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Judge orders White House to preserve records of Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders

Donald Trump

A federal judge has ordered the White House to preserve a wide range of evidence about President Donald Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders, including his interactions related to Ukraine that have fueled an impeachment investigation in the House.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued the order Thursday, directing that White House officials not destroy records of “meetings, phone calls, and other communications with foreign leaders.”

The judge’s order also appears to specifically address reports that the Trump White House set up a special system to limit access to certain records of presidential conversations with foreign leaders.

Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, instructed the White House to preserve “all records of efforts by White House or other executive branch officials to return, ‘claw back,’ ’lock down’ or recall White House records” about dealings with foreign officials.

The order came in a lawsuit filed in May by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as well as two history-focused organizations: the National Security Archive and the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations. The suit alleged that the White House was failing to maintain and putting at risk records of presidential actions required to be documented by the Presidential Records Act.

While the suit predated the Ukraine controversy, lawyers pressing the case asked Jackson on Tuesday for a temporary restraining order, citing reports that records of Trump’s phone calls with the president of Ukraine and some other leaders had been removed from the usual database at the White House and moved to another one not typically used for those calls.

Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing Wednesday that the White House had already taken steps to secure many of the records the plaintiffs expressed concern about. The filing also suggested that in response to the request for a restraining order, White House lawyers broadened an existing instruction to preserve records of Trump’s foreign interactions.

Justice Department attorneys said those actions met a request by the judge to “moot” the groups’ request for a restraining order.

Jackson appeared to agree. After a telephone conference Wednesday, she issued a notice saying that the request for a restraining order was denied because it was moot in light of the government’s assurances. However, the following day, she issued an order insisting that six categories of records related to the suit be preserved.

Jackson’s decision to issue an order despite the pledge to the court to maintain the records is rather unusual. In most instances, judges simply note such a pledge and say they assume that the parties involved will abide by it. The order means anyone destroying White House records it covers could be subject to sanction or even criminal charge for contempt of court.

Another unusual aspect of the judge’s order is that it appears to cover Trump directly. Whether judges can or should issue injunctions against the president directly, as opposed to members of his staff, is a matter of some legal controversy. The order Jackson issued Thursday seems deliberately worded to avoid explicitly mentioning the president, but it applies to the “defendants” in the lawsuit of which there are only two: the Executive Office of the President and President Donald J. Trump.

Spokespeople for the White House and the Justice Department declined to comment on the order. In a court filing this week, government lawyers said they believe the suit lacks legal merit. They filed a motion to dismiss the suit back in August, but Jackson has yet to act on it.

Susan Collins: Trump made ‘big mistake’ in asking China to probe Biden

Susan Collins

Susan Collins on Saturday became the latest Republican senator to criticize President Donald Trump for calling on foreign countries to investigate a political rival, saying he made a “big mistake.”

“I thought the president made a big mistake by asking China to get involved in investigating a political opponent,” Collins said at a press gaggle in her home state of Maine, according to the Bangor Daily News. “It’s completely inappropriate.”

Collins is the third Republican senator to voice criticism of Trump for the ongoing Ukraine scandal at the heart of the House’s impeachment proceedings, joining Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse.

During a press gaggle on Thursday, Trump called on China to investigate political rival and presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens. Because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump said.

Saying that the House likely will pass articles of impeachment on Trump, Collins said she would not comment “on the evidence on both sides coming forth every day.”

“Should the articles of impeachment come to the Senate — and right now I’m going to guess that they will — I will be acting as a juror as I did in the Clinton impeachment trial,” Collins said.

Collins also joined in Republican criticism of House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff’s description of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire last week.

Collins said Schiff “misrepresented and misled people about what was in the transcript in the call.”

North Korea says nuclear talks broke down; U.S. disagrees

The Demilitarized Zone

HELSINKI — North Korea’s chief negotiator said Saturday that discussions with the U.S. on Pyongyang’s nuclear program have broken down, but Washington said the two sides had “good discussions” that it intends to build on in two weeks.

The North Korean negotiator, Kim Miyong Gil, said the talks in Stockholm had “not fulfilled our expectations and broke down. I am very displeased about it.” Speaking outside the North Korean Embassy, he read a statement in Korean that a translator next to him read in English.

Kim said negotiations broke down “entirely because the U.S. has not discarded its old stance and attitude.”

Saturday’s talks were the first between the U.S. and North Korea since the February breakdown of the second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.

North Korea has since resumed missile tests, including an underwater-launched missile that fell inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone Wednesday.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Kim’s comments did “not reflect the content or the spirit” of the “good discussions” that took place over eight-and-a-half hours, adding that the U.S. accepted an invitation from Sweden to return to Stockholm in two weeks to continue discussions.

In a statement, Ortagus said the U.S. delegation “previewed a number of new initiatives that would allow us to make progress in each of the four pillars” of a joint statement issued after Trump and Kim’s first summit in Singapore.

“The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” Ortagus said

Talks were held at the Villa Elfvik Strand conference facility in Lidingo, an island in the Stockholm archipelago located northeast of the capital, Swedish news agency TT said. It added that Kim Miyong Gil arrived on Thursday while U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun came on Friday.

Because the U.S. does not have official diplomatic relations with North Korea, Sweden has often acted as a bridge between Washington and Pyongyang.

Trump’s NSC rocked by Ukraine scandal

Donald Trump

National Security Council staffers are nervous about how the impeachment inquiry will affect their jobs.

The National Security Council was already a tough place to work under President Donald Trump. The threat of his impeachment is not making life any easier.

House Democrats’ investigation of the president’s Ukraine-related actions, as well as the arrival of his fourth national security adviser, have injected new tension and uncertainty into the grueling day-to-day routine of the White House-based NSC.

Conversations with seven current and former NSC officials reveal there are more questions than answers, including whether some staffers need to get lawyers, how the impeachment drama will affect recruitment for NSC spots, and whether it will hamper policymaking. Outside analysts warn that impeachment could damage the institution of the NSC the way the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s did.

In NSC staff meetings, the impeachment inquiry is “the elephant in the room and no one talks about it,” said a serving council official, adding: “When you’re not transparent about what’s going on, this is how rumors get started.”

The NSC consists largely of career government staffers detailed from other departments and agencies, such as the Pentagon and the CIA. Under the direction of the national security adviser, they work with Trump’s political appointees in directorates that cover specific regions of the world or issues such as counterterrorism.

The impeachment inquiry coincided with Trump’s selection of Robert C. O’Brien as the new national security adviser to replace the ousted John Bolton. While many at the NSC were happy to see Bolton gone — he was viewed as too aloof and too unwilling to use the traditional NSC decision-making process — it means enduring a third leadership change in less than three years.

Political appointees are wondering whether O’Brien will keep them. Career staffers are wondering what issues he will prioritize. And there are across-the-board worries that the fallout from the impeachment process could lead to even stricter information controls inside the NSC, making it harder for people to access what they need and to collaborate.

“There’s a general concern, or even maybe more than just concern, that we’re going to reach a state of paralysis now on national security issues and policy issues,” said a former NSC official in touch with several people across the organization. “The people I’ve talked to are interpreting the coming weeks and months as generally not productive.”

The people most worried are those who deal with Ukraine and Europe more broadly, said another former NSC official. That’s because at the heart of the impeachment crisis is a July 25 phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky.

According to a detailed call memo released by the White House, Trump pressed the Ukrainian president to investigate alleged shady actions by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. There’s no evidence the Bidens did anything wrong. But Joe Biden is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, so Trump stands accused of pressuring a foreign government to investigate a potential political rival.

A whistleblower’s complaint fueling the impeachment inquiry says administration officials, under the direction of White House lawyers, took the written record of that conversation out of the system where it would usually be stored and put it in a more secure system, possibly to cover up the president’s actions.

It’s not yet clear how many people in the NSC played a role in deciding where to place the call record, or otherwise engaged in questionable Ukraine-related activities linked to the impeachment inquiry, but the investigation is damaging to morale, especially for those in the relevant directorates.

“The people in the Ukraine section are feeling really down,” a second former NSC official said, adding that it’s especially true for the career staffers. “Their type of work in the background, behind the scenes, is being exposed to the world. Their professionalism is getting politicized.”

Texts released this week as part of the inquiry mentioned at least one NSC staffer, senior director Tim Morrison, though his exact knowledge of the events is unclear. The texts suggest Morrison was involved in trying to set up a phone call between Trump and Zelensky and looking at ways to arrange a Zelensky visit to the White House. He did not respond to a request for comment.

John Gans, author of “White House Warriors,” a book about the NSC, said that, like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Ukraine-related impeachment inquiry has the potential to “rip open the sausage of national security policymaking,” and that the impact on the institution and its people could be serious.

NSC officials, such as Oliver North, were implicated in the convoluted Iran-Contra affair. In that controversy, the administration of President Ronald Reagan secretly sold weapons to Iran, then funneled the money to rebels battling a communist-influenced regime in Nicaragua. The scheme appeared designed to bypass U.S. law. Reagan also hoped that it could help free U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group.

The affair’s exposure badly stained the NSC’s reputation and spawned several investigations. One panel investigating, known as the Tower Commission, called for limited structural changes to the NSC. Most consequentially, it recommended that the national security adviser and his staff avoid running operations and stick to advisory and coordination work.

Gans noted that over the past two weeks, there have been indications that the president may have asked governments beyond Ukraine’s to investigate the Bidens or otherwise act in ways that benefit him personally. On Thursday, for instance, Trump publicly called on China to look into the Bidens, leading to even more hand-wringing in Washington.

Depending on how far Democrats want to take their inquiry, it could drag in other pieces of the NSC, not to mention the State Department and other agencies making national security policy. Based on what happened under Iran-Contra, Gans recommended that NSC staffers who have any ties to the Ukraine controversy, at least, get lawyers.

“On Iran-Contra it became every man for themselves,” Gans said, predicting that under Trump: “It will be very dark. And I think anarchic. Your career prospects might be dimmed. This was supposed to be the highlight of your career and now it’s going to be a lowlight.”

The first former NSC official said one concern he’s hearing from people inside the organization is that it will become even harder to recruit people to fill positions. Most such roles are usually filled by detailees from other parts of the government.

Under the Obama administration, there was intense competition for NSC slots given their prestige. Over the past three years, however, that interest has fallen dramatically, said the former NSC official, who’s seen the application numbers but declined to specify them.

With the impeachment inquiry looming, interest could dwindle even further. “I feel like you already don’t have an A Team or B Team. You’re really getting down to who’s left that will say ‘yes,’” the former official said.

Trump administration spokespeople downplayed such concerns.

“The National Security Council staff is comprised of exceptional public servants from across the U.S. Government who are working diligently to support President Trump’s highly-effective national security agenda. There is no shortage of patriotic individuals willing to work on these critical issues,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

NSC spokesman Mike Martin noted that “NSC positions are among the most coveted in the U.S. government” and said people there now are “hard at work, as they should be and will continue to be.”

O’Brien’s arrival has so far been fairly smooth, current and former officials say, although he spent most of his initial days in New York at the U.N. General Assembly. This was his first full week in Washington, and staffers are hoping he will give each directorate some face-time.

NSC staffers are widely pleased with O’Brien’s choice for his deputy, Matt Pottinger. Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and military veteran, has been serving as a senior Asia hand on the council. He’s considered highly competent and organized.

“Generally speaking, people love Matt Pottinger,” the current NSC staffer said. “The best thing they could have done was to keep him and elevate him.”

O’Brien is expected to bring over some of his aides from the State Department, where he had been serving as a special envoy dealing with hostage issues. NSC staffers also have been told O’Brien will press forth with a process, initiated under the Obama administration and kept up under Trump, to shrink the overall size of the organization. Bloomberg first reported the plans for the cuts, which will be handled largely through attrition.

The organization’s exact size and structure are not made public, but it’s been reported to have risen above 300 people under Obama. Exactly whom, if anyone, O’Brien asks to leave will be watched carefully in case there are any connections to the Ukraine-related crisis.

“One question people are asking,” the current NSC staffer said, “is ‘Are the implicated NSC people going to stay or kicked out’? I’m surprised these people are still here.”

A former administration official who knows several political appointees at the NSC said many of them feel protective of the president, “almost, like, defiant.” But given how busy they are, most are too focused on their work to dwell on the impeachment inquiry.

The former administration official also downplayed comparisons to Iran-Contra, saying it’s highly unlikely NSC staffers themselves did anything wrong. If there was any inappropriate action, it originated in the Oval Office, the State Department, or elsewhere outside the NSC’s boundaries, the former official said.

Gans, however, pointed out that in Washington, scandals often consume the unsuspecting.

“I assume 99 percent of people are innocent,” Gans said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to have to pay for lawyers or not worry about the future of their careers.”

Trump unloads on Romney as Ukraine crisis deepens

Donald Trump

The two men have long had a strained relationship, and it appears their feud is back on.

President Donald Trump tore into Sen. Mitt Romney in a series of tweets Saturday, renewing their on-again, off-again feud as Trump tries to fend off criticism from the Ukraine scandal threatening his presidency.

“Mitt Romney never knew how to win. He is a pompous ‘ass’ who has been fighting me from the beginning, except when he begged me for my endorsement for his Senate run (I gave it to him), and when he begged me to be Secretary of State (I didn’t give it to him). He is so bad for R’s!” Trump wrote in a pair of morning tweets.

Hours later, Trump turned his fire on Romney again, tweeting that he had heard that Utah voters regretted electing Romney to the Senate.

“He is a fool who is playing right into the hands of the Do Nothing Democrats! #IMPEACHMITTROMNEY” Trump wrote.

The president added that former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake — a frequent GOP critic of Trump — was “better” than Romney.

Later Saturday night, Trump retweeted a video from social media director Dan Scavino depicting Romney losing the 2012 presidential election and Trump’s own presidential win, writing “Mitt, get off the stage, you’ve had your turn (twice)!”

Romney has long had a strained relationship with Trump. But in recent days, he’s become one of the president’s most vocal Republican critics for seeking foreign help to dig up dirt on a political rival.

As Trump looks to maintain GOP support in the face of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, Romney’s criticism represents a potentially dangerous crack in party unity.

On Friday, Romney denounced Trump’s “brazen and unprecedented” calls for Ukraine and China to investigate Joe Biden as “wrong and appalling.”

“When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated,” Romney wrote on Twitter.

Romney has yet to respond to Trump’s tweets, and he’s typically shied away from engaging in a tit-for-tat with the president.

Over the years, Trump and Romney have been allies and enemies. Romney sought Trump’s endorsement in his presidential campaign against Barack Obama but was a fierce critic of Trump during the 2016 election.

Their relationship stabilized somewhat after Trump won the presidency. Romney was in the running to be Trump’s secretary of State and he later received Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 Senate run — though Trump tried to keep Orrin Hatch from retiring in a bid to keep Romney out of Washington.

The two have also clashed over Trump’s response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Trump’s behavior detailed in the Mueller report and trade policy, among other areas.

Now Trump is facing perhaps his greatest crisis as president and while the vast majority of Republicans are sticking by him, Romney’s criticism is surely only going to enrage him further.

Trump’s move to pressure the Ukrainian president into investigating Biden and his son Hunter is at the center of the House’s impeachment inquiry.

Democrats are issuing a series of subpoenas and are already obtaining damaging evidence, including text messages suggesting the White House was withholding military assistance until Ukraine launched a probe into Trump’s political adversaries.

If the House does pass articles of impeachment, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Senate will take up the matter in some form, and Romney could be a critical player.

Twenty Senate Republicans would be needed along with every Democrat to convict Trump and remove him from office. For now, that’s clearly a long shot. But if more Republicans join Romney, Trump could be in trouble.

Perry pressed Ukraine on corruption, energy company changes

Rick Perry and Donald Trump

The energy secretary’s role in pushing the president’s message in Kiev was more extensive than publicly known, people familiar with Perry’s activities tell RHCHAT.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry urged Ukraine’s president to root out corruption and pushed the new government for changes at its state-run oil and gas company, people familiar with his work said Friday — indications that he was more deeply involved than previously known in President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure officials in Kiev.

The people said they have no indication that Perry explicitly called on Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, the issue that has spawned a House impeachment inquiry into Trump. But at the very least, they said, Perry played an active role in the Trump administration’s efforts to shape decisions by the newly elected government of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Among other changes, Perry pushed for Ukraine’s state-owned natural gas company Naftogaz to expand its board to include Americans, two people familiar with the matter said. Two longtime energy executives based in Perry’s home state of Texas were among those under consideration for that role, one source familiar with the administration’s dealings with the company said.

Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes did not comment on whether Perry had sought to expand the board, but said he has “consistently called for the modernization and reform of Kiev’s business and energy sector in an effort to create an environment that will incentivize Western companies to do business in Ukraine.”

A White House spokesman referred questions to DOE.

Trump has defended his calls for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, maintaining he has an “obligation to look at corruption.” Text messages released on Thursday showed U.S. diplomats discussing how a potential summit between Zelensky and Trump would depend on Ukraine “getting to the bottom of what happened” in the 2016 U.S. election, which Trump maintains was marred by an unproven conspiracy against him by Democrats and foreign allies.

Perry, who RHCHAT reported is expected to resign next month, attended Zelensky’s May inauguration in Kiev in place of Vice President Mike Pence. In addition, he was one of the administration’s “three amigos” on Ukrainian policy, along with Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for the Ukraine conflict, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, as Sondland described their relationship in a July broadcast interview.

In Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, the former Texas governor often played the role of U.S. energy pitchman. He helped deliver a deal to export U.S. coal to Ukraine, and he cemented a natural gas deal with Poland that would send supplies to Ukraine and help reduce its dependence on Russian fuel.

Among Perry’s numerous visits with Zelenksy and other Ukraine officials in the past year was a dinner with Zelensky, Trump’s son-law-Jared Kushner and other officials in June, according to a government photo taken by the U.S. of the event. The two met again the following month with Polish government officials to sign the energy cooperation agreement, according to news releases.

Perry also attended the bilateral meeting with Zelenksy and Trump in New York on Sept. 25, a DOE spokesperson confirmed.

The message from Perry to Zelensky, according to one person familiar with the discussions, was: “You’ve got to take steps on your anti-corruption efforts.”

Perry also called for shaking up Naftogaz to help it cut its reliance on energy supplies from Russia and open itself up for more investment from the U.S., people familiar with the discussions told RHCHAT.

Specifically, Perry pushed Naftogaz to expand its supervisory board — a three-person entity that now includes Amos Hochstein, a former Biden aide and State Department energy official currently working for the U.S. liquefied natural gas company Tellurian. The other two members are Bruno Lescoeur, a former executive in charge of international affairs at the French energy company Engie, and Clare Spottiswoode, director of London-based advisory Gas Strategies.

Perry “didn’t feel like the board of Naftogaz was sufficiently high level and connected to global energy companies, so he suggested that they expand the board and bring in new higher-level, industry-connected people on an international basis, including some Americans,” said a second person familiar with the discussions.

The names that Perry floated for potential new board members included Robert Bensh, a Houston oil executive currently with Pelicourt LLC, as well as Michael Bleyzer, head of a private equity firm based in Houston, the source familiar with the board discussions said.

Bensch, who advised DOE on technical matters involving Ukrainian energy, had not “formally” been offered a role on the board, said a person familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss personnel issues. Bleyzer did not immediately reply to a message left with his firm.

Two clients of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Ukrainian-American Trump donors Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had met with Naftogaz earlier this year to pitch themselves as suppliers of U.S. natural gas, according to media reports.

“I may or may not know anything about it,” Giuliani told RHCHAT when asked whether he knew about Perry’s efforts to install new people on the board.

Perry is scheduled to travel in Eastern Europe next week to follow up on a energy-cooperation agreement the U.S., Ukraine and Poland signed last month, according to an Energy Department news release.

On Friday evening, House Democrats issued their third subpoena this week for documents related to a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s leader. A subpoena issued earlier in the day to Pence by the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight panels seeks records related to May 23 and July 10 meetings at the White House that Perry attended, as well as documents about the decision to send him to Zelensky’s inauguration instead of Pence.

House Democrats have also sent a subpoena to Giuliani asking for communications involving Perry.

Sanders and Warren transform how presidential campaigns are paid for

Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren

The latest batch of fundraising reports released this week confirmed a new reality of presidential politics: the traditional, big-dollar model of funding a presidential campaign is going the way of landlines and the VCR.

With Elizabeth Warren’s announcement Friday that she had raised nearly $25 million in the last three months — slightly less than Bernie Sanders reported Tuesday — two candidates who didn’t hold traditional donor events became the top two fundraisers in Democratic primary.

And they both blew past the ones who did.

Warren and Sanders, who raised $25.3 million, both finished about $10 million ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden for the quarter.

Biden, meanwhile, fell back in his fundraising, posting $15.2 million – about $7 million less than he raised the previous three months. And other Democrats who relied on traditional, big-dollar fundraisers also slipped, presaging difficulties financing robust campaigns.

Sen. Kamala Harris’ reported haul of $11.6 million came in slightly lower than her second quarter. And though South Bend Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg posted $19.1 million, that number was down, too, from the previous three months, when he raised $24.8 million.

“The fact that progressives combined to raise $50 million without one fundraiser is mind-boggling,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who advised Cynthia Nixon in her primary campaign against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year. “And really exciting, because they showed there’s a better way to do this.”

The quarterly fundraising reports marked a victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And its effects were felt more broadly than on the candidates’ bottom lines. Freed from the time constraints of traditional fundraising, Warren spent hours in photograph lines at campaign events throughout the summer, while Sanders — before his hospitalization this week — maintained a frenetic pace on the trail.

And as the campaign accelerates this fall, Warren and Sanders are poised to compound the effect of their small donors. Unlike contributors who give the maximum amount at exclusive donor events, small-dollar contributors can re-up repeatedly.

“Anybody whose core model is big-money fundraisers will get tapped out at some point and have diminishing returns,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren, “whereas 10- and 20-dollar donors can keep coming back to the table over and over again.”

Biden, the longtime frontrunner, still leads Warren and Sanders in many national polls. The latest Morning Consult survey put him at 32 percent, with Warren and Sanders at 21 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

William Owen, a Democratic National Committee member from Tennessee who has endorsed Biden, said that despite “a huge amount of money” for both Sanders and Warren, “Joe is still in the lead with the voters.”

And the flurry of financial reports suggested an opening at the periphery of the top tier for other candidates. Sen. Cory Booker raised more than $6 million in the third quarter amid a surge of support in late September. Businessman Andrew Yang raised $10 million. And Harris’ campaign said it has nearly that much on hand.

“This is where the campaign season, I think, takes on a different kind of urgency,” Buttigieg said when he arrived at a gun control forum in Las Vegas this week. “Something about fall, I think, brings a certain focus to it.”

Voters, Buttigieg said, are “really getting into decision mode.”

Lesser-fundraising candidates – and many observers – can recount a litany of well-funded candidates who have failed before in presidential elections. And Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way, said Friday that the 2020 primary may require less money than most elections.

“In a primary like this one where the frontrunners have pretty significant name ID,” he said, “they don’t need to introduce themselves to voters.”

Biden, Warren and Sanders will all have enough money to fund robust field operations, he said, and “beyond that, the marginal difference between $25 million and $15 million, I think, is relatively small.”

“I do think the money matters in the second tier, but it matters less at the top tier,” he said.

In addition, online fundraising can fluctuate wildly. While Warren’s ascent has proved relatively steady – what Gretchen Dahlkemper, a Democratic strategist based in Philadelphia, described as “like a duck … kicking underneath and keeping calm” — other candidates who have relied on small donations have faltered.

Beto O’Rourke, who has not yet announced his third-quarter fundraising, raised more than $80 million in his near-miss Texas Senate run last year and followed that with $6.1 million in the 24 hours after he announced his presidential campaign in March. But by July, O’Rourke — who like many candidates relies on a mix of online and traditional fundraisers — reported a dismal $3.6 million in the second quarter.

Les Francis, a Democratic strategist and former deputy White House chief of staff in the Carter administration, said it is an open question “whether or not there’s a ceiling to that progressive donor base. In other words, does it get exhausted at some point? And, I don’t know the answer to that. We’ll find out.”

However, he said, for centrists, Biden’s figures are “troubling when you combine it with the numbers of the other so-called moderates in the race.”

“By definition, moderates are hard to get excited,” Francis said. “That reveals itself not only in fundraising, but in volunteer activity and all the rest.”

Impeachment takeaways: From diplomatic texts to Trump’s tweets

Donald Trump

Another week, and the impeachment drama increases. The latest developments — from diplomatic text messages to presidential tweets — could leave even the most dialed-in RHCHAT’s head spinning.

We asked four reporters who have been covering Donald Trump’s presidency and the investigations to share their thoughts on where we are and where we’re going.

Where are congressional Republicans and are there any signs of cracks in Trump’s firewall of support?

Melanie Zanona, Congress reporter: I don’t expect to see a GOP jailbreak — at least not yet. Only a few Republicans have spoken out publicly against Trump, but it’s mostly the usual Trump critics or retiring members. Most Republicans are just keeping their heads down and waiting to see what else comes out and how it plays back home. I suspect we’ll have a better sense of where the GOP Conference stands after the recess.

Ben Schreckinger, national political correspondent: Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have both criticized Trump for calling on China to investigate the Bidens. But they are part of the same small group of Republican senators who have been willing to take on Trump all along. Marco Rubio, a China hawk, has declined to call out Trump for it. It does not seem like his firewall is breaking in the Senate, which is all that will matter if he is impeached.

Josh Gerstein, legal affairs contributor: I don’t see Trump’s wall of support collapsing, but a few bricks do seem to be jostling loose. I was struck this week by some commentators who almost always align themselves with the president, openly criticizing him over the Ukraine episode. “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent Joe Biden. … There’s no way to spin this as a good idea,” Fox host Tucker Carlson and Daily Caller publisher Neil Patel wrote. They went on to say Trump’s infraction didn’t merit impeachment, but any disagreement from Trump’s Amen chorus must get under his skin given his repeated insistence that the call was “perfect.”

Heather Caygle, Congress reporter: Republicans left the closed-door House Intelligence Committee hearing Friday seeking to deflect criticism of the president onto Adam Schiff, the Democrat who heads it. Republicans are attacking Schiff more than defending Trump, accusing the Intel chairman of helping orchestrate the allegations. It’s been easier for Republicans to stay quiet, in part, due to the congressional recess — a two-week break for which most members are away from the Capitol and its press corps.

What’s the Biden campaign’s strategy to deal with these accusations and deal with voters’ concerns that he carries some political baggage from his past service?

Melanie: Biden can use this fight as an opportunity to show voters what a Biden-Trump matchup would look like. And he can argue that the president views him as his biggest threat in the general election — a central pillar of Biden’s argument for why he should be the Democratic nominee.

Ben: Biden’s family — and their business dealings — are a sensitive issue for the campaign, perhaps a reason they were slow out of the gate to seize on questions about Trump’s use — or misuse — of his office. Biden has been more forceful recently in condemning Trump, but there remains a real messaging dilemma for Democrats. Elizabeth Warren has struggled to answer a question about whether her ethics plan would allow a vice president’s child to sit on the board of a foreign company. And Biden’s allies are unhappy that the Democratic National Committee has barely lifted a finger to defend the Bidens, even as the Republican National Committee goes after them nonstop, as Marc Caputo and Natasha Korecki reported this morning.

Josh: Democrats may be loath to admit it to reporters or pollsters, but I suspect Trump’s attacks are fueling doubts about whether Biden’s extensive experience is in some respects a liability and that there may be too much history that provides fodder for political attacks. Ethical concerns about relatives have long dogged presidents. Even with Trump’s own vulnerability on cronyism and a slew of ethics issues, some Democrats may be looking for a candidate without even the whiff of scandal. Biden’s camp seems to be arguing that embarking on such a quest is giving in to Trump, since he’ll try to tar anyone the Dems offer up.

Heather: The Biden campaign hopes that confronting the issue and dismissing the allegations against Hunter now will neutralize the issue in the general election. The strategy appears to be one designed to show Biden not shying away Trump’s claims about his son, many of which lack evidence. It’s another way for Biden to prove he’s the best candidate to take on Trump.

What do the latest developments mean for the State Department and Secretary Mike Pompeo, as they are both dragged into — or willingly stepped into — the political vortex?

Melanie: Now we know Rudy Guiliani wasn’t just freelancing in his Ukraine pressure campaign: U.S. diplomats were actively pushing Ukraine to investigate Biden and the 2016 election on behalf of Trump. Expect Democrats to paint a picture of a president who was using foreign diplomacy for personal gain. This could also damage the credibility of Pompeo, who is said to have political ambitions of his own.

Ben: Aside from the question of whether Pompeo is implicated in the scandal, the fact that the president had his personal lawyer running a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine further undermines the State Department’s standing. I also expect the role of Rick Perry and U.S. energy policy to become a bigger part of this story

Josh: We’re starting to learn more about what the key players in Ukraine policy knew about all this. Special envoy Kurt Volker’s insistence that the investigation he was pressing Ukraine to commit to in order get a visit to the White House was not at all a probe into Joe Biden seems implausibly naïve for a sophisticated diplomat. But there must be many other players in this saga at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, at the State Department and at the National Security Council, who know at least as much as the CIA whistleblower, if not more.

As for Pompeo, everyone has wondered how he’s managed to stay in Trump’s good graces, where so many other officials have not. His actions to bolster Trump’s political goals with the Ukrainians help explain the unusual favor Pompeo has enjoyed in a Cabinet that has seen incredible turnover.

Heather: For Pompeo, everything is likely viewed, at least in part, through the lens of how this could impact his long-term political career. He is rumored to be considering a Senate run in his home state of Kansas and has notably refused to rule out the possibility. He has been, and remains, a close ally and defender of Trump, and seems to have earned the president’s trust in a way that some of Trump’s other current and former Cabinet officials weren’t able to do. Pompeo has continued to define himself as a fierce defender of the president, as evidenced earlier this week when he threatened to block State Department officials from testifying as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry.

Where does Attorney General William Barr’s credibility stand with lawmakers and the public now that it has been revealed that he enlisted the White House — and in some cases, President Trump personally — in seeking international cooperation in the probe into how the Trump-Russia investigation began?

Melanie: Democrats have long viewed Barr suspiciously, ever since he put out that initial summary of the Mueller report and took the extraordinary step of determining Trump did not obstruct justice. They say he is acting like the president’s personal attorney as opposed to the nation’s attorney. The whole Ukraine episode is only to give Democrats more ammunition, but I don’t expect them to target Barr with something like a censure resolution or trying to get him disbarred — they have bigger fish to fry.

Ben: Normally, an attorney general will go to lengths to avoid the appearance of politicizing the Justice Department (though they often fall short). Few things appear more political than investigating the origins of an investigation into the president. Then again, pressuring a foreign government to investigate your rival counts as one of those few things, so, as Melanie points out, Barr may luck out here by finding the story move past him.

Josh: Democratic lawmakers soured on Barr long ago, especially for what they regarded as spin that he put on the Mueller report. But that was mostly a complaint that he gave a skewed preview of a report that was made public in large part a few weeks later.

The confirmation this week that Barr asked Trump to reach out to world leaders to seek cooperation in Justice Department’s ongoing review of the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation is a highly irregular step because of Trump’s direct personal and political interest in the outcomes of that review. Why couldn’t State Department officials or ambassadors have handled that outreach? Dems are focused on a bigger target at the moment, but Barr—who portrays himself as a by-the-book type— will have to grapple with these questions eventually.

Heather: When Barr initially took the position, many Democrats were privately relieved that a career official with a long history of government service would be assuming the important role as the nation’s top cop. But after Barr’s handling of the Mueller report drew accusations that he was seeking to defend and protect Trump, Democrats have universally soured on the attorney general. Barr’s credibility in their eyes only continues to diminish as more information comes out about his attempts to validate Trump’s efforts to discredit the origins of the Russia investigation. Barr has also been the public face of the Justice Department’s all-out blockade of House Democrats’ sprawling oversight requests, and some of those disputes are still playing out in federal court.

Where are we at the end of this week? Do impeachment/a Senate trial/other damaging outcomes for Trump seem more likely after the disclosures of the past seven days?

Ben: Trump’s impeachment does seem more likely, especially in light of the president asking China to investigate the Bidens and the disclosure of text messages in which one U.S. diplomat made it clear he believed the administration was withholding security assistance to Ukraine in order to help Trump’s reelection. We’ve also seen a number of figures involved in this saga, including Rudy Giuliani and his associate Lev Parnas, lawyer up, another sign that we are in for another full-blown Washington legal-political showdown. It’s shaping up to be a Mueller rematch.

Melanie: It’s quickly becoming a question of when, not if, Democrats put articles of impeachment on the House floor. It just depends on when they feel like they have enough evidence to make a convincing case to the American public. There are a whole lot of dots — and now Democrats need to connect them. But things are a little more murky in the Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear that he has to consider impeachment if the House follows through, but he hasn’t indicated how long the trial will last or if he will just move to dismiss it immediately.

Josh: We’re definitely closer to impeachment now, largely because of the new disclosures about Trump’s Ukraine strategy being operationalized by diplomats.

But an even bigger problem for the president may be his decision that he’ll defend himself against impeachment on the fly, without heeding professional advice. This—and goading from reporters—seems to lead to ever-escalating claims on the president’s part about his right to do anything he wants to tar Biden. Trump’s China comments triggered new criticism from Romney. But Trump’s inability to stick to a clear message—like when he denied a quid pro quo and then suggested that he’d be entirely justified in offering one—has even complicated the efforts of those trying to help him. He routinely saws off boards that his allies are presently standing on.

Heather: Democrats saw this week as a victory in their efforts to paint Trump’s conduct as an abuse of his power and of the office of the presidency. But they also feel like they succeeded in another area—keeping momentum behind the impeachment inquiry and winning the messaging war against a president who generally dictates the direction of the news cycle on a daily basis. For Democrats, it’s something many felt they weren’t able to do in the aftermath of the Mueller investigation, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders remained opposed to an impeachment investigation.

Impeachment seems almost inevitable, especially after the release of damning text messages from senior diplomats discussing Trump’s desire to exert his leverage over foreign leaders in order to satisfy his political objectives. In addition, Democrats are showing they have no intention of slowing down their investigation, with subpoenas (or the threat of one) slapped on Pompeo and the White House. And on Friday, Democrats further escalated their inquiry by demanding Vice President Mike Pence turn over any documents he has related to the Ukraine controversy.

Justice Department hasn’t interviewed key Russia probe witnesses

William Barr

The DOJ’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe seems to be focusing on the intelligence community’s links with foreign sources.

For months, President Donald Trump’s allies have been raising expectations for prosecutor John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, predicting that he will uncover a deep state plot to stage a “coup” against the president.

Durham “is looking at putting people in jail,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News host Sean Hannity in July. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said Durham is about to unleash “a pile of evidence” that will “debunk” everything House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff has proclaimed for “the last two years.”

“Stuff is going to hit the fan” when Durham is done “investigating the investigators,” said Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera. “If indictments are warranted, U.S. Attorney John Durham will be bringing them,” wrote conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt.

But in the five months since Attorney General Bill Barr tapped Durham to investigate the origins of the Russia probe, and whether any inappropriate “spying” occurred on members of the Trump campaign, he has not requested interviews with any of the FBI or DOJ employees who were directly involved in, or knew about, the opening of the Russia investigation in 2016, according to people familiar with the matter.

The omission raises questions about what, exactly, Durham—alongside Attorney General Bill Barr—has been investigating.

Those not contacted include former FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok; former FBI general counsel Jim Baker; former chief of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section David Laufman; and former head of DOJ’s National Security Division Mary McCord. Former CIA Director John Brennan, Trump-Russia dossier author Christopher Steele, and former Trump adviser Carter Page—who was the subject of a surveillance warrant that is now under investigation by the inspector general—haven’t been contacted for interviews, either.

Combined with reports that Barr has traveled with Durham internationally seeking evidence from the U.S.’s closest intelligence allies, Durham’s apparent lack of interest in the FBI at this point suggests that he and Barr are focusing on examining the intelligence community’s role in the Russia probe—and, in accordance with Trump’s desires, looking at whether the help provided by U.S. allies in the Russia probe, including the U.K., Italy, Australia and Ukraine, may itself have constituted foreign interference.

Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, whose son Marc represents the Trump Organization and is a longtime confidant of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, recently speculated in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that Durham may be trying to determine whether “Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to get evidence from Ukrainian government officials against Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to pressure him into cooperating against Mr. Trump.” Mukasey also noted that, according to a recent Justice Department statement, “certain Ukrainians who are not members of the government have volunteered information to Mr. Durham, which he is evaluating.”

The new revelations about Barr and Durham’s work and travels also present the clearest contrast yet to the Justice Department’s internal investigation into the Russia probe origins, led by the DOJ’s inspector general and focused on the FBI’s conduct. That probe remains ongoing.

“The question Durham and Barr now seem to be asking is, ‘How was this information fed to the bureau in 2016?” said one former FBI official. “That’s distinct from what the IG has been looking at, and seems to indicate that their theory now is the FBI itself was duped by the intelligence community and its overseas partners.”

A tweet sent out by Republican Sen. John Cornyn on Friday suggested that the inquiry is also broader than has been reported. “Now, the Trump Justice Department is investigating foreign government influence, VP Biden conflicts of interest, and possible corruption,” he wrote, referring to Vice President Joe Biden. But a Cornyn aide said the senator meant to say “that the Durham investigation could end up also looking at the Bidens,” not that it already was. The Justice Department declined to comment.

In his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25—which Trump’s national security team delayed for months because they were wary of how Trump’s fixation with conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of the Russia investigation would be reflected in the call, according to former officials—Trump asked Zelensky to do him a “favor” by looking into Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election, and suggested he connect with Barr “to get to the bottom of it.”

Trump also asked the newly elected leader to investigate Biden and his son, who sat on the board of directors of an oil and gas company that at one point was investigated by Ukraine’s top prosecutor. Ukrainian officials on Friday announced a fresh review of why that probe was shut down.

The Justice Department has denied that Barr received any instructions from Trump to work with the Ukrainians on a Biden investigation. But Barr’s reported personal involvement in Durham’s probe suggests the attorney general has been more closely overseeing an inquiry of deep importance to the president than was previously believed.

Durham, for his part, appears to have trained his focus on the intelligence community, reportedly seeking interviews with the CIA analysts who drew conclusions about Putin’s motivations in 2016. Trump’s allies have been fixated on the question of how the intelligence community determined that Russia intervened specifically to help Trump win rather than to just sow chaos and distrust in the Democratic process. Some accounts have suggested that the intelligence community had a human asset in Putin’s inner circle, though others have indicated that the U.S. used signals intelligence to intercept conversations among Russian officials.

As RHCHAT first reported, that question has already been asked and answered at the CIA’s highest levels — by Mike Pompeo, a Trump loyalist. Just after Pompeo took over as CIA director in 2017, he conducted a personal review of the CIA’s findings, grilling analysts on their conclusions in a challenging and at times combative interview, people familiar with the matter said. He ultimately found no evidence of any wrongdoing, or that the analysts had been under political pressure to produce their findings.

George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign adviser who has repeatedly declared that the entire FBI investigation was a setup by Western intelligence services including the British, Australians, Italians and CIA, twice declined to comment when asked whether he’d been interviewed by the prosecutor.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his own contacts with a Russian-linked professor named Joseph Mifsud, who told Papadopoulos in the spring of 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of her emails.

That disclosure, which was relayed to the FBI by an Australian diplomat who heard about it from Papadopoulos, is what the FBI has said spurred its initial counterintelligence investigation into Trump campaign associates with links to Russia. But Papadopoulos has claimed, without evidence, that Mifsud was actually a plant, sent by Western intelligence officials to entrap him and give the FBI an excuse to open an investigation.

Mifsud’s whereabouts remain unknown. But Barr reportedly asked Trump to solicit the Australians’ help in the investigation. And he and Durham recently traveled to Italy to investigate the events that led up to Mueller’s probe—and, as part of that, to reportedly hear a taped deposition Mifsud gave on the subject months ago.

‘You built the nation’: Trump courts black voters in White House mini-rally

President Trump

President Donald Trump held what amounted to a mini-rally with nearly 300 young black supporters inside the White House on Friday, replete with campaign-style chants of “USA!” and “four more years!”

“You broke the sound barrier,” Trump told the audience of African American students and young professionals, who greeted him with chants and cheers inside the White House’s East Room. “I’ve never heard it quite like that, and I appreciate it. We love you.”

With an eye on the 2020 election, the president delivered his pitch to black voters — and aired his grievances — in true Trumpian fashion. He not only touted historically low unemployment among black Americans but also conducted a roll call of his top black supporters, calling out some of his African American critics while slamming Democrats and the news media along the way.

At one point, Trump also credited African Americans for building the country, a seeming reference to their ancestors’ role as slaves.

“You know, you’re just starting to get real credit for that, OK,” Trump said. “I don’t know if you know that, you’re just starting to get — you built the nation. We all built it, but you were such a massive part of it. Bigger than you were given credit for. Does that make sense?”

It was a stark contrast from the president who over the summer told four progressive congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from and blasted Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings’ congressional district as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

Friday’s speech marked the second time in the past month Trump participated in an event with an overwhelmingly black audience. In September, he addressed leaders of historically black colleges and universities.

Trump made both broad and personal appeals to black voters Friday. He praised conservative commentators Candace Owens and Terrence Williams and White House aide Ja’Ron Smith, individually inviting each of them to join him on stage. Trump complimented Smith for his role with the White House and commended Owens for her television appearances and Williams for his tweets about actress Debra Messing, a Trump foil.

Owens, Trump said, is a “star” who is not only “tough” but also “beautiful.”

“Under the #MeToo generation, we’re not allowed to say it,” Trump said. “So all of you young, brilliant guys, never, ever call a woman beautiful, please. You’re not allowed to do it.”

Despite some projections of a recession, Trump claimed the economy is doing so well that Americans are “finding jobs and they’re getting good jobs and if you don’t like that job you can get another one because you have a lot of choice.”

“While we are fighting every day to build up our nation, the far left only wants to wreck, ruin and destroy our nation,” he said. “And you know better than anybody, for the last three years, Democrat lawmakers, their deep-state cronies, the fake news media, they’ve been colluding in their effort to overturn the presidential election — 63 million people voted — and to nullify the votes of the American people and many African American people voted for Trump, even then. Now they like me more.”

Trump lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by roughly 3 million votes, 63 million to 65.8 million. He won just 8 percent of the black vote in 2016, and 81 percent of African American voters disapprove of his job as president, according to a recent RHCHAT/Morning Consult poll.

Still, the Trump campaign hopes it can peel off enough black voters to boost turnout in key states next year, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump won by less than 1 percentage point.

The president argued that Democratic politicians have let down the African American community for more than 100 years but touted how black Americans have benefited from the Trump administration’s policies over the last three years.

“No one in America has been hurt more as a result of the Democrats’ corrupt leadership and socialist policies than our nation’s African American community,” Trump said. “It’s true. That’s true.”

Trump name-checked South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott for talking to him about “opportunity zones” to spur investment in distressed communities and credited himself for helping pass a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.

But he took issue with CNN’s Van Jones and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Trump said Jones thanked Sharpton, who “was nowhere to be found” as the bill moved through Congress, on his show last month but excluded any mention of the president for his role in the bill’s passage. What Jones did do, Trump recalled, is urge voters to defeat Trump at the ballot box next November.

Trump derided Sharpton as a “conman” who “scared NBC into giving him a show” and insisted Jones called senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who played a big role behind the scenes in the criminal justice bill’s passage, to apologize.

“He apologized,” Trump said. “But I don’t accept those apologies.”

After voicing support for law enforcement, Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Trump suggested a number of African Americans live near “brutal killers” and sometimes become their victims.

“They’re killers, but you’re tough,” he told the crowd. “You fight back. But sometimes you don’t win those fights because these guys are tough, too. They shouldn’t be in our country.”