is personal, it is a real threat to the president, and a lot of Republicans know they will face his wrath if they defy him,” former congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a critic of Trump who was ousted in the 2018 midterms, tells The Washington Post. “The issue of our presence in Syria is more obviously a substantive policy issue, where it’s safer to disagree with the president. If Republicans want to be consistent, they should speak out about both.”

“They can speak up, but they can’t so anything,” says former senator Judd Gregg (R-NH).

One thing it has done is bring Republicans and Democrats together in a rare bipartisan rebuke of Trump.

McConnell says 68 Senators voted to rebuke Trump in January when he threatened to withdraw troops from Syria — a majority that overrides a presidential veto.

“The conditions that produced that bipartisan vote still exist today,” he says.

A joint statement from Sen. Romney (R-Utah) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) adds:

Barring a reversal of this decision, the Administration must come before Congress and explain how betraying an ally and ceding influence to terrorists and adversaries is not disastrous for our national security interests.

With four Republican Senators also now saying Trump’s actions with Ukraine and China in asking for help to discredit former Vice President Joe Biden are “inappropriate” and “out of line,” some wonder if Trump’s hold on the GOP is weakening.

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