Headlines: September 26, 2019
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Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified to the House Intelligence committee for 3 hours on Thursday after several days of extraordinary developments around a whistleblower’s complaint that President Donald Trump acted inappropriately in a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. House Intelligence Committee chair Representative Adam Schiff of California in his opening statement likened the phone call – whose transcript the White House released a day earlier – as akin to a mobster making a shakedown. Summarizing his assessment of the call Schiff referred to impeachment of the President. Mr. Maguire, the acting National Intelligence Director maintained throughout that he and others involved had only been following the letter of law. One lone Republican, Mike Turner, expressed concern at the President’s conduct. A day before Maguire’s hearing there were reports that he had threatened to resign if the White House tried to stop him from testifying to Congress. But Maguire denied the report.
Just before Maguire began his testimony a minimally-redacted version of the original whistleblower complaint that set off the controversy was made public. In it the unnamed whistleblower also details White House efforts to restrict the details of President Trump’s July 25th phone call with Zelensky, implying that the President’s own staff may have realized just how damning it was. The complaint says, “senior White House officials had intervened to “lock down” all records of the phone call especially the official word-for-word transcript of the phone call that was produced…This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”
Meanwhile, President Trump’s defense has been that because he did not dangle the resumption of military aid to Ukraine in exchange for dirt on his political opponents during the call, the lack of an overt “quid-pro-quo” absolved him. Instead he said later that the reason he withheld aid to Ukraine was to force the country to tackle internal corruption. However on Wednesday NPR obtained a Pentagon letter confirming that this past May, US military aid to Ukraine was cleared because of substantial progress that the country had made on corruption and other issues. Trump blocked the aid unilaterally in July.
Zelensky, who happened to be in the US for the United Nations meeting in the same week that this scandal is unfolding in the US, was visibly upset about his call with Trump being made public. He told reporters, “I think such things, such conversations between heads of independent states, they shouldn’t be published.” Trump met Zelensky at the UN on Wednesday and publicly referred to the scandal in vague and humorous terms. Meanwhile Trump railed against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying she was, “no longer the speaker of the house.” Pelosi has announced a formal impeachment inquiry after the whistleblower complaint came to light. On Wednesday the White House sent out talking points to Republicans to counter Democrats on the scandal – except they accidentally sent them to Democrats as well. Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr. posted them to Twitter saying, “They’re complete Orwellian lies and toxic trash, but maybe you’d like to read them to appreciate their corruption!”
In other news, the Senate on Wednesday voted for the second time to kill President Trump’s emergency declaration over the southern border of the US. Trump had declared it a national emergency in order to appropriate funds from other projects to build his signature border wall. When the Senate narrowly voted against the declaration in March with a handful of Republican votes, Trump vetoed it. Now, a total of 11 Republican Senators joined Democrats in voting the declaration down. Republicans whose districts were stripped of funding for the border wall are increasingly angry with the President.
A new report from the Census Bureau has found that income inequality in the US grew to its highest levels in 50 years last year. Among the areas where inequality grew were heartland states where Trump has claimed to have delivered a healthy economy. According to an analysis by Associated Press, “Even though household income increased, it was distributed unevenly, with the wealthiest helped possibly by a tax cut passed by Congress in 2017.” And the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study on employer-based health insurance and found that it is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Premiums and deductibles are rising much faster than expected, putting healthcare coverage out of reach for more and more Americans, even those who are employed. Democratic and Republican opponents of a Single Payer system often cite the popularity of employer-provide coverage as a reason why the government should not extend its Medicare program to the whole population. And the United Auto Workers strike aimed at General Motors may be coming to an end as both sides cite progress on a potential deal. Tens of thousands of workers have been on strike for nearly two weeks.
Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has put the state of California officially on notice for “failing to meet its obligations” in protecting the environment. California officials have accused Trump of “weaponizing” the EPA to target a state that has confronted Trump on other issues. Meanwhile 17 states including California have joined together in a lawsuit against the federal government’s weakening of the Endangered Species Act.
In international news, Italy has begun evacuations of inhabited areas of the Mont Blanc glacier and issued a dire warning that the glacier could collapse at any moment. Experts have been studying the Alpine glacier and noted that large portions could break away as a result of climate-change driven warming of the ice.
In Egypt, about 1,500 people have been arrested over 5 days after protests broke out last week aimed at President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Worried about a repeat of the Arab Spring protest movement that ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak, Al-Sisi’s government is clamping down hard on all dissent. And in Israel, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may remain in his position against all odds, in spite of his party losing its plurality in recent elections. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin chose Netanyahu over his rival Benny Gantz, whose party won more seats – to form a coalition government. Netanyahu has just under a month to make that happen and retain his seat.
Finally former French President Jacques Chirac has died. He was 86 years old. According to the New York Times’ obituary, Chiraq was, “most remembered for his defiant stand against the United States-led war in Iraq, his ability to preside over a state in which power was divided between the left and the right — comity that is hardly imaginable today — and his championing the European Union.”