Oct 13, 2019

Axios AM

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

🥞 Happy Sunday! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,180 words ... 4½ minutes.

1 big thing: What matters most in the Ukraine scandal
President Trump waits to enter his campaign rally in Lake Charles, La., on Friday. Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters

What's new: This morning, Axios AM goes back and puts in order for you the most important things we have learned about President Trump and Ukraine.

  • Why it matters: There’s just so much new each day. Some consequential revelations get overlooked; some ephemeral developments get overblown.
  • Even people who follow it all fairly diligently can get wildly confused.

This happened fast. It was Sept. 24 — 19 days ago — that Speaker Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry. Here's what has happened since then, told here with the help of my colleague Zach Basu:

  • A rough transcript of a July 25 phone call shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bringing up the possibility of buying more U.S. Javelin missiles for Ukraine's war against Russia, before Trump says: "I would like you to do us a favor though."
  • Trump goes on to ask Zelensky to look into Ukraine's involvement in the 2016 election, and to work with Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who did business in Ukraine.

Trump maintains that the contents of the conversation were "perfect."

  • Democrats say it's evidence of the president abusing his office to solicit foreign election interference.

The first witness to be deposed in the House's impeachment inquiry was former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.

  • He turned over text messages that show him coordinating with two other diplomats to secure a "deliverable" for Trump and Giuliani — a written statement from Zelensky announcing these investigations.
  • The reward for the new Ukrainian president is a visit to the White House.
  • But one diplomat — Bill Taylor — is troubled by his impression that $400 million in military aid that Ukraine desperate needs is also being used as leverage.
  • Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, a million-dollar Trump donor, picks up the phone and calls Trump, before eventually responding to Taylor: "The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind." (The WashPost reports in this morning's lead story that Sondland plans to tell Congress this week that he was just repeating what Trump had told him.)

4 plot twists:

  1. A week into the inquiry, Trump told reporters on the South Lawn that Ukraine should start "a major investigation into the Bidens." Then Trump topped it: "China should start an investigation into the Bidens."
  2. Last week, two Florida businessmen who helped introduce Giuliani to Ukrainian officials were indicted on charges of funneling foreign money into Republican campaigns.
  3. The former mayor himself is now under criminal investigation — by the U.S. attorney's office he used to run.
  4. And the White House is trying to block any witnesses from cooperating with the impeachment inquiry.

The bottom line: Barring dramatic new information, expect Trump — like Bill Clinton — to be impeached by the House, then acquitted by the Senate.

  • ❓ What do you want to know about Ukraine/impeachment? Just reply to this email, or write me at mike@axios.com. We'll answer the best in AM.

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2. ⚡ 2 breaking stories
People watch from Turkey today as smoke billows from fires in Syria caused by Turkish bombardment. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The U.S. is "preparing to evacuate" about 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria "as safely and quickly as possible," Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS News' "Face the Nation":

  • "I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria." (Transcript)

Hunter Biden announced today that he will step down from the board of directors of a Chinese-backed private equity firm at the end of the month, as part of a pledge not to work on behalf of any foreign-owned companies should his father win the presidency. (AP)

3. Zuck v. Warren is hot new 2020 drama
via Facebook

Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted yesterday that her campaign created a Facebook ad with false claims (about Mark Zuckerberg!) and submitted it to Facebook "to see if it’d be approved." It was.

  • Warren then said that the acceptance of her ad was an example of how Facebook "chooses profit" over "protecting democracy."
  • Facebook promptly hit back at Warren, tweeting from its Newsroom account that broadcast stations also air false ads, as required by the FCC: "We agree it’s better to let voters — not companies — decide."

Our thought bubble: Warren and Mark Zuckerberg are convenient political targets for one another, Axios media expert Sara Fischer writes.

  • Warren can paint Facebook as an example of capitalism gone wild, while Facebook can point to Warren as an overzealous regulator trying to break up a business she doesn't understand.
  • And the controversy helps her with small-dollar fundraising.

Facebook has been under pressure over the past week from activists who argue it shouldn't allow politicians to be exempt from its fact-checking policy for ads.

  • That pressure rose partly in response to reports that Trump is pouring big bucks into Facebook impeachment ads that opponents say make false claims.

The big picture: The false ad spat is the latest tit-for-tat in a growing battle between Zuckerberg and Warren, which has mostly been escalated by Warren.

  • The feud took off at the beginning of the month, when Warren responded to leaked audio of Zuckerberg calling a Warren presidency an "existential" threat to Facebook.

🎧 Go deeper: Listen to Axios' Dan Primack's recent Pro Rata podcast episode with The Verge's Casey Newton, "Mark Zuckerberg vs. Elizabeth Warren."

4. NBA-China fracas has companies rethinking social media rules
On Wednesday, a worker takes down a billboard advertising an NBA preseason game in Shanghai. Photo: AP

What's new: "More companies in the past two years have started bolstering their executive contracts [to give] them more leeway to fire executives for posting something inappropriate online," the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • Why it matters: "CEOs are under pressure to be visible on social and political issues" domestically, including guns, climate and immigration. But "global affairs bring a different complexity and calculation."
5. ⚖️ Big revelations expected this week
Reporters watch as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) arrives Friday for a closed-door deposition by Marie Yovanovitch. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

As Congress returns from break this week, at least two witnesses plan revealing testimony in off-camera depositions for House investigators:

1) Tomorrow ... Fiona Hill, who until summer was senior director for Europe and Russia on President Trump's National Security Council, plans to testify that Rudy Giuliani and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland circumvented normal process "to pursue a shadow policy on Ukraine," NBC News reports.

2) Thursday ... Sondland "intends to tell Congress this week that the content of a text message he wrote denying a quid pro quo with Ukraine was relayed to him directly by President Trump in a phone call," the WashPost's Aaron Davis and John Hudson report.

  • "It’s only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth," a person familiar with Sondland’s testimony told the Post.
6. 1 future thing: Automating humans

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

What's new: Increasingly cheap AI systems have the ability to monitor every employee in a store, at a call center or on a factory floor, Axios emerging tech reporter Kaveh Waddell writes.

  • The machines learn in real time from workers' failures and triumphs to optimize an entire workforce.

Why it matters: Companies can use this data to juice workers' productivity and efficiency.

  • Eventually, enough data could be gathered from humans to train machines to mimic them.
Mike Allen

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