Laurene Powell Jobs solidifies control of The Atlantic as Bradley relinquishes duties

Billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs will assume greater control of the legendary Atlantic magazine as it seeks a new president/CEO and longtime Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley prepares to step away from management duties, Atlantic officials told POLITICO.

In a memo prepared for distribution late on Wednesday, Bradley will tell staff members he’ll remain chairman following the selection of a new Atlantic leader, though not in an “executive” capacity and without any direct reports. He said he’ll continue to help where useful, in areas such as “recruiting, retention, matters of culture” and “Washington entertaining.”

The move signals a changing of the guard in Washington media circles as Powell Jobs, the California-based widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, asserts herself in the world of D.C. journalism, and Bradley, one of the city’s best-known hosts and connectors of power, steps away from day-to-day control of the magazine he has shaped for decades.

Bradley bought the 162-year-old, Boston-based magazine in 1999 and moved it to Washington, where he and his wife Katherine are famous for entertaining the political and media elite in their Embassy Row mansion. He hosts a party the night before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and recently feted former Atlantic president Bob Cohn, whose departure this fall signaled the changes to come.

The Wednesday memo provides clarity that current and former Atlantic staffers say has been lacking since the July 2017 announcement of the sale to Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective and following Cohn’s departure in September without a permanent replacement.

Bradley, it was said at the time of the sale, would continue as chairman and operating partner for three to five years and that Emerson, which bought a 70 percent stake of the magazine more than $100 million, would “most likely assume full ownership of The Atlantic within five years.”

In Wednesday’s memo, Bradley said his minority ownership of The Atlantic would continue for at least five years from the date of the 2017 sale, “but maybe longer.” Bradley characterized his partnership with Powell Jobs as “uncommonly happy” and a “pure privilege.”

Bradley, 67, has lightened both his media and real estate portfolio in recent years. He unloaded the Watergate 600 building, which remains home to The Atlantic’s offices, in 2017 for $135 million; he sold Atlantic Media’s business news startup Quartz last year for a reported $75 million to $110 million.

Bradley has said his children are not interested in taking over the media business and so it remains to be seen how long he keeps National Journal, which has shifted from a politics and policy magazine to more of a consulting business with an editorial component, and Government Executive. In seeking out a steward for The Atlantic, Bradley said in 2017, he compiled a list of 600 potential investors but only approached Powell Jobs.

Meanwhile, Powell Jobs has been expanding her media portfolio through Emerson, which takes its name from famed writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (who also happens to be one of The Atlantic’s founders). Emerson has invested in media start-ups such as Axios and OZY Media and film and TV production company Anonymous Content. It has also provided grants to nonprofit newsrooms, such ProPublica and The Marshall Project, and advocacy groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Powell Jobs, who invests in various civic and philanthropic organizations, isn’t overseeing The Atlantic day-to-day and has seldom been seen by staffers. She is said to communicate most with Bradley, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg and Peter Lattman, a former New York Times editor who heads up Emerson’s media investments.

But Powell Jobs’s presence at The Atlantic has been felt by an influx of resources since she arrived, with the company adding more than 100 employees — of which 50 are in the newsroom — launching a paywall, and unveiling a new redesign. The magazine on Friday added Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who joins other post-sale recruits like George Packer, Peter Nicholas, Jemele Hill, Prashant Rao, and Dante Ramos.

The rapid expansion has led The Atlantic, which had been profitable, to now losing money, the Wall Street Journal reported in August. There has also been noticeable churn, with the departures of politics editor Vernon Loeb and writers like Julia Ioffe, Rosie Gray, Natasha Bertrand, Taylor Lorenz, and Elaina Plott — the latter announcing Friday she was joining The New York Times.

The Atlantic suffered a major blow last year when award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates exited the magazine a couple months after being pulled into a controversy involving the hiring and firing of conservative writer Kevin Williamson. Coates said upon leaving that he didn't want to be "the public face of the magazine."

There have also been several business-side departures in recent months, such as senior VP of global communications Emily Lenzner, chief business and product officer Alex Hardiman, and Cohn, who is currently on a short-term Harvard fellowship. The Atlantic didn’t fill Cohn’s position, though Atlantic Media president Michael Finnegan and chief administrative officer and general counsel Aretae Wyler took on his duties.

Bradley wrote Wednesday that an executive search firm has begun a “thorough and ambitious” search for a new Atlantic leader, who may hold the title of president or CEO. The new president/CEO will report to ownership: Powell Jobs as majority owner and, for at least the coming years, Bradley as a minority stakeholder.

“The person will need to like, even love, the exquisitely hard work of media strategy, but appreciate that our purpose in being — for 162 years — is journalism, and its pursuit of truth,” Bradley wrote, adding that the “right person will model our central value of a spirit of generosity.”

So far, Bradley said, they have seen about 40 advisors and candidates for the position, which includes “current media leaders,” “editorial leaders making ‘the jump’ to business leadership,” “digital and product leaders,” and “rising stars from other industries.”

The hiring process, he wrote, “goes on until we find that uncommon talent that, as best we understand, is made to lead The Atlantic.”

And after he eventually sells his stake in the company, Bradley wrote, “Laurene shall own The Atlantic something like forever.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

DOE: Sondland 'misrepresented' Perry’s role in Ukraine

The Energy Department disputed testimony on Wednesday from top Europe envoy Gordon Sondland that Secretary Rick Perry was intimately familiar with White House efforts to push Ukraine officials to announce an investigation into President Donald Trump’s political rivals.

Testimony from Sondland, the ambassador to the EU, raised questions about whether Perry lied by denying that he had no knowledge that U.S. military aid or a White House meeting between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky were linked to Zelensky announcing that Ukraine would conduct investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, or the energy company Burisma.

“Ambassador Sondland’s testimony today misrepresented both Secretary Perry’s interaction with Rudy Giuliani and direction the Secretary received from President Trump,” a DOE spokesperson said in a statement. “As previously stated, Secretary Perry spoke to Rudy Giuliani only once at the President’s request. No one else was on that call. At no point before, during or after that phone call did the words ‘Biden’ or ‘Burisma’ ever come up in the presence of Secretary Perry.”

Perry has said he was only aware of an effort to push Ukraine to conduct general investigations into corruption. But Sondland testified that Perry was looped into the Trump administration’s efforts to seek the specific investigations.

According to Sondland’s testimony, Perry was included on — and replied to — a July 19 email in which Sondland said Zelensky would tell Trump he “intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone’” in a public announcement of investigations into the 2016 elections and Burisma, on whose board Hunter Biden served.

In his opening statement, Sondland testified that Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, "conveyed to Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election.”

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland later testified. “It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the presidential call.”

According to Sondland’s testimony, Perry was included on — and replied to — that July 19 email in which Sondland said Zelensky would tell Trump he “intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone’” in a public announcement.

Under questioning from Democratic Counsel Daniel Goldman, Sondland said that it was understood among the recipients of the email that “investigation” referred to the allegations related to Burisma and the 2016 elections.

Sondland added that he thought both Perry and McCormack, among others, would be “key witnesses” for the ongoing inquiry.

When asked whether Perry would change course and agree to offer testimony, DOE spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes replied,”The committee has refused to allow him that opportunity in an open and transparent setting with executive branch counsel present.”

Trump and Guiliani have raised complaints related to Hunter Biden’s time as a board member of Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma, as well as unsubstantiated allegations that the Ukraine government had interfered in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Perry has repeatedly denied any knowledge of requests for specific investigations, and he told The Associated Press in late October he never heard the words Burisma mentioned over the course of his work in Ukraine.

Perry also told The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 16 that Giuliani explained that Trump did not trust Ukraine because of a belief that it played a role against him in the 2016 election. But Perry told the paper that Giuliani did not on that call give specific directions to him.

“Rudy didn’t say they gotta do X, Y and Z,” Perry told the WSJ. “He just said, ‘You want to know why he ain’t comfortable about letting this guy come in? Here’s the reason.’”

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said the emails released with Sondland's deposition show “knowledge of this scheme was far and wide” throughout the administration.

Sondland underscored that he, Volker and Perry did not want to consult with Giuliani and did so only at the “express direction” of Trump.

“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” he testified. “Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President’s orders.”

Sondland stated, as he did during his deposition, that Perry made the first outreach to Giuliani “given his prior relationship.” Perry had endorsed Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid.

Sondland also reiterated his view that a July 10 White House meeting was cordial and did not include any "yelling and screaming" as others have said. Sondland, like Perry, suggested that a photo at the White House with senior U.S. and Ukrainian officials proves that the meeting ended without acrimony.

In addition, Sondland testified that Perry was the person who suggested a smaller group of U.S. and Ukrainian officials from that meeting hold an impromptu second gathering after then-National Security Advisor John Bolton adjourned the original July 10 session. Several other witnesses testified Perry left almost immediately and stuck to his “usual talking points” about fighting corruption that day.

Sondland also says the record of subsequent texts and emails show that he, Perry and Volker kept National Security Council officials informed of their actions.

"We kept the NSC apprised of our efforts, including, specifically, our efforts to secure a public statement from the Ukrainians that would satisfy President Trump’s concerns," he says in his opening statement.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump's Senate safety net holds firm as Republicans dismiss 'quid pro quo'

Gordon Sondland’s testimony Wednesday upended a key argument Senate Republicans have used to defend President Donald Trump in the impeachment inquiry: no quid pro quo.

Now that there’s mounting evidence of precisely that, GOP senators may have to reframe their case as they dismiss complaints about Trump's behavior.

“This thing looks like it kind of crescendoed maybe three weeks ago,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “There’s been nothing that’s changed the dynamic, even with Sondland’s discussion today. His is an interpretation, he was presuming.”

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) reiterated that it was “inappropriate” for Trump to pressure Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to investigate the Biden family. But he said he also still hasn’t seen “anything that rises to the level of being an impeachable offense.”

Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, delivered the biggest bombshell in the House’s public impeachment hearings when he testified, “the answer is yes,” there was a quid pro quo. Sondland said that Trump conditioned a White House meeting with Zelenksy on his willingness to investigate the president’s political rivals and broadly implicated senior White House officials.

But Sondland also acknowledged that he never heard from Trump directly to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine — something the president’s defenders are already highlighting.

“They’re having a hard time with firsthand knowledge of any of this,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “My biggest problem with the whole thing is it’s like an armed robbery without a weapon, without product that’s been stolen, without a victim that’s claimed to have been robbed.”

“I don’t know how you can say there was a quid pro quo when the aid was delivered and there wasn’t an investigation,” added Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.).

Even before Sondland’s latest remarks, some Republicans had shifted course.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has previously said that he'd have concerns if Trump did in fact engage in a quid pro quo. But he said this month that the administration was “incapable” of forming a quid pro quo because its Ukraine policy was “incoherent.”

Republicans also raised questions with Sondland’s credibility, after drastically altering his closed-door testimony. Sondland told impeachment investigators after his deposition that he told a top Ukrainian official hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid would likely be held up unless investigations into Trump’s political rivals were announced — a major reversal.

“He’s muddled it because he’s had multiple positions now,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) “I think that’s going to make it a little more challenging in terms of the acceptance of what he has to say. He’s had inconsistent statements in the past.”

Still, Senate Republicans declined to directly attack Sondland, and several said they planned to review his remarks.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), when told about Sondland’s testimony, said “that sounds like a hard quid pro quo.”

“That’s the firmest anybody could say about that categorization of it,” Isakson said. “To my knowledge, everything that was said before was a soft quid pro quo.”

The Georgia Republican, who is retiring at the end of the year, added that he plans to read the testimony if impeachment proceedings come before the Senate.

Trump’s occasional critics in the Senate declined to speculate on Sondland’s testimony and what it could mean for the president.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he does not plan to comment on “evidence as it comes forward.”

“I will be reviewing evidence in depth when and if articles of impeachment are brought to the Senate,” Romney said. “We have technically a trial in the Senate. That’s the time I believe it’s appropriate for us to review the evidence, to hear both points of view.”

Sondland's testimony did not come up at a party lunch Wednesday, according to one attendee.

Several senators also declined to answer questions about Sondland's testimony, noting that they were tied up with committee hearings and other senatorial duties.

“I have a day job over here,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “That’s what the House is doing. Here in the Senate we’re not in the midst of impeachment proceedings.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Top Pentagon official insists he didn't seek to block cooperation with impeachment probe

Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist insisted Wednesday he wasn't attempting to bar a Pentagon official from speaking to House impeachment investigators when he sent a letter to her last month outlining the Trump administration's position that personnel not cooperate with the inquiry.

Norquist faced questions on the letter he sent to lawyers for Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the Pentagon's efforts to audit its finances.

"I did not prohibit her....I forwarded to her lawyer the information we had received from the White House that expressed their views about the impeachment process," Norquist told Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). "One of the challenges [is] we wouldn't be able to send a lawyer with her. I wanted her to have that available information."

"We understand each of the individuals are making their own decision," he added.

Cooper, a career official, gave a deposition under subpoena behind closed doors in October and is set to testify on Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee in the public portion of the investigation into President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine.

"For you to send it, it does create a chilling effect," Hirono replied.

Norquist argued the Pentagon had attempted to "set the right tone" and "be very professional and factual" with its letter to Cooper.

"My only point is I would have felt it inappropriate to not have their lawyer be aware of this information, and so that's why we shared it," he said.

As with other agencies, the Pentagon has defied subpoenas issued by the three House committees overseeing the impeachment probe.

Norquist was also pressed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to ensure military personnel who cooperate with congressional investigations will be protected by the Defense Department.

Kaine cited reports that Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his family are being provided security and could be moved to a secure location on a military base. Vindman, who works on the NSC and testified publicly on Tuesday, has faced attacks from Trump and his supporters.

Norquist didn't discuss Vindman but said Pentagon leaders take cooperation with Congress and the security of its personnel "very seriously."

"I'm not going to comment on any measures we take [with] individuals on personal security but we do take it very seriously, and we expect people to be responsive and truthful in their dealings with Congress," he said.

"If we think there's a security issue, we...deal with it, we deal with local authorities," Norquist later told Hirono.

Kaine also urged Norquist to be "very diligent in protecting members of our military if they are cooperating with Congress."

"Your words delivered here should hopefully give some assurance and some confidence to some who are very very worried," the Virginia Democrat said. "And I know they're worried because their families are calling my office. They're my constituents and they're nervous about what might happen to them."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

'A real bombshell': Democrats seize on Sondland's quid pro quo charges

Democrats were ecstatic Wednesday as Gordon Sondland — President Donald Trump’s own political appointee — delivered some of the most damning public testimony to date in the impeachment probe against the president.

The highly anticipated testimony by Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, offered direct affirmations of a quid pro quo with Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, while simultaneously implicating much of the president’s inner circle, including Vice President Mike Pence, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes and misdemeanors,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters after the opening round of the Sondland hearing.

“We also have heard for the first time that knowledge of this scheme was pervasive,” Schiff added.

Sondland is the eighth witness to offer televised testimony in the Democrats’ impeachment probe against Trump so far, with three more to come this week.

But Democrats believe he may be the most critical: A high-ranking GOP official who was directly involved in soliciting investigations from Ukraine at Trump’s orders and who engaged with a broad swath of Trump advisors who were also allegedly on board with the plan.

“The Schiff-Sondland exchange revealed necessary elements to show high crimes and misdemeanors — abuse of power and extortion — and bribery,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement to POLITICO.

Republicans, meanwhile, seized on Sondland’s acknowledgment that he never heard directly from Trump to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine. The GOP has tried to paint some of the most explosive testimony as nothing but “hearsay” and “assumptions” made by witnesses in the probe.

Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, also issued a statement denying Sondland’s claim that he told the vice president during a trip to Warsaw “that the delay in aid [to Ukraine] had become tied to the issue of investigations.”

“Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened,” Short said in a statement.

But Sondland’s testimony is by far the most dramatic moment amid a two-week slog of public hearings, which has so far featured an array of credible witnesses who have confirmed many of Democrats’ allegations but hadn’t produced many bombshell moments.

That changed Wednesday morning, when Sondland told a crowded hearing room that he and other Trump advisers had carried out orders to demand investigations of Trump’s political rivals from Ukraine at the “express direction” of the president. Sondland also directly communicated the quid pro quo to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he testified.

“This is the smoking gun,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said in an interview of Sondland’s testimony. “I think it’s a stunning moment. And it makes me really sad to see because it confirms our worst suspicions of what was going on.”

“From what I have seen so far, this is just a real bombshell,” Kildee said, noting that Sondland was initially seen as a witness that could defend Trump, not bolster the Democrats’ case to impeach the president.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a law professor, said it didn’t matter if Sondland never heard Trump directly say that a resumption in Ukrainian aid was linked to the Biden investigation.

“They keep moving the goalposts,” Raskin said. “The new litmus test is we’re going to need a written confession from Donald Trump. All of the evidence supports one central conclusion — Donald Trump developed and executed this shakedown strategy toward Ukraine.”

Sondland’s stunning testimony came on the heels of a marathon series of hearings, where Republicans largely felt like they held their own — despite four first-hand witnesses testifying about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine.

Republicans have continually had to adjust their defense strategy, as new revelations have emerged in the public phase of the inquiry, which came after weeks of newsy closed-door depositions.

Sondland was quietly feared by Republicans to be the biggest wild card — and potential threat — during the whole impeachment probe.

Some Democrats were already speculating Wednesday that Sondland's testimony could change minds within the GOP.

"It does seem that Republicans know there is something really damning about this testimony," Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. "I feel like there are some tipping points here that are starting to happen. You never know what it's going to be that creates that moment."

But Republicans feel like their best strategy to undermine Sondland is to cast him as someone who was exaggerating his close relationship with Trump to impress people and never heard from Trump’s mouth there was a quid pro quo.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a fierce defender of Trump, said the “most important quote out of this hearing so far” was Sondland’s acknowledgment that he never heard from Trump directly that the military aid was conditioned on the investigations.

“He reached this conclusion on his own. So, in short, yet another witness who can't testify to the Democrats' accusations,” Meadows tweeted during the hearing.

Sondland told lawmakers he was carrying out orders at the direction of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, though he said everyone was “in the loop” and knew exactly what was going on. But even before Sondland testified, Republicans were laying the groundwork to foist the blame on Giuliani.

“This is an impeachment of Rudy Giuliani. But last time I checked, he’s not the president,” Meadows told reporters last week.

Trump also sought to distance himself from Sondland, a political appointee who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee.

“I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy though.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

What did Pompeo know and when did he know it?

When it comes to impeachment, America’s top diplomat is like a ghost — an intangible, ethereal presence who floats through testimonies and news accounts but darts away on closer inspection.

Investigators are still trying to smoke out what, exactly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo knew about President Donald Trump’s unorthodox Ukraine diplomacy, and when he knew it. On Wednesday, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, Gordon Sondland, used email and call records to insist that Pompeo was in the loop.

The questions are piling up as Pompeo eyes a Senate seat in Kansas — and a potential future bid for the White House. They threaten to unravel his tight relationship with Trump, whose support could boost him in a future campaign. And they have badly undercut his standing among the rank-and-file at the State Department, many of whom are furious he hasn’t defended his own diplomats as they defy Trump’s orders and testify before Congress.

Pompeo has boxed himself in: Saying he knew little or nothing about how Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, sought to tie White House cooperation to Ukrainian investigations of Democrats raises questions about why the secretary was unaware of Giuliani’s maneuvering. But saying he knew about the scheme raises questions about why he didn’t do more to stop U.S. foreign policy from becoming a vehicle for the president’s political vendettas.

“He can’t have it both ways. He can’t say ‘Well, I delegated this, and I didn’t really get involved or ‘Yeah, I know, but I didn’t approve,’” said Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain. “He’s stuck.”

POLITICO examined the testimonies of impeachment witnesses so far as well as Pompeo’s own comments to piece together what’s known about his role. What emerges is a picture of a secretary of State kept apprised of the Giuliani-led “irregular channel” of U.S. policy toward Ukraine who nonetheless did little to rein it in or protect U.S. diplomats damaged by the affair.

That said, there also are indications that Pompeo was privately troubled by the events. And there are glimpses of occasions when he sought to quietly intervene with the president or his close allies – but little evidence that he fought hard to keep U.S. policy contained to the customary “regular channel” run by his own staff.

Pompeo was warned about Giulani

There’s no doubt Pompeo knew about efforts by Giuliani, who is not a U.S. government employee, to influence U.S. policy toward Ukraine. What’s not clear is how seriously Pompeo took the president’s attorney and the possibility that his activities could diverge from official U.S. policy.

The witness who so far has gone the furthest to tie Pompeo to the mess now facing the president is Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a political appointee who came to play an outsize role in diplomacy toward Ukraine, which is not in the EU.

Sondland has admitted to a “quid pro quo.” He says he told a Ukrainian official that the government in Kyiv likely would have to announce investigations into former vice president Joe Biden, a Trump political rival, to get U.S. military aid.

In his private deposition, Sondland on several occasions mentions Pompeo as greenlighting his activities. “I understand that all of my actions involving Ukraine had the blessing of Secretary Pompeo,” he said at one point.

In fact, he says that Pompeo, and then-national security adviser John Bolton, told him to work on Ukraine, and that he assumed they were doing so at the behest of the president. Pompeo, he added, “continually” told him to pursue Ukraine issues. He also said he discussed Giuliani’s Ukraine role in general terms with Pompeo.

“And Pompeo rolled his eyes and said: ‘Yes, it’s something we have to deal with,” Sondland said in the private account.

Sondland provided fresh support for Pompeo’s involvement during his open testimony, which included written communications with officials including Pompeo. He cited, for instance, a July 19 email copied to Pompeo, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and “a lot of senior officials.” He said that in that email, he reveals that he “just talked to” Ukraine’s president and secured a commitment for a “fully transparent investigation.”

Kurt Volker, at the time the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, testified privately that he’d raised his concerns about Giuliani’s freelance operation in Ukraine with Pompeo.

“I described my concern that he is projecting a damaging or a negative image about Ukraine, and that’s reaching the president, and that I am trying to work with Ukrainians to correct that messaging, correct that impression,” Volker said. According to him, Pompeo said he was “glad” Volker was trying to correct Giuliani’s narrative.

The testimony also shows that if U.S. diplomats weren’t talking directly to Pompeo about Ukraine-related concerns, they often spoke with Ulrich Brechbuhl, the State Department counselor and longtime friend of Pompeo who serves as a conduit to the busy secretary.

Pompeo arguably could not have stopped Giuliani

Pompeo spoke with Giuliani at least three times this year, including as the Trump lawyer was spreading baseless smears of Marie Yovanovitch, the now-former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, according to accounts from others caught up in the affair.

David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, told lawmakers that he’d found call records showing that Pompeo called Giuliani on March 28 and on March 29. Hale did not speak to the content of those conversations.

By April 25, Pompeo had told his aides that Trump had lost confidence in Yovanovitch — he did not say why, according to various testimonies — and that they needed to recall the ambassador early from Kyiv.

Pompeo and Giuliani spoke again in September, according to Volker. This was as Giuliani was going on television to defend his actions in Ukraine and to insist that he did everything at the State Department’s direction — a claim Volker denied.

Volker said he had earlier told Pompeo of his efforts to connect a Ukrainian official, Andriy Yermak, with Giuliani at the Ukrainian’s request. “I had spoken with the secretary, and I knew the secretary knew that I had connected them,” Volker told lawmakers in his private deposition.

But Giuliani appeared to think Pompeo wasn’t aware of the sequence of events. In a call around Sept. 22, Pompeo told Volker that he had spoken with Giuliani, and that the former New York mayor believed it was not clear to the public that Volker had connected him with Yermak.

Volker pointed out to Pompeo that the State Department had put out a statement weeks earlier addressing the issue, which Pompeo told Volker to share with Giuliani. Volker said he did so.

Still, when asked if Pompeo “was helpless to stop Giuliani from interfering with official U.S. diplomacy in Ukraine?” Volker said, “Honestly, yes. I’m sure he could have called Rudy Giuliani, but would Rudy Giuliani stop doing what he’s doing because the secretary of State calls him? I’d be surprised.”

Sondland expressed a similar sentiment, given that at the end of the day, Giuliani was reporting to Trump. So Pompeo would have “hit a brick wall when it came to getting rid of Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said in his private testimony.

“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said at the outset of his public testimony. “Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt.”

For what it’s worth, former NSC staffer Tim Morrison said Bolton and he were both “frustrated” with Sondland and the fact that his “direct boss” — Pompeo — wasn’t reining in his Ukraine activities. Morrison described this situation as “the Gordon problem.”

Pompeo supported sending military aid to Ukraine

William Taylor, now the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, was among the diplomats who attested that the secretary of State backed robust U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

Volker had urged Pompeo to recruit Taylor, who had decades of experience including a previous stint as the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, to run the embassy following Yovanovitch’s early recall.

Taylor said he sought Pompeo’s personal assurances of support before taking the job. In a May 28 meeting, Pompeo “assured” Taylor that “the policy of strong support for Ukraine would continue and that he would support me in defending that policy.” Pompeo also told Taylor that he “would make this case [for strong support of Ukraine] to President Trump.”

Pompeo appeared careful to limit his recordable correspondence on Ukraine, however. In late August, as word spread that the U.S. had frozen $391 million in military aid for Ukraine, Taylor said he sent a direct cable to Pompeo voicing his displeasure. Pompeo never responded.

However, Taylor said he’d heard that the secretary brought the cable with him to a meeting with the president on the topic. Pompeo is believed to have sided with other Cabinet officials at various times in urging the president to unfreeze the Ukraine aid.

As POLITICO has reported, Pompeo grew so frustrated with the aid freeze that in early September he told his staff to release the $250 million the State Department controlled despite what the White House Office of Management and Budget had ordered. Bloomberg reported State Department lawyers determined they could override the Office of Management and Budget.

And according to a call readout from Sept. 17, Pompeo assured his Ukrainian counterpart of “unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Pompeo is evasive about the July 25 call

The secretary has largely danced around questions about his role as U.S.-Ukraine relations took bizarre twists. In particular, he’s avoided sharing his thoughts on the content of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that is now at the core of the impeachment inquiry.

The White House on Sept. 25 released the memorandum detailing the call, but it wasn’t until days afterward that the State Department even acknowledged that Pompeo was among those listening. The testimonies show that some of his top aides had no idea he’d been on the call until the news was leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

On Sept. 22, asked directly by ABC News what he knew about the president’s conversations with Ukrainian leaders, Pompeo evaded the question by saying he hadn’t seen reports about the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry. He deflected follow-up questions, never acknowledging he was on the July 25 call.

One reason Pompeo’s silence on this issue has bothered many at the State Department is that Trump on the call disparaged Yovanovitch and ominously warned that she was going to “go through some things.” But the bigger question is what Pompeo did, if anything, when it came to another major element of the call: Trump’s requests of Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.

Pompeo has suggested he opposed releasing the July 25 call memo, saying, “Those are private conversations between world leaders, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to [release them] except in the most extreme circumstances.”

According to Volker, Pompeo spoke with Zelensky as the White House prepared to release the record of the call. Pompeo “informed him that we felt we had no choice but to release the transcript,” Volker said.

Pompeo wouldn’t support his people – at least not in public

Pompeo is known as the “Trump whisperer” for a reason: He’s kept his job by keeping his disagreements with the president private, and bending as much as possible in public to make it seem like they are in sync.

That’s probably why he’s said virtually nothing in public to defend diplomats who have been attacked by Trump. This week, he deferred to the White House when asked by reporters about Trump’s tweet attacking Yovanovitch while she was testifying last Friday.

But Pompeo may have tried to protect Yovanovitch in private, according to various testimonies. Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council staffer, told lawmakers that Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan had told her that “both he and Secretary Pompeo had tried their best to head off what happened” to Yovanovitch.

Yovanovitch said in her public testimony that she’d been told “that there were a number of discussions between the president and Secretary Pompeo, and that he actually did – did keep me in place for as long as he could.”

And David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, said Pompeo had mentioned receiving a letter from a congressman -- revealed to be Texas Republican Pete Sessions, who is no longer in Congress -- in 2018 alleging that Yovanovitch had said derogatory things about Trump. But Pompeo told Hale that he “wasn’t going to take these allegations seriously unless he saw evidence behind them.” No such evidence has emerged.

In the spring, as Giuliani and even Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, attacked Yovanovitch, she asked that the State Department issue a statement expressing confidence in her. It didn’t happen. The reason she was given via intermediaries: Officials worried the president would undercut a statement, perhaps with a tweet.

While it’s not clear what role Pompeo played, the State Department did earlier this year call some of the allegations against Yovanovitch an “outright fabrication.”

Yovanovitch said she was told that either Pompeo, or someone close to him, reached out to Fox News conservative host Sean Hannity to ask him to back off from promoting the smears, and that “things kind of simmered down” for a while. (The various testimonies differ as to who made the call, and Hannity denies speaking with Pompeo about it.)

Michael McKinley, a former top adviser to Pompeo, testified that he asked the secretary and other senior State officials to issue a statement of support for Yovanovitch in late September as the impeachment inquiry became a reality.

He thought it would send a good signal to the department’s rank and file, especially because of the manner in which Trump spoke of Yovanovitch in the July 25 call. Pompeo acknowledged his requests but said nothing of substance in response, McKinley said.

Eventually, McKinley was told by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus “that the secretary had decided that it was better not to release a statement at this time and that it would be in part to protect Ambassador Yovanovitch not draw undue attention to her,” he explained to lawmakers. Ultimately, McKinley said, Pompeo’s lack of support for career professionals led him to resign after nearly four decades in the Foreign Service.

Pressed by reporters on McKinley’s concerns, Pompeo has tried to recast the question. He said, for instance, that McKinley didn’t raise any concerns with him in May when Yovanovitch was recalled. But McKinley’s account was centered on the conversations he had with Pompeo in September.

On Monday, during a press conference about Middle East issues, Pompeo would not say if he still had confidence in Taylor, who remains the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Neither did he voice support for other diplomats tangled in the impeachment inquiry, although he offered broad praise of the State Department’s employees as a whole.

He did, however, point out that he replaced Yovanovitch with Taylor, whose testimony has been some of the most damaging for the president. That, Pompeo argued, should undermine the idea that “somehow this change was designed to enable some nefarious purpose,” he said.

Pompeo has tried to slow-roll, and muddy, the investigation

Pompeo has been surprisingly visible over the past two and a half months as the Ukraine issue has seized the headlines, giving plenty of interviews, but he’s usually careful about what he says.

He’s downplayed the impeachment inquiry as “noise.” He’s been unwilling to criticize Giuliani.

He insists that Trump’s Ukraine policy is better than the Obama administration’s. He’s even promoted the conspiracy theory, floated by Trump, that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

He also says that when it comes to the impeachment inquiry, the State Department will do “everything that we’re required to do by the law and the Constitution.” On this point, Democrats in the House insist Pompeo is being misleading.

If anything, Pompeo has slow-rolled the investigation. Following the White House’s lead, Pompeo has ordered his employees not to testify in the inquiry – orders many have ignored in light of congressional subpoenas. The State Department also hasn’t turned over the documents House members have demanded.

In an Oct. 1 letter, Pompeo accused Hill Democrats of trying to “intimidate, bully and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State.”

This has frustrated not just lawmakers but also some of the “distinguished professionals” to whom Pompeo refers.

George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of State called to testify, was among them. He, for one, “had not felt bullied, threatened, and intimidated,” Kent told lawmakers.

Kent noted that despite receiving congressional requests for documents on Sept. 9 and Sept. 23, as well as a Sept. 27 subpoena, it wasn’t until “after the close of business on Oct. 2” that the State Department issued a “formal instruction” on gathering documents. The investigating House committees wanted the material by Oct. 4.

Pompeo recently said that he hopes “everyone who testifies will go do so truthfully, accurately. When they do, the oversight role will have been performed, and I think America will come to see what took place here.”

David Holmes, a top aide to Taylor in Kyiv, quoted those comments from the secretary as he explained his appearance before lawmakers, which he specified was not an opportunity he’d sought out.

As far as Pompeo’s own record, testimonies from his aides suggest he’s careful to limit his paper trail. Hale told lawmakers that he and Pompeo “almost never exchange email. He has once or twice sent me an email. … I primarily go back through his staff or directly on the phone.”

The few records of Pompeo’s communications that have emerged show no sign of discomfort with his underlings’ efforts, as outlined in the messages Sondland shared Wednesday.

On Aug. 22, Sodland asked Pompeo: “Should we block time in Warsaw for a short pull-aside for Potus to meet Zelensky? I would ask Zelensky to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place (mid-Sept) Ze should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US. Hopefully, that will break the logjam.”

“Yes,” Pompeo responded.

Then, on Sept. 3, Sondland emailed Pompeo to thank him for a recent visit to Brussels that came shortly after Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw.

“Mike, thanks for schlepping to Europe,” he wrote to his boss. “I think it was really important and the chemistry seems promising. Really appreciate it.”

“All good,” Pompeo replied. “You’re doing great work; keep banging away.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

'I don't know him very well': Trump fights back against Sondland's testimony

Clutching handwritten notes scrawled with a Sharpie, President Donald Trump on Wednesday fought back against bombshell impeachment testimony from Gordon Sondland that tied the president even closer to a quid pro quo involving Ukraine and investigations into Trump's political rivals.

"I don’t know him very well. I have not spoken to him much," Trump said on the South Lawn of the White House, as he sought to downplay his relationship with Sondland, despite effusively praising him in the past. "This is not a man I know well. He seems like a nice guy, though."

Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union and a Trump megadonor, told the House Intelligence Committee earlier in the day that he and other senior aides to the president made it clear to Ukraine officials that they needed to deliver politically motivated investigations Trump sought.

“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?” Sondland said. “The answer is yes.”

Sondland also tied the mission directly to Trump, saying he and other senior officials pressured Ukraine on the investigations “because the president directed us to do so.”

But the envoy also told lawmakers that in his conversations with the president — including a September phone call — Trump never explicitly conditioned a White House meeting with Ukraine's president or security assistance to the Eastern European nation on the probes.

Trump seized upon that particular bit of testimony Wednesday.

"I just noticed one thing, and I would say, that means it's all over," he told reporters, proceeding to read off his pages of notes summarizing Sondland's remarks.

"So here's my answer: 'I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing," Trump said, re-enacting his conversation with Sondland.

Throughout the House impeachment inquiry, the president has sought to denigrate or at least distance himself from key witnesses in the Democrat-led investigation, including his own administration officials.

Trump early last month hailed Sondland, who contributed $1 million to the president's inaugural committee, as "a really good man and great American." Two weeks ago, however, Trump claimed to "hardly know the gentleman."

Asked during his testimony about the president's disparate statements regarding their relationship, Sondland quipped: "Easy come, easy go."

Trump on Wednesday also sought to portray the impeachment investigation as sputtering out, tweeting that the "Impeachment Witch Hunt is now OVER!"

Trump continued to reiterate that belief after Sondland's daylong testimony wrapped up, telling reporters on a trip to Texas that Democrats "have to end it now." He then launched into a familiar tirade against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and the press.

And he ridiculed Democrats for placing so much stock in Sondland's testimony, telling reporters in Texas later that "this was going to be their star witness."

He appeared to deflect responsibility for appointing Sondland as EU ambassador, noting that Sondland supported other candidates first in the 2016 GOP primary. "He's the guy who got put there, he wasn't even on my side. He came over to me, I didn't even know that. He came over to me after I defeated other people," Trump said.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham on Wednesday echoed her boss's messaging, also referencing the September call between Trump and Sondland.

"Ambassador Sondland’s testimony made clear that in one of the few brief phone calls he had with President Trump, the President clearly stated that he ‘wanted nothing’ from Ukraine and repeated ‘no quid pro quo over and over again,'" Grisham said in a statement. "In fact, no quid pro quo ever occurred. The U.S. aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelensky. Democrats keep chasing ghosts.”

Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney, also weighed in on Sondland's testimony after the ambassador told lawmakers that Trump ordered him to coordinate with the former New York mayor on Ukraine matters.

Sondland said that he, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, a former U.S. envoy for Ukraine negotiations, "did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani" and simply "played the hand we were dealt."

But Giuliani wrote on Twitter that he "came into this at Volker’s request," and accused Sondland of "speculating based on VERY little contact. I never met him and had very few calls with him, mostly with Volker."

In that same tweet, which Giuliani quickly deleted, he added that "Volker testified I answered their questions and described them as my opinions, NOT demands. I.E., no quid pro quo!"

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Pence aide denies 'alleged discussion' between VP and Sondland on Ukraine aid

Vice President Mike Pence is distancing himself from “the Gordon problem.”

As Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified on Wednesday in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, an aide to Pence sought to minimize his past interactions with the donor-diplomat.

Sondland told lawmakers that on Sept. 1, he spoke with the vice president ahead of Pence’s meeting with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Poland.

He said he mentioned “investigations” Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue into former vice president Joe Biden, a political rival, and Burisma, a Ukrainian firm with ties to Biden’s son Hunter.

“I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in [U.S. military aid to Ukraine] had become tied to the issue of investigations,” Sondland said. “I recall mentioning that before the Zelensky meeting.”

Asked by Democrats how the vice president responded, however, Sondland recalled only that Pence acknowledged his words.

"I don’t know exactly what I said to him," Sondland said. "This was a briefing attended by many people and I was invited at the very last minute — I wasn’t scheduled to be there. But I think I spoke up at some point late in the meeting and said it looks like everything is being held up until these statements get made and that’s my, you know, personal belief."

"And Vice President Pence just nodded his head?" Democratic counsel Dan Goldman asked.

"Again, I don’t recall any exchange or where he asked me any questions. I think he — it was sort of a duly noted," Sondland said.

Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, dismissed the very basis of Sondland’s comments.

“The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” Short said in a statement. “Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”

Short added: “Multiple witnesses have testified under oath that Vice President Pence never raised Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden, Crowdstrike, Burisma, or investigations in any conversation with Ukrainians or President Zelensky before, during, or after the September 1 meeting in Poland.”

According to an aide to the vice president, Short witnessed a conversation in a secure setting between the vice president and Sondland with a small group of others, but the exchange did not take place as Sondland described it.

"We believe very strongly that this never happened," the aide said.

Pence has sought to avoid getting dragged into the impeachment scandal while publicly remaining loyal to Trump. But Sondland's testimony puts him back in the sights of House investigators.

Sondland played an unusual but expansive role in shaping Ukraine policy, even though Ukraine is not a member of the European Union. His role annoyed several other foreign policy officials, some of whom dubbed it “the Gordon problem.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

'Everyone was in the loop': Live highlights from Sondland’s testimony

Gordon Sondland’s opening statement deals a devastating blow to arguments by President Donald Trump’s allies that the president did not try to trade a White House meeting for political investigations into his rivals.

“I know that members of this Committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” the EU envoy testified. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Sondland also offered proof for the first time that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aware of the push for Zelensky to launch investigations in exchange for a call with Trump and a White House meeting, both highly coveted by the newly elected Ukrainian president.

“I Talked to Zelensky just now... He is prepared to receive Potus’ call,” Sondland wrote in a July 19 email to Pompeo and other top officials, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

“Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone’. He would greatly appreciate a call prior to Sunday so that he can put out some media about a ‘friendly and productive call’ (no details) prior to Ukraine election on Sunday.”

Mulvaney replied, “I asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow,” according to the email exchange Sondland provided to the committee.

The bottom line, Sondland said, was that “everyone was in the loop” on the quid pro quo.

“It was no secret,” he testified. “Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the presidential call.”

Check back for updates. We'll post the most important revelations here.

Sondland’s dedication to Ukraine questionable

To hear Gordon Sondland tell it, he’s cared about Ukraine for a long time, and the country was part of his responsibilities.

That argument is a stretch.

Sondland was a wealthy hotel owner just a few years ago. He gave $1 million for Trump’s inauguration, and later was given an ambassadorial post.

But the role he was given is U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Ukraine is not in the European Union.

And Sondland’s role in Ukraine – no matter how much he insists was completely normal – deeply annoyed others tasked with dealing with the country.

That included John Bolton, the former national security adviser, and Tim Morrison, one of his top aides. In his private testimony, Morrison said he and Bolton were “frustrated” that Sondland’s “direct boss” — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — didn't rein him in.

Schiff slams Trump, Pompeo for ‘effort to obstruct’ impeachment inquiry

In his prepared remarks Wednesday, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) savaged the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for their refusal to cooperate with the impeachment probe — referencing damning new testimony by Sondland which further implicates Trump’s top diplomat and other senior administration officials in the Ukraine scandal.

“I think we know now, based on a sample of the documents attached to Ambassador Sondland's statement, that the knowledge of this scheme was far and wide, and included, among others, Secretary of State Pompeo, as well as the vice president,” Schiff said.

House impeachment investigators “can see why” Pompeo and Trump “have made such a concerted and across-the-board effort to obstruct this investigation,” he said, adding that “they do so at their own peril.”

Sondland confirms his July 26 call with Trump

One day after Trump spoke to Zelensky by phone and asked him to investigate the Bidens and interference in the 2016 election, Sondland spoke with the president by phone from a restaurant in Kyiv.

“The call lasted five minutes,” Sondland testified. “I remember I was at a restaurant in Kyiv, and I have no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations. Again, given Mr. Giuliani’s demand that President Zelensky make a public statement about investigations, I knew that the topic of investigations was important to President Trump. We did not discuss any classified information.”

Sondland is confirming testimony from David Holmes, a State Department official who testified last week that he overheard the call at the restaurant partly because Trump was speaking so loudly through the phone. Holmes also testified that Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass” and would do anything for him.

The call is significant because it reveals that Trump considered Sondland to be an emissary for his requests for investigations from Zelensky.

“It is true that the president speaks loudly at times,” Sondland testified. “It is true that the President likes to use colorful language. While I cannot remember the precise details -- again, the White House has not allowed me to see any readouts of that call -- the July 26 call did not strike me as significant at the time.

"Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations, particularly given what we were hearing from Mr. Giuliani about the president’s concerns,” he continued. “However, I have no recollection of discussing Vice President Biden or his son on that call or after the call ended.”

But Sondland emphasized in his opening statement that he was not in the habit of taking notes, and did not otherwise contest Holmes' account of his July 26 call with Trump.

Trump was aware he was speaking on an 'open line' with Sondland

Sondland confirmed that his conversation with Trump from a cell phone on a restaurant terrace in Kyiv was held on an open line—and that Trump “was aware it was an open line as well.”

The acknowledgment raises fresh questions about Trump’s security practices. The president likes to call his friends from his personal cell phone rather than the White House landline, according to the New York Times, despite constant warnings from aides that adversaries are likely eavesdropping.

David Holmes, the state Department official who overheard the July 26 call, testified last week that it him nervous because “we generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored.”

Two of the three mobile networks in Ukraine are Russian-owned, Holmes noted, and former Ambassador Victoria Nuland, a senior envoy to Ukraine under President Barack Obama, had seen her communications monitored and disseminated "for political effect," he recalled.

Sondland, for his part, did not seem concerned. “I have unclassified conversations all the time from landlines that are unsecured, and cell phones," he said. "If the topic is not classified -- and it’s up to the president to decide what’s classified and what’s not classified -- he was aware it was an open line as well."

He also acknowledged telling the president that Zelensky "loves your ass," as Holmes testified.

"Yeah, it sounds like something I would say," Sondland said, laughing. "That's how President Trump and I communicate. Lots of four letter words. In this case: three letters."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Are Your Neighbors Ready for Mayor Pete?

DECORAH, Iowa—On a cold night in a small town, a man had a question for Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate with a serious shot at the American presidency. How, he wanted to know, would he deal with leaders of foreign countries where it’s still illegal to be gay? Buttigieg, dressed as he almost always is, in brown shoes and blue slacks and a plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, stood in the center of a stage surrounded by more than a thousand people who had packed into the gymnasium of the high school. Buttigieg gripped the hand-held mic and took a few steps forward.

“Sooooo,” he said, drawing out the syllable and the suspense, “they’re going to have to get used to it.”

Those 10 words, tough, almost defiant, elicited a response unlike anything else I witnessed trailing the ascendant Buttigieg on a pair of boisterous recent campaign swings. The sound started with a release of anxious laughter, followed by a hitch of surprise, before giving way to clapping and whistling and shouts and cheers that only got louder as what he had said sank in. It took nearly 30 seconds for the noise to subside.

Unspoken in his answer—maybe unintended but nevertheless true—was that he wasn’t only talking about, or even to, bigoted heads of state in distant, backward lands. He just as easily could have been speaking about his fellow Americans. For months now, Buttigieg’s utterly unprecedented campaign has offered a practically explicit challenge to voters: Can they accept the totality of who he is—the pragmatic, two-term mayor of a midsize midwestern city, the earnest nerd with a facility for language and degrees from Harvard and Oxford, the Navy Reserve lieutenant who did a seven-month stint in Afghanistan … and also the 37-year-old husband of a man who teaches Montessori middle school and with whom he hopes to parent children?

Up till now, Buttigieg’s youth and sexual orientation largely have been calling cards in the Democratic primary, distinguishing him in a field whose front-runners are in their 70s and whose back-of-the-packers are too numerous for most people to keep track of. Given his comparatively low profile not long ago, Buttigieg has raised astonishing amounts of money, from donors of all kinds but from wealthy gay supporters, too, eager to back a figure who could, they believe, crack or outright shatter the glass closet. As his poll numbers have climbed, particularly in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he has joined the foremost quartet of 2020 Democrats. And with that rise has come a new, more pointed question, raised by voters and political consultants alike, and rooted in electoral history: Will the one thing that makes Buttigieg totally new in the annals of presidential politics also prevent him from becoming his party’s nominee?

He’s not the first candidate to have faced this question, and not even the first in the last few cycles. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy raised the question, still unanswered, of whether the country was ready for a woman as commander-in-chief. In 2008, with Barack Obama, the question was about a black president. With Obama, the answer was a resounding yes, but even in the primary it wasn’t always clear how things would turn out. Democratic voters, even the ones who were more than ready for Obama, were forced to wonder about the number of voters who weren’t. At roughly this point in the ’08 race, Clinton led Obama by a lot, in no small part because voters, many of them black voters, simply thought he couldn’t win. Once he began winning primaries, those numbers shifted, and fast.

When it comes to the prospect of a gay president, the numbers right now are sobering for Buttigieg: Polling suggests that the country was more ready for a black president back in 2008 than it is for a gay president now. And last month, the current iteration of the question of readiness became front-page news when a leaked memo revealed focus groups commissioned by the Buttigieg campaign suggested his sexuality could be “a barrier” for black voters in at least South Carolina, the crucial fourth nominating contest—and a bellwether for the party’s more socially conservative voters.

As I followed Buttigieg in South Carolina and rode along on his latest Iowa bus tour, I met many citizens who feel legitimately drawn to him as an alternative to the other, older top-tier trio—Joe Biden, whom they view as aging and uneven, and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whom they consider pie-in-the-sky lefties trying to sell them unrealistic ideas that smack of government excess. I listened to these voters grapple with their reservations, as they weighed, out loud, their feelings of fledgling support against what they perceive as the stubborn intolerance of others, including their neighbors and in some cases members of their own families.

I heard it down south in South Carolina.

“People don’t change from their old beliefs,” Andrew Davis, 70, told me in Rock Hill.

And I heard it up north in rural Iowa.

“My mom is a devout Christian,” Michael Moe, 59, told me in Algona, “and she would never vote for a gay.”

“I feel bad, because it doesn’t bother me,” Larry Untiet, 71, told me in Spencer, “but I’m sure there’s people—about Pete’s sexuality—that it’ll affect their vote.”

“That was one of the thoughts that I had when thinking about him,” Danielle Borglum, 43, told me in Waverly. “Like, are we really ready for a gay president? Like, were we ready for a woman? I thought we were, but clearly we weren’t, you know? So there’s always that hesitation: Are we going to get behind somebody and then all the hate is going to come out?”

And it’s not just voters who have identified Buttigieg’s sexuality as a potential obstacle. “I think it’s an issue,” Tim Miller, a gay Republican consultant who was Jeb Bush’s communications director in ’16, told me. He cited a recent Fox News poll he tweeted about in which 68 percent of Democratic primary voters said they think Biden can beat Trump, 57 percent said they think Warren can, 54 percent said they think Sanders can—and only 30 percent said the same about Buttigieg. “There’s only one reason for that,” Miller said. “And that’s the fact that he’s gay.”

To assuage these concerns, that his candidacy is too risky to fully embrace, Buttigieg lately has leaned into comparisons with Obama, at the top of the list of historic firsts—and the one who won. He calls himself “a young man with a funny name.” His cadence can conjure that of the 44th president. The architects of the campaign that made Obama the first black president certainly have noticed the parallels. “He used to say, ‘I am proudly of the black community, but I’m not limited to it,’” Obama strategist David Axelrod told me. “And from what I see from a distance, it feels like that’s the same approach Buttigieg is taking.”

When I asked Buttigieg on his bus about the pages he was taking from Obama’s playbook, he didn’t push back. One lesson: “You should give Americans credit for being able to do something different, for being able to move past old prejudices, and when people are moved and inspired, that happens in ways that cut across tribal, ideological party lines,” he said. “I think in a very simple way he just demonstrated what’s possible.”

But Obama in a quite literal way didn’t have to be the sort of trailblazer Buttigieg is having to be. Before Obama, there was Alan Keyes, there was Al Sharpton, there was Carol Moseley Braun. There was Jesse Jackson. They were different kinds of campaigns, but Americans had seen high-profile black candidates before. Buttigieg, on the other hand, has had to invent an entirely new template, and that’s meant running not as a gay candidate per se, but not running away from it, either. Sometimes he speaks about the humdrum doings of his domestic life. Sometimes he is conspicuously, politically prudent, speaking nearly in code about the manner in which his identity shapes who he is and how he’s running. And sometimes, like when I saw him in Des Moines, in a high-profile speech in the big downtown arena, he tells some 13,000 people that he’s planning on hunting deer in rural Michigan on the morning of Thanksgiving with his husband’s father—surely the first time a presidential candidate ever has strung together quite that collection of words.

“Look,” Buttigieg said in the second half of his answer in Decorah, talking to retrograde rulers, but also to everybody, everywhere, “one great thing about America is that when we’re at our best, we have challenged places around the world to acknowledge freedom and include more people in more ways.”

As people filed out, buzzing, into the dark and frigid air, I caught up with the man who had asked the question. David Mintz lives in Florida. He had come because his daughter moved here to work as an organizer for Buttigieg. He struck me, though, as clear-eyed about the hurdle at hand.

“The sexuality of this president is going to be an issue internationally … if not domestically,” Mintz said, envisioning a Buttigieg administration. And that’s if he somehow can … win. “He’ll never get to the presidency,” Mintz added, “if enough people here can’t come to terms with that.”

Back on Buttigieg’s blue and yellow bus, the more west we went, generally the more conservative the territory got, and I asked him if he had surprised himself with his answer by being so blunt.

“I mean, it’s just the truth,” he said, “right?”

The America in which Buttigieg is running for president is notably different from the America in which he grew up.

The decade before Buttigieg was born, gay elected officials were such a novelty that people can still recite their individual names. In 1974, out lesbians Kathy Kozachenko and Elaine Noble won seats on the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, respectively. In 1977, openly gay Harvey Milk in 1977 was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Kozachenko served one term. Noble served two, a tenure marred by homophobic threats and bullet-riddled windows. Milk was assassinated.

In November of 1980, 14 months before Buttigieg was born, Barney Frank of Massachusetts was elected to Congress without revealing he was gay. Not until he had won an additional three elections did he come out. “I wouldn’t have been elected,” he would say later, about the beginning of his career, “if I was out.”

In the 1990s, even as Frank kept winning and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin made history as the first person to earn a seat in Congress after running as an openly gay candidate, President Bill Clinton signed laws making it illegal for openly gay Americans to serve in the military (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) or get married (the Defense of Marriage Act). Capturing the era’s conflicted attitudes about homosexuality was the iconic 1993 episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry and George try desperately to convince a reporter they’re not gay, with Jerry adding, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

It was then, in the halls of St. Joseph High of South Bend, Buttigieg began to feel the first “indications” that he was gay. He was the valedictorian. He was the president of his class. He was voted by his peers as “most likely” to be the president of the United States. He knew of no gay students.

The 2000s were turbulent with respect to gay rights, trending toward tolerance. But in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to let same-sex couples wed but 11 other states passed constitutional amendments prohibiting the same, Buttigieg graduated from Harvard—closeted. That year, there were three openly gay members of Congress and no senators; the governor of New Jersey came out and resigned in the same speech. Obama, who had favored gay marriage as a state senate candidate in 1996, modulated as a presidential candidate in 2008, recognizing the reality of the cultural and political currents of the time, advocating only for civil unions.

If there had been a pill when he was younger, Buttigieg has said, that would have made him not gay, he would have swallowed it without so much as a sip of water. If somebody could have pointed to the part of his insides that made him gay, he “would have cut it out with a knife.” Buttigieg was the president of the university’s Institute of Politics, a history and literature major, a Rhodes Scholar, and he believed he could be an aspiring politician, or he could be an out gay man. But the one thing he could not be, he was convinced, was both.

Fifteen years later and a thousand miles away, Buttigieg arrived one Saturday last month in Columbia, South Carolina, at a tailgate before a football game featuring historically black Allen University. The stop was an obvious piece of his ongoing efforts to make any semblance of inroads with the state’s African American voters, who made up a crucial 60 percent of the electorate in the 2016 primary. They have been cool to his candidacy: Buttigieg polls consistently in the single digits overall, but this fall his lack of support among black voters has put him at or near zero.

Since the report about the memo in which some in the focus group said they “felt the mayor was ‘flaunting’ his sexuality by the very mention of having a husband,” many in the black community, and in the Buttigieg campaign, too, have pushed back at the suggestion that Buttigieg’s sexuality is one of the reasons for his lagging support. Still, Rep. Jim Clyburn, 79, the House majority whip and longtime congressman from South Carolina, whose grandson works for Buttigieg, said recently, “That’s a generational issue. I know of a lot of people my age who feel that way. … I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise. I think everybody knows that’s an issue.”

One of the standard pieces of paraphernalia Buttigieg’s campaign distributes at his offices and his events introduces him, in this interesting order, as “a husband, Afghanistan veteran, and the Mayor of his hometown,” but he often on the stump presents himself as a veteran, as a relative moderate, and as a fresh, not-from-Washington option as much as or more than he does as a gay married man. It’s especially plain in a place like this.

Spending time with him up close, though, is to be constantly reminded that who he is as a public figure—what he represents to which voters, and where—is not always his choice. The first person to get to him at the tailgate, for instance, was a 23-year-old fashion designer. Kashmir Imani shook his hand and promptly gave him a homemade hat. “PETE 2020,” it said, and the front was decorated with a wash of bright rainbow colors. Buttigieg smiled, thanked her, showed it briefly to assembled reporters, and then handed it to an aide.

He walked toward the DJ and the smoking grill, one table piled with catfish on paper plates and hot dogs and hamburgers with Wonder Bread buns, another covered with buttons and shirts announcing #HBCUsForPete. He barely had gotten under one of the blue tents when he was asked about the Equality Act by a young black gay man.

“The House has passed it, but this president will never sign it,” Buttigieg told Donny Williams, queuing up what sounded like an answer he might give on TV. “So, it’s one of many, many reasons we need a new president, because I’ll sign it right away. Part of it’s also who gets on the [Supreme] Court, right? Making sure that we’re appointing justices who understand that it’s discrimination that can’t stand …”

Buttigieg, though, seemed to sense this was not necessarily what the 18-year-old Williams wanted to hear. He paused.

“Has that been your experience?” Buttigieg asked, the word discrimination still hanging in the air.

“Horrible things,” Williams answered.

Buttigieg pursed his lips and nodded.

“I wouldn’t want to wish that upon a new generation,” Williams said.

“Our generation can fix it,” Buttigieg said.

“Stay strong,” he told Williams. “I’m glad you’re out here.”

Buttigieg then gave a short, anodyne greeting to the gathering, about “building community” and doing it with “joy,” and was gone.

Up the road in Rock Hill, a line wrapped around a block, nearly 1,700 mostly white people waiting for the Buttigieg town hall scheduled for an outdoor courtyard. I saw buttons saying “PRIDE FOR PETE” and “BOOT EDGE EDGE” in rainbow letters and “AMERICA’S FIRST COUPLE” with pictures of Buttigieg and his husband, the former Chasten Glezman. I saw shirts saying: “CHASTEN FOR FIRST GENTLEMAN” and “NOT STRAIGHT BUT STRAIGHT FORWARD” and “MAKE AMERICA GAY AGAIN.” The president of the local Winthrop University College Democrats told the crowd, “I, as a gay millennial, am reminded as I see a fellow gay millennial make a run for the highest office in the land, just how awesome this nation can really be.”

In his speech, though, Buttigieg didn’t describe himself as a gay millennial. He first and foremost described himself as a mayor, and mayors, he said, can’t call potholes “fake news”—they just have to fill them. He talked about ending “systemic racism.” He talked about tearing down “walls of mistrust.” And he talked about “values,” like “faith and family,” “security and democracy,” and “freedom”—including, he said, freedom from “county clerks … telling you who you ought to marry.” But he did not talk about, at least not specifically, his sexuality—and in the subsequent question-and-answer, he wasn’t asked about it, either. He was asked about climate change, and improving public education, and repairing foreign relations, and the difference between Medicare For All and his plan of Medicare For All Who Want It, and he was asked, actually, if the country is ready not for a gay president but for such a young president.

The question itself brought a raucous round of cheers and chants.

“Well,” Buttigieg said, “I guess we got our answer right there.”

He leaned hard into the youth question, adding that “the world right now is seeing a rise of a new generation of leaders,” citing the presidents of France (Emmanuel Macron is 41) and El Salvador (Nayib Bukele, 38) and the prime minister of New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern, 39). “I will also point out,” he went on, “as a matter of strategy—not to get too political—but every single time in the last 50 years or so that Democrats have won the Oval Office—I mean every single time—it’s been a candidate who hadn’t been on the scene very long, who wasn’t perceived as a creature of Washington. … It’s how he we win!”

And the following morning, at the state conference of the black A.M.E. Zion Church, where the men wore bowties and the women wore pearls and one congregant fanned his face with a cardboard fan touting Biden, Buttigieg delivered to a different audience a similar pitch, stressing unity and nodding to his sexuality in only the most tangential ways.

“There’s talk of a wall going up on the border,” he told them. “I doubt that that will ever be built, but I have seen walls go up so high even between us and others that we love. … We must do something about that crisis of belonging. All of us in different ways have been led to question whether we belong, and I know what it is to look on the news and see your rights up for debate. All of us must extend a hand to one another because I also know what is to find acceptance where you least expect it.”

He drew murmurs of approval and ripples of amen.

Would his sexuality be “a barrier” for people here?

“It wouldn’t be a barrier for me,” Carl Bankhead, 67, from Hickory Grove told me after the service.

But for his neighbors?

“We have had some discussion on that,” he granted, “and I have heard individuals say that it would be a barrier for them.”

When I asked Ronnie Massey, 58, a retired truck driver from York, about Buttigieg’s sexuality, he looked a bit puzzled.

“His sexuality?” he said.

I told him he’s gay.

“Really?” he said. “He didn’t come off as, like, being gay.”

He never had. But what happened throughout his first term as mayor made it possible for Buttigieg to do what he finally did toward the end.

Fred Karger, for starters, a Republican consultant, strategist and self-described “activist,” launched a run for the White House in the 2012 cycle, which was largely ignored but nonetheless made him the first openly gay major party presidential candidate in American history. With Mitt Romney, a Mormon, running, Karger’s campaign was predicated on rebuking the anti-gay stances of LDS Church.

The man who was the president already, meanwhile, announced his support for gay marriage in May of that year, a move that did nothing to dampen his public approval. Under Obama’s watch, the enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had ended in late 2010, and the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. In his second inaugural address, Obama pointedly connected the civil rights fights of women and blacks to the civil rights fights of gays. “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” he said. By 2014, more than half the country supported gay marriage, and more than seven in 10 people considered it inevitable. “The Gay Rights President,” historian Timothy Stewart-Winter, the author of Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics, would call Obama.

In South Bend, where Buttigieg took office in 2011 at age 29, these years read in the archives of the South Bend Tribune like a string of the last acts of a closeted man, changing in what he thought was possible due to what was changing around him. He consistently advocated for gay rights, frequently funneling his explanations through the language of sound, just policy. In 2012, he signed into law a city ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. “I ran on a platform of economic development, and part of how you show that you have a healthy economy is you show that workers are treated fairly,” he said. In 2013, ’14 and ‘15, he spoke out, too, against the efforts of Gov. Mike Pence to amend the Indiana state constitution to ban gay marriage and institute its controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “This is not a Republican thing or a Democrat thing; this is just about the right thing,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not too late for the state to follow South Bend’s lead,” he added, “and add protections for LGBT Hoosiers.”

On June 16, 2015, in an essay in the Tribune, he came out.

Three years to the day later, he was married.

And this past April, in a speech to the Victory Fund, the political action committee that aims to boost the number of gay people in elected office, he said, “Next time a reporter asks me if America is ready for a gay president, I’m going to tell the truth. I’m going to give them the only answer that I can think of that’s honest, and it’s this: I trust my fellow Americans. But at the end of the day, there’s exactly one way to find out for sure.”

The next week, he officially announced his run, kissing his husband on stage.

His rise, say historians of the gay movement that I talked to for this piece, is at once the result of half a century of struggle and absolutely astonishing in how seemingly sudden it’s been. “Before the Obama administration,” said Lillian Faderman, the author of The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, “his candidacy would have been unthinkable.”

Even after it. Just last year, late last year, Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, published a new book, The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World. What does it say about Buttigieg, the man now running first in the Iowa polls? Nothing. All this has happened so fast he’s not in the book. Not even once. (Reynolds, for the record, told me this week a paperback is due out in the spring. Rest assured, he said, in the new epilogue, Buttigieg will be mentioned.)

In Iowa, the bus rolled on, across the northern reaches of the corn-covered state, behind lumbering, lane-clogging, green-painted farm vehicles with tall, knobby tires, the trajectory of the trip pressing the central question of this campaign deeper and deeper into politically more and more difficult terrain.

In Waverly, population 10,126, in Bremer County, where Obama won twice but Trump won 53 percent of the vote in 2016, and where Buttigieg was introduced by a city councilman who called him more impressive than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, Buttigieg got a question asking for a moment when he did the right thing in spite of potential adverse consequence. He opted to answer it by talking about coming out. “If your voters decide to fire you because of who you are,” he said to the 568 people jampacked into the high school cafeteria, “then it is what it is.” (Kari Rindels, 41, from Waterloo, who asked the question, told me she wasn’t sure others in her “very conservative, very Christian” family even would consider voting for Buttigieg. “To them, I hear a lot, you know, and I even hate repeating it, that the person is not wrong,” she said. “Love the person, hate the sin, in their eyes.”)

In Charles City, population 7,373, in Floyd County, where Obama won twice but Trump won 54 percent of the vote, Buttigieg was asked how he would, “as a gay man,” run his campaign “when evangelicals will make an issue” of his sexuality? “What I’m finding,” he said to the 276 people stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder into the Elks Lodge, “is the real question on voters’ minds is how their lives are going to be different if I’m president versus the one we’ve got or one of the competitors. And I find that elections are not so much about my life. I’m happy to tell my story—and I’m proud of who I am—it’s really about yours.” (Donna Ponto, 60, from Greene, told me she asked the question because she has a gay cousin and two gay brothers and one of them and his husband are asking this question. She called Buttigieg “intelligent” and “likeable” and “sweet” but expressed doubt that what he said would work on actual evangelicals. “I didn’t feel like it was a real true answer,” she said.)

And in Spencer, the last stop of the last day of the bus trip, in the biggest town in heavily agricultural Clay County, where John McCain won 52 percent of the vote in 2008, where Romney won 59 percent of the vote in 2012, and where Trump won 68 percent of the vote in 2016, where the congressional representative is right-wing, anti-gay Steve King, more than 500 people filled a basketball court at the YMCA to see the very first credible gay candidate for president.

One of those more than 500 people was Anneliese DeBeaumont, 19. Her long, blond, pink-trimmed hair stood out. She had driven two hours from the University of South Dakota. “I wanted to see him speak,” she told me. “It helps gay kids everywhere.” She likes him because he’s more moderate, and because he’s from the Midwest, not just because he’s gay, but still: “I was like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to make it this far,’” she said. “And he just kept going, and I was, like, ‘Whooooaaaa.’”

Also on hand: Kali Johnson, 17, with her short, purple hair, clutching her rainbow sign saying “PETE.” She had driven an hour from George, in Iowa’s northwest corner, population barely more than a thousand, where she attends a small, conservative school, she told me. “Having a gay president could be really eye-opening,” she said. “He could do a lot of things to help.”

Buttigieg told this crowd a story he deploys a lot.

“One of the best moments in this whole campaign was when a student came up to me,” he said. “A high schooler let me know that our campaign had signaled to her that she had a place in her school and in her community. She said, ‘I can go to school, having looked at your campaign—I now believe that I can go to school, talk about what I believe in, not be ashamed, just because I have autism.’ And I remember hearing that story and thinking, ‘Ah, now we’re really getting somewhere.’ Because if this campaign let her know, in some way that I don’t even completely understand, let her know, spoke to her, and let her know that she fits—if we can do that in a campaign months and months before the first vote is even cast, imagine what the American presidency can do if it is intentionally used to build up the sense of belonging in this country. This is what the presidency is for.”

The questions in the question-and-answer sessions, written down on pieces of paper by people who had entered the gym, were being pulled from the jar. The last one was from “Chris B.”

“What protections,” the designated question-reader read, “do you plan for the LGBTQ community, especially for those who are transgender?”

Buttigieg, as is his custom at town halls, asked “Chris B.” to “give a wave” if he or she wanted. Usually, the person who asked the question is only too happy to take credit with an awkward hello, and Buttigieg invariably responds with one of his own. Here, though, in Spencer, Iowa, “Chris B.” gave no wave. Buttigieg clipped the pregnant moment and filled the silence.

“Um,” he said, “so this is obviously an issue of personal importance to me having grown up, not knowing if I would ever fit in. Because I was different. I didn’t know if my own community would have a place for me. And some great things have happened. Some great steps forward have happened in this country. I don’t think I would have guessed at the beginning of this same decade that we’re living in that it would be possible for me to stand in front of you, a married man, running for president of the United States.”

The people clapped and cheered.

“But just because marriage equality is the law of the land doesn’t mean that we’ve gotten there,” he continued. “We need an Equality Act to ensure at the federal level that it is not lawful to discriminate against anybody because of who they are or because of who they love.”

The people clapped and cheered.

“Transgender Americans in particular are facing a lot of obstacles,” he said. “But I know that progress is possible. Because of the things that have become possible.”

The most famous gay politician in America, even today, remains Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor whose rise to prominence coincided with the first public bloom of the gay rights movement. Milk and Buttigieg are different in many ways—as different, it’s tempting to say, as South Bend and San Francisco, Milk the voracious populist with his bullhorn and his soapbox, Buttigieg the buttoned-up, cerebral son of professors with his impeccable syntax. Everything Milk did, too, he did “with an eye on the gay movement”—he wouldn’t have run, or won, without support from that community, in his city—whereas Buttigieg at times has been a reluctant poster boy.

The more I watched Buttigieg on the campaign trail, though, the more two similarities become apparent. One is that he, like Milk, sees the moral necessity as well as obviously the political utility of trying to tie the plight of gays to that of anybody who’s ever felt shut out or left out or demeaned or deprived—what Milk called “the oppressed of all stripes.” And the other? Their use of the word hope. Nearly half a century ago, Milk talked often about “the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, and the Richmond, Minnesotas,” saying “the only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if it the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right.”

Seeing Buttigieg, it’s hard not to think of him as a movement candidate, at least in part. It’s hard, after all, not to think of Donny, and Kali, and Anneliese from South Dakota. But of course, for Buttigieg to matter as more than a symbolic figure, he has to win, and he can’t win with only their votes. He needs to persuade the Mintzes and the Borglums and the Untiets and enough of their neighbors—a group of voters who want the candidates’ policies to matter as much or more than anything else, and who want some assurance that a majority of their fellow Americans can view him that way, too.

It’s instructive, in that regard, to go back to 2008, and look again at the poll numbers—in particular the ones about whether the country was ready to elect a black president. Back in 2000, it had been in the high 30s. In January of ‘08, at the beginning of primary voting, one poll put the number 54 percent. But by that April, by the time Obama had won in Iowa and South Carolina and 13 states on Super Tuesday, another poll said the number of Americans ready to elect a black president was as high as 76 percent. One conclusion to draw from that: When public opinion shifts, it can shift quickly. And perhaps it takes only one person to shift it. Two and a half months before the first 2020 vote, 50 percent of the public said they were “definitely” or “probably” ready to elect a gay president, although they were slightly more skeptical about the country as a whole.

So here, now, in red, rural Iowa, Buttigieg closed this event the way he does so many of his events.

“I am propelled by a sense of hope, and I know hope went out of style for a bit in politics, but you can’t do this if you don’t have a sense of hope,” he said, making many think about Obama, making me think about Milk, but extending this template that’s never before been tested in American politics. “Running for office,” he said, “is an act of hope.”

Less than two weeks later the biggest poll in Iowa came out. It showed he’s in first place by 9 points.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Senate Dems agonize over finding a 2020 Trump-conqueror

After fracturing in 2008 and rushing to join a coronation in 2016, the vast majority of Democratic senators are withholding their endorsements in the 2020 presidential race. And many may not endorse for months — or at all.

In interviews with a dozen senators on Tuesday on the eve of one of the last presidential debates before the Iowa caucuses, it was clear that several may make an endorsement next year if they think it can make a critical difference in a tight race. But such a moment is months away — with some senators predicting they may be forced to exert their influence at the party convention next year in Milwaukee.

The hesitation by some of the party’s most senior elected officials reflects the unsettled nature of the race, which has seen Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg all with leads in early states over the past month. But there’s also an implicit message that suggests undecided senators are just like a lot of voters: It’s still not clear who is the safest bet to defeat President Donald Trump.

“My feeling is that I’m still not sure who the best candidate to run against Trump is,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the party’s up-and-coming senators. “I always thought the primary was a way of sorting out the most battle-ready candidate. And until we at least have one election [in Iowa], I don’t think we can really know who is ready.”

“I’ll make an endorsement when my gut tells me I know who the right person is. It’s an intuition thing. And I’ll know it when I know,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the 2016 vice presidential nominee. “My gut told me really early that Obama was the right guy and my gut told me really early that Hillary is the right person. And I’m just not there yet.”

The decision to avoid playing in the primaries reflects the awkward nature of this particular campaign, with six Democratic senators still running. Five senators also ran in 2008, but the caucus has become averse to the kind of brutal battles of the past. Senators chose sides between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the 2008 race, creating wounds that festered for years.

Endorsements at this stage could reassure voters that the establishment believes Warren isn’t too far left or help stabilize the wobbly Biden candidacy. But if an endorsement backfires and creates dissension with the rest of the field, then “you build enemies for life,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). He predicted many senators will wait for the convention before choosing between candidates.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he would “never say never” to making an endorsement but indicated he wouldn’t want to rock his own parochial politics. After all, he wants to be re-elected as whip in the next Congress and snubbing five or six senators by making an endorsement wouldn’t be the way to do it.

“Right now, I’m thinking I won’t. But I don’t know. I’m not clear at this point who I think is the strongest,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich), who endorsed Clinton early in both 2008 and 2016. “Unless I feel very strongly about a person, I think there may be a more appropriate role to play to bring everybody together afterwards.”

Others are firmer in their neutrality despite the heft they could bring in critical states. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said she’s “staying out” as her state prepares to host the convention, though she is offering guidance to candidates about how to win Wisconsin after her 2018 re-election bid.

Iowa currently doesn’t have any Democratic senators, so New Hampshire’s two Democratic senators could be kingmakers as the highest-ranking party officials in the two early states. But neither seems eager to make waves.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor of New Hampshire, said she will not endorse in the primary while she’s running for her own reelection, “period.” Sen. Maggie Hassan, who supported Clinton in 2016 while Hassan ran for her first Senate term, hasn’t closed the door entirely this time around.

“I really haven’t made a decision about whether I’m going to endorse,” she said. “It’s early and I think that the people of New Hampshire are continuing to do what they always do, which is really just vet people.”

Sen. Gary Peters, who is up for reelection in the swing state of Michigan, also is holding back for now.

“I’m not making one, but I would never shut the door [and say] that I’ll never do that,” he said. “It’s possible I’ll make an endorsement when we get down for a smaller field.”

Ten senators have backed 2020 contenders so far, but it’s mostly to show some home-state love, with Democrats like Tina Smith of Minnesota and Robert Menendez of New Jersey endorsing Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, respectively. The only exception is Biden, who is supported by five senators.

Tester was the most recent senator to offer an endorsement, backing Montana Gov. Steve Bullock back in June. That leaves 31 unaffiliated Democratic Caucus members, while House members have continued offering a trickle of endorsements over the past five months.

Democrats’ broadly neutral stance echoes the GOP’s chaotic 2016 race, when the party refused to coalesce behind anyone, and Trump burst into a lead he never relinquished. Some senators made efforts to back Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz to stop Trump, but they came too late to make a difference, or perhaps wouldn’t have ever mattered much at all in an anti-establishment moment. Then Trump won the general election anyway.

The Democratic Party has overhauled its superdelegate process after overwhelming support for Clinton's 2016 campaign from the establishment — including a multitude of senators — raised ire from the left. In 2020, senators still have some sway on the electoral process that could prove critical if the race goes down to the wire in Milwaukee. Superdelegates can’t vote in the first ballot at the convention but can weigh in during future rounds.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said the key moment when senators and governors could make a decisive push for a single candidate won't happen until at least Nevada or South Carolina. Moving now would be counterproductive, he said.

“I want to work with these people. Other senators in the caucus think the same as I think. These are all friends that they know, whether they agree or disagree, whether they would vote for them or not, they’re still friends,” Manchin said. “And you don’t publicly do that to your friends.”

Not everyone is scared of offending. After flirting with his own presidential run, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) indicated he could give someone the nod before Iowa.

But timing isn’t his top priority. Like Murphy and Kaine, Brown said his endorsement doesn’t hinge on anything other than who can win and govern.

“I want to just see what they are doing, how they sound, how they look, how they handle pressure. I’m in absolutely no hurry,” Brown said. “I want the candidate who will be the best president and the best one to win will likely be the one that will be the best president. They can prove themselves that way.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

The question for Democrats: Why do you suck?

“Now,” says the moderator, turning to the camera, “we’d like to turn this portion of the debate over to the people who matter most — that’s you, our audience.

“We have a question via Facebook from a viewer who lives in Washington, D.C., and says he’s really struggling. His kids go to Sidwell, which is, like, you know, not cheap. He served in the last two Democratic administrations and now is a self-employed consultant. He’s got a bunch of clients — mostly corporate, a little foreign, nothing too sleazy — for 10 grand each a month. It’s okay but dull and he’s desperate to return to government once Democrats are back in power.

“His question — for all the candidates please — is: ‘Why do you suck so badly?’”

It’s possible, of course, that the candidates will refuse to accept the premise. After all, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month showed 85 percent of Democrats actually are very or somewhat satisfied with the candidate field.

Make no mistake, however, this imaginary debate questioner is not really a figment of imagination. More like a composite of real people in the Washington political class who generate skeptical static in phone calls and emails and lunches with other operatives and with journalists who write stories like this one.

The suckage factor is the unmistakable context of tonight’s Democratic debate in Atlanta. All the candidates, to one degree or another, are laboring with a hovering perception among Democratic influentials that, for one reason or another, their candidacies are suffering from fundamental infirmities.

That perception is what has tempted latecomers to barge in—Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick, neither of whom will be on the stage—and has even aroused speculation about the intentions of former nominees John Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Former president Barack Obama, who often says he disdains “cable chatter,” weighed in the other day with a warning to candidates to not confuse “left-leaning twitter feeds” with the views of most voters, who “don’t want to see crazy stuff.”

The 2020 Democrats can comfort themselves with the knowledge that every nominee in both parties for at least the last 40 years has experienced some period of hazing, in which the professional political class was consumed with discussion about their perceived electoral defects. (Of course, for half of those people the doubts were arguably proven correct in the end.)

For now, each of the debaters at the MSNBC/Washington Post debate all face variations of the same increasingly urgent challenge—tell us why you don’t suck, or admit that you do but explain why it doesn’t matter as much as many people assume. Thanks to my colleagues Marc Caputo, Chris Cadelago, Holly Otterbein, Elena Schneider, and Alex Thompson for their help in framing how the candidates are defining success tonight.

Elizabeth Warren: End the Medicare for All obsession

Thompson notes a paradox. In Warren’s stump, Medicare for All usually comes up peripherally or not at all. The subjects that clearly animate her most are bringing corporate power to heel, tilting the tax code to help working people and making the very wealthy pay more, and programs like canceling student debt and universal health care. And yet: Medicare for All, and Warren’s staccato explanations of her own position, have dominated the narrative for a punishing stretch of her campaign. Other candidates pressed her hard at last month’s Ohio debate on how she would pay for it. And among the professional class there is widespread concern that an impressive but unseasoned presidential candidate allowed herself to be boxed into a corner—with a position so toxic it could be fatal in the general election.

Warren’s task Thursday is to convince two distinct sets of people that she’s solved the problem. For average Democratic voters, Warren can point to a recent burst of detail about how she would stitch together various savings and new revenue streams from companies and high-earners to pay for her plan with “not one penny in middle-class tax increases,” as she put it in a Medium post. The plan is complex but the message is simple: I got this.

For those in the Democratic professional class, who worry about the general election, Warren can talk about another plan, laying out her priorities once winning office (Medicare for All isn’t in the top three) and how there would be a transition plan of several years before the elimination of private insurance plan. The message: This is all foggy and speculative enough that voters will realize they don’t need to freak out over details that will probably never happen or conclude that I’m a dangerous radical.

Success for Warren at this debate would be to parry questions with such detail that everyone—opponents, reporters, Obama—cries “Uncle” and moves on.

Pete Buttigieg: Time to get serious, young man

The South Bend mayor is well-aware that he arrives with a target on his back unlike any previous debates. That’s due to this past weekend’s Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll, showing him atop the field in the Iowa caucuses.

This will have Buttigieg likely being the target of criticism in ways he has not at previous debates. On those occasions, he has scored points for sounding articulate and sensible beyond his years—something he no doubt learned he can pull off in kindergarten—but he also tended to move in and out of the conversation, never the central figure across the length of the evening. Many in that dreaded professional class still are not convinced that a 37-year-old small-city mayor can be taken seriously for the presidency. In fairness, probably many average voters will be watching through the same prism.

Buttigieg also must look for opportunities to address and begin reversing his notably low support from African-Americans.

Schneider notes that it is likely he will emphasize his plans on health care and college affordability, two areas where he has the clearest differences with Warren and Bernie Sanders and where his positions are much more attuned with Obama’s plea that the “average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

Joe Biden: C’mon, man, I’m not that bad

The former vice president turns 77 today. It is unlikely he will celebrate with a bravura debate performance.

After four previous debates of sentence fragments, baffling or cringe-worthy non sequiturs or anachronistic lines (such as in the third debate when he said parents should “have the record player on at night” to teach kids new words), there surely are few Americans who plan to vote for him because they think he is a superb debater. It is more reasonable to assume that anyone who doesn’t want Biden because they think he is inarticulate on stage has already switched his or her allegiance to another candidate.

If it’s not likely Biden will dazzle in Atlanta he could still benefit from a strong and steady outing. One result would be to cause the political-media class—which often speaks about his candidacy as though it were terminally ill, in large part because he is not currently poised to win Iowa or New Hampshire—to look through the other end of the telescope. Even with a year of publicity questioning, among other topics, whether he makes women uncomfortable by being too familiar, whether he is showing his age, whether his family’s business dealings are a problem, he remains atop most national polls. He needs the focus to remain on that if he does indeed underperform in Iowa and New Hampshire in early February.

“Joe knows he doesn’t have to be the best on stage. He needs to be good enough,” a fundraiser and friend who has discussed debate strategy with Biden told Caputo. “The reality is the media makes a lot more of these debates than voters do. And it’s not like they’re real debates about policy. These are TV shows.”

Bernie Sanders: Show some heart

In one sense, appraising the Vermont senator’s debate performances is easy. A good one is little different than a bad—none vary much in message or tone—and people either like them or they don’t.

As POLITICO’s Holly Otterbein noted recently, Sanders’s recent cardiac arrest actually seemed to give his campaign a boost.

Still, there aren’t many people in the chattering class who chatter seriously about the prospect of Sanders being the nominee—despite his durable coterie of support and how close he came to beating Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2016. He must walk a balance, distinguishing himself from Warren without shredding their non-aggression pact and potentially angering her backers. He must stand out enough that he can’t be ignored in the media coverage.

A winning night in Atlanta might offer something slightly different—more humor, more personal insight, an anecdote about a tunnel filled with light? Anything: Surprise us—that suggests Sanders can present himself in ways that widen his support beyond his loyal base and he has prospects not just to influence the race but win it.

The rest: There is still (a little) time

The balance of candidates may be residing in the second tier, but even that is a somewhat impressive feat. The Democratic National Committee’s tightening eligibility criteria has already shooed numerous other candidates off the stage.

At a minimum, these people should enjoy their remaining time in the spotlight. At best, there may be some openings to add to the top tier or kick someone else out of it.

That’s what Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is hoping to do, with a repeat of a widely praised debate outing last month. She hopes to demonstrate that she may have less novelty than Buttigieg but more credibility, having won previously in an important Midwestern state, and therefore is the natural beneficiary for people who think Warren and Sanders are too liberal and that Biden is unimpressive.

There is not yet much evidence that 2020 is the year for Sens. Cory Booker or Kamala Harris. It’s not that they necessarily suck—they just so far have not mattered. Both arrived in the race with strong reputations as ascendant politicians, but neither has exceeded (or arguably even matched) expectations of the political-media class. Both have had some eye-catching moments in previous debates that they failed to turn into forward momentum in polls. Both need performances that remind people why they have those reputations in the first place. This could cause lightening finally to strike, or at least keep them in contention as vice presidential prospects.

If our imaginary consultant got to decide, it’s likely that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, or hedge fund billionaire and impeachment advocate Tom Steyer wouldn’t be on the stage. These people don’t interest him at all.

Fortunately, consultants and reporters don’t really get to decide. All three candidates in their own ways have enlivened previous debates, have some committed supporters—lots of them in Yang’s case—and have another opportunity to steer the debate in unconventional directions that it wouldn’t go if their voices were unheard.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Sondland, a crucial yet flawed witness, could upend impeachment probe

Gordon Sondland is in trouble.

The U.S. ambassador to the European Union has been cast as a potentially decisive witness to allegations that President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his Democratic rivals — and possibly conditioned a $400 million package of military aid on his counterpart’s agreement.

Unlike other witnesses who have appeared before House impeachment investigators, Sondland, who is testifying publicly Wednesday, was in regular contact with the president, and he sat in on nearly every meeting being scrutinized by investigators.

He often reminded colleagues of his direct line to Trump, and his central role in Ukraine policy — not typically in the purview of the EU ambassador — troubled senior officials in the State Department and National Security Council. Some colleagues in the Trump administration even worried that his conduct made him a counterintelligence risk.

Democrats have already questioned Sondland’s honesty, noting that he couldn’t recall crucial moments during his closed-door testimony — but those moments were described richly by others. The top Trump ally has already amended his testimony once, and other depositions have raised doubts about whether he omitted evidence of a phone call with Trump that other witnesses recalled as potential evidence of the most damning charges against Trump.

Some Republicans, too, have wondered whether Sondland, who contributed $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee, was acting on his own when he muscled his way into meetings on the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.

Sondland’s credibility is likely to come under fire from Democrats and Republicans — but his centrality to nearly every facet of the impeachment inquiry has made him perhaps the most important witness so far as Democrats seek to draw out evidence that Trump abused his power.

Sondland has already made one of the more explosive revelations throughout the impeachment process — one that Democrats view as crucial for their case against Trump. In his amended testimony, Sondland revealed that he told a senior Ukrainian national security official on Sept. 1 that the country “likely” would not receive the critical military aid unless it publicly committed to the investigations Trump was seeking.

Democrats view the conversation as the most direct evidence of an alleged quid pro quo, and it was made more explosive coming from a witness who frequently talked to Trump and claimed to be carrying out his directives.

Sondland is also directly involved in another episode he declined to previously disclose. Last week, an aide at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv told impeachment investigators that he overheard Sondland telling Trump in a phone call that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had committed to announcing the investigations.

David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, said he could clearly hear Trump asking about the status of “the investigations.” But Sondland’s recollection of the July 26 conversation will represent even more of the firsthand evidence that Democrats have been seeking.

Witnesses described Sondland as the nucleus of an “irregular” channel of diplomacy that sidelined traditional foreign service officers with oversight of Ukraine policy. He worked with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry to push a Ukraine agenda that at times appeared to contradict longstanding U.S. posture toward the Eastern European ally.

In the weeks following his closed-door testimony, Sondland was also implicated as a participant in what Democrats have branded as a weeks-long scheme to push Ukraine to investigate the president’s political rivals — including former Vice President Joe Biden.

During a July 10 meeting at the White House with a Ukrainian national security official, Sondland allegedly mentioned the investigations and Biden by name, causing then-national security adviser John Bolton to cut the meeting short. Other witnesses have said Bolton later expressed concerns about Sondland’s efforts.

But since he began speaking to lawmakers, Sondland has tried to distance himself from the push to investigate Trump’s rivals, telling investigators last month that he was “disappointed” in the president’s direction that he link up with Giuliani. He also said he was opposed to Trump’s decision to freeze military aid to Ukraine and worked to get it released.

Witnesses separately worried that Sondland had repeatedly violated security procedures in his interactions with Ukrainians. Holmes noted that Sondland, who was in Kyiv at the time of his July 26 call with Trump, used an unsecure cell phone and might have been monitored by Russians.

Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia official on the National Security Council, similarly said that Sondland routinely gave out her personal cell phone numbers to other people and would often talk to Ukrainians without appropriate briefings.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Tech’s woke CEO takes the stage

“We’re very pleased today to have Marc Benioff, who’s the —,” begins David Rubenstein, the president of the Economic Club of Washington D.C., during a lunch event at a downtown Marriott.

But nine seconds into his on-stage introduction, Benioff has thoughts he’d like to share. “I never know how to sit in these chairs,” he interjects, as Rubenstein attempts to lay out Benioff’s bona fides as the multibillionaire founder and co-CEO of the business software giant Salesforce. Benioff, 55, settles his hulking frame into his modernist leather chair while splaying his paw-like hands wide. “You’re doing a pretty good job,” tries Rubenstein. Benioff, though, is on a roll. “Do I do like his?” he says, leaning back. “Or do I go, like, the Trump?” — shifting to the edge of his seat in the manner of the current president of the United States.

“Whatever makes you feel most comfortable,” responds Rubenstein, a fellow billionaire left looking, for a moment, as if he’s watching a suit-wearing bear attempt to nail a graceful seated position.

The mid-October appearance was some Washingtonians’ first introduction to Benioff, a man who’s taking up space on a lot of stages these days. And his message — lambasting his own industry’s hunger for growth at all costs, comparing Facebook to the tobacco companies, proclaiming the death of capitalism “as we know it” — is drawing notice among political leaders hungering for a Mark Zuckerberg alternative.

On Wednesday, the one-time Republican is interviewing former President Barack Obama on stage in San Francisco, where Benioff’s company is luring an expected 170,000-plus people to a four-day conference that is shutting down streets in part of the city. Benioff has become a yearly fixture at the elite business-and-celeb confab in Davos, Switzerland, including an appearance last year where he called out Uber as an example of tech companies that sacrifice the trust of their employees and users at the altar of growth.

Other tech CEOs, like Facebook’s Zuckerberg, appear to shrink in the political spotlight. Benioff seems to expand — fedora-wearing, 6-foot-5, human, sometimes a little sweaty around the margins. (In his new book, he likens himself to a "giant.") He’s a politically skilled chief executive in an industry whose leaders often appear diffident and tone-deaf during their forays to Congress or the White House.

But to hear him tell it, Benioff is still a stranger in the buttoned-down nation’s capital, with no political aspirations beyond trying to make the world a more equitable place. He says he’s more at home in Hawaii, where he has an estate. Or in his native San Francisco, where his 61-story Salesforce Tower looms over the city’s horizon, the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi.

“I feel like when I go to Washington, D.C., it’s like going to another planet,” he says by phone in the days leading up to the trip. This, even though he once held a tech advisory post in the George W. Bush administration and co-owns Time magazine with his wife, Lynne.

“I’m not a Republican or a Democrat,” says Benioff, who indeed gave more than $1.2 million to both parties in the past two decades before swearing off all campaign contributions earlier this year. (Donations to Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Jay Inslee, as well as House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, made it in under the wire.)

He adds, “I view myself very much just as an American” — one committed to using whatever platform he can to imprint the social-justice values that have, for two decades, powered Salesforce to enormous success.

“That’s what I’m doing every day,” Benioff says. “Leading with those values.”

What drives Benioff? To hear him tell it, as a young, disillusioned Oracle executive on an obligatory trip to an Indian ashram, he came to see that success in the business world was worthwhile only if married to improving the world, and he’s since dedicated his enormous fortune — some $6.9 billion by one recent count — to proving the point.

Others say that as the fourth generation of his family to grow up in San Francisco, he’s become angry over what he’s witnessed the tech industry do to his city.

Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from Silicon Valley who has received Benioff’s backing, describes him as the rare tech executive who sees his worldly success not simply as the product his own creativity but of a system that deemed him a winner while leaving scores of other behind. That, says Khanna, has made Benioff an “iconoclast” among the billionaire class. It has also made him the target of quiet ire in the tech industry, often organized along the lines of, well, it’s easy for Marc Benioff to say.

Plenty of tech executives talk about making the world a better place; few throw their whole bodies into it. Asked if religion is motivating him, he responds: “No, this is just modern values. And, you know, I’m trying to improve the world using my platform. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The short version of Benioff’s modern values: People should have a place to live, a good education in a safe school, good health care and a clean environment, and not face discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender. And one way to get there, he argues, is for corporations to do right by not just their shareholders but their customers, their employees and the whole planet.

Perhaps no slice of the corporate world needs to hear that more, he suggests, than Silicon Valley, even if that kind of talk alarms his fellow business elites. (CNBC accused him of delivering a “tirade” after he criticized Uber’s corporate leadership last year in Davos.)

Capitalism, argues Benioff, should hurt capitalists a bit. It should cost something. Salesforce has since its founding given 1 percent of its products, equity, and employee time to philanthropy. “From Day One he’s recognized that business has a broader purpose,” says Steve Case, the AOL co-founder turned East Coast venture capitalist who has known Benioff for decades.

Benioff is willing to chip more than just cash and time into nailing that purpose. Take, for example, his Twitter feed and its 1 million followers, which Benioff tapped in 2015 to point out that Salesforce is a major employer in Indiana, a state which at the time was adopting a so-called religious freedom law widely judged to be anti-LGBT. Benioff threatened to pull business from the state, and former Gov. Mike Pence relented, arguing that the statute was misunderstood. Pence pushed through changes to blunt the law’s impact. “I was very appreciative,” Benioff says of Pence’s change of heart.

Benioff has had his vision for a new kind of capitalism for decades — he’s been tech’s “woke” CEO since before “woke” was a thing. But admirers now see him becoming Silicon Valley’s seer, offering a clear view of how the industry that made him rich is heading off a cliff.

Take equal pay. Back in 2015, in the early days of the debate over gender differences in Silicon Valley compensation, Benioff ordered a review of Salesforce salaries. “I had always thought I was more progressive on gender equality than most male technology executives,” Benioff writes in his new business-tome-slash-memoir "Trailblazer." “Now I was about to get the chance to prove it.” He spent $6 million to close the gap it found.

Or online privacy. In the spring of 2018, Benioff began praising California’s move to adopt a law reining in companies’ use of data, then turned around and called, in the pages of POLITICO, for Silicon Valley to get behind a drive for a federal privacy bill. The industry would eventually rally for national legislation of the sort Benioff was pushing — in large part to defang the California law.

Or homelessness. Last year, Benioff poured millions of his and Salesforce’s money into a fight to tax San Francisco’s biggest companies to fund programs for the homeless. Other tech leaders opposed the ballot measure, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who said he worried it would hurt innovation and noted that prominent local leaders didn’t back the plan. Benioff shot back a sassy note — “Hi Jack. Thanks for the feedback. Which homeless programs in our city are you supporting?” — and was on the winning side when the measure passed.

Benioff’s politics are winning him an intriguing collection of admirers, including Ed Norton, the actor and tech investor who, completely unprompted, praised Benioff on a recent podcast. It’s “very impressive [for] a major corporate leader to be in the world saying, ‘We cannot have capitalism that continues to be defined by shareholder value,'” the “Motherless Brooklyn” filmmaker said of Benioff.

Tech skeptics are also taking note.

Benioff’s shining light on policy debates “changes the conversation and puts a little wind in the sails of people who are fighting every day for these things, but don’t nearly have the power or platform that he does,” says Catherine Bracy, executive director of the advocacy group TechEquity Collaborative, which is attempting to rally tech workers to address the Bay Area’s economic woes.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican of Tennessee and one of the tech industry’s most outspoken critics on Capitol Hill, called Benioff’s pitch for federal privacy legislation “spot on.”

Jim Steyer, CEO of the nonprofit Common Sense Media — which co-runs a “Truth About Tech” campaign to warn of the dangers of social media — says, “This is the time when, on the impact of tech on society, we’re asking, ‘Which side are you on,’ and Marc is on the correct side.” (Benioff has helped fund Steyer’s group. Says Steyer, “I don’t shill for anyone.”)

And Benioff’s call to split up Facebook — “It’s addictive, it’s not good for you, they’re trying to hook your kids” — wins him praise from David Segal, executive director of the civil liberties group Demand Progress: “I’m happy to praise just about anybody for coming to the conclusion that Facebook needs to be broken up.” Matt Stoller, one of Silicon Valley’s most relentless adversaries in Washington and a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, said of Benioff that his “arguments of late seem to be correct.”

Of course, Benioff also has his critics who, while largely insisting on speaking off the record, say he’s operating from his own place of privilege: With monthly user fees turning Salesforce into a cash-generating behemoth, it’s easy for him to beat the drum for higher taxes or beat up on the data-driven advertising that fuels a Facebook or Twitter. Also, they say, he talks about cultural respect, but he makes use of native Hawaiian imagery — he calls Salesforce employees collectively "ohana," a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to “kin.”

What’s more, they grumble, when push comes to shove, Benioff’s insistence that Salesforce be used for “ethical” purposes can be situational. Last year, about 650 of Salesforce’s own employees asked Benioff to “re-examine” a contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Benioff reported back that the agency was, acceptably, using the software for recruitment — not enforcing President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, which he called immoral. Asked about the relationship with Customs, Benioff says little beyond noting that “they are a Salesforce customer.”

Benioff says he’s on a lifelong journey of cultivating shoshin, or the Zen Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind” — learning as he’s going along, in politics as in all else.

Benioff says he’s hardly a politician, and won’t become one, but that he frequently has reason to mix it up with the likes of them.

“We’re working to move the world towards our position,” says Benioff. “They’re working on moving the world to theirs.” Coming out of the mouth of another tech CEO, that might sound like a complaint. Coming from Marc Benioff, it sounds like a perfectly happy place to be.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

'No schadenfreude will be had': Biden coasts as opponents face firing squad

Michael Bloomberg is under fire for his stop-and-frisk policy. Deval Patrick is facing questions about his lucrative business career. Elizabeth Warren lost ground in a major Iowa poll as her Medicare for All plan revived questions about her electability.

And Joe Biden is sitting back and watching the show.

Biden — who since April has swatted aside questions about his record, age, verbal miscues and lagging fundraising — is, for once, outside the line of fire. The target on the former vice president’s back has shrunk as Warren and Pete Buttigieg have gained ground, and as Bloomberg and Patrick have entered the fray as centrist alternatives to Biden.

Heading into Wednesday’s debate, Biden advisers and allies hope he can use the breathing room to portray himself as the battle-tested Democrat whom President Donald Trump is most afraid to face — and as the only candidate who has built a diverse, nationwide coalition of supporters.

“He’s been the center of attention, the center of a firing squad,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a top Biden campaign surrogate elected in 2010 to his old Senate seat. “I think the dynamic of the campaign has changed. There are more vigorous questions being posed about the policy positions of other candidates or about [their] background and record.

“No schadenfreude will be had,” Coons added, now that candidates other than Biden are drawing heat.

A Biden adviser pointed out that the former vice president has stemmed his slide in national polls. At the same time a pro-Biden super PAC is set to drop ads in Iowa and other early states. Biden received another boost during Tuesday’s impeachment hearings when a Republican-called witness, Ambassador Kurt Volker, dismissed Trump’s claims of corruption against Biden as “conspiracy theory.”

“We’ve had all the dirt and all the oppo thrown at us and we’re still standing,” said the adviser, explaining the campaign’s mindset on the eve of the debate.

Unlike in the previous four debates, Biden is no longer the clear frontrunner, though he leads in most national surveys as well as polls in the early states of Nevada and South Carolina.

In his stead, Buttigieg, after surging to first place in Iowa, has become the target.

“For Mayor Buttigieg, he’s going to be on the hot seat for the first time because he’s the ‘frontrunner’ In Iowa,” said Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic operative who worked for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.

“This is the time where voters see how candidates can handle criticisms and attacks,” she said. “The race is very volatile and very fluid.”

In a sign of how unpredictable the primary is, candidates are still exiting and entering the race at this late stage, with Patrick announcing his bid last week and Bloomberg expected to any day.

Some Democrats are already expressing doubts about the newcomers' viability.

“The Democratic electorate, the voters who need to pull the levers first, are eager for a narrowing of choices. I don’t think they view either [Patrick or Bloomberg] as supplying a trait or a record that doesn’t somehow already exist in the current field,” said Ken Snyder, a Democratic strategist who worked on John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign before he dropped out. Speaking of Biden, Warren, Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg, he added, “They’ve been thoroughly vetted and they remain frontrunners for a reason.”

As a debate rages over whether the entry of Patrick and Bloomberg would erode Biden’s lead, advisers and supporters see an opportunity to portray him as the tried and true Democrat who has shown he can take a punch.

Patrick is already facing negative press — from his time working for Bain Capital and subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest, to his past refusal to release his income taxes. (The Patrick campaign told POLITICO on Tuesday that he will release his tax returns during his campaign.)

Bloomberg is doing cleanup on his years as mayor, including on Sunday when he apologized for the “stop-and-frisk” policing strategy in New York that disproportionately targeted minorities.

“Another guy from New England, another New York billionaire. I don’t know who they think is going to jump off of whatever candidate they’re on right now,” said former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair and Biden supporter Dick Harpootlian. “I don’t see the constituency for them.”

Harpootlian also pointed out that Buttigieg had almost no black support in a batch of newly-released polls of South Carolina. In contrast, Biden is at 44 percent with African-Americans in polls of the state.

One Biden supporter pointed out that if the 77-year-old Bloomberg joins the race, it would make Biden the third-oldest candidate in the field. (Biden turns 77 on Wednesday, and Sanders is 78.)

“Did we need another septuagenarian in the race?” asked Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked for Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean’s presidential campaigns.

Maslin pointed out that Bloomberg’s likely entry in the race will help Buttigieg “play the generational card” by pointing out he’s nearly half the age of the candidates who are older than 70: Bloomberg, Biden, Warren and Sanders.

However, he said, Buttigieg could help Biden by costing her a win in Iowa while jumbling the race in New Hampshire. If the polls hold, Biden could then win in Nevada and South Carolina, heading into Super Tuesday with more wins than any other candidate.

“Buttigieg is sort of a blocking back for Biden in that scenario,” Maslin said.

Terry Shumaker, a longtime Biden friend and former U.S. ambassador who co-chaired Bill Clinton's New Hampshire campaigns, argued that after all the ebbing and flowing in the field, the primary will end up turning on one central question.

“It comes down to, ‘Who do I think can beat Donald Trump?’ I think they’re going to come home to Biden,” Shumaker said. “If he holds up to all this, which I believe he will, those questions about his age or stamina will dwindle. This election is so serious to most people, they want to get it right.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Contractor proposed Glamour magazine profile for Medicaid chief

Newly revealed correspondence shows that federal health officials discussed with contractors a publicity plan to feature President Donald Trump’s Medicare and Medicaid chief Seema Verma in magazines like Glamour, win recognition for her on “Power Women” lists and get her invited to attend prestigious events like the Kennedy Center Honors.

The correspondence – emails between high-profile media consultant Pam Stevens, whose services cost hundreds of dollars per hour, and Verma and Brady Brookes, Verma’s deputy chief of staff — offers fresh insight into the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ use of federal funds to employ a range of communications contractors.

Federal officials are prohibited from spending taxpayer dollars for publicity purposes, or using their public office for private gain. Verma has repeatedly stressed that CMS contracted consultants solely “to promote the programs that we have in place.”

“All of the contracts that we have at CMS are based on promoting the work of CMS,” Verma testified to Congress last month, in response to questioning from Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.)

But the emails obtained by POLITICO suggest that the contractors discussed with CMS efforts to boost Verma's own public visibility as its administrator. The draft publicity plan submitted to CMS officials emphasized targeting "key women's, leadership and general-interest magazines for potential interview/profiles" of Verma.

The plan noted that Stevens had already successfully arranged for several profiles of Verma and pitched her to multiple media outlets, including AARP’s magazine and POLITICO’s “Women Rule” podcast. The plan also laid out in-progress efforts, like a pending article for Woman’s Day magazine and efforts to have Verma profiled as one of CNN’s "Badass Women of Washington."

Those "series of targeted media and externally facing opportunities” aimed to "highlight and promote [Verma’s] leadership and accomplishments,” according to a March 13 email that Stevens sent Verma and Brookes. POLITICO obtained the correspondence from a House staffer and confirmed its authenticity with multiple officials.

In a statement, a CMS spokesperson downplayed the proposal's significance, telling POLITICO that the agency "does not consider or move forward with every idea we receive from contractors" and that any opportunities it pursued were reviewed and vetted by ethics lawyers.

"CMS pursued only a few of the suggestions in the proposal that were aligned with our priorities and promoted the work of the Agency and our record shows just that," the spokesperson said.

The CMS spokesperson declined to make Verma or Brookes available for an interview.

Kennedy, who pressed Verma over CMS' contracting practices during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing last month, told POLITICO he is now consulting with the panel on how to proceed.

"I have a hard time understanding the logic that this contract was necessary for the execution of the policy positions of this administration," he said. "There have been important questions raised by the documents."

Stevens, an alumna of both the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, was one of dozens of individuals brought in to work for CMS through the public relations firm Porter Novelli.

Porter Novelli billed the agency roughly $280 per hour for Stevens' services as part of a larger one-year, $2.25 million "strategic communications" contract. The Health and Human Services Department halted the contract after POLITICO in March reported on Verma's previously undisclosed use of communications consultants, prompting widespread criticism.

CMS had initially agreed to pay Porter Novelli up to $204,817.80 for Stevens' work over the full year, according to contract details obtained by POLITICO -- one of at least four Porter Novelli contractors or subcontractors cleared to bill at that level. However, Stevens in her March 13 email told Verma and Brookes that she planned to terminate her contract at the end of the month. She ultimately severed ties with CMS on March 29 -- the day that POLITICO first reported on the agency's use of contractors.

A spokesperson for Stevens said that she acted solely as a subcontractor for Porter Novelli, and that "any work she has undertaken for Porter Novelli has been authorized and entirely proper."

"Porter Novelli had a contract with CMS," the spokesperson said in a statement. "Any questions about the Porter Novelli CMS contract should be addressed to the two parties to the contract."

Porter Novelli referred all questions to CMS.

Verma has played a central role in crafting the Trump administration's health agenda, having overseen the push for Medicaid work requirements and working to unwind parts of Obamacare. She’s also attacked Democrats’ “Medicare for All” proposals in a series of tweets and speeches, and positioned herself as a critic of wasted federal spending.

It's unclear how many of the opportunities included in the publicity plan Verma ultimately pursued. The proposal suggested securing attendance to "notable events" -- like the Ford's Theatre Gala -- as well as more traditional events federal officials typically attend, like the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

It listed various recognitions and awards that CMS could lobby for, including Verma's selection as one of Washington Business Journal's “Women Who Mean Business” and Washingtonian magazine’s "Most Powerful Women in Washington."

In October, Washingtonian featured Verma as one of the six federal government officials to make its annual list.

The plan also offered a month-by-month list of conferences and speaking opportunities that Verma could angle for, from health-focused gatherings like the Wall Street Journal's Tech Health conference to events – such as the TEDWomen conference and FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit -- with no direct ties to health care.

The goal, according to the plan: "Position [Verma] as the thought-leader she is."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Daylong impeachment slog heightens anticipation for Gordon Sondland

There's a Gordon Sondland-sized gap in the House’s impeachment inquiry.

The unconventional ambassador to the European Union — deployed by President Donald Trump to help squeeze Ukraine to investigate his political adversaries — has been the omnipresent shadow behind the series of witnesses who have testified publicly so far.

In fact, across nearly 12 hours of testimony on Tuesday by four witnesses — in turns exhausting, exhilarating and excruciating — Democrats and Republicans really succeeded only in underscoring the growing set of unknowns that can be resolved by Sondland on Wednesday.

He's the inexplicable actor who confounded career diplomats and seemed to push an agenda that wasn't shared by the officials actually carrying out U.S. foreign policy — but often seemed aligned with Trump's own private views on Ukraine. He's the force behind many of the moments that led more practiced foreign policy hands like Fiona Hill to alert national security lawyers.

Sondland alarmed national security officials, like Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, by pressuring Ukrainians during a White House meeting to conduct Trump's favored investigations — including a probe of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Sondland left Vindman's boss Tim Morrison with a "sinking feeling" after suggesting that Trump appeared to want to condition $400 million in military assistance on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky's willingness to personally announce those probes.

And he kept his ally Kurt Volker, then a special envoy to Ukraine, in the dark about some of his private talks with Trump.

Vindman, Morrison and Volker all testified Tuesday, and all faced sharp questions from lawmakers that remained at least somewhat unanswerable without Sondland’s own insights.

Sondland also flummoxed Trump's current top envoy to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, when he asked colleagues to exclude notetakers from a June call with Zelensky. And he later relayed to Taylor, who testified last week, that "everything" — a White House visit and military aid — depended on the opening of Trump's favored investigations.

If the testimony from the seven witnesses who have addressed the publicly underscore anything, it's that Sondland can pull together all of the far-flung elements of Democrats' impeachment investigation and provide clarity — or sink the probe into further confusion — with his testimony on Wednesday.

And despite the high expectations for Sondland, there’s reason to be wary. The testimony to this point has raised serious questions about Sondland’s credibility. Some witnesses nicked Sondland for boasting about his close ties to Trump and said they wondered at times whether it was puffery.

Morrison said Tuesday that when he succeeded Hill in her senior position on the National Security Council, she warned him to beware of "The Gordon Problem.” It was a reference to Sondland’s intense effort to secure the politically motivated Ukraine investigations for Trump, he recalled.

But Morrison and others also attested that when Sondland claimed to speak to Trump, he truly had spoken to Trump.

Unlike many of the other witnesses who have already testified, Trump hasn't attacked Sondland, who won the EU ambassadorship after contributing $1 million to the president’s inaugural committee.

In fact, Trump took to Twitter to praise Sondland ahead of his closed-door testimony. Trump called him "a really good man and great American," and highlighted Sondland's text messages to Volker and Taylor that claimed Trump denied any "quid pro quo" with Ukraine.

Congressional Republicans also once thought Sondland would play a critical role in their defense of Trump.

But all that was before Sondland amended his testimony to declare that he now "presumed" Trump was attempting to establish quid pro quo, for military aid. And it was before other witnesses said Sondland impugned Trump's motives for seeking the investigations — out loud at a restaurant in Kyiv — in front of at least three State Department officials.

At that meeting, per Taylor aide David Holmes, who is slated to testify publicly Thursday, Sondland affirmed that Trump doesn't "give a shit" about Ukraine but rather only cares about "big things" that advance his personal interests.

That exchange, which Taylor first hinted at in his opening statement a week ago, started the crescendo building toward Sondland's testimony.

With a few words Wednesday morning, Sondland can turn the screws on those resisting Trump's impeachment, or complicate Democrats' momentum as they barrel closer to drafting articles and calling for the president’s removal.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Republicans reject Trump's attacks on impeachment witnesses

As the White House’s Twitter account blasted out a tweet on Tuesday disparaging a key impeachment witness, GOP Rep. Chris Stewart took a decidedly different tack.

“Lt. Col. Vindman, I see you’re wearing your dress uniform. … I think it’s a great reminder of your military service,” Stewart said. “I, too, come from a military family. These are my father’s Air Force wings. He was a pilot in World War II.

“So as one military family to another, thank you and your brothers for your service,” the Utah Republican added.

Stewart’s unwillingness to lob personal attacks on Vindman, a decorated war hero and top national security aide, reflects a broader sentiment that has emerged in the House GOP conference as Democrats have taken their impeachment probe public.

While Republicans have shown zero signs of breaking with President Donald Trump when it comes to impeachment itself, GOP lawmakers are also making clear that they’re not willing to fully embrace Trump’s scorched-earth defense tactics, which have centered — at least in part — on tearing down his critics, sometimes against the advice of his own allies and advisers.

“There’s no need to attack. I was a combat veteran,” retiring Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told POLITICO. “I think the better position to take is: there’s nothing impeachable.”

When asked whether Trump’s personal attacks put Republicans in a tough spot, King was unequivocal: “yes.”

Despite the White House’s efforts to hire impeachment messengers and increase coordination with Hill Republicans through regular staff meetings and conference calls, it’s clear that the president will continue to act as a one-man war room, even as it threatens to undermine GOP efforts to defend Trump.

The Republican approach is more a difference of style than substance, as GOP lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have tried to carefully pick apart the witnesses’ testimonies. Democrats have already staged four televised hearings in their impeachment inquiry, which is focused on whether Trump tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations into his political rivals, including Joe Biden.

But virtually none of the GOP members on the panel have adopted Trump’s bombastic tone toward the witnesses. Instead, Republicans on Tuesday deployed a much softer approach toward both Vindman and Jennifer Williams, a senior National Security Council aide to Vice President Mike Pence who Trump disparaged as a “Never Trumper” over the weekend. Both witnesses were on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky and found the conversation to be inappropriate.

The GOP sought to undermine Vindman by questioning his judgment, including whether he was motivated to come forward by a bias against Trump. But most Republicans were careful not to question his loyalty to the United States, while some went out of their way to praise his heroic acts on the battlefield. Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union when he was a child, has already been subject to baseless attacks from some on the right regarding his allegiance to the United States.

And when Vindman was testifying behind closed doors last month, Republicans went out of their way to defend the Purple Heart recipient — drawing an unmistakable line when it comes to their defenses of Trump.

“We need to show that we are better than that as a nation,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, said at the time. “It is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation, and we should not be involved in this process.”

Democrats did, however, object to a line of questioning from a GOP committee attorney who grilled Vindman over Ukraine’s offer to serve as its defense minister. Democrats viewed that exchange as a veiled attack on Vindman’s commitment to the United States.

“That may have come cloaked in a Brooks Brothers suit and in parliamentary language, but that was designed exclusively to give the right-wing media an opening to question your loyalties," Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said at the hearing.

Republicans also treaded lightly when it came to both Williams and Marie Yovanovitch, a well-respected diplomat who was ousted from her post as ambassador to Ukraine following a smear campaign by Rudy Giuliani.

The GOP has been mindful of the optics of trashing some of the only female witnesses in the impeachment probe and hashed out a strategy to not attack the witnesses in personal terms, which they feared would play directly into Democrats’ hands.

So Republicans were dumbfounded last Friday when Trump dropped a grenade into the middle of the hearing by blasting Yovanovitch as a failed ambassador right as she was giving emotional testimony about how she was mistreated by the Trump administration.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Trump tweeted. “Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him.”

Republicans were deeply uncomfortable with the mid-hearing attack, which Democrats called a blatant example of witness intimidation — a similar accusation that was attached to Trump’s Twitter slam on Williams over the weekend. Many in the GOP, as they have done time and again, largely ignored the president’s words and instead bent over backwards to praise Yovanovitch.

“You're tough as nails and you're smart as hell,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). “You’re a great example of what our ambassadors should be like. You are an honor to your family. You are an honor to the foreign service. You are an honor to your country.”

Yet even as Republicans admit that it is problematic for Trump to be slamming witnesses ahead of — or in the middle of — their testimony, none of them are willing to directly criticize the president for his broadsides.

“It’s not something I would do,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s just not my style.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine