The Atlantic Politics Daily: ‘The Answer Is Yes.’

Ambassador Gordon Sondland said in his opening statement that yes, there was a quid pro quo. Plus, who will take the most punches at the fifth round of Democratic debates?

It’s Wednesday, November 20. In today’s newsletter: sorting through what Ambassador Gordon Sondland said. Plus, who will punch and who will be punched at tonight’s Democratic debates.



Ambassador Sondland didn’t disappoint, as a much-anticipated witness for the Democrats.

1. “Was there a quid pro quo?” he said in his opening statement. “The answer is yes.”

The effort to extract investigations from Ukraine in exchange for helping Trump’s political fortunes was extortion, and the president directed it. Everyone knows. The question is just whether, like Sondland, they are finally willing to admit it.

Read my colleague David Graham on the day’s first bombshell.

2. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland said. “They knew what we were doing, and why.”

Throughout his testimony, the ambassador tattle-taled on Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state (and Sondland’s boss), who has tried, desperately, to get as far away as he can from the impeachment inquiry.

Pompeo’s name has surfaced in testimony a few times already, but never like this. Indeed, his role has been notably understated given that the entire inquiry centers on a foreign-policy matter.

Read my colleague Kathy Gilsinan on how the secretary of state can’t escape.

3. “I don’t remember.”

Sondland wasn’t an unequivocal star witness for the Democrats who called him to testify. He struggled to recall key facts when grilled in Congress (“There’s a whole bunch of stuff you don’t recall,” one exasperated Democratic congresswoman said).

That gave Republicans an opportunity to undermine his credibility.

The ambassador was a good witness for the Democrats. But his conveniently faulty memory kept him from being a sterling one.

Read my colleague Russell Berman on the gaps in Sondland’s testimony.

4. “I never heard … anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed,” Sondland said.

“The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form.”

Sondland’s testimony seemed to undermine the favored impeachment defense of Trump supporters: that the Ukraine scandal was much-ado over a good-natured attempt to fight corruption in the country.

To believe that Trump was sincerely interested in Burisma requires believing that he was interested in a specific company, in a particular country, when in reality Trump seldom shows any interest in details.

Read David Graham’s full argument here.



Neither of the late-stage 2020 entrants will appear on stage tonight for the fifth round of Democratic debates (one familiar face also didn’t make it). Here’s what to watch for on this one-night-only affair.

1. Who might emerge as the new punching bag and/or perceived frontrunner?

+ Pete Buttigieg, who has catapulted into the frontrunner slot in Iowa. Read more.

+ Elizabeth Warren, who may still (still!) get heat on her plan to finance her health-care plan getting the heat on her financing plans. Read more.

2. Which peripheral candidates might be doing that punching?

+ Amy Klobuchar, who has battle-tested purple-state bona fides, but continues to lag in the polls.

+ Cory Booker, who is still eagerly waiting for his breakout moment.

+ Tulsi Gabbard, who is … actually what is Tulsi Gabbard trying to do?

3. What will the candidates be punching about?

In the four previous rounds of debates, health care has repeatedly come up as the clearest issue on which there is substantial daylight between the candidates.

Elizabeth Warren released a financing plan for Medicare for All to inoculate her from some debate-stage attacks, but that may open up even more problems for her. Read more.



Policy Fantasy Land

Norm Ornstein, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has this ruthless critique of the Democratic debates.

However coherent, complete, fiscally sustainable, or popular the positions the candidates are taking on health reform—and on other issues such as immigration, education, taxes, and more—presidents do not get to wave magic wands and make their policies happen. They are thrown into a governing process in which a president’s plan is almost never enacted into law fully, if it is enacted at all.

Read the full argument.


Today’s edition of our daily newsletter of political ideas and arguments was written by Saahil Desai, and edited by Shan Wang.

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