Democrats are winning impeachment inquiry on substance but can they win on politics?

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Image: Gordon Sondland
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland finishes a day of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Ben Kamisar

WASHINGTON — House Democrats got almost everything they wanted out of Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony on Wednesday.

Sondland admitted there was a quid pro quo linking a White House visit by Ukraine’s president to investigations that would help Trump, and he said other administration figures (like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry) were all in the loop.

Yesterday’s encore act, the Defense Department’s Laura Cooper, testified about July 25 emails suggesting Ukrainian officials knew about a hold on their security aid — so on the same day that Trump spoke with Ukraine’s Zelenskiy.

And today, former White House official Fiona Hill is expected to say the Trump/GOP theories that Ukraine somehow interfered in the 2016 election are wrong, per NBC’s Josh Lederman and Peter Alexander.

“[S]ome of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill is expected to say in her prepared remarks.

More from Hill: “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”

Bottom line: Democrats are winning the argument on substance.

Through the testimony, the transcripts, the text messages and the president’s public statements, the evidence is pretty clear that President Trump and his emissaries asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, and put pressure on Ukraine to do it.

But is that evidence enough, especially if the goal is to oust Trump from office?

If the goal is convince a sizable number of Republicans to remove their party’s president, don’t you need to hear from more witnesses like Perry, former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney?

Or is the best course of action to simply start the voting process — and move on?

The unmistakable storyline from these hearings is that every new witness, every new piece of information hasn’t helped the president. At all.

But it also hasn’t moved his party any closer to ousting him.

Impeachment inquiry update: The last scheduled public hearings

Here’s what’s on tap in today’s impeachment inquiry, per NBC’s Geoff Bennett:

Beginning at 9:00 am ET: Fiona Hill and State Department official David Holmes.

Holmes, if you recall, was the person who overheard Sondland speaking with Trump over the phone while in Ukraine.

Last night’s impeachment intermission: Takeaways from Wednesday’s debate

Maybe the best way to view last night’s MSNBC/Washington Post debate was that it served as a kind of intermission between yesterday’s impeachment testimony by Gordon Sondland and today’s testimony from Fiona Hill and David Holmes.

There were some great lines, tough attacks, and our colleagues did an amazing job of moderating them all. But the two-plus hours of action got overshadowed by what’s playing out in DC.

Our other takeaways from last night:

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  • Some of the candidates quickly pivoted away from impeachment

Not surprisingly, impeachment was the opening question in the debate. But Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders quickly changed the subject.

Warren said that “no one is above the law,” but then she pivoted to the problem of U.S. ambassadors like Sondland giving millions of dollars to serve in their posts. (But was that the REAL story from Sondland’s testimony yesterday?)

Sanders, meanwhile, called Trump “the most corrupt president in the modern history of America,” but then he added: “[W]e cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump, because if we are, you know what? We're going to lose the election.”

  • Buttigieg comes under fire – but only at the end

It came at the end, but Pete Buttigieg finally came under fire — from Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard.

And he parried their arguments on race, sex and military policy.

What makes Buttigieg tough to attack — at least in a Democratic debate — are his past military service and his historical candidacy (as a gay American).

  • The uneven Joe Biden

On the one hand, Biden gave some of his most forceful debate responses to date (on Saudi Arabia, prosecuting Trump, his closing remarks on bringing the country together).

On the other hand, he whiffed when he said he had the endorsement from the “only African-American woman that's ever been elected to the United States Senate” — before correcting himself to acknowledge Harris is an African-American woman elected to the Senate.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 13 minutes and 26 seconds

Thirteen minutes and 26 seconds.

That's how long Elizabeth Warren spoke at last night's MSNBC/Washington Post debate, more than any other candidate, according to the Washington Post’s tally.

Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden were close behind, with 12:46 and 12:38, respectively.

Bernie Sanders spoke for 11:45; Cory Booker and Kamala Harris each for 11:31; Amy Klobuchar for 10:43; Tulsi Gabbard for 9:14; Tom Steyer for 8:21; and Andrew Yang for 6:53.

2020 Vision: The day after the debate

On the campaign trail today: Many of the candidates remain in Georgia after last night’s debate…. Tom Steyer, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang and Amy Klobuchar speak at a National Action Network breakfast in Atlanta… Bernie Sanders holds a rally at Morehouse College… Elizabeth Warren delivers a speech on the labor movement in Atlanta… Joe Biden holds a town hall in South Carolina… And Tulsi Gabbard stumps in New Hampshire.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds: After the fifth Democratic debate wrapped up in Atlanta, several candidates headed to the spin room and spoke with our NBC News team on the ground. Kamala Harris had a pull-aside with NBC’s Deepa Shivaram, who asked Harris why she chose to not go after Pete Buttigieg’s record on race and black voters when given the chance. Like on stage, Harris evaded the question and told Shivaram, “For a Democrat to win this election, you need to have two things at play, one the ability to go toe to toe against Donald Trump, I know I have that ability. I've taken on everyone from Jeff Sessions, to Bill Barr, to Brett Kavanaugh. Second, you're going to need a Democratic nominee who has the ability to rebuild the Obama coalition and that means having the ability to talk with different communities with the experience of having worked with those communities to bring everyone together.”

Meanwhile, voters in New Hampshire told NBC’s Amanda Golden and Julia Jester that, overall, several candidates had successful nights. Per Jester and Golden report, some voters were “Quite surprised by the lack of confrontation from everyone with Pete Buttigieg given his recent surge in the polls.” And for one voter, “There are still too many candidates” on the stage and in the field.

Tweet of the day

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Ambassador Gordon Sondland explicitly said that there was a "quid pro quo" between a potential White House visit by Ukraine's president and the country announcing investigations.

Yet the White House and its GOP allies are calling Sondland's testimony exonerating for the president because Sondland said he never heard directly from Trump about any quid pro quo.

Late Wednesday afternoon, one top Department of Defense official told the House panel that Ukraine inquired about its expected U.S. security aid on July 25, the same day of the call between President Trump and Ukraine's president.

Pete Buttigieg emerged from the Wednesday night debate unscathed, despite his recent rise at the polls.

Instead, it was President Trump who drew much of the candidates' ire.

Trump Agenda: Guess who came to dinner

Mark Zuckerberg dined at the White House with President Trump and Facebook board member Peter Thiel during an October trip to Washington.

President Trump told reporters that China isn't "stepping up" on trade.

The Daily Beast reports that Lev Parnas, the indicted Rudy Giuliani associate, helped Devin Nunes during his 2018 trip to Europe.

The White House's NOAA nominee is withdrawing due to health concerns.

2020: Takeaways, breakdowns and fact-checks

Here are the New York Times' takeaways of the debate and Politico's breakdown of the most memorable lines.

Check out NBC's fact check of last night's debate.

CNN will broadcast the PBS/Politico debate in December.