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Democratic debate provides a break from Ukraine and impeachment

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Democratic presidential hopefuls former Vice President Joe Biden Sen. Elizabeth Warren participate in a debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopefuls former Vice President Joe Biden Sen. Elizabeth Warren participate in a debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.Roby Beck / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Overshadowed by impeachment, Ukraine and Syria over the last three weeks, the 2020 Democratic presidential race returns to the political spotlight tonight with the fourth round of debates from Westerville, Ohio.

But the attention on the 2020 race also seems more like an intermission to a much bigger story playing out in Washington.

Here are the five storylines we’re watching as 12 candidates take the debate stage tonight beginning at 8:00 pm ET.

  1. A focus on foreign policy: With Turkey’s incursion into Syria — at President Trump’s open invitation — don’t be surprised if foreign policy becomes an opening topic at tonight’s debate, especially since it’s barely received attention in the previous rounds. Health care and the economy dominated the first questions at the earlier debates, but will Syria start tonight’s debate? It’s very possible.
  2. Hunter Biden: Given the impeachment/Ukraine news, it’s almost guaranteed that Joe Biden and the other candidates will get a question about Hunter Biden’s work on the board of a Ukraine energy company. And while we can envision Biden’s rivals pulling off a “people are sick and tired about hearing about the damn attacks on Hunter Biden,” it will be interesting to see how they might square that with their general money-in-politics/corporate greed/revolving door critiques.
  3. The two frontrunners: Since their face off in last month’s debate in Texas, Joe Biden’s and Elizabeth Warren’s dominance over the 2020 field has grown even stronger, with the two becoming the co-frontrunners.
  4. Bernie Sanders’ health: The other noteworthy development since the last debate was Bernie Sanders’ heart attack, and tonight’s debate will be his first real campaign event after that health scare. The latest national Quinnipiac poll had Sanders’ support dropping 5 points (from 16 percent to 11 percent), while both Warren and Biden ticked up a point.
  5. Desperation time for the 2 percenters: Twelve candidates qualified for tonight’s debate, including new participant Tom Steyer. But that number is guaranteed to get smaller at next month’s debate, given the heightened qualification requirements. Four of tonight’s participants have NOT qualified for November’s debate — Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar — and they have every incentive to try to mix it up. See Beto vs. Pete Buttigieg below.

Tonight's debate is co-hosted by CNN and the New York Times.

John Bolton: Team Trump’s Ukraine efforts amounted to a “drug deal”

This news just further underscores how the Trump administration’s Ukraine operation was an open secret inside the White House.

“Former national security adviser John Bolton was so disturbed by the efforts to get the Ukrainians to investigate President Donald Trump’s political opponents that he called it a ‘drug deal,’ former White House official Fiona Hill reportedly told Congress on Monday,” per NBC’s Josh Lederman and Phil Helsel.

The New York Times, which first reported on Fiona Hill’s testimony about Bolton’s concerns, adds that Bolton told Hill “to notify the chief lawyer for the National Security Council about a rogue effort by Mr. Sondland, Mr. Giuliani and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, according to the people familiar with the testimony.”

“‘I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,’ Mr. Bolton, a Yale-trained lawyer, told Ms. Hill to tell White House lawyers, according to two people at the deposition. (Another person in the room initially said Mr. Bolton referred to Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Mulvaney, but two others said he cited Mr. Sondland.)”

The Trump Era has been a character test for many well-known Washington figures. And we’re finding out which ones were unwilling to cross certain ethical and constitutional lines.

Tweet of the day

Another State Department official, George Kent, testifies on Ukraine

Meanwhile, NBC’s Geoff Bennett and Garrett Haake report that another State Department official is set to testify as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry on Ukraine.

“Today, the committees are set to hear from George Kent, the State Department official responsible for Ukraine, who was among those raising red flags about Rudy Giuliani’s smear campaign against ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Kent reportedly warned in an e-mail to colleagues that Yovanovitch had become the target of a ‘classic disinformation operation.’”

2020 Vision: Hunter Biden speaks

NBC’s Mike Memoli flags a portion of Hunter Biden’s interview with ABC News.

ABC's Amy Robach: "If your last name wasn’t Biden do you think you would have been asked to be on the board of Burisma?"

Hunter Biden: "I don’t know. I don’t know. Probably not. But that’s – you know, I, I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden"

Robach: "Why did you leave then board in April?"

Biden: "It’s a five-year term. … And I chose not to."

Robach: "Why?"

Biden: "I think it’s pretty obvious why."

Robach: "This is your opportunity to say why."

Biden: "Well because, I think it has become, this is what becomes a distraction. Because I have to sit here and answer these questions. That’s why I have committed that I won’t serve on any boards or I won’t work directly for any foreign entities when my dad becomes president?"


Robach: "Right but at the time, you never thought this might not look right?"

Biden: "You know what, I’m a human. And you know what? Did I make a mistake? Maybe in the grand scheme of things yeah. But did I make a mistake based up on some ethical lapse? Absolutely not."

On the campaign trail today

The fourth round of Democratic presidential debates takes place at 8:00 pm ET from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio… And Joe Sestak campaigns in New Hampshire.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Ahead of tonight’s debate, the knives are out for … Pete Buttigieg, NBC’s Melissa Holzberg observes.

Some Democratic candidates are calling out the South Bend mayor for comments he made in an interview with Peter Hamby, the host of Snapchat’s “Good Luck America”. In an interview with Hamby, Buttigieg hit on O’Rourke’s plan for mandatory gun buybacks: “I get it. He needs to pick a fight in order to stay relevant.” And of Elizabeth Warren’s grassroots fundraising strategy, “We're not going to beat Trump with pocket change.”

NBC’s Deepa Shivaram flagged Kamala Harris’ response to Buttigieg’s comments: “Leaving more than 5 million assault weapons on the street isn't a ban, it's a Band-Aid.” Shivaram noted though, “Harris hasn’t actually released any details of her own on how a mandatory buyback would play out in her gun agenda.”

And O’Rourke tweeted, “Pete can belittle the grassroots; he can call buybacks a “shiny object.” He can say whatever he wants, but guns kill 40,000 people each year. Those people deserve action. I’ll be fighting for them.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … 66 percent

66 percent.

That’s the share of voters who say it is NOT acceptable for the president of the United States to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. About a quarter — 24 percent — say it IS acceptable.

The party breakdown reflects the current political environment, with an overwhelming majority of Democrats (95 percent) and independents (69 percent) saying such an action is unacceptable, while a slight majority — 53 percent — of Republicans say it IS acceptable.

Voters overall are more split when it comes to whether asking a foreign leader for help investigating a rival is an impeachable offense. The poll found that 44 percent of voters said it would be a sufficient reason to impeach a president and remove them from office, while 47 percent disagreed.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Here’s what we know about the administration’s new sanctions on Turkey.

The White House tried to limit the parameters of Fiona Hill’s testimony to Congress.

Gordon Sondland will tell Congress on Thursday that Marie Yovanovitch was “great.” (And the Washington Post looks back at how he got the job.)

LeBron James weighed in on the Hong Kong/NBA controversy, and a lot of folks are unhappy with his response.

Trump Agenda: Rudy, Rudy, Rudy

Rudy Giuliani is in the spotlight for something other than his Ukraine involvement — his divorce.

Ben Collins has the backstory on the creator of that violent Trump meme.

There’s little public debate about Turkey’s military campaign — in Turkey.

Ronan Farrow writes in his new book that the National Enquirer shredded sensitive documents about Donald Trump.

2020: Tonight’s Buckeye State brawl

Jonathan Allen previews tonight’s Democratic debate in Ohio.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are out with a new plan to lower college costs.

Beto O’Rourke is clarifying his stance on churches and their same-sex marriage teachings.

Is O’Rourke helping or hurting with his gun rhetoric?

POLITICO looks at how Democrats are trying to prevent misinformation and foreign interference in 2020.

Julian Castro is out with a big new list of endorsements.