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Impeachment inquiry
Trump requested 'favor' from Ukraine's president

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pressed the leader of Ukraine to “look into” Joe Biden, Trump’s potential 2020 re-election rival, as well as the president’s lingering grievances from the 2016 election, according to a rough transcript of a summer phone call that is now at the center of Democrats’ impeachment investigation.

Trump repeatedly prodded Volodymyr Zelenskiy, new president of the European nation, to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. At one point in the July conversation, Trump said, “I would like for you to do us a favor.”

The president’s request for such help from a foreign leader set the parameters for the major U.S. debate to come — just the fourth impeachment investigation of an American president in the nation’s history. The initial response highlighted the deep divide between the two parties: Democrats said the call amounted to a “shakedown” of a foreign leader, while Trump — backed by the vast majority of Republicans — dismissed it as a “nothing call.”

The call is one part of a whistleblower complaint about the president’s activities that have roiled Washington and led Democrats to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry of the Republican president on the cusp of the 2020 campaign.

Trump spent Wednesday meeting with world leaders at the United Nations. Included on his schedule: a meeting with Zelenskiy.

In a light-hearted appearance before reporters, Zelenskiy said he didn’t want to get involved in American elections, but added, “Nobody pushed me.” Trump chimed in, “In other words, no pressure.”

The next steps in the impeachment inquiry were quickly developing a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the probe. A rush of lawmakers, notably moderate Democrats from districts where Trump remains popular, set aside political concerns and urged action.

One option Pelosi is considering, pressed by some lawmakers, is to focus the impeachment inquiry specifically on the Ukraine issues rather than the many others Congress has already been investigating.

“For me, that’s what’s important,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., among the new lawmakers in Congress with national security backgrounds. She said it’s “just an egregious idea that the president of the United States can contact a foreign leader and influence him for dirt on a political opponent. ... That can’t be normalized.”

Pelosi announced the impeachment probe Tuesday after months of personal resistance to a process she has warned would be divisive for the country and risky for her party. But after viewing the transcript on Wednesday, Pelosi declared: “Congress must act.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the House had no choice but to start the impeachment inquiry.

“When a member of President Trump’s own national security team takes the unprecedented step of filing an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint over the President’s improper behavior, it should set off alarm bells for every American,” Kaine said in a statement Wednesday. “And when his Administration tries to violate the law requiring that the whistleblower report be provided to Congress, those alarm bells grow louder. The time for stonewalling is over, and the public deserves to see the President held accountable for his actions.”

Trump has all but dared Democrats to move toward impeachment, confident that the specter of an investigation led by the opposition party will bolster rather than diminish his political support.

“It’s a joke. Impeachment, for that?” Trump said during a news conference in New York. He revived the same language he has used for months to deride the now-finished special counsel investigation into election interference, declaring impeachment “a hoax” and the “single greatest witch hunt in American history.”

Republicans largely stood by the president and dismissed the notion that the rough transcript revealed any wrongdoing by Trump.

“I think it was a perfectly appropriate phone call, it was a congratulatory phone call,” said Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican. “The Democrats continually make these huge claims and allegations about President Trump, and then you find out there’s no ‘there’ there.”

Just weeks after intelligence leaders asked the Justice Department and FBI to consider examining the phone call, the head of the department’s criminal division determined there was not sufficient cause to launch an investigation, senior Justice Department officials said.

Department officials and career public integrity prosecutors reviewed a rough transcript of the call and verified its authenticity, but — because a case was not opened — took no other steps, such as conducting interviews, the officials said. They looked only at whether Trump might have violated campaign finance laws, not federal corruption statutes, even though some legal analysts said there seemed to be evidence of both.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement that although Trump mentioned Barr in the call, the president had “not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything related to former Vice President Joe Biden or his son,” nor had Barr discussed Ukraine with Giuliani.

The Trump administration also continued to raise questions about the whistleblower’s motives on Wednesday. According to a Justice Department official, the intelligence community’s inspector general said in letter to the acting director of national intelligence that the whistleblower could have “arguable political bias.”

The conversation with Zelenskiy took place on July 25, one day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill about his investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.

In the 30-minute phone call, Trump encourages the Ukrainian leader to talk with Giuliani and Barr about Biden and son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Immediately after saying they would be in touch, Trump references Ukraine’s economy, saying: “Your economy is going to get better and better I predict. You have a lot of assets. It’s a great country.”

At another point in the conversation, Trump asked Zelenskiy for a favor: his help looking into a cybersecurity firm that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and determined it was carried out by Russia. Trump has falsely suggested Crowdstrike was owned by a Ukrainian.

In the days before the call, Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine — prompting speculation that he was holding out the money as leverage for information on the Bidens. Trump has denied that charge and the aid package does not come up in the conversation with Zelenskiy.

Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine.

Hunter Biden served on the gas company’s board at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.

Biden said it was a “tragedy” that Trump was willing to “put personal politics above his sacred oath.” He singled out Trump’s attempts to pull Barr and the Justice Department into efforts to investigate him, calling it “a direct attack on the core independence of that department, an independence essential to the rule of law.”

While the possibility of impeachment has hung over Trump for many months, the likelihood of a probe had faded after special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation ended without a clear directive for lawmakers.

Since then, the House committees have revisited aspects of the Mueller probe while also launching new inquiries into Trump’s businesses and various administration scandals that all seemed likely to drag on for months.

Details of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine prompted Democrats to quickly shift course. By the time Pelosi announced the probe, two-thirds of House Democrats had announced moving toward impeachment probes.

Richmond's homegrown ballerina, Maggie Small, set to retire with final shows this weekend; her partner, Fernando Sabino, follows in the spring

Richmond Ballet’s Maggie Small is set to reprise her role as the city’s homegrown ballerina for three final performances before retiring this weekend.

Born and raised in Richmond, her 16-season career is coming full circle as it ends with the same piece in which she made her company debut as an apprentice: “Carmina Burana.”

“It’s this ballet that’s near and dear to my heart so I love the idea of closing out with it,” Small, who turned 34 this week, said during an interview in the lobby of the ballet’s building off Canal Street downtown after rehearsal last week.

Eager to prove herself, she jumped at the chance to dance in the ensemble back in 2003, but the opportunity came because another dancer was injured. Now more than a decade later — and after years of battling injuries that sidelined her while others danced the role she was meant to — the wear and tear on her own body has forced her out of her tutu and pointe shoes.

But Small’s not planning to go far. She’ll take off Monday and Tuesday — same as all the company’s dancers after a weekend of performances — and then start her new role with the company as grant writer next Wednesday.

“It’s still thrilling. It’s still fulfilling. It still speaks to my soul in a way that nothing does. But I want to be able do it well,” Small said of ballet. “I genuinely feel like I’ve made the right decision for myself. To maintain the love of the art and to feel like I’m doing it a service, not taking away from what it can be. By moving into this new position, I’m excited to love the art in a different way.”

Her final shows — premiering Friday night and running through Sunday afternoon — also open the company’s 2019-20 season, at the end of which her longtime dance partner, Fernando Sabino, is also retiring.

In “Carmina Burana,” Small will dance one of the principal roles with Sabino, Cody Beaton and Ira White, who like Small came up through The School of Richmond Ballet. The Contemporary Classics lineup also includes George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” which Small will also perform in.

“You end up dancing with so many different people. The whole ensemble is on stage for the very end with the big powerful music,” Small said in describing “Carmina Burana,” which also features the Richmond Symphony, VCU Commonwealth Singers and Richmond Symphony Chorus. “We exchange partners throughout the ballet, so one of the things I’m really enjoying about it as we rehearse is that I’m getting to have a last moment with a lot of people that I’ve worked with for a long time.”

Small and Sabino have had a somewhat singular partnership for the company. They arrived at the same time and were often paired together, which for a small company like Richmond Ballet is unusual. Retired ballerina turned spokeswoman Valerie Tellmann-Henning, who spent 17 years in the company, said she danced with nine different Cavaliers, the principal male counterpart to her Sugar Plum Fairy, in the ballet’s annual performance of “The Nutcracker.”

“Maggie’s only had Fernando,” Tellmann-Henning said. “They’ve had a magnetic spark that no one can really describe.”

Sabino had already made his decision to retire, so Small’s announcement didn’t affect his decision.

“I will miss sharing moments with her onstage,” he said in an email. “We had a unique partnership that lasted the 13 years we were in the company together. We’ve created so many works together. It was very fun and I will miss dancing with her.”

While Small said she was sad to leave the vigorous lifestyle of being a full-time athlete behind her, she’s “excited about the possibilities,” and the opportunities she’s missed out on while dancing.

“You know, I’ve never been skiing,” Small said. She paused, as if she imagining herself atop a snow-covered mountain. “I probably won’t go skiing immediately after, but I’m excited to see what other physical activity intrigues me.”

Small said she’s taken advice from many of the company’s former dancers, including Tellmann-Henning.

“I keep telling her there is life on the outside,” Tellmann-Henning said, adding that Small is a perfect fit for grant writing. “She writes as elegantly as she dances. Plus she already knows all the company’s repertoire, and its programs coming up through the school.”

Tellmann-Henning said Small always set the bar high, not only for herself, but for everyone. Small is the first one to the studio — she said she turns on the lights every morning — arriving an hour-and-a-half to two hours before company class at 10 a.m. Then, after the pair of three-hour blocks of daily rehearsals, split by a lunch break, Small returns home to care for her body.

Other former dancers have been sharing their memories of Small on the company’s social media accounts as they count down the days until her final performances with the hashtag #MaggieMoments.

“I remember her as this little girl with stars in her eyes and such focus on the role she was about to portray,” said Kristen Gallagher, who remembered Small playing Clara in the 1997 production of “The Nutcracker.” “It was apparent back then the ballet bug had bit her, and besides her obvious beauty, she had enormous talent to go with it.”

Phillip Skaggs, who Small sheepishly described as the “heartthrob” of the company and her 2003 partner in “Carmina Burana,” also remembered Small from the holiday favorite, but a much earlier one.

“She was one of four young ladies who got to dance en pointe around the lead ballerina,” he wrote. “Her newborn ‘baby colt legs’ were just enough to get her through the tough choreography, but added with her big personality and laser focus, she was the only dancer you could watch. If a prize were to be awarded to the person who was having the most fun on stage, I would have chosen Maggie.”

He danced with Small in his final performances when the company toured in China.

“She not only brought her usual brand of fierce but she also showed a humble and kind compassion that helped me get through my final shows,” Skaggs said.

Richmond Ballet Artistic Director Stoner Winslett said she’s sad to see Small leave as a dancer, but happy to have her stay on.

“Being a ballet dancer is such a special privilege. All of us who have been lucky enough to dance are keenly aware that it is a gift with a finite life and that is part of what makes it so precious,” Winslett said in a email. “Obviously we will miss her; however, we celebrate Maggie in these performances as she is a lovely dancer and an extraordinary artist and person.”

Describing some of Small’s most popular roles, Stoner said: “Maggie has a charisma that is infectious. Whether she is dancing Cinderella or the Snake in ‘The Nutcracker’ or a world premiere contemporary work, she brings a performance energy to her work that captivates audiences, carries them right along with her and embodies the Richmond Ballet mission of ‘uplifting and awakening the human spirit.’”

Small spent most of her dance career in Richmond, from the time she started dancing at age 3 or 4. During the summers, which the company takes off, she took opportunities to explore works with other companies and choreographers, but she always returned home.

“This is where I feel the most comfortable to be able to pursue my art and push myself and be guided correctly,” Small said. “I love the people I work with, and the people I work for. I love the rep that we do.

“As a dancer, that’s hard to find in general, and that I was able to find that in my hometown, where I can share with the teachers on the second floor — they’re the people I trained with and still come to the shows and I can still come to them if I need advice — I think that’s a really unique way to have had a career in the dance world. And I’m excited to share one more time with them.”

Her new role, just like her old one, is about pushing the art of dance out into the world for more people to see and appreciate it.

“I just want ballet to thrive,” she said. “To share it, because that’s really the point. Ballet is not just for me to experience and I want to continue to inspire to come see it and participate in the art.”

PHOTOS: Richmond Ballet dancer Maggie Small to retire

PHOTOS: Richmond Ballet dancer Maggie Small to retire

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Region's top prosecutors collaborate on root causes of crime; first community discussion is Friday

Commonwealth’s attorneys in Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties are collaborating on an approach to address the root causes of crime, which they say knows no boundaries.

“None of our cities have walls,” said Richmond’s interim top prosecutor, Colette McEachin, who is continuing a push that began under her predecessor, Michael Herring.

In February, the office released an 11-page discussion guide titled “Beyond Containment” meant to spur a citywide conversation examining some of the reasons why people break the law, including issues of poverty, housing, education, policing, poor health, cyclical trauma and race relations, and then ultimately to come up with ways to address the issues, not the crime. But after an underwhelming reception by leaders at City Hall, Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor and Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Miles embraced the idea.

“Scott and Shannon both enthusiastically agreed that if anything happens in one [locality], it affects the others,” McEachin said. “I don’t think any of the elements in the ‘Beyond Containment’ paper escape either of our municipalities. Drive down [U.S.] 301 from Henrico to Chesterfield, you’ll see good and bad in all three.”

As part of their collaboration, they are planning a series of community discussions. The first summit, which explores “the collision at the intersection of criminal justice and poverty,” is Friday from 2 to 5 p.m. at Virginia Union University’s Claude G. Perkins Living and Learning Center. It is free and open to the public.

McEachin, Taylor and Miles will be panelists for Friday’s discussion, which will be moderated by Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams.

“One of the ways that community stakeholders and the community itself will benefit from this approach is to be in the same room at the same time, not just hearing what experts say but talking to those experts,” McEachin said in a promotional video for the discussion.

McEachin, in a recent interview, said they don’t want this to be a “top heavy” conversation, meaning that the attorneys want input from the community, especially those with expertise in the given topic or affected by root causes.

“We’re looking for guidance from our community,” Miles said in the video.

At least four more sessions are in the works, after which strategy groups will organize to propose reformed or new policies.

Taylor and McEachin said they weren’t looking to adopt uniform or standardized solutions, because despite proximity and some similar challenges, their respective communities are distinct.

“No one should be surprised that these factors are contributing to criminal activity or behavior,” Taylor said. “Most of these factors have long been proven. The difference here is how we’re addressing them.”

As prosecutors, they sometimes don’t look at each individual defendant and figure out why they’ve offended, but rather are focused on proving guilt and seeking punishment. This more compassionate approach reminds them to look at the why.

“Maybe I stole the car because it’s a cool car and I’m 16 and I wanted a car,” Taylor said, giving a hypothetical. “Or maybe I stole the baby food because I’m a single mom and poor and homeless.”

The idea to look at the “Beyond Containment” approach regionally came out of a work group where area prosecutors had already been meeting to discuss regionwide approaches to suspended licenses, marijuana possession and cash bond.

“If we came together, the city wouldn’t be able to ignore it,” Taylor said.

Conversations surrounding decentralizing poverty have historically occurred within the municipality that is trying to break it, without much thought to where those who are displaced will go. With the redevelopment of Creighton Court in Richmond, Taylor said, many of those residents are likely to look to Henrico for housing and the county needs to be ready.

“It’s not always about fixing something, but about having a plan in place,” she said. “And not repeating the same mistake.”

Herring also will be involved in the discussions. He resigned in July for a job at McGuireWoods and tapped McEachin not only to lead the office, but also to continue this analysis.

McEachin recently won the Democratic nomination to run in November for the remainder of Herring’s term. She doesn’t have an opponent for the general election, so the race is all but secured.

Taylor and Miles, both Democrats, face Republican challengers in the upcoming election. C. Owen Inge Conway, a criminal defense attorney in Henrico who was ousted from the prosecutor’s office when Taylor took over in 2012, is running against Taylor; and Stacey T. Davenport, who lives in Chesterfield and works as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Henrico under Taylor, is taking on Miles.