Election meddling is at the heart of Trump's call with Ukraine's president

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Image: President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak during a meeting in New York on Sept. 25, 2019.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — For all the attention on a possible quid pro quo, Crowdstrike or the mention of Trump’s Central Park hotel, there’s a much bigger problem at the root of President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president: election meddling.

The president of the United States appeared to be using his office and powers in asking another world leader — explicitly — to help him against the Democratic frontrunner (now co-frontrunner) he might face in next year’s election.

“There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General [William Barr] would be great," Trump said to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, per the unclassified memo of their conversation.

Trump then added, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me.” (In fact, Joe Biden didn’t stop the prosecution; it was already dormant when Biden, the Obama administration and much of the western world sought the ouster of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor.)

If you cover or work in electoral politics for a living, there’s maybe nothing more important than free and fair elections — and their integrity.

Otherwise, why count the votes on Election Night? Or examine the exit polls? Or have the losing side accept the results?

If you don’t take our word for it, then listen to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., from back in January 2017, right before Trump took office.

“Our lives are built around the idea that we're free people. That we go to the ballot box. That we, you know, have political contests outside of foreign interference,” he said on “Meet the Press,” discussing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

“You can't go on with your life as a democracy when a foreign entity is trying to compromise the election process,” he added.

But yesterday, Graham yesterday dismissed the uproar over the memo of Trump’s July 25 phone call.

Reporter: "Is it appropriate for the president to be asking a foreign leader for dirt on a political rival?"

Graham: "Yeah, I don't think you read the same thing I did."

But here’s the question for Graham and everyone else: What happens if it’s an American president — in a conversation with another world leader — compromising the election process?

Even if he isn’t successful?

Brace yourselves for another crazy day in Washington

If you thought yesterday was a crazy day in Washington — release of the memo on the July 25 phone call, Trump’s press conference at the United Nations — you might want to get ready for today.

NBC’s Geoff Bennet reports that the whistleblower complaint has been declassified, and that it’s expected to be released this morning.

Here’s the reaction among those who have seen the complaint: “Really troubling things here,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “Republicans ought not just circle the wagons, and democrats ought not have been using words like impeachment before they knew anything about the actual substance.”

Here’s Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.: “I found the allegations deeply disturbing. I also found them very credible."

And if the expected release of that whistleblower complaint isn’t enough for you, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee at 9:00 am ET.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 42

42.

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That’s the number of days that acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has been on the job.

Maguire officially assumed the role on August 16 of this year after serving as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Questions about Attorney General Barr’s role in this controversy

“The Trump administration's release of notes documenting President Donald Trump's conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has raised questions about Trump's relationship with Attorney General William Barr and whether he views Barr as someone whose job includes advocating for him on personal matters,” NBC’s Julia Ainsley writes.

“Repeatedly over the course of the call, Trump told Zelenskiy that his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Barr will be contacting Ukrainian prosecutors on two investigations: one related to an email server tied to Trump's former political rival, Hillary Clinton, and the other related to his potential future political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.”

Ainsley also writes that the Justice Department ultimately decided that Trump’s conduct in the whistleblower complaint did not rise to a criminal level – but that they relied solely on the notes of the call and didn’t interview witnesses.

Our question: How/why isn’t Barr recusing himself from this entire matter?

2020 Vision: Deep freeze

Earlier this week, we told you that the impeachment storyline could freeze the 2020 Democratic race.

And guess what? Examining 10 major newspapers across the country yesterday, only one (the Los Angeles Times) had a front-page article about the Dem 2020 race, per NBC’s Sami Sparber.

The same was true about the websites of major network and cable news channels: The home pages of NBC News, ABC, CNN, or Fox had little to no 2020 coverage, Sparber adds.

On the campaign trail today

Beto O’Rourke holds a town hall in Erie, Pa... Andrew Yang stumps in New Hampshire… Steve Bullock joins a United Auto Workers picket line in Arlington, Texas… And Bernie Sanders appears on Stephen Colbert.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Elizabeth Warren held a town hall yesterday in New Hampshire, where she again called for the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump. After those remarks, Warren took questions on her Medicare for All plan and was asked how her plan would affect those in unions who negotiated plans from their employers — this has been a standard call from Democrats in the field who don’t support "Medicare for All."

NBC’s Benjamin Pu reports Warren’s response that when the law changes, “You can also say people get cash equivalence or money equivalence for whatever it is that they had to give up when the law changes,” and, “nobody's doing this without the unions.”

And Kamala Harris has a new addition to her plan for student loans and debts. During a tele-town hall, per NBC’s Deepa Shivaram, Harris said, “we're going to forgive student debt for families making under $100k.” She added, “we will have debt free college, free community college and this is an important piece, interest free student loans.”

Tweet of the day

The Lid: Unpopularity contest

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked back at how impeachment hasn’t historically been popular — even when the past presidents facing it had big public opinion problems.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Here’s Geoff Bennett and Phil Helsel on what to expect from the declassification of the whistleblower complaint.

A majority of Democratic House members now support some kind of impeachment action against Trump.

Need a briefer on how exactly impeachment works? Pete Williams has you covered.

Trump allies are starting to be more vocal about concerns regarding Rudy Giuliani’s role.

Kurt Volker, Trump’s part-time Ukraine envoy, played a role in Giuliani’s outreach.

Does impeachment help Biden or Warren? Neither?

Trump Agenda: “Deflect and defy”

The Washington Post writes that Trump’s strategy is to “deflect and defy” as the impeachment process speeds up.

Trade and spending talks might be getting derailed by all the other drama happening on the Hill.

Could Trump’s Ukraine call violate campaign finance laws?

2020: Darrell Issa’s back, baby

He’s in: Darrell Issa will run against indicted incumbent and fellow Republican Duncan Hunter.

Some House Democrats worry that the impeachment train is going too fast.

Here’s Pete Buttigieg’s latest ad.

Democratic governors in swing states aren’t thrilled with the impeachment push.