There are no turning points. Those of us who are old now can’t pinpoint when that happened. There’s no one day when one suddenly turns old. That just happens. But in public life there are turning points where everything changes – Pearl Harbor – the 9/11 attacks – or the day when Trump’s impeachment became certain. A dam burst. Too much happened simultaneously. No one could deny the obvious any longer, but this day opened with a major news story that became the minor story of the day:
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, bolstered Democrats’ impeachment inquiry Thursday as he broke sharply from President Donald Trump in testimony before House investigators.
During his nearly nine-hour testimony, Sondland said he reluctantly indulged what he described as the president’s efforts to run Ukraine policy through his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. He indicated that he opposed Trump’s orders to reach out to Giuliani, who was pushing the Ukrainian government to investigate Trump’s political rivals.
He had made his billions developing hyper-chic boutique hotels in the Pacific Northwest and had donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee and, now, he was finally a player in the big game, and the game was a scam run by thugs – not his words but close enough. And he was a lost little lamb:
In his closed-door testimony, Sondland said he contacted Giuliani anyway at Trump’s direction after a May 23 meeting at the White House, and that Giuliani drew a direct link between scheduling a White House visit for Ukraine’s newly elected president and demands that Ukraine prioritize investigations targeting Trump’s political opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
“Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President [Volodymyr] Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues,” Sondland said.
“Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president,” he added.
And that made him sad, because this had nothing to do with diplomacy:
Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that had faced international scrutiny, but there is no evidence that either Biden or his son acted improperly. The “server” Sondland mentioned is a reference to the debunked conspiracy theory, amplified by Trump and Giuliani, that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.
That’s the theory – or the fact – that not only did Donald Trump not collude with Russia during the 2016 campaign, Russia didn’t even interfere in the election at all. Both were framed by a conspiracy between Ukraine and the DNC. The server is the DNC server that the Russians “hacked” but really didn’t. And it’s missing because a cybersecurity firm called CrowdStrike was part of the conspiracy and CrowdStrike made it look like the Russians had hacked the servers when in fact it was an inside job by a disgruntled DNC employee. That would be the late Seth Rich. All evidence suggests he died the victim of a random street crime, but perhaps he was actually murdered by the Clinton people or by Hillary herself – she had murdered Vince Foster after all. In 2015, Bill Maher interviewed Julian Assange – Mister WikiLeaks – who offered, on Mahar’s HBO show, a massive reward for evidence that Hillary Clinton had murdered Seth Rich. Fox News ran endless segments on this mysterious murder. Rich’s parents sued and Fox News stopped doing that, but that didn’t stop the rest. Russia and Trump were framed. The real election interference was a conspiracy between the DNC and Ukraine so masterful that it completely fooled all seventeen of our intelligence services and Robert Mueller too – unless they were in on it too. And that was why the White House held up military aid. Trump explicitly invoked the “CrowdStrike server” in his call with Zelensky. That’s the theory here.
And that’s what Rudy was after, but that’s problematic:
Republicans have maintained that none of the witnesses testifying as part of the impeachment inquiry have corroborated the allegation that Trump held up the military aid for a nefarious purpose. But even the president’s most passionate defenders are indicating that they have grown uneasy with Giuliani’s involvement.
“I would not, on my dime, send a private attorney looking for some server in a foreign country,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close Trump ally, told Politico, adding that “the question a lot of us are trying to grapple with” is whether Giuliani’s actions were appropriate.
That also seemed to be the issue for the hotelier:
Sondland told congressional investigators he did not realize “until much later” that Giuliani was seeking a Ukrainian-led investigation into Biden and his son – even though Trump himself and Giuliani had been calling publicly for such probes for weeks. He said any effort to solicit foreign assistance in an American election – an allegation central to the House’s impeachment inquiry – “would be wrong,” adding that he was “disappointed by” the May 23 meeting with Trump because he believed a Trump-Zelensky meeting “should be scheduled promptly and without any pre-conditions.”
The White House didn’t need this. They mounted a counteroffensive:
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, threw the Trump administration’s defense against impeachment into disarray on Thursday when he said that the White House withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to further President Trump’s political interests.
That was the counteroffensive. Yeah, we did that. And we’d do it again. Deal with it:
Mr. Mulvaney told journalists in a televised White House briefing that the aid was withheld in part until Ukraine investigated an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for hacking Democratic Party emails in 2016 – a theory that would show that Mr. Trump was elected without Russian help.
The declaration by Mr. Mulvaney, which he took back later in the day, undercut Mr. Trump’s repeated denials of a quid pro quo that linked American military aid for Ukraine to an investigation that could help Mr. Trump politically.
But some of the pressure had been removed. This wasn’t about Joe Biden’s son at all:
At the White House, Mr. Mulvaney said that Mr. Trump had demanded that Ukraine investigate the theory, even though a former White House homeland security adviser had told Mr. Trump that the theory had been completely debunked.
“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mr. Mulvaney told reporters, referring to Mr. Trump. “And that is absolutely appropriate.”
And if Hillary Clinton had committed murder again, this time she’d be brought to justice, or something. Nothing was clear, but something was clear:
Democrats called Mr. Mulvaney’s comments a potential turning point in their impeachment inquiry. “We have a confession,” said Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California.
By day’s end, after Mr. Trump told aides to clean up the mess, Mr. Mulvaney issued a statement flatly denying what he had earlier said.
“Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump,” Mr. Mulvaney wrote. “Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election. The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.”
In his earlier remarks to reporters, Mr. Mulvaney pointed to “three issues” that explained why officials withheld the aid: corruption in Ukraine, frustration that European governments were not providing more money to Ukraine and the president’s demand that Kiev officials investigate the issue of the Democratic National Committee server.
“Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server?” Mr. Mulvaney said, referring to Mr. Trump. “Absolutely. No question about that.” He added, “That’s why we held up the money.”
Democrats ridiculed the reversal.
And it was time to hide:
At the White House, staff members recognized that Mr. Mulvaney had created an entirely new controversy with his remarks. Jay Sekulow, one of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers, said Thursday, “The president’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”
But wait, there’s more:
Mr. Mulvaney’s performance was only part of another extraordinary day in Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mr. Mulvaney made his remarks after he stepped before the cameras to announce that the leaders of the Group-of-Seven nations would meet in June at Mr. Trump’s golf resort in South Florida, even as he acknowledged the choice could be seen as self-enrichment.
He may be impeached, but he’s going to make a shitload of money on the way out the door! He gets the last laugh! But that wasn’t what Mulvaney said. Mulvaney said that Trump won’t profit from this because Mulvaney says he won’t profit from this, and Rudy is a fine man:
Mr. Mulvaney was defiant and unapologetic at the suggestion that there was anything wrong with the president’s relying on political loyalists to conduct foreign policy.
“I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy,” he said, adding, “Elections have consequences.”
And extorting foreign governments for help in our elections is fine too:
Asked whether he had admitted to a quid pro quo, Mr. Mulvaney said, “We do that all the time with foreign policy.”
His answer ignored the distinction – raised by many of the president’s critics – between holding up foreign aid to further American interests and holding up foreign aid to further Mr. Trump’s personal interests.
There is that, and the Washington Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa sums things up:
First came the lengthy infomercial touting President Trump’s private golf resort in Florida as “far and away the best” site in the country to host next year’s Group of Seven summit of world leaders. Then, an admission: Trump did, in fact, withhold aid to Ukraine because he wanted the government there to investigate Democrats.
For 39 minutes Thursday, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney turned the press briefing room into a sort of confession chamber, openly admitting to several acts that could deepen the legal predicament for the president. Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry into whether he has abused his office for personal and political gain.
Mulvaney’s retort to those charges came in a three-word mantra that now forms the central theme of the White House impeachment response: “Get over it.”
That might have been the wrong thing to say:
The reviews for Mulvaney’s performance came in swiftly, and even the president’s allies were unimpressed with his admit-everything approach.
“Totally inexplicable,” said one GOP lawmaker, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “He literally said the thing the president and everyone else said did not happen.”
But that was the plan:
“I think Mulvaney should rethink ever stepping in front of a microphone,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book about previous White House chiefs of staff…
Whipple said Mulvaney’s strategy has been to try to normalize Trump’s unorthodox behavior by making the “insane” seem commonplace.
“Trump’s actions are not defendable so the response is ‘Let’s just act like this is normal,'” he said. “There’s nothing normal about it.”
Ah! That’s it! Now they get it:
Few Republicans publicly backed Trump’s move to host the G-7 at his own property, and some actively spoke out against it.
Ari Fleischer, who was a White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, said Trump’s G-7 decision was “unseemly.”
“Holding the G-7 at a Trump property is one of the most foolish, unseemly things the WH could do,” he wrote on Twitter. “The President enjoys waiving red flags in front of bulls, but this fight isn’t worth it.”
And meanwhile, on Fox News:
Immediately after acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced Thursday that President Donald Trump’s Doral golf club will host next year’s G7 summit, Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano declared such a move represents a clear emoluments clause violation.
During Thursday’s broadcast of Fox Business Network’s “Cavuto: Coast to Coast” host Neil Cavuto noted that the announcement of the G7 location “is effectively saying the president has given himself this contract.”
But other summits took place at Camp David and Sea Island, so Cavuto said that holding the event at the president’s property is not a violation of the emoluments clause, but he let the judge speak:
“I believe the judge has a different notion of that,” Cavuto added, turning to Napolitano.
“It’s not my notion,” the judge replied. “It’s the Constitution’s notion. The Constitution does not address profits. It addresses any present, as in a gift, any emolument as in cash of any kind whatever. I’m quoting the emoluments clause, from any king, prince or foreign state.”
Explaining that this wouldn’t be an issue if this were a meeting of U.S. government officials, Napolitano once again stated that the emoluments clause is to prevent the president from receiving gifts or cash from foreign entities.
“He has bought himself an enormous headache now with the choice of this,” he continued. “This is about as direct and profound a violation of the emoluments clause as one could create.”
But it was that kind of day:
Some Republicans were deeply concerned by Mulvaney’s comments.
“You don’t hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative,” said GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. “Period.”
Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida called Mulvaney’s acknowledgment about withholding Ukraine aid “troubling,” saying it is “not a good thing” to do that in connection “with threatening foreign leaders.”
Rooney would not rule out the prospects of supporting impeaching the President.
There were some things Rooney couldn’t get over. None of this was helping Donald Trump. And then, at the same time, it was hard to get over this:
US Vice President Mike Pence announced in Turkey Thursday that he and Turkish President Erdogan agreed to a ceasefire halting Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, which was launched after President Donald Trump effectively gave Turkey the go ahead on a phone call with Erdogan earlier this month.
The deal appears to secure Turkey most of its military objectives, forcing America’s one-time allies in the fight against ISIS – Kurdish forces – to cede a vast swath of territory, with one senior US official very familiar with operations in Syria telling CNN that the deal meant the US was “validating what Turkey did and allowing them to annex a portion of Syria and displace the Kurdish population.”
The Turkish government is insisting that the agreement is not a ceasefire, but only a “pause” on operations in the region, reflecting Ankara’s views of the status of the Syrian Kurds.
So, this was a five day pause, for us to get the Kurds out of there –-all of them, tens of thousands of them, men and women and children – and then to get the hell out of there ourselves – or putting it nicely:
As part of the deal, Pence said Turkey “will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of (Kurdish) YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” referring to Ankara’s official name for the unilateral military offensive.
“All military operations will be paused, and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal,” Pence said…
Pence said the Turkish operation would end when the YPG forces complete their withdrawal.
Pence said during a press conference announcing the agreement that the US is “going to be using all the leverage that we have of having fought alongside Syrian Democratic Forces in the battle against ISIS to facilitate their safe withdrawal,” adding that the negotiated “outcome will greatly serve the interests of the Kurdish population in Syria.”
They’ll like it in Iran, or Montana, and then there will be peace at last:
Once a permanent ceasefire is achieved, Pence said the President would withdraw the sanctions that were placed on Turkey in the last week.
However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a televised press conference Thursday that the agreement “is not a ceasefire.”
Okay, there won’t be peace at last, but don’t tell the president that:
Trump called the agreement “an amazing outcome” and said he was hopeful that the ceasefire would last more than five days.
“The Kurds are very happy. Turkey is very happy. The United States is very happy. And you know what? Civilization is very happy. It’s a great thing for civilization,” Trump remarked after Pence’s press conference.
Not everyone agrees:
A senior US official tells CNN that the deal made with Turkey is essentially validating the Turkish offensive.
“This is essentially the US validating what Turkey did and allowing them to annex a portion of Syria and displace the Kurdish population,” the official said. “This is what Turkey wanted and what POTUS green lighted. I do think one reason Turkey agreed to it is because of the Kurds have put up more of resistance and they could not advance south any further as a result. If we don’t impose sanctions then Turkey wins big time.”
Republican members of the Senate are also concerned about the deal.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, delivered a speech on the Senate floor condemning “the decision to abandon the Kurds.”
“What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history,” he said.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that the US delegation “deserves praise” for the agreement, but added that it “doesn’t appear ‘cease-fire’ signals change in Erdogan’s goal. He still plans to rid area of Kurds & create ‘security zone’, but is giving Kurds an ultimatum, they can leave voluntarily or leave dead.”
The New York Times’ David Sanger and Eric Schmitt go deeper than that:
The cease-fire agreement, reached with Turkey by Vice President Mike Pence, amounts to a near-total victory for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who gains territory, pays little in penalties and appears to have outmaneuvered President Trump.
The best that can be said for the agreement is that it may stop the killing in the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. But the cost for Kurds, longtime American allies in the fight against the Islamic State, is severe: Even Pentagon officials were mystified about where tens of thousands of displaced Kurds would go, as they moved south from the Turkey-Syria border as required by the deal – if they agree to go at all.
And the cost to American influence, while hard to quantify, could be frightfully high.
In the 11 days between Mr. Trump’s fateful phone call with Mr. Erdogan and the trip to Ankara by Mr. Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday, the United States has ceded ground in Syria — including American bases – to the Russian-backed Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. And it has shaken the faith of American allies that, in a time of stress, Washington will have their back.
By the end of the day everyone got that:
“This just looks like a complete cave-in by the United States to everything the Turks demanded,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former ambassador to Turkey and a senior Defense Department official in the George W. Bush administration. “I don’t see what the Turks gave up.”
In fact, if the sanctions imposed against Turkey by the Trump administration are lifted, as Mr. Pence said they now would be, the Turkish leader would pay a far lower price than Russia did for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The sanctions imposed on Moscow then are still in place.
And there’s this:
There are other winners in addition to Mr. Erdogan, who has routed the Kurdish groups he views as terrorists who were living in an American protectorate.
Chief among them is President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who gains vast influence in a strategic corner of the Middle East where, until 2015, he had almost none. Now, he is a player, and already is filling the territorial and political vacuum that Mr. Trump left after he agreed to get out of the way of the Turkish invasion of Syria, which a small contingent of American Special Operations forces were there to prevent by their very presence.
Iran was also a winner. It has long used Syria as a route to send missiles to Hezbollah and flex its muscles across the region. That, in many ways, is the most perplexing part of the president’s decision to withdraw, because it runs so counter to his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran’s clerical leaders and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
And Mr. Assad, who was barely clinging to power after the Arab Spring in 2011, and whose military facilities Mr. Trump bombed in the opening months of his presidency in 2017, has a new lease on life. The Americans are gone from the one corner of his country they once occupied.
And there’s this:
At the Pentagon on Thursday afternoon, senior officials scrambled to understand how they were supposed to carry out the agreement Mr. Pence and Mr. Erdogan had negotiated.
Several civilian and military officials complained that the broadly worded deal left large policy and logistical gaps to fill, with many questions about how to carry out commitments by the two sides that appeared to contradict the fast-moving situation on the ground.
With the withdrawal of about 1,000 Americans already underway, the officials asked, how would those departing forces conduct counterterrorism operations with the Turkish military, as Mr. Pence insisted they would? Would the Syrian Kurds fully comply with a pullback agreement they had little say in drafting, and in which they were the clear losers?
And there’s this too:
The Islamic State is racing to capitalize on the deteriorating security situation in northern Syria, stepping up attacks on prisons as well as on the now-weakened Kurdish militia that served as the vanguard in the U.S.-led war against the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, intelligence officials and terrorism experts say.
Despite Thursday’s announced cease-fire, Turkey’s week-old incursion into northeast Syria is already proving to be a propaganda windfall for the extremist group, which in recent months had been making faltering attempts at a comeback in parts of eastern Syria controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the analysts said.
The Islamic State’s official media arm taunted the SDF on Thursday, calling it an abandoned American ally and warning that further attacks were coming.
Of course they’re coming:
Pro-Islamic State social media sites are exulting over the rapid turn of events, and prominent commentators are calling for fresh attacks on prisons to free thousands of Islamist militants held by Kurdish forces. Hundreds of Islamic State family members and a handful of fighters are believed to have escaped from SDF-run detention camps amid the turmoil of the past week.
“Prison breaks are happening. The imminent return of the Islamic State is assured by the command of Allah,” one commentator declared in a pro-Islamic State forum on the social media site Telegram.
But that commentator got it wrong. The imminent return of the Islamic State has not been assured by the command of Allah. Donald Trump did that. Thank him. Erdogan will. Putin will. Assad will. Iran will. And there’s no getting over that. There are no turning points. Everyone knows that. And then one just comes along. That just happened.