November 19, 2019

The third day of House public impeachment hearings begins Tuesday morning with testimony from two White House officials who listened in on President Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Both witnesses — the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and his counterpart at Vice President Mike Pence's office, Jennifer Williams — both told House investigators in close-door depositions that they were discomfited by Trump's request to Zelensky for a favor involving investigations of Joe and Hunter Biden and the Democratic National Committee. Trump has slammed both on Twitter.

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump's former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and former NSC official Tim Morrison will testify. Morrison also has first-hand knowledge of the July 25 call, which he described to House investigators as concerning but not, in his opinion, violating any laws. Republicans had requested to hear from Volker and Morrison.

The public impeachment hearings will pick up again on Wednesday with testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who is emerging as a linchpin of Trump's pressure campaign in Ukraine, plus Pentagon official Laura Cooper and State Department official David Hale. Thursday will see testimony from David Holmes, a U.S. Embassy official in Kyiv who testified that he overheard a phone call Sondland made to Trump on July 26 from a cafe in Ukraine's capital, and former NSC official Fiona Hill will testify on Friday. Peter Weber

3:27 p.m.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is slamming recent comments from President Trump he says prove his opponent doesn't "want an election."

Biden spoke Thursday after Trump in a Fox Business interview said he is against the funding for the United States Postal Service that Democrats are pushing for in a stimulus bill, with the president suggesting this is specifically because he wants to prevent universal mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Pure Trump," Biden said of these comments. "He doesn't want an election."

The Biden campaign in a statement on Thursday also accused the president of "sabotaging a basic service that hundreds of millions of people rely upon, cutting a critical lifeline for rural economies and for delivery of medicines, because he wants to deprive Americans of their fundamental right to vote safely."

In the Fox Business interview, Trump, who has asserted without evidence that increased mail-in voting during the coronavirus crisis would result in widespread voter fraud, had said that without the $25 billion for the USPS that Democrats want and that he is blocking, "you can't have universal mail-in voting, because they're not equipped to have it." Brendan Morrow

2:01 p.m.

Yet another tropical storm has formed in the Atlantic amid 2020's unusually busy hurricane season.

The National Hurricane Center on Thursday gave the name Josephine to a tropical storm that has formed in the Atlantic with winds of 45 miles per hour, CNN reports. This makes Josephine the 10th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season and the earliest storm with a J name ever, coming earlier than Jose, a tropical storm that formed on Aug. 22, 2005.

The good news, though, is that Josephine, which is over 1,000 miles east of the Leeward Islands, is expected to weaken and "it does not appear" it "will pose a threat to the mainland United States," according to The Weather Channel. Still, Josephine's formation was notable given that as USA Today reports, during an average hurricane season, it takes until Oct. 19 for the 10th named storm to form.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently forecast that 2020's Atlantic hurricane season could be one of the busiest ever recorded, with as many as 25 named storms when there are an average of only 12 in an entire season. Of those 25 storms, the NOAA projected that between seven and 11 of them will become hurricanes. Brendan Morrow

1:54 p.m.

The Trump campaign is bringing back some of President Trump's old tricks.

Trump has repeatedly pushed a racist conspiracy theory claiming former President Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S., and now it appears his staffers are taking a similar approach against new vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

Jenna Ellis, a Trump campaign legal advisor, hopped on Twitter on Thursday and retweeted an op-ed that attempts to make a dubious argument against Harris' eligibility for the vice presidency. The op-ed, which has been thoroughly denounced as "nonsense," argues that even though Harris was born in Oakland, the fact that her parents are immigrants from Jamaica and India may raise questions about her citizenship qualifications as VP.

As Forbes notes, the op-ed was written by a law professor who previously ran for California attorney general and lost — to Harris.

ABC News reports Ellis defended her retweet of the op-ed. Harris eligibility is "an open question," Ellis claimed, "and one I think Harris should answer so the American people know for sure she is eligible." If the "just asking questions" defense sounds familiar, it's probably because team Trump has used it time and time again. Summer Meza

1:30 p.m.

Everyone wants to understand how politics got to be the way it is now. Books and articles have been written, and doctoral theses submitted, all in an attempt to put a finger on what a teenager explains in five words in the fantastic new documentary Boys State: "Talking about taxes is boring."

Out Friday on Apple TV+, Boys State follows 1,100 Texas high schoolers as they attempt to create a representational government during the American Legion's annual Boys State program, which has served as a launch pad over the years for the likes of Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh (yes, there is also a Girls State). The experiment is idealistic: what if you could build a democratic government from the ground up, without the real-world concerns of budgets or donors? But alarmingly, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, self-proclaimed "political junkies" quickly clue into the fact that talking about actual policy is less likely to get them votes than stoking partisan tribalism and yelling about someone taking away their guns. It's also less fun.

On the one hand, this is exactly what you might expect when you get a bunch of 17-year-old boys in a room together. Joke resolutions, like banning pineapple on pizza or funding a $15 billion extraterrestrial defense system, get applause; a teen who briefly attempts to restore order is booed.

But the teens do take seriously their mock elections. The boys are divided arbitrarily into "Federalist" and "Nationalist" parties at the start, which have to create policy platforms and field a candidate for governor. Rather than debate anything substantial, though, most gubernatorial hopefuls take to hollering about gun rights, abortion, and "illegal immigrants." Sometimes they just resort to shouting "Go Feds!," like their political party is a football team.

It's mesmerizing to watch. Though the boys (who are predominantly conservatives) are partially parroting arguments they see pundits make on TV, you also get the sense that they really aren't so different than grown-up politicians — only they're not quite sophisticated enough yet to pretend to be discussing something meaningful when they're really just looking to bash the "other side" for applause.

While "culture wars" have been around forever, "petty tribal arguments are now driving the bus on serious policy," Politico Magazine wrote in 2018. Boys State allows you to see the breakdown from policy to manufactured controversy and us-versus-them warfare in real time. You watch as it dawns on the leaders of tomorrow that this is how you motivate voters into backing you (being earnest — the alternative — has markedly less success).

Who can blame them, though? They learned from the best. Jeva Lange

12:44 p.m.

The United Arab Emirates and Israel have agreed to the "full normalization of relations," the White House said on Thursday.

A joint statement between the United States and the two countries announced the major development, saying that delegations from the United Arab Emirates and Israel will meet in the coming weeks to sign agreements on investment, tourism, direct flights, and more after this "diplomatic breakthrough" that will "transform the region."

The United Arab Emirates has thus become the third Arab country to have diplomatic ties with Israel, with the other two being Egypt and Jordan, according to The Associated Press. Israel will suspend plans to annex occupied West Bank territory under the agreement, The New York Times reports.

President Trump in the Oval Office called this a "historic moment," while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it's a "remarkable achievement for two of the world's most forward leaning, technologically advanced states." But Axios notes there "could still be hurdles" given the "far less definitive" statement from the UAE's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, who described the agreement as a "roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship." Brendan Morrow

12:22 p.m.

Infection rates, cases per 100,000 residents, and hospitalization numbers aside, one straightforward way to understand the toll of the pandemic is by looking at excess deaths.

While the official death toll of COVID-19 in the U.S. is a sobering 166,000, The New York Times reported Thursday that the U.S. has suffered 200,000 excess deaths since March. While not all of those can be officially attributed to the coronavirus death toll, in part because some people who die at home are never tested, the larger number may paint a more accurate picture.

As the Times' Margot Sanger-Katz reports, compared to the same time period last year, there have been 20 percent more deaths in the U.S., with higher mortality rates in every state except Hawaii, Alaska, and West Virginia. She notes that some of the excess death could come from people generally avoiding hospitals or strained health care systems, "but most are probably COVID." Given that "the regional patterns in excess deaths are tracking the movement of the virus into states that aren't really locked down," Sanger-Katz concludes "lockdown deaths" likely aren't a main cause, as President Trump has asserted.

Excess deaths peaked in the Northeast in the spring, and are now concentrated in the South and West of the U.S., the Times reports. Spikes in excess deaths were also notable after states with lockdown measures lifted restrictions. Read more at The New York Times. Summer Meza

10:42 a.m.

President Trump on Thursday said he's against the United States Postal Service funding Democrats are seeking while noting that without it, "you can't have universal mail-in voting."

Trump in an interview on Fox Business said that while Democrats are asking for about $3.5 billion in funding for mail-in voting and $25 billion for the USPS as part of the stimulus bill that's being negotiated in Congress, "they aren't getting there," and "if they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting, because they're not equipped to have it."

Trump previously made similar comments on Wednesday, per The Washington Post, saying that "they don't have the money to do the universal mail-in voting. So therefore, they can't do it, I guess." He has repeatedly claimed without evidence that widespread mail-in voting amid the pandemic would result in a "corrupt election," despite approving of the use of absentee ballots, which are effectively the same thing, and claiming that mail-in voting is fine specifically in Florida.

The president's suggestion that he will reject a stimulus bill with USPS funding in it only further complicates the talks given that this is crucial for Democrats, Politico's Jake Sherman notes. And by describing how universal mail-in voting wouldn't be possible without the funding he's against, The Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote that Trump appeared to casually reveal his "true motive in blocking" it. Indeed, Axios' Jonathan Swan said that he's been trying to "get to the bottom of the strategy" with the Post Office, but here Trump "just says it out loud." Brendan Morrow

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