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The Thursday night campaign trail was a tale of two cities: Houston, where 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls battled in their third debate — and Baltimore, where the man they’re running to beat had the stage all to himself.

At roughly the same time the Democratic faceoff began, President Donald Trump strode into a Republican gathering halfway across the country — unashamed to show up in a city he’d called “rat-infested” a few weeks ago — and launched into well-honed attacks on his would-be replacements.

He trotted out the set of derogatory nicknames he’s rolled out over months of re-election rallies — “Sleepy Joe,” “Pocahontas,” “Crazy Bernie” — while warning that a “grim specter of socialism is descending on the Democrat Party,” full of radicals who will destroy America’s economic and physical security.

It was a well-practiced performance honed over more than a year of repetition: the same one-liners, the same personal insults and policy barbs.

Meanwhile, in Houston, for the first 30 minutes of the Democratic debate, the candidates struggled to figure out who their main opponent was. They battled each other over health care, with former Vice President Joe Biden echoing Trump’s narrative that the universal health care plan advocated by several candidates would cause millions of people to lose their private health insurance, boosting the tax burden for working Americans. “That’s a reality,” Biden said. “Now, it’s not a bad idea if you like it. I don’t like it.”

The split screen highlighted the challenge Democrats face as they seek a solid strategy to beat Trump despite the primary season reality that the only way to become their party’s nominee is to score points against one another.

Whether or not the president’s message is effective, he seems to have settled on it, even without knowing exactly whom his opponent will be. Democrats face the opposite challenge: They know who they’ll need to beat, after they vanquish one another — they just haven’t decided precisely the best way to take him on, or how to battle one another without occasionally echoing the incumbent’s attacks.

It wasn’t that Democrats didn’t have plenty of criticism for Trump at Thursday night’s debate; they just struggled throughout the night to find a clear, focused, unified line of attack against him while clashing.

Amid the early sparring over health care, Sen. Kamala Harris of California zeroed in on the field’s joint challenge: directing the conversation back to the president they were auditioning to replace.

“Here’s the thing. Everybody on this stage, I do believe, is well intentioned and wants that all Americans have coverage and recognizes that right now 30 million Americans don’t have coverage,” she said. “But at least five people have talked, some repeatedly on this subject, and not once have we talked about Donald Trump.”

Others on stage sounded similar concerns. “A house divided cannot stand. And that is not how we’re going to win this,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang appealed to party spirit. “Look, everyone, we know we’re on the same team here. We know we’re on the same team. We all have a better vision for health care than our current president,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey warned that shots taken now could do damage next year. “This must be a moment where we as Democrats can begin to show that we cannot only stake and stand our ground, but find common ground, because we’ve got one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president,” he said. “And we cannot lose it by the way we talk about each other or demonize and degrade each other. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

After the pack decided to focus more of their fire on Trump than on one another, they lobbed more than two dozen different lines of attack against the president, accusing him of everything from racism and inciting violence to being generally clueless on trade, immigration and national security.

On immigration, former Obama secretary for Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said the president has a “dark heart” on the issue. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said anyone who supports Trump’s agenda on immigration “is supporting racism.”

But on pocketbook issues such as trade, their contrast message was less clear. Despite criticism of Trump’s approach on tariffs, some contenders would not say they planned to immediately eliminate them, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Yang saying they wouldn’t repeal all the trade penalties right away.

Buttigieg mocked Trump’s inability to get a deal done with China.

“You know, when I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he’d like to see me making a deal with Xi Jinping. I’d like to see him making a deal with Xi Jinping,” Buttigieg said. “Is it just me or was that supposed to happen in, like, April?”

In Baltimore, Trump had his own mocking jabs ready on the same situation. He again acted out an imaginary negotiating session with the Chinese leader to make the case that he was the leader best-suited for the role: Xi, he said, was “a furious kind of a guy. Great guy. He’s dying to see … he wants Sleepy Joe.”

“Here’s Sleepy Joe, ‘Wha? Where am I? Where am I?'” he said, trying to imitate Biden discussing a potential deal. Xi, said Trump, would just say “just sign here, Sleepy Joe.”

Democrats have appeared focused on proving they’re not merely running as a field of anti-Trumps — that their trail priority is providing an alternative policy vision. They’re far more likely to attack the agenda they’d like to dismantle than the president behind it. In the third round of the Democratic debate season, this translated into far more narrow hits on policy differences and value gaps with the current commander in chief than broadsides addressing the whirlwind of chaos and dysfunction that has characterized much of Trump’s White House tenure.

In Houston, there was little to no mention of complaints that the president may be profiting from his office in unprecedented ways, or of the congressional push to hold him accountable; of the regulatory rollbacks benefiting many of Trump’s industry supporters; or of the Russian efforts to aid his last campaign and his seeming indifference to the prospect that they might do so again.

Across the country, it was clear that Trump had taken a sharply different approach, deciding he doesn’t need to know which candidate he’ll face to make the race a personal one and paint a dire picture of who they are or what they’d do — and just how they’d fall short in the race against him next year.

“Democrats have embraced a dangerous agenda, radical socialism and open borders,” Trump told GOP lawmakers as his 2020 rivals faced off. “Democrats are determined to replicate the most catastrophic failures of world history right here in the United States.”

On Thursday, the president was already looking past that night’s debate stage to the one where he’ll face the Democratic nominee next fall. “As they hit me left and right, I’ll say, ‘African American unemployment is the lowest it’s ever been,’ and just leave the stage and say: ‘Thank you very much. Good luck,'” he said, drawing laughs and applause from Republican lawmakers. “I mean, how do you lose this debate? How do you lose this debate? That’s a tough one to beat.”

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George Kent tells lawmakers he was told to ‘lay low’ after raising concerns about Giuliani

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WASHINGTON — State Department official George Kent told lawmakers in a closed-door deposition Tuesday that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appointed three other Trump administration officials to spearhead the president’s efforts in Ukraine.

According to Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who was present for the deposition, Kent testified that Mulvaney oversaw a meeting where he sidelined State Department officials and tapped three political appointees — Energy Secretary Rick Perry, European Ambassador Gordon Sondland and special envoy Kurt Volker — to oversee Ukraine policy for the United States.

Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state who worked on Ukraine and five other countries, told congressional investigators that the trio called themselves “the three amigos” and elbowed all the other officials at State out of the way, according to Connolly.

This not the first time Mulvaney was mentioned in depositions as part of the impeachment inquiry. President Donald Trump’s former Russia adviser Fiona Hill testified that then-national security adviser John Bolton said he wanted nothing to do with Mulvaney and Giuliani’s objectives in Ukraine, which Bolton said amounted to a “drug deal.”

Just weeks before the May 23 meeting, Marie Yovanovich was told that she was being recalled as the ambassador to Ukraine despite being told that she had done nothing wrong, according to her congressional testimony last week.

According to Connolly, Kent also testified that after the May 23 meeting, he was told to “lay low” by a superior when he raised concerns about Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was working to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

“The way I took it,” Connolly told NBC News, was that Kent “had just finished describing how he had told people that this is wrong, that Giuliani is out of control.”

Kent also said, according to Connolly, that the Trump allies who pushed for Ukraine to investigate corruption made it clear that “POTUS” wanted cooperation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian government.

Kent, who attended meetings and receptions with Zelenskiy and his advisers, said that Sondland and Volker floated the idea of a meeting with Trump, according to Connolly. Text messages between Volker and Sondland released this month also show that Zeleneskiy’s cooperation was expected in order to meet with Trump.

Volker testified behind closed doors last week that Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption in Ukraine but that there was “no quid pro quo” for military and security aid, which the administration had put on hold for nearly four months. Sondland is expected to testify under subpoena on Thursday.

During his nearly 10 hours of testimony, Kent also told members of Congress and their staff that Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden was a board member, was corrupt, according to a separate person who was present in the room. Kent said he told the Obama administration in 2016 that they should not hold an event with Burisma because of the company’s extensive corruption in Ukraine.

Kent was called in to testify because he raised the alarm about the disinformation campaign that Giuliani and his associates pushed regarding Ukraine, according to a emails included in the packet that the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General Michael Atkinson provided to Congress, obtained by NBC News. He sent a series of emails to colleagues alerting them of the “fake news driven smear out of Ukraine.”



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At debate, Democrats agree: Trump is a 'corrupt president'

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At the fourth Democratic presidential debate, 2020 hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris and Tom Steyer take aim at Republican President Trump.

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Buttigieg and Gabbard, both veterans, spar on Syria policy

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, both veterans, disagree on U.S. involvement in Syria during the fourth Democratic presidential debate.

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