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New testimony against Trump as impeachment goes public

WASHINGTON — A top American diplomat revealed new evidence Wednesday of President Donald Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate political rivals as House investigators launched public impeachment hearings for just the fourth time in the nation’s history.

William Taylor, the highest-ranking U.S. official in Ukraine, said for the first time that Trump was overheard asking another ambassador about “the investigations” he’d urged Ukraine’s leader to conduct one day earlier. Taylor said he learned of Trump’s phone call with the ambassador only in recent days.

It was all part of what Taylor called the “irregular channel,” a shadow foreign policy orchestrated by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, outside traditional oversight that raised alarms in diplomatic and national security circles.

Republicans retorted that the Democrats still have no more than second- and third-hand knowledge of allegations that Trump held up millions of dollars in military aid for the Eastern European nation facing Russian aggression in return for Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

The hearing, the first on television for the nation to see, provided hours of partisan back-and-forth but so far no singular moment etched in the public consciousness as grounds for removing the 45th president from office. Trump, who was meeting at the White House with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared he was “too busy” to watch.

The long day of testimony unfolded partly the way Democrats leading the inquiry wanted: in the somber tones of two career foreign service officers who described confusion both within the U.S. government and in Ukraine about what Trump wanted from Kyiv. Taylor testified alongside George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department.

Taylor said his staff recently told him they overheard Trump’s phone call with another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with the new leader of Ukraine that sparked the impeachment investigation. The staffer explained that Sondland had called the president and Trump could be heard asking about “the investigations.” Sondland told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor testified

Wednesday’s session unspooled in a formal, columned room on Capitol Hill, detailing the striking yet complicated allegation of a president using foreign policy for personal political gain.

Both sides tried to distill it into soundbites.

Democrats said Trump was engaged in “bribery” and “extortion.” Republicans said nothing really happened – the military aid Trump was withholding from Ukraine while he pushed for the investigations was ultimately released.

The GOP lawmakers demanded anew that they hear in closed session from the whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s leader led to the inquiry.

Democrats said the person’s identity must be protected but also agreed to consider the request again later.

Across the country, millions of Americans were tuning in — or, in some cases, deliberately tuning out. The country has been here only three times before, but the proceedings were landing on a jaded and weary public, with little certainty they would change minds.

A vote to impeach could come before yearend in the Democratic House. Even if approved, however, conviction in the Republican Senate is considered highly unlikely.

At the start of Wednesday’s session, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, outlined the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry – whether the president abused his office for political gain.

“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Schiff of California. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself.”

Trump engaged in counter-programming from the White House, with rapid-fire tweets, a video from the Rose Garden and a dismissive retort from the Oval Office as he met with another foreign leader.

“It’s a witch hunt, it’s a hoax,” he said again as he appeared with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by his side.

The witnesses defied White House instructions not to appear. Both Taylor and Kent received subpoenas.

Both also had told their stories before. They are among a dozen current and former officials who testified behind closed doors. Wednesday signaled the start of at least two weeks of public hearings as the proceedings spill into the open.

A key Trump ally on the panel, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, mockingly called Taylor the Democrats’ “star witness” and said he’d “seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.”

Taylor, a West Point graduate and former Army infantry officer in Vietnam, responded: “I don't consider myself a star witness for anything."

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said Trump had a “perfectly good reason” for wanting to investigate the role of Democrats in 2016 election interference, giving airtime to a theory that runs counter to mainstream U.S. intelligence which found that Russia intervened and favored Trump.

Nunes accused the Democratic majority of conducting a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after the special counsel’s Russia investigation into the 2016 election failed to spark impeachment proceedings.

“We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out new allegations?” said Nunes, a top Trump ally.

Both Taylor and Kent delivered heartfelt history lessons about Ukraine, a young and hopeful democracy, situated next to Russia but reaching out to the West.

Asked about a text message released earlier in the probe in which Taylor called it “crazy” to withhold the security aid to a foreign ally, he said, “It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy."

Kent, in his opening remarks, directly contradicted a core complaint against Joe Biden being raised by allies of the White House, saying he never heard any U.S. official try to shield a Ukraine company from investigations.

Kent acknowledged that he himself raised concerns in 2015 about the vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, being on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine gas company. He warned that it could give the “perception of a conflict of interest.” But Kent indicated no one from the U.S. was protecting the company from investigations in Ukraine as Republicans have implied.

He did not go into detail about the Trump quid pro quo issues central to the impeachment inquiry, but he voiced his concerns with them.

“I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country,” he said.

The Constitution sets a dramatic but vague bar for impeachment, and there's no consensus yet that Trump's actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy when he asked the Zelenskiy for “a favor.”

Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and the Bidens, all while withholding the military aid.

The White House released a rough transcript of the conversation, with portions deleted.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. But she pressed ahead in September after the whistleblower’s complaint.

— Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Mike Balsamo, Eric Tucker, Laurie Kellman, Alan Fram, Zeke J. Miller and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.

Growth of Airbnbs leads to push for new regulations
 Don Sergent  / 

When some five dozen residents of Bowling Green’s Mitchell Heights subdivision showed up at a Warren County Board of Adjustments meeting in May to protest an Airbnb short-term rental in their neighborhood, they were evidence of a growing trend that local officials are trying to address before it reaches the crisis-like proportions seen in Nashville and other large cities.

It seems that the attraction of using either your primary residence or a second home to bring in rental income has become simply too good to resist for many folks.

Airbnb, the largest of the online lodging marketplace websites, reflects that trend. Launched in 2008, Airbnb now offers listings in nearly 200 countries and is projected to reach more than $8 billion in revenue next year.

“Airbnbs and other companies that do a similar thing are becoming very popular,” said Sherry Murphy, executive director of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s almost a fad mentality.”

The fad hasn’t bypassed Bowling Green.

“About two years ago, we only had about 50 Airbnbs in Bowling Green,” said Ben Peterson, executive director of the City-County Planning Commission of Warren County. “Now we’re close to 200.”

Actually, the Airbnb.com website lists 216 rentals in the Bowling Green area, and that doesn’t count those who choose to list their property with VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), Flipkey or other online lodging companies.

“It’s starting to grow here, but it’s not to the point that it’s unmanageable,” Peterson said. “Larger cities have thousands of short-term rentals.”

And almost as many headaches, if Nashville’s experience is an indication.

Short-term rentals are a sour note in the Music City, where established residents have complained about having transient and sometimes disruptive neighbors. The city tried last year to ban from residential neighborhoods vacation rentals whose owners didn’t live in the homes.

That attempt was eventually shot down by the Tennessee state legislature, which cited concerns about property rights, and now Nashville’s Metro Codes Department has two officers dedicated to responding to complaints arising from the hundreds of home rentals in the city.

Hoping to head off a similar situation in Warren County, Peterson has initiated a process that will fine-tune local regulations governing short-term rentals and perhaps avoid more situations like the one in Mitchell Heights.

The existing residents were successful in closing that Airbnb in Mitchell Heights, and one of those who spoke at the Board of Adjustments meeting summed up their reasons for opposing the Conditional Use Permit application that would have made the short-term rental a permanent part of the neighborhood.

“I oppose this because I bought into a single-family neighborhood,” said Richard Grace. “I didn’t want to move into a rental neighborhood.”

Peterson said the planning commission has fielded other complaints from residents opposed to having transient visitors in their backyard, prompting the effort to better define regulations related to short-term rentals of 30 days or less.

A committee made up of city and county officials has worked on regulations that will ultimately need to be approved by the planning commission and by the county fiscal court and all of the county’s municipalities.

“We’re modernizing our regulations to fully account for all short-term rentals,” Peterson said. “We don’t want what amounts to a mini-hotel next door to residences, and we don’t want anything that changes the character of a neighborhood.”

That character-changing impact is most evident when absentee property owners rent an entire home, and the refined regulations will address that.

Peterson said short-term rentals will be allowed by right in commercial zones, but a CUP will be required for all residential and agricultural zones. According to a draft of the regulations, bed-and-breakfast establishments in such zones must be owner occupied and the owner must be present on site during times of occupancy by renters.

The impact of the better-defined regulations could be felt by homeowners wanting to open an Airbnb and by those who are already operating.

“If you have either a bed-and-breakfast or an Airbnb and don’t have a Conditional Use Permit, you may not be in compliance,” Peterson said. “Our goal is not to force compliance but to educate people and help them get in compliance.”

Both Peterson and Murphy said those working on regulating short-term rentals have had to weigh the pros and cons of such establishments.

A draft brochure about the revised regulations mentions that short-term rentals provide extra income for property owners as well as sales tax and lodging tax revenue.

“They (short-term rentals) provide a valuable business, especially during our large events when our hotels are full,” Murphy said. “We want those visitors to stay here in a convenient location, and we want to be as hospitable as possible.

“They serve a great purpose, but sometimes people don’t understand the safety aspect (of running a short-term rental). We really want to protect those in established neighborhoods who have concerns.”

Peterson described the revised regulations as more of a “modernization” than a departure from current laws. He expects the regulations to be considered by the planning commission by the end of the year.

'Human Library' shares diverse stories
 Will Whaley  / 

Western Kentucky University Libraries, in partnership with The Human Library Organization, hosted its first Human Library event at Cravens Library on Tuesday.

The event allowed attendees to visit with diverse human “books,” hear a short introduction and ask questions. The 12 stories told included subjects ranging from life after weight loss surgery to being a dual citizen.

Anthony Paganelli, the organizer of the event and a library instructor, said The Human Library was a “natural fit” for a program at the University Library.

“Libraries are all about widening individuals’ perspectives and creating critical thinkers,” he said. “It is an event that was organized in Denmark about 20 years ago and was kind of a deal where people could come together in a safe environment and have open dialogue so we thought this would be great for our students to have this opportunity and something to carry out into the workforce and into their lives.”

With it being the first time the library has hosted this event, Paganelli said the event took a lot of planning – especially in finding speakers.

“This is something we are just starting and trying to figure out and at this point we were just kind of going out into the community and seeing who would actually want to participate in this, because it is not easy to come in and sometimes talk about emotional experiences,” Paganelli said.

“I think diversity is extremely important because these are some of the gaps we have fallen in with our curriculum,” Paganelli said. “It is great if we could offer this kind of education for our students to go out into the world. There’s topics I’m sure our students have never even thought about. I can’t tell a person what it was to have cancer or what it was to experience it but this person can. I think that’s the best part of it.”

Donielle Lovell’s story was about being a female politician. Lovell was the Democratic candidate for Kentucky House District 18 in 2018. She ran against Republican incumbent Rep. Tim Moore, who won the spot.

“I ran for state representative and he (Paganelli) wanted someone to be able to talk about that experience and the challenges and the good things,” Lovell said. “I wrote my dissertation on women in leadership, in particular running for office, and I have had some interesting observations on what it was to do that research 10 years ago and to actually live that research while running for office.”

Lovell said women’s families are often brought up during campaigning.

“One of the things that came out during my dissertation research was that women talked a lot about how their family was used during campaigns and how the types of questions that women get that oftentimes men don’t get when they’re campaigning,” said Lovell. “In particular, the question of where is your daughter and what is your daughter going to do if you are elected to state representative. That is something that I continually faced when I ran for office – just critiques of motherhood and wondering if I was going to be there enough for my daughter if I were elected.

“It takes a lot of time to run for office,” Lovell said. “I wanted to convey that when you hear those questions you stop people and say, this is not relevant.”

Lovell said that during the sessions Tuesday, many of the questions she received were about her time on the campaign trail.

“One of the first questions was again about being a woman and a mother running for office,” she said. “There were questions about race and running for office. They were curious about the campaigning process. A lot of people don’t get to sit down and talk to someone who has run a campaign. These are conversations that you wouldn’t normally have ... so it was a lot of fun to just talk to students and let them ask anything they want,” Lovell said.

“I was excited for the number of people that sat down at my table,” she said. “To have the young men and women that sat down and had real earnest questions, I hope they do this event again. We have such a hard time talking to people these days and this is just one of those events that just breaks down the barriers and allows these conversations to happen.”

After governor's race, WKU profs consider 2020 implications
 Aaron Mudd  / 

One week after Kentucky’s gubernatorial election ended in an apparent narrow defeat for incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a panel of political science professors gathered at Western Kentucky University on Tuesday to dissect the results.

Asked by a moderator why support from President Donald Trump wasn’t enough to win Bevin a second term, Political Science Department head Scott Lasley was ready with a quick retort.

“Because he’s Matt Bevin,” Lasley said, speaking at the event in WKU’s Downing Student Union.

After polls closed last week, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear claimed victory over Bevin, with tallies showing a 5,189-vote lead statewide. Bevin, citing “irregularities,” refused to concede the governor’s race and requested a recanvass of vote totals that will take place Thursday.

Explaining his answer, Lasley acknowledged that Bevin did do well in many counties across Kentucky and that “the Trump effect was there.” However, a historically high turnout, reportedly higher than 42 percent, also helped galvanize Democrat voters.

“If you actually go back and look at the map and the number of precincts that went Democrat, it was much larger,” Lasley said. “Even though 2020 is going to be a good year for Republican legislators, if you’re a Republican legislator in the Louisville area, you’re on the endangered list.”

Kentucky holds its gubernatorial elections during odd-numbered years where there aren’t president elections, but Trump will be on the ballot in 2020, along with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. The looming 2020 election brought national media attention to Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, with some observers speculating that a Democratic victory could signal vulnerability for McConnell’s reelection hopes.

“I think that it’s natural for the news to try to bring a national story to this,” said Jeffrey Budziak, an associate professor of political science. Budziak said he was skeptical that the outcome of the governor’s race “tells us much of anything” about 2020.

“If the takeaway is that Mitch McConnell is supposed to be scared about this, I would strongly dispute that takeaway,” Budziak said. “I think that Gov. Bevin is just a uniquely unpopular guy.”

Bevin has polled as one of the most unpopular governors in the country and drew just 52 percent of the vote during his party’s primary.

“That’s a really bad sign,” Budziak said.

Additionally, Republican candidates seeking state offices in Kentucky swept down-ballot races.

Summing up the governor’s race, political science professor Joel Turner said “Beshear successfully ran on a platform of ‘I’m not Matt Bevin.’ ”

Meanwhile, Bevin sought to nationalize the race, seeking to define Beshear through the issue of abortion.

“I don’t know that any of them made a successful issues-based pitch,” Turner said. “Beshear made it about personality. Bevin tried to nationalize it. … From an issue standpoint, it was really not a lot about issues.”

Lasley disagreed with that assessment, citing Bevin’s public missteps with teachers as one example. Bevin has at times publicly feuded with educators, and they have rallied by the thousands to oppose pension and education funding proposals he supported.

“There were folks that volunteered almost every day for five months,” Lasley said, referring to educators who knocked on doors across the state.

The panel appeared unanimous in casting doubt about the likelihood of a contested election that would ultimately place the outcome of the election into the hands of the General Assembly, which is under Republican control.

“I’d be shocked,” Budziak said, adding that lawmakers don’t seem to want that outcome.

Lasley agreed: “That’s just not going to happen.”

Tuesday’s panel drew several students hoping to draw their own conclusions about the election. Among them was Grace Alexieff, a sophomore from Bowling Green and a political science minor. Alexieff attended hoping to glean insights about 2020, she said.

With Beshear’s victory, Alexieff said, “my thoughts were that it was a glimmer of hope in terms of the presidential election, and so I wanted to come to this to get a clear idea of whether that was true or not.”

Although she was disappointed to learn that those connections are likely tenuous, Alexieff said she appreciated the event.

“I thought it was really beneficial,” she said.