GOP is playing a weak hand in defending Trump on Ukraine

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., takes questions from reporters at the Capitol on Sept. 25, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Maybe the most telling aspect of this Ukraine story have been the Republican defenses and explanations of President Trump.

When you add them all up, it becomes pretty clear the GOP is playing a weak hand.

Here’s what we heard from Republican lawmakers over the weekend:

It’s all hearsay: “It's all hearsay. You can't get a parking ticket conviction based on hearsay. The whistleblower didn't hear the phone call,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on CBS.

In fact, we have the transcription memo of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s new president, which pretty much matches the whistleblower’s complaint.

What’s in the transcript really isn’t in the transcript: From “60 Minutes” last night:

CBS News' Scott Pelley: And President Trump replies, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy: You just added another word.

Pelley: No, it’s in the transcript.

McCarthy: He said, “I’d like you to do a favor though?”

Pelley: Yes, it’s in the White House transcript.

In fact, here’s what Trump said per the transcription memo: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”

When Trump was talking about “Crowdstrike” and 2016, he was trying to investigate Russian interference: “President Trump is trying to look into the interference by Russia so it doesn't happen again. I thought you would want to be concerned about making sure that doesn't happen again,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said on “Meet the Press” yesterday.

In fact, former Trump homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said Trump was referring to a debunked “conspiracy theory” that Ukraine — not Russia — hacked the DNC emails in 2016.

If anyone should be investigated, it’s Joe Biden: “The vice president's son gets paid $50,000 a month and gets hired by a company,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said on CNN. “And then when the company that's paying him that money is under investigation, guess what? Daddy comes running to the rescue, the vice president of United States come running.”

In fact, the investigation into the Ukrainian firm Hunter Biden worked for was already dormant when Biden, the Obama administration, and most western countries demanded the ouster of Ukraine’s general prosecutor — because of corruption concerns.

In a political debate, you can usually tell who’s winning and losing — just by looking at the arguments and counterarguments.

And right now, the GOP isn’t winning.

The latest updates on the Trump-Ukraine story

Outside of the GOP defenses, here’s what we’ve learned about the Ukraine story and the impeachment inquiry over the last 24 hours:

  • Trump threatened the whistleblower: “Like every American, I deserve to meet my accuser, especially when this accuser, the so-called ‘Whistleblower,’ represented a perfect conversation with a foreign leader in a totally inaccurate and fraudulent way,” the president tweeted.
  • Trump also tweeted that his impeachment could bring about “Civil War”: “‘...If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.’ Pastor Robert Jeffress, @FoxNews”
  • The whistleblower’s lawyer believes the president’s comments are putting his client in danger.
  • House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said he’ll treat Trump administration NOT testifying on this matter as “evidence of obstruction of justice.”
  • And Schiff said his panel has reached an agreement to hear the whistleblower’s testimony.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 55 percent

That’s the share of Americans who say they approve of the fact that Congress has opened an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, according to a new online CBS/YouGov poll.

But the poll also finds a smaller share — 42 percent — saying that Trump deserves to be impeached now, while 36 percent disagree and 22 percent say it’s too soon to say.

The poll was conducted September 26-27. It’s worth noting that polling in the middle of this fast-developing story is likely to show volatility and variability based on question wording and the nature of the sample.

2020 Vision: Biden leads in South Carolina, tied in Nevada

A CNN poll of South Carolina released yesterday: Joe Biden 37 percent, Elizabeth Warren 16 percent, Bernie Sanders 11 percent, Pete Buttigieg 4 percent, Kamala Harris 3 percent, Tom Steyer 3 percent.

A CNN poll of Nevada: Biden 22 percent, Sanders 22 percent, Warren 18 percent, Harris 5 percent, Buttigieg 4 percent, Steyer 4 percent, Yang 3 percent.

On the campaign trail today

Bernie Sanders stumps in New Hampshire, including a discussion on Medicare for All in Manchester and a rally in Durham at the University of New Hampshire… Amy Klobuchar is in Seattle… Tulsi Gabbard is in Nevada… And Andrew Yang holds a rally in Los Angeles.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Kamala Harris went back to her hometown in Oakland, Calif., where NBC’s Deepa Shivaram noted a difference between when Harris was in Oakland for her campaign launch: “The campaign said a few hundred people RSVPed, and about 200 people were in attendance – but it wasn’t packed wall-to-wall. For it having been an event in her hometown, and after having drawn 22,000+ people here in January, it’s worth pointing out that many more folks could have packed the space.” Harris discussed electability in her speech saying the word has, “come up in every campaign that I have, operative word: won.”

And if Elizabeth Warren could wake up tomorrow and be president, her first act would be … pass her anti-corruption plan, per NBC’s Benjamin Pu. While at the United Food and Commercial Workers town hall in Michigan, Warren said if she could pass one thing as president it would be to end the influence of money through her plan, “It would be to fight back against the influence of big money. Because they're breaking everything. We're not going to be able to fix this with one offs. Am I in there and fight for 15? You bet I am. Am I in there in the belief that one job should be enough for everyone, yes, I am and am I in there for health care for all of us? You bet I am.”

Talking policy with Benjy

Bernie Sanders has taken credit this cycle for introducing ideas “that once seemed so very radical” in his 2016 run, but are now ordinary in 2020, NBC’s Benjy Sarlin writes.

But this dynamic has also made it harder to distinguish himself on policy, especially with the rise of Elizabeth Warren, whose “I have a plan for that” platform includes Medicare For All and tuition-free public college.

To that end, Sanders seems to be in a policy arms race lately to redefine the party’s left flank with plans that are several times larger than any existing plans from his rivals.

In the last few weeks alone, he’s proposed (among other items):

It’s an open question how much importance voters put on the wonky details and how much they believe either candidates’ plans are likely to pass, Sarlin says.

But it’s worth keeping an eye on the growing policy gap between Warren and Sanders, which could form the basis for future debates as the field winnows down.

Tweet of the day

The Lid: Fact-checking the Biden-Ukraine story

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when we fact-checked the Trump/GOP claims about Joe Biden and his dealings with Ukraine.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Monica Alba and Carol Lee note that Trump’s allies have pushed Biden-Ukraine stories at key parts of the 2020 campaign.

And our White House team has a big look at how top Trump aids are presenting the president with a wide-ranging strategy to respond to the impeachment inquiry.

The House Intel Committee has a deal to hear testimony from the whistleblower.

A lawyer for the whistleblower says Trump is endangering his client.

Trump Agenda: Restricting Rudy

The Biden campaign wants networks to stop booking Rudy Giuliani.

The New York Times profiles the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley.

Trump has signed a short-term spending bill to fund the government through late November.

The ACA may be making people healthier.

2020: Bernie on the downslide

Is Bernie Sanders’ campaign in trouble?

Here’s how House Democrats are trying to sell the impeachment inquiry back at home.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus may be about ready to throw their support to Biden.

Joe Biden’s digital ads are being scaled back. That could be a bad sign.

The AP interviews Pete Buttigieg’s mom.

Steve Bullock is applying to be the first Democrat in the presidential primary to accept public financing.