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Impeachment Today Podcast: The Word Of The Day Is "Bribery"

House Democrats have started using the term "bribery" to describe Trump's attempts to influence the Ukrainian president.

Posted on November 15, 2019, at 5:50 p.m. ET

Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a weekly press briefing on Capitol Hill on November 14, 2019.

It's Friday, November 15th, 2019, 52 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

In today's episode: Bribery is the new word of the moment among House Democrats, who've started using the term β€” an impeachable offense β€” to describe Trump's attempts to influence the Ukrainian president. Will the American public buy it? We're talking all about public opinion on today's show with Ariel Edwards-Levy, a reporter and editor who focuses on public opinion polls at HuffPost.

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

It's Friday, November 15th, 2019, 52 days into the impeachment saga, and this is Impeachment Today.

Good morning. I'm Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News. Hope you're ready for another round of hearings, because the gang's back in the intelligence committee hearing room today, and they'll be getting the tea from Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

We'll tell you how round two of the hearings went in a special bonus Saturday drop tomorrow morning. Today, we're talking to HuffPost reporter, and polling editor, Ariel Edwards-Levy, to learn what polls can and can't tell us about how the country feels about impeaching the president and what that means for how this all might end up. But, before we get to all that, let's catch up on what happened yesterday.

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said that Trump's push for political favors from Ukraine amounts to bribery. Here's how she described Wednesday's impeachment hearings testimony in her weekly press briefing.

Nancy Pelosi:

The devastating testimony corroborated evidence of bribery uncovered in the inquiry, and that the president abused power and violated his oath by threatening to withhold military aid in a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation into his political rival.

Hayes Brown:

Now, she's not the first, but she is clearly the highest ranking Democrat to use that term, effectively cementing it as the messaging for the Democratic party moving forward, which honestly makes sense. Quid pro quo, the term that's been used most often to describe Trump's alleged wrongdoing, means this for that, which is pretty close in definition to bribery, and bribery is listed right in the Constitution as a reason for impeachment.

Also, note that she said, "Threatening to hold up military aid." Whether $391 million in assistance to Ukraine that was frozen this summer acted as leverage in the alleged pressure campaign has been one of the biggest mysteries in this case, but under Pelosi's framing, the fact that the aid eventually went through without the investigations Trump wanted doesn't matter. It's the threat that matters. After all, solicitation of a bribe is still a crime, even if it's not paid out.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's Foreign Minister said Wednesday that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, never told him about any conditions needed to release the aid. Figuring out just who did and didn't know about the hold inside the Ukrainian government has been a massive headache. Ambassador Bill Taylor said this in testimony on Wednesday.

Bill Taylor:

What I heard from Ambassador Sondland, he described the conditions for the security assistance and the White House meeting in those terms. That is, that were dependent upon, conditioned on pursuing these investigations.

Questioner:

And you heard that from Ambassador Sondland himself, correct?

Bill Taylor:

Correct.

Hayes Brown:

Taylor also said though that he was unaware of any Ukrainians who knew about the freeze before late August. Republicans have seized on that point is evidence that there's no way that the freeze was part of any bribery scheme. Several news reports and testimonies from other U.S. officials though indicates that, yes, Ukraine was very much aware that there was an aid holdup and that it was about Trump's investigations.

One person who might be able to say more clearly why the aid was held is Mark Sandy. He's Deputy Associate Director for National Security at the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's also the first OMB staffer who's willing to testify. He's set to do so behind closed doors on Saturday. And then Gordon Simon himself is scheduled to testify on Wednesday to possibly clear all this up. It should be illuminating, no matter what.

That was the news. This was the noise. Fox News' Laura Ingraham heard Pelosi's press conference yesterday and thought that this was a solid rebuttal.

Laura Ingraham:

But even assuming the Democrat strained a ridiculous interpretation of the facts, and I do not assume them, but just for the sake of their argument, attempted bribery isn't in the Constitution.

Hayes Brown:

I already covered why that's wrong literally seconds ago, so I'm just going to go ahead and play you the best part of this segment.

Laura Ingraham:

Democrats think they're cats.

Hayes Brown:

I absolutely need that as my ringtone now.

And now for those of you who just love scientific data, we have today's reading from our Nixometer.

On our scale, a zero is a normal day in a normal White House, and 10 is President Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine One. This morning we're at a 6.1. Thursday was intermission between two days of testimony and the people are tired. It was a day of reflection on what had just happened and preparation for what's to come.

Okay. After the break, we talk to AL about how impeachment polls, do the people find it juicy? Or is it the pits? Stick around to find out.

All right, time for this fucking thing. Today, it's the polls, specifically impeachment polls, and what to look for when we're talking about what they mean for the future of the impeachment process. We've got HuffPost's Ariel Edwards-Levy with us today from D.C. to give us the tea on reading these tea leaves. Ariel, welcome.

Ariel Edwards-Levy:

Thank you for having me.

HB

Thank you so much for doing this. I've been a big fan of yours on Twitter for a while, so it's great to actually be able to sit here with you.

AL:

And likewise.

HB:

So you're HuffPost polling editor, so tell me, polls, magic crystal ball? Or the world's dumbest science? Go.

AL:

Yes, that is the dichotomy. There is no in between. I think the problem is that people really, really want to see them as the former, and then when they fail to perform magically, we end up relegating them to the realm of useless. And the truth is, is this is something you will hear pollsters say annoyingly frequently, is that they're snapshots. They're not predictions.

AL:

So what I think polling can do is, it can give you a pretty good idea of what the American public is thinking outside of your own situation and the people you talk to. What it can't do is tell you what's going to happen in the future, who's going to win an election, whether opinions are going to change a month from now. But it can sort of give you a guide of like what people are paying attention to, how they feel about it, and sort of what the emerging consensus is around an issue and what's changing.

HB:

So when it comes to actually impeachment, what's the biggest mistake you think people are making? Is it that they're using it too much as a predictor? Or where in there are people messing up when they're trying to like divine the future from these polls that we have so far?

AL:

I think with that, the toughest impulse to avoid is, and I mean I have been trying to avoid this myself, is trying to read too much into very sort of small movements, because what I've seen with impeachment polling is that, at the very beginning of this process, when Democrats said, "Okay, we're going to have an inquiry. This is something that's going to happen," you saw a pretty dramatic shift, where people went from being on balance against impeachment, to being on balance a little bit in favor of impeachment, or at least in favor of an inquiry.

And since then, things seem to have mostly stabilized, and we're now in this really interesting inflection point, because of course, the hearings just started. We're going to get our first new wave of polling back in a couple of days probably, and see whether that's changed things, so this could be another point where things actually do start moving again.

But the last couple of weeks, I think there's been the sort of tendency to say, "Okay. Well, what does this tell us about 2020? What does this tell us about how things are changing?" And the answer is, things had pretty much sort of stabilized, but we're still so far out that it's not a guarantee of what's going to happen if something really major shifts in the actual news that people are responding to.

HB:

Right. So just to check in though, what do the polls say recently? Where was the public before the hearings? Any numbers you want to toss out there for the listeners to grasp on to?

AL:

Sure. And FiveThirtyEight has been running a combination of impeachment polls, and what they say right now is that polls asking about the impeachment process, you have about 52% support, to 45% opposed, for whether Trump should be impeached or impeached and removed. You have about 47% support, to about 44%, 45% don't support. And again, it's a little tricky to look at these all as like sort of one big amalgamation of polling, because this question gets asked in a million different ways, and how people respond to it is, to some extent, sensitive to how you ask them about it.

But I think that gives you a sort of general guide, which is that you have a slim majority sort of in favor of having an inquiry, and you have people about even or slightly more likely than not to say that they do support impeachment, and that lines up with Trump's overall numbers.

HB:

What should the Democrats, Republicans, each side, be most concerned about in terms of the actual polling data?

AL:

I think if you're a Democrat, what you want to be looking at is, there is one survey from CBS and YouGov recently that found that about a quarter of people said that they were open to changing their minds on this. So if you're a Democrat, I think what you want is, you want to make sure that people are paying attention to this. This doesn't seem like just another incremental step of people yelling at each other. This doesn't seem like, "Oh, well, Washington is corrupt. What do you expect?"

But this seems like something that stands out as particularly egregious, and that this is new information that we're presenting to you about why this is a egregious, and to sort of capture attention. And you're probably not going to peel off the president's most loyal supporters, but there are some.

HB:

Probably not. The basket's going to remain closed.

AL:

Yep. But there are people who are out there who do not have a completely firm idea on this, and I think if you can try to make that case persuasively, that this is a really big deal, this is different than what's come before, and this is worth you paying attention to and condemning. Beyond that, shoring up Democrats and just sort of making it completely unanimous that, if you dislike the president already, if you're sort of not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, that that translates into thinking, yes, and he should be impeached.

HB:

Okay. So really quickly, a lot of people put weight in the idea that there's like a tipping point basically, where after that, impeachment, removal, done deal, lock it up. Does that point actually exist? I mean, if this goes to the Senate for a trial, do those senators, in your opinion, vote at all based on this polling data?

AL:

So this maybe goes into the snapshot, not a projection thing. I think the problem is that we have so little workable historical comparison here, because you can go back, you look at all the data on Watergate, it's fascinating, but we were not in quite the same era of polarization that we see now.

HB:

Right.

AL:

It's hard for me to imagine, at this point, that there's ever going to be anything close to an unanimous opinion among the American public about what Donald Trump has done. I don't think he's ever going to bought about on support, and I don't think, certainly, he's ever going to become fantastically popular.

AL:

The battle lines are fairly dug in, and where that room is for movement is sort of in the middle and sort of at the edges, and that doesn't mean that's not important or consequential. It just means that the boundaries for how much is going to change, I think, are somewhat limited.

HB:

That's fair. So rather than trying to use it as a map to the future, we should be locking each of these individual pieces of data up in the polling vault.

AL:

Oh. Yes, that was appreciative. I want you to know that was appreciative.

HB:

All right, so we're warping a year into the future. It's just after the 2020 election. Tell me, what do you think Trump's approval numbers look like? Right now he's at 54.5% disapproved, 41% approved according to FiveThirtyEight. So your thoughts?

AL:

So I think the president's approval ratings have got in this really narrow band. It's like the world's smallest pendulum, where it's usually between like sort of the high 30s and the mid 40s. Depending on what happens, it could finally escape that band, if he gets a bump from winning and sort of a tiny little honeymoon, though he didn't get much of one last time. If he's ousted in a particularly nasty way, that could tank his numbers. If there's some sort of economic recession, that could also tank his numbers. So I think it sort of just depends on how happy he is with those election results, but it's hard to see him ever being the most popular.

HB:

One of the most popular presidents of all time. Yeah, for sure.

AL:

Yeah.

HB:

He's not going top off FDR and Lincoln is what we're saying.

HB:

Okay, before we let you go, it's time for the kicker. So, Ariel, what do you got for us today?

AL:

I just wanted to share a question that was asked by the GOP council to Taylor at the hearings yesterday. And the question is this, "In fairness, this irregular channel diplomacy, it's not as outlandish as it could be. Is that correct?" And I feel like that is just, I know it's not as outlandish as it could be as a defense. It's just sort of very emblematic of the moment in which we all find ourselves.

HB:

Right. Oh my gosh, you're so right. Well, this is all really dumb, but admit it. It's not as dumb as it could be, right? Ariel, thank you so much for bringing us that, and bringing us your wisdom today. I am so glad you could take the time. Thank you.

All right, friends, it's time to testify. So today, Marie Yovanovitch is appearing before the House Intelligence Committee to tell her piece of this whole mess. In late April, Yovanovitch was removed from her post as U.S. Ambassador in dramatic fashion, after a whisper campaign soured the president against her. Yovanovitch will relay the story of how that came to be the case.

Be on the lookout for Democrats. Tease out how the squad Rudy Giuliani ran out in Ukraine laid the groundwork for the current crisis. Republicans, meanwhile, will focus likely on how her firing had nothing to do with the call, is my guess. Plus her lack of knowledge about the president's thinking will be in the forefront of their questioning.

We'll have a short episode for you covering all of that tomorrow morning. But for now, go back and listen to our episode from November 6th to learn more about Yovanovitch and what she told Congress behind closed doors. It's titled, "No Take Backsies on Congressional Testimony?"

Okay. That's it for today. Next week, we'll have all the news for you as we brace for three solid days of hearings. So get some sleep this weekend, friends. You're going to need it.

Impeachment Today is a joint production between BuzzFeed News and iHeartRadio, with new episodes dropping every weekday morning. Our show is produced by Dan Bauza, Alan Haburchak, and Jacopo Penzo, with editorial support from Tom Gara. Editing by Josh Fisher, Taylor Hosking, and Ryan Kyla. Julian Weller is our supervising producer. Special thanks to Mangesh Hatecador, Nikki Itor, Samantha Henig, Maggie Schultz, and Ben Smith.

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