Some in GOP question finally question Trump’s antics

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The shifting White House explanation for President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine drew alarm Friday from Republicans as the impeachment inquiry brought a new test of their alliance.

Trump, in remarks at the White House, stood by his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, whose earlier comments undermined the administration’s defense in the impeachment probe. Speaking Thursday at a news conference, Mulvaney essentially acknowledged a quid pro quo with Ukraine that Trump has long denied, saying U.S. aid was withheld from Kyiv to push for an investigation of the Democratic National Committee and the 2016 election. He later clarified his remarks.

Trump appeared satisfied with Mulvaney’s clarification and the president dismissed the entire House inquiry as “a terrible witch hunt. This is so bad for our country.”

But former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, said he now supports impeaching the president.

Mulvaney’s admission, he said, was the “final straw.” ″The last 24 hours has really forced me to review all of this,” Kasich said on CNN.

In Congress, at least one Republican, Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, spoke out publicly, telling reporters that he and others were concerned by Mulvaney’s remarks. Rooney said he’s open to considering all sides in the impeachment inquiry. He also said Mulvaney’s comments cannot simply undone by a follow-up statement.

“It’s not an Etch-A-Sketch,” said Rooney, a former ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush.

“The only thing I can assume is, he meant what he had to say — that there was a quid pro quo on this stuff,” he said.

The tumult over Mulvaney’s remarks capped a momentous week in the impeachment investigation as the admission, from highest levels of the administration, undercut the White House defense and pushed more evidence into the inquiry.

GOP leaders tried to contain the fallout. But four weeks into the inquiry, the events around Trump’s interaction with the Ukraine president, which are are at the heart of impeachment, have upended Washington.

A beloved House chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a leading figure in the investigation, died amid ongoing health challenges.

The Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, who has been caught up in the probe, announced his resignation. On Friday, the Energy Department sent a letter to House committee chairs saying it would not comply with a subpoena for documents and communications.

The march toward an impeachment vote now seems all but inevitable, so much so that the highest-ranking Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, privately told his GOP colleagues this week to expect action in the House by Thanksgiving with a Senate trial by Christmas.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has given no timeline for conclusion but wants the inquiry completed “expeditiously.” She said Thursday that facts of the investigation will determine next steps.

“The timeline will depend on the truth line,” she told reporters.

This week’s hours of back-to-back closed-door hearings from diplomats and former top aides appeared to be providing investigators with a remarkably consistent account of the run-up and aftermath of Trump’s call with Ukraine President Volodymy Zelenskiy.

In that July call, Trump asked the newly elected Zelenskiy for a “favor” in investigating the Democratic National Committee’s email situation, which was central to the 2016 election, as well as a Ukraine gas company, Burisma, linked to the family of Trump’s 2020 Democratic rival, Joe Biden, according to a rough transcript of the phone conversation released by the White House.

Republican leaders tried to align with Trump Friday, amid their own mixed messages as House Democrats, who already issued a subpoena to Mulvaney for documents, now want to hear directly from him.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP leader, cited Mulvaney’s clarification as evidence that there was no quid pro quo. He said witnesses have also testified similarly behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry.

“We’ve been very clear,” McCarthy said. “There was no quid pro quo.”

Lawmakers involved in the three House committees conducting the investigation want to hear more next week, which promises another packed schedule of witnesses appearing behind closed doors.

Republicans want the interviews made open to the public, including releasing transcripts.

Democrats in the probe being led by Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, are keeping the proceedings closed for now, partly to prevent witnesses from comparing notes.

Three House committees investigating impeachment have tentatively scheduled several closed-door interviews next week, including one with Bill Taylor, the current top official at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

Taylor’s interview, scheduled for Tuesday, is significant because he was among the diplomats on a text message string during the time around the July phone call. He raised a red flag and said it was “crazy” to withhold the military aid for a political investigation.

It’s unclear whether all the witnesses will appear, given that the White House is opposing the inquiry and trying to block officials from testifying.

The schedule includes a mix of State Department officials and White House aides.

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Orrin Hatch ends a long Senate career

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah,  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Orrin Hatch ended his tenure Thursday as the longest-serving Republican senator in history, capping a unique career that positioned him as one of the most prominent conservatives in the United States.

The departure of the vocal supporter of President Donald Trump ushers in another outsized Utah voice with a very different take on the president: Mitt Romney, whose renewed criticism of Trump is already making waves. Romney was sworn in to the U.S. Senate seat from which Hatch is retiring after four decades and at the height of his power.

A staunch conservative who wasn’t afraid to cross the aisle, Hatch teamed with Democrats to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for low-income kids. He also championed GOP issues like abortion limits and played a major role in shaping the U.S. Supreme Court, including defending Clarence Thomas against sexual harassment allegations during confirmation hearings.

In recent years, the 84-year-old helped pass a federal tax overhaul, pushed for Trump’s divisive decision to downsize two national monuments in Utah and called for a return to an era of political civility.

Hatch, who did not agree to an interview with The Associated Press after several requests over the last month, was a fresh-faced trial lawyer from Pittsburgh when he narrowly upset Democratic Sen. Frank Moss in 1976.

He was a newcomer who appealed to the right wing of the Republican Party, University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said. His candidacy got a boost from an endorsement by another conservative rising star, Ronald Reagan.

After Hatch took office, he quickly secured a place on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he would serve for decades. He has participated in the confirmation hearings of every current Supreme Court justice, including the contentious ones of Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.

The senator famously defended Thomas during confirmation hearings by reading aloud from “The Exorcist” to suggest Anita Hill lifted details of her sexual harassment allegations from the horror book.

But Hatch also recommended President Bill Clinton name Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, to the court.

“Few senators can claim a fraction of the influence of Orrin Hatch on the direction and makeup of the United States Supreme Court,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said in an email.

Hatch, who learned to box as a child and later made friends with Muhammad Ali, didn’t back down from rhetorical battles but also formed friendships with political opponents, particularly the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. He highlighted his ability to work with Democrats in a short-lived campaign for president in 2000.

He joined with Kennedy on the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the $24 billion children’s insurance program. When the liberal icon died in 2009, Hatch said they “were like fighting brothers.”

But Hatch strongly opposed President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and more actively courted the conservative wing of his party after his colleague, Sen. Bob Bennett, was ousted in a tea party wave in 2012.

Hatch would later use his clout to help Trump push a major GOP tax overhaul and cheer the president’s decision to downsize the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments in a win for state Republicans.

The senator also made waves in copyright law, helping make it a crime to illegally download music at a time when it was considered a serious threat to the music industry. Hatch is a songwriter himself, and one of his tunes went platinum after appearing on a compilation of Christian pop music.

A member of the Mormon church, Hatch has said legislation protecting religious freedom is his greatest accomplishment. He has called for lawmakers to find ways to allow people to practice their faith while shielding the LGBTQ community from discrimination.

In his farewell speech last month, Hatch bemoaned the disappearance of political civility and challenged his colleagues to work constructively for the good of the country.

“Things weren’t always as they are now. I was here when this body was at its best,” he said.

In his final years in office, however, he’s apologized for using expletives to describe his political foes and backtracked after saying he wasn’t concerned that prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime.

Even so, Hatch is part of a rare breed that’s still able work with the opposing party, Utah State University political science professor Damon Cann said.

“When Hatch was elected in the 1976, he was among the most conservative members of his party, but by the time he retires in 2018, he is among the more moderate members of the Republican Party in the Senate,” Cann said. “It’s not so much a story of Hatch moderating over time as it is the Republican Party becoming more conservative.”

Hatch announced his retirement last January and convinced Romney, also a Mormon transplant in a state dominated by the faith, to be his successor. After winning in a landslide in November, Romney wrote in a scathing Washington Post opinion column this week that Trump’s character falls short and “the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”

Hatch is now expected to take a seat at the new Hatch Center library and think tank, which supporters have raised millions to build in Salt Lake City.

“As long as he is able, he’s going to have motivation to try to be a player and be in the process,” said Chambless, the University of Utah professor.

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Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Hyde-Smith keeps her Senate seat in Mississippi

Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith returns to Washington as a solidly loyal Trump supporter after the president stumped for her in what was a divisive runoff marked by racial turmoil over a video-recorded remark Hyde-Smith made decried as racist.

Hyde-Smith defeated Democrat Mike Espy, who was vying to become the state’s first African-American senator since Reconstruction, during Tuesday’s runoff.

The race was rocked by the video, in which Hyde-Smith said of a supporter, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” A separate video showed her talking about “liberal folks” and making it “just a little more difficult” for them to vote.

The comments by Hyde-Smith, who is white, made Mississippi’s history of racist lynchings a theme of the runoff and spurred many black voters to return to the polls on Tuesday.

In the aftermath of the video, Republicans worried they could face a repeat of last year’s special election in Alabama, in which a flawed Republican candidate handed Democrats a reliable GOP Senate seat in the Deep South. The GOP pumped resources into Mississippi, and President Donald Trump made a strong effort on behalf of Hyde-Smith, holding last-minute rallies in Mississippi on Monday.

Speaking to supporters after her win, Hyde-Smith vowed to fight for everyone in the state when she goes to Washington.

“I want everybody to know, no matter who you voted for today, I’m going to always represent every Mississippian. I will work very hard and do my very best to make Mississippi very proud,” she said. Speaking to reporters later she said Trump had called to congratulate her and said she’d “been through a storm” and “survived it with grace.”

Her supporters said the furor over her comments was overblown. They also stuck by her as a photo was circulated of her wearing a replica Confederate military hat during a 2014 visit to Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

“So many things are taken out of context,” said Elizabeth Gallinghouse, 84, from Diamondhead, Mississippi. “The fact that she toured Jefferson Davis’s house. You or I could have done the same thing. They said, ‘Put this cap on. Hold this gun.’ It was a fun time. She wasn’t trying to send any messages.”

The contest caps a campaign season that exposed persistent racial divisions in America — and the willingness of some political candidates to exploit them to win elections. With Hyde-Smith’s victory, Republicans control 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats. The GOP lost control of the House, where Democrats will assume the majority in January.

In the final weeks of the runoff, Hyde-Smith’s campaign said the remark about making voting difficult was a joke. She said the “public hanging” comment was “an exaggerated expression of regard” for a fellow cattle rancher. During a televised debate nine days after the video was publicized, she apologized to “anyone that was offended by my comments,” but also said the remark was used as a “weapon” against her.

Democratic opponent Espy, 64, a former U.S. agriculture secretary, replied: “I don’t know what’s in your heart, but I know what came out of your mouth.”

Addressing his supporters Tuesday night, Espy said: “While this is not the result we were hoping for, I am proud of the historic campaign we ran and grateful for the support we received across Mississippi. We built the largest grassroots organization our state has seen in a generation.”

The “public hanging” comment also resonated with his supporters. “That really offended me,” said Charles Connley, 60, a black voter from Picayune.

Some corporate donors, including Walmart, requested refunds on their campaign contributions to Hyde-Smith after the videos surfaced.

Hyde-Smith was in her second term as Mississippi agriculture commissioner when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her to temporarily succeed GOP Sen. Thad Cochran. The longtime lawmaker retired in April amid health concerns.

The win makes Hyde-Smith, 59, the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi.

Hyde-Smith and Espy emerged from a field of four candidates Nov. 6 to advance to Tuesday’s runoff. Her win allows her to complete the final two years of Cochran’s six-year term.

Shortly after the win Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “Congratulations to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith on your big WIN in the Great State of Mississippi. We are all very proud of you!”

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Associated Press writers Jeff Amy and Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report.

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A centrist Democrat takes over Arizona Senate seat

U.S. Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., smiles after her victory over Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Scottsdale, Ariz.  (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

In a year of liberal challenges to President Donald Trump, an avowed centrist scored the Democratic Party’s biggest coup — flipping a red state’s U.S. Senate seat.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake to become the first woman to win a U.S. Senate seat in the state. The race against Republican Rep. Martha McSally was tight enough that a winner wasn’t decided until Monday, after a slow count of mail-in ballots gave her an insurmountable lead.

Sinema’s win achieves a longtime Democratic goal of making Arizona, with its growing Latino population, a competitive state. And she did it by pointedly not running against the president, or even critiquing his hardline immigration stance.

“She didn’t put the progressive bit in her mouth and run with it,” said Chuck Coughlin, a GOP strategist in Phoenix. “She spit it out and did something else.”

Sinema targeted moderate Republican and independent women by painting herself as a nonpartisan problem-solver who voted to support Trump’s agenda 60 percent of the time. Her nearly single-issue campaign talked about the importance of health care and protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

She knew McSally was vulnerable there because she backed the Republicans’ failed attempt to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Sinema tailored her campaign for conservative-leaning Arizona rather than the national environment, but it may be a guide for Democrats who hope to expand the electoral map in 2020. While some liberals won important races in California, Colorado and Kansas, the left’s highest-profile champions disappointed on Election Day.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. Stacey Abrams trails her Republican opponent in the still undecided bitter Georgia gubernatorial race, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who once led in the polls in the race for Florida governor, is now awaiting the results of a recount.

Sinema prevailed while the Democratic candidate for governor, David Garcia, ran as an avowed progressive and got trounced by Republican incumbent Doug Ducey.

“Kyrsten was the perfect candidate for this race,” said Democratic strategist Chad Campbell, who previously served with Sinema in Arizona’s state legislature. “We saw that with Garcia.”

Sinema first came to prominence as an openly bisexual Green Party activist in Phoenix, and McSally raked the Democrat over her protests against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Sinema was elected as a Democrat to the state legislature in 2004 and carved out a reputation as a liberal who could work with her conservative colleagues.

By the time she was elected to Congress representing a suburban Phoenix swing district in 2012, Sinema had completely remade herself into a centrist. She voted against Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader, supported relaxed regulations on banks and a law to increase penalties on people illegally re-entering the country. She supported a bill making it easier to deport immigrants identified by police as gang members.

During the Senate campaign, Sinema stuck to her centrist message, almost robotically at times. She faced only a nominal primary challenge from her left and was free to burnish her nonpartisan credentials, unlike McSally, who faced two primary challengers from the right and tied herself to Trump.

On Election Day, Sinema swung by Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus to hand out doughnuts and gleefully posed for photos. She has four degrees from the school and teaches two classes there.

“What are you going to do for people who are a little more on the left?” voter Petra Morrison asked. The candidate said she wasn’t focused on party labels or ideology. Morrison later told a reporter she was going to vote for Sinema, even though “she seems to come across as a Democrat in sheep’s clothing.”

Though Sinema wooed moderates, she needed liberals like Morrison in her corner for her win. She benefited from a longtime organizing push by activists who especially targeted the state’s young, growing and Democratic-leaning Latino electorate. “It’s been 10 years and even more, this mobilization and galvanizing,” said Lisa Magana, a professor in ASU’s School of Transborder Studies.

And though Trump’s rhetoric on immigration seemed pitched to Arizona voters’ anxieties about the border, both Democratic and Republican polls throughout the race showed the president had more people disapproving of him.

Trump visited only once on McSally’s behalf in mid-October. The following week, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego said there was a notable spike in Latinos returning their early ballots; most Arizona residents vote by mail.

“It was like they spent the weekend at the kitchen table” filling out the ballots in anger, Gallego said.

Annette Villelas was one of those angry voters. She registered for the first time so she could vote for Democrats and against Trump. It wasn’t just the way the president deals with immigrants, she said after shaking Sinema’s hand at a Phoenix taco shop.

“The way he talks just to the public, it’s not right,” Villelas said. “I want to vote and get him out and get someone in for the people.”

Ron Horsford, a 50-year-old Republican, was at the same event and said he was excited to vote for Sinema. He liked her message of “I’m going to work with the other side.”

The question for Democrats in Arizona is whether they can attract voters like Horsford and Villelas in 2020. Not only does the party hope it can put the state in play in the presidential race, voters will get to choose the John McCain’s permanent successor. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, who was appointed after McCain’s death, has pledged not to run.

Despite its image as a staunch Republican bastion, Arizona is attracting younger, educated voters from elsewhere in the United States. In this election, Democrats expanded their share in the state Legislature, though they’re still the minority. They took a 5-4 majority in the state’s congressional seats and remain competitive in two down-ballot and uncalled statewide races.

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