Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics.
I’m Sydney Ember, writing from a coffee shop in Des Moines, filling in for Lisa Lerer, who is on vacation somewhere that is hopefully warmer than it is here.
On Tuesday, I became one of Iowa’s temporary residents. Every four years, this state puts up with a ton of us reporters in anticipation of the first-in-the-nation caucuses that kick-start the primary season. Strategists set up shop here. Campaign staff members move into supporters’ homes. Even candidates themselves sometimes relocate here (hi, Chris Dodd!), hoping that their daily proximity — and maybe those casual chats with Iowans in their local coffee shop — will translate into support come February.
Why am I here? Ask my editors! But in all seriousness, I’m in Iowa to observe, firsthand, the final sprint to caucus night and everything that gets caught up in it. So for the next three months, I’ll be driving all around the state to hear pitches from candidates, ask campaign staffers about their strategies on the ground, and of course, talk to as many Iowans as I can. After all, it’s these people who will help determine the trajectory, if not the outcome, of the Democratic primary.
I’ve already met some Iowans I can’t stop thinking about. Last week, during one of my many trips to the state in advance of my move, I went to see former Vice President Joe Biden, who entered the race a front-runner but has seen his standing slowly slip in Iowa. One 83-year-old woman I talked to at an event on Halloween said she liked Mr. Biden but was volunteering for another candidate — Elizabeth Warren. But the real catch? She didn’t plan to caucus. She preferred to spend winters out of state.
This woman, Henrietta Van Maanen, was a good example of what I’m learning about Iowa: Many Democrats are still undecided. But perhaps more important, a lot — and I mean, a lot — of people don’t caucus. Though the state has more than two million eligible voters, the biggest turnout for one party’s presidential caucus was in 2008, when some 240,000 people participated in the Democratic contest that featured Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — only 40 percent of registered Democrats. In other years, the number has been much lower.
Political observers are expecting a huge turnout this year, though. And from what I’ve seen on the ground, even as early as March, general enthusiasm is very high. But part of what makes the race still so fluid is that the excitement is spread among several top candidates. Even among likely caucusgoers who have a first choice in mind, about half say they might change their pick before the caucus, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week.
I’ll be bringing you many more observations from Iowa in the coming weeks. But first, I need to get myself a warmer winter jacket.
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The week in impeachment
With the impeachment inquiry racing ahead, it can be hard to keep track of the daily stream of new developments. So our colleague Noah Weiland, who writes our Impeachment Briefing newsletter, has volunteered to catch us up every Thursday on what’s happened during the week.
We finally saw interview transcripts. Last week, when House Democrats voted to formally endorse the impeachment inquiry, they outlined two important steps they would take in making the investigation public: releasing deposition transcripts and holding hearings. This week, we saw the transcripts for Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine; Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine; Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union; Kurt Volker, the special envoy to Ukraine; and Michael McKinley, a former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
A key witness changed his testimony. Mr. Sondland, who is considered loyal to President Trump and functioned as a behind-the-scenes facilitator of his dealings with Ukraine, updated and reversed testimony that he gave last month, saying he had “refreshed” his memory. He admitted to a crucial part of what investigators have been piecing together: He told a top Ukrainian official that the country would most likely have to give Mr. Trump what he wanted — a public pledge to investigate Joe Biden and his son — in order to unlock military aid.
Democrats set dates for the first public hearings. Next Wednesday, Mr. Taylor and George Kent, a Ukraine expert at the State Department, will take part in a live, televised joint hearing. Two days later, Ms. Yovanovitch will testify publicly. The hearings will give House Democrats a way to visually package and present the key facts they’ve uncovered. Mr. Taylor is considered their star witness. In the over 300 pages of his interview transcript released this week, he told investigators in great detail how Mr. Trump’s attempts to engage Ukraine in a quid pro quo over military aid unfolded.
Rudy Giuliani again emerged as arguably the central figure in the impeachment investigation. In several of the transcripts, we saw how concerned high-ranking officials were about the role of Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, in convincing the president that the Bidens had corrupt business dealings in Ukraine and of a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian election meddling. Mr. Volker told investigators that Mr. Giuliani planted the idea in Mr. Trump’s mind that Ukraine was out to get him. Mr. Sondland said that American diplomacy goals in Ukraine were dependent on keeping Mr. Giuliani “satisfied.” That involved making sure Ukraine’s president knew that in order to meet Mr. Trump at the White House and receive the military aid, he had to publicly pledge to investigate Mr. Trump’s political rivals.
This week featured a lot of no-shows. Among others, Democrats called on John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser; John Eisenberg, the top lawyer on the National Security Council; and Robert Blair, an aide to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, to testify this week, but none of them showed up voluntarily. Democrats have decided against potentially lengthy court battles to enforce subpoenas, out of a concern for wrapping up the investigation in an efficient way. They even pulled a subpoena they had issued for testimony from Charles Kupperman, a former deputy to Mr. Bolton.
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