Lost in the Sauce: Dec 15 – 21

Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater.

Two important things:

FIRST, the headings will guide you through this piece. The Main Course covers the “big” stories and The Sides covers the “smaller” stories.

SECOND, I took a break from the audio TLDR this week. My apologies, been super busy. It will return for next week’s edition.

Finally:

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Let’s dig in!

Main Course

Impeachment

Final vote

On Wednesday, the House voted to impeach Trump 230-197 on Article 1 (abuse of power) and 229-198 on Article 2 (obstruction of Congress). How each representative voted.

  • Present: Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) voted present in both instances, saying that she “believe[s] President Trump is guilty of wrongdoing” but felt that the impeachment was too partisan.”
  • Republicans: Former Republican, current Independent, Justin Amash (MI) voted in favor of both articles of impeachment; all other Republicans voted against the articles.
  • Democrats: Article 1 saw two Democrats, Collin Peterson (MN) and Jeff Van Drew (NJ), vote in opposition, while three Democrats voted against Article 2 – Peterson, Van Drew, and Jared Golden (ME).
  • Absences: Two Republican representatives were absent from the vote – John Shimkus (IL), who is retiring and was out of the country, and Duncan Hunter (CA), who is banned from voting in Congress after pleading guilty to illegally using campaign money for personal expenses. Democrat Jose Serrano (NY) was also absent after suffering a major health setback related to his battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Trump’s crimes

Before the final vote, the House Rules Committee released a report outlining the “multiple federal crimes” Trump committed, including bribery and wire fraud. “Although President Trump’s actions need not rise to the level of a criminal violation to justify impeachment, his conduct here was criminal,” the report concluded.

Those two criminal charges – bribery and wire fraud – were also identified by a panel of experts in a Just Security piece. Introduced by Mueller’s former top prosecutor Andrew Weissman, this collection of current and former attorneys also allege that Trump violated contempt of congress, campaign finance law, the foreign corrupt practices act, and the Hatch Act.

What’s next

Transmission of articles

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not delivering the articles of impeachment to the Senate until Congress is back in session in January, and may hold them longer in an effort to ensure a fair trial in the Senate. In “The Rules of Procedure and Practice in the Senate When Sitting on Impeachment Trials,” it is written that the Senate cannot initiate a trial until the House appoints impeachment managers (i.e. prosecutors) and notifies the Senate – this notification triggers the Senate to act. There are no rules regarding the time frame of this notification; we are now in a gray area that is ultimately controlled by Pelosi.

The previous week, Senate Majoirty Leader Mitch McConnell admitted in multiple interviews that he will not be an “impartial juror,” saying that “we all know how this is going to end, there’s no chance the president will be removed from office.” McConnell rejected Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s request for witness testimony during the trial. “We don’t create impeachments. We judge them,” McConnell said, blaming the House for “failing” to secure the testimony of officials like Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton.

So where does that leave us? Trump desperately wants a trial, because he wants to be able to defend himself and announce that he’s been acquitted. However, Trump does not want witnesses to testify that will damage his case. McConnell, therefore, is under pressure to hold a trial and prevent it from producing new revelations. He cannot start a trial without the managers and articles from the House. Pelosi is trying to force McConnell to call witnesses, creating a fairer trial, by withholding the manager notification.

  • Opinions and analysis
    • Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe: Holding off on transmitting the articles of impeachment to the Senate “ could strengthen Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) hand in bargaining over trial rules with McConnell because of McConnell’s and Trump’s urgent desire to get this whole business behind them.”
    • Columnist Max Boot: “Democrats have a strong hand to play if they don’t fold prematurely. They can force a fair trial with witness testimony. Trump may be so delusional as to imagine that the proceedings will show that his phone call was “perfect” and that he is the victim of a deep state conspiracy. But McConnell and other Senate Republicans know better, which is why they are so reluctant to fully air the evidence in a way that could engage the attention of the American public.”
    • Columnist Jennifer Rubin: “First, she might lay down the marker: She will not contribute to a sham trial without witnesses. She will send the articles when the Senate agrees to abide by the process Graham demanded before the Clinton trial (when he pleaded for witnesses), as captured by the latest ad by Republicans for the Rule of Law…Pelosi can wait to transmit the articles, now that impeachment is complete, until such time as the cases involving senior officials wind their way through the courts and reach a final ruling.”
    • Historian Joseph Ellis: “Apprise McConnell that she will forward the impeachment recommendation as soon as the Supreme Court rules on the three cases currently pending in the lower courts concerning the president’s refusal to provide the documents and witnesses requested by the House Intelligence Committee and the tax returns requested by the Ways and Means Committee. The Supreme Court has already agreed to take the latter case. Chief Justice John Roberts can be urged to accelerate the schedule in all three cases, and report the verdicts prior to the customary end of the Supreme Court session in June.”

Trump’s unhinged letter

On Tuesday, Trump severely undermined the narrative that he’s not worried about impeachment by sending a six-page letter to Pelosi that can best be described as a window into an unstable mind. Trump begins, “I write to express my strongest and most powerful protest against the partisan impeachment crusade,” calling it “an unprecedented and unconstitutional abuse of power … unequaled in nearly two and a half centuries of American legislative history.”

In rambling paragraphs, the president defends his “totally innocent” phone call with Zelensky, attacks Joe Biden for allegedly attempting “to coerce Ukraine into firing” a prosecutor, and brags about what he sees as his achievements (like the “record stock market” and Space Force). As Jennifer Rubin notes in The Washington Post:

It is difficult to capture how bizarre and frightening the letter is simply by counting the utter falsehoods (e.g., repeating the debunked accusation that Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin was fired for investigating Burisma; claiming Congress is obstructing justice; arguing he was afforded no rights in the process), or by quoting from the invective dripping from his pen.”

Both CNN and Politifact took on the insurmountable task of fact-checking Trump’s letter. But this overlooks what should be the main point of the letter: the President of the United States is not mentally fit for office. Former clinical of professor of psychiatry Dr. Justin Frank: “the letter is a treasure trove for psychiatric residents who want to study the psychotic mind. Trump’s paradoxical sleight of hand makes him think he can hide in plain sight. But he can’t anymore.”

One key missing piece of the letter, as Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissman noted, was a denial of the quid pro quo that Trump is accused of attempting. “So, the President, in his six-page letter, never said something that he has repeatedly said in other contexts, which is that there was ‘no quid pro quo.’ The question is why is that not in a letter that went to Congress. And I think the answer to that is: it is a federal crime to submit a written document knowingly that contains a false statement to Congress.”

All roads lead to Putin

Speaking at a news conference the day after the House impeached Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the proceedings were based on “made up charges” and “completely fabricated reasons.”

Putin: “This is simply a continuation of the (U.S.) intra-political battle where one party that lost an election, the Democratic Party, is trying to achieve results using other methods and means. They first accused Trump of a conspiracy with Russia. Then it turned out there wasn’t a conspiracy and that it couldn’t be the basis for impeachment. Now they have dreamt up (the idea) of some kind of pressure being exerted on Ukraine.” (video)

Putin echoed Republican arguments so well that Trump quickly touted Putin’s defense on Twitter.

  • Julia Davis of the Daily Beast: “Russian state media attacked the Democrats, but saw pure comedy in the GOP making ill-conceived comparisons between Donald Trump and Jesus Christ while likening the impact of the impeachment to the attack on Pearl Harbor…One of the Kremlin’s top propagandists, Vladimir Soloviev, heaped praise upon Trump and rattled off a list of bogus defenses in his coverage of the impeachment proceedings.”

Trump’s embrace of Putin’s defense looked even worse coming just hours after a Washington Post report (non-paywalled article) that Trump’s senior aides believed that Putin convinced him of the conspiracy theories about Ukraine.

After meeting privately in July 2017 with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Trump grew more insistent that Ukraine worked to defeat him, according to multiple former officials familiar with his assertions.

…One former senior White House official said Trump even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because “Putin told me.”

…“He [Trump] would say: ‘This is ridiculous. Everyone knows I won the election. The greatest election in the world. The Russians didn’t do anything. The Ukrainians tried to do something,’ ” one former official said.

More gifts to Putin

The Trump administration is opposing the bipartisan Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, meant to deter and punish Russian aggression and its interference in the 2016 election.

A Trump State Department official sent a 22-page letter to a top Senate chairman on Tuesday making a wide-ranging case against a new sanctions bill. …The administration’s letter says it “strongly opposes” the bill unless it goes through a ton of changes. It argues the legislation is unnecessary and that it would harm America’s European allies–potentially fracturing transatlantic support for current U.S. sanctions on Russia. The bill “risks crippling the global energy, commodities, financial, and other markets,” the letter says, and would target “almost the entire range of foreign commercial activities with Russia.”

…it would require that the State Department and the Intelligence Community report to Congress every 90 days on whether or not the Kremlin is meddling in U.S. elections. That last provision drew pointed criticism from the Trump administration, which said it is “designed for failure.” It “seems impossible” to certify that the Kremlin isn’t meddling in U.S. elections, the letter says

Meanwhile, part of the defense funding bill Trump signed on Friday contained sanctions against companies involved in constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. On its face, it seems like this is strong action against Russia, however as Forbes points out: “analysts say the Trump administration dithered too long for these sanctions to stop the project’s completion.”

The U.S. has little leverage to prevent the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany from being completed, two administration officials said, acknowledging the failure of a years-long effort to head off what officials believe is a threat to European security. (Bloomberg)

Update: Yet another gift to Putin

UPDATE: This morning, Monday, the Daily Beast reported that “the Trump administration is fighting a bill that would punish Turkey for buying Russian missiles, arguing it would drive the countries closer together.”

That legislation, which passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee despite Team Trump’s opposition, would sanction Turkey for buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and would bar the U.S. from selling Turkey F-16 or F-35 fighter jets, including parts, until the country has fully abandoned the S-400 missile defense system it purchased from Russia.

With an added Giuliani connection

“The Senate bill also includes sanctions against Halkbank, a Turkish bank accused of participating in a multi-billion-dollar sanctions-evasion operation on behalf of the Iranian government.” Bloomberg reported tha Trump pressed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help convince the Department of Justice to drop a criminal case against Reza Zarrab – a Turkish-Iranian gold trader accused of playing a central role in the sanctions evasion scheme. Zarrab hired Rudy Giuliani to help him get out of the charges.

  • Sen. Ron Wyden tweeted in October that he launched “an investigation into the Halkbank scandal including whether Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and President Erdogan worked to help the state-owned Turkish bank avoid criminal prosecution for exploiting U.S. financial institutions and engaging in money-laundering.”

Vetos Ukrainian aid

The Trump administration threatened that Trump would veto the $1.4 trillion spending package if it included language requiring future military aid for Ukraine to be released quickly. In essence, Trump would force a government shutdown in order to prevent a provision making it illegal to delay aid to Ukraine more than 45 days.

The language was ultimately left out of mammoth year-end spending legislation that passed the House and Senate this week ahead of a Saturday shutdown deadline… It would have required the White House to swiftly release $250 million in defense money for Ukraine that was part of the spending package… Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland made clear that the Ukraine provision was among a handful of absolute non-starters for Trump. (The Washington Post or non-paywalled)

New Ukraine emails

The Justice Department released a new batch of emails related to the hold on aid to Ukraine, as ordered by a judge in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Center for Public Integrity. A large amount of the material is redacted.

The highlights: (1) Officials were aware that the hold on aid to Ukraine would raise concerns and violate laws; (2) Trump asked about the aid right before his July 25 phone call with Zelensky; (3) just 91 minutes after the phone call with Zelensky ended, the White House ordered the aid to Ukraine be withheld.

Two emails jumped out at us. A June 19 message from a White House Office of Management and Budget official queried the Pentagon’s chief financial officer about the aid. “The President has asked about this,” he wrote, including an article that had appeared that day in the Washington Examiner discussing the funds. That’s the first indication of the White House taking a focused interest in military aid to Ukraine.

And a July 25 email to the Pentagon from the same official shows how sensitive the issue was and how eager the Trump administration was to hide it from others. The email includes a written instruction that the Pentagon “please hold off on” distribution of the funds and says that “given the sensitive nature of the request” the information should be “closely held.” It went out 91 minutes after the end of the now-infamous call between Trump and Ukraine’s prime minister, Vlodymyr Zelensky, timing that may have been coincidental given that the aid was held up by Trump earlier that month. (Center for Public Integrity)

Guiliani admits more

In an interview with The New York Times, Rudy Giuliani admitted to keeping Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apprised of his efforts in Ukraine earlier this year.

In an interview, Mr. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, described how he passed along to Mr. Trump “a couple of times” accounts about how the ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch, had frustrated efforts that could be politically helpful to Mr. Trump. They included investigations involving former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Ukrainians who disseminated documents that damaged Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.

The president in turn connected Mr. Giuliani with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who asked for more information, Mr. Giuliani said. Within weeks, Ms. Yovanovitch was recalled as ambassador at the end of April and was told that Mr. Trump had lost trust in her.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Giuliani said: “I believed that I needed Yovanovitch out of the way She was going to make the investigations difficult for everybody,” referring to his efforts to dig up dirt to smear Joe Biden.

Then, in a Fox News interview on Monday, Giuliani bragged about his success in getting Yovanovitch recalled: “Of course I did. I didn’t need her out of the way. I forced her out because she’s corrupt.” No credible evidence of Giuliani’s claims against the former Ambassador have been produced.

Parnas still free

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas appeared in court last week as prosecutors tried to convince a judge that he was a flight risk and should be held in jail until his trial. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebekah Donaleski revealed in court Tuesday that Parnas hid a $1 million payment from a Russian account that ultimately originated from Russian-friendly Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. The judge did not rescind Parnas’ bail.

  • Reminder: Firtash was a player in Mueller’s case against Paul Manafort. In 2017, the Justice Department accused Firtash of being an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime.” The same 2017 court filing states that Firtash was once involved in a failed multimillion-dollar deal to buy New York’s Drake Hotel with Manafort. The oligarch is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. on bribery and racketeering charges.
  • Further reading: “As part of his legal defense, Firtash’s lawyers have gathered documents that make controversial allegations against former special counsel Robert Mueller and former Vice President Joe Biden. Firtash’s lawyers have passed these documents and other information to associates of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.” (Time)

The Sides

McGahn case

Almost immediately after the House voted to impeach President Trump, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the House lawyers to appraise the court on the status of two cases related to their oversight of the White House: McGahn’s testimony and the grand jury material in Mueller’s report. The order indicates that the court will hear arguments from the House and the Justice Department on whether the cases are moot now that the House has impeached Trump. In its filings on Thursday, the DOJ argued that the testimony and grand jury material is no longer relevant.

It is likely Democrats will continue to push forward in both cases. Prior to the Appeals Court’s order, House General Counsel Douglas Letter argued that the need for this material is still urgent because new evidence could be relevant to the Senate’s impeachment trial. Letter added that the House Judiciary Committee will continue to investigate for its itself: “The committee has continued and will continue [its impeachment] investigations consistent with its own prior statements respecting their importance and purposes.”

Gates sentenced

Former Trump campaign deputy manager Rick Gates was sentenced to 45 days in jail (to be served on weekends), three years of probation, and a $20,000 fine for his part in a criminal financial scheme and for lying to federal investigators.

Prosecutors and Gates both had told the judge the former campaign No. 2 deserves to avoid a prison sentence, largely because of pressure on him not to speak to investigators about the President and because of the amount of time he spent helping investigations — more than 500 hours. Prosecutors said he would pledge to continue helping them if needed.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson used Gates’ sentencing to comment on the conspiracy theories surrounding the Russia investigation:

”Gates’ debriefings, his multiple incriminatory bits of evidence on matters of grave and international importance are a reminder that there was an ample basis for the decision makers at the highest level of the United States Department of Justice — the United States Department of Justice of this administration — to authorize and pursue a law enforcement investigation into whether there was any coordination between the campaign and the known foreign interference in the election, as well as into whether there had been any attempt to obstruct that investigation, and to leave no stone unturned, no matter what the prosecutors determined they had evidence to prove at the end of that investigation.”

”…Those are facts. Those are not alleged facts, those are not alternative facts, or a narrative created by the media. They are established by the bank records themselves. And it’s worth saying that they are not disputed facts. Rick Gates pled guilty and admitted them all. And Paul Manafort pled guilty and admitted them all.”

Flynn denied

Another federal judge shot down efforts by Trump allies to attack Mueller and the FBI: U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed Flynn’s motion to find prosecutors in contempt for allegedly “entrapping” him into accepting a plea deal. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador after the 2016 U.S. election. His sentencing date is now set for Jan. 28.

“The court summarily disposes of Mr. Flynn’s arguments that the FBI conducted an ambush interview for the purpose of trapping him into making false statements and that the government pressured him to enter a guilty plea,” Sullivan wrote. “The record proves otherwise.”

Sullivan added: “And it is undisputed that Mr. Flynn not only made those false statements to the FBI agents, but he also made the same false statements to the Vice President and senior White House officials, who, in turn, repeated Mr. Flynn’s false statements to the American people on national television.”

Manafort state charges

New York Judge Maxwell Wiley dismissed state charges against Paul Manafort, ruling that the indictment violated a state law against double jeopardy. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance charged Manafort with mortgage fraud and more than a dozen other state felonies in March, shortly after he was sentenced in federal court for similar crimes. Vance said he intends to appeal the ruling and “will continue working to ensure that Mr. Manafort is held accountable for the criminal conduct against the People of New York that is alleged in the indictment.”

Don Jr.’s special treatment

ProPublica first revealed that during a hunting trip in Mongolia over the summer, Don Jr. killed an endangered sheep. In a highly unusual move, the Mongolian government retroactively granted Don Jr. a rare hunting permit, after he had already left the region. “It was one of only three permits to be issued in that hunting region,” ProPublica reported.

…the population of argalis [sheep] has plummeted over the last 35 years. The estimated population in the country dropped from 50,000 in 1985 to just 18,000 in 2009…In Mongolia, the permit process has been rife with favoritism, experts say. Obtaining permission to trophy hunt in Mongolia is an insider’s game featuring a poorly tracked quota system…the permits are often arranged by high-level government contacts in ways privy only to those in the know…”

According to the Palm Beach Daily News, the ambassador of Mongolia and foreign minister visited Mar-a-Lago in the spring while Don Jr. was celebrating Easter at the resort, just four months before his Mongolian trip.

Following public outcry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will review allegations that Don Jr. may have illegally killed a rare sheep and imported parts of the animal back to the U.S.

The Center for Biological Diversity, in a Dec. 13 letter, asked FWS law enforcement to evaluate whether the reported hunt and retroactive permit violated any U.S. or Mongolian laws. Under the Lacey Act of 1900, it is illegal to import animal trophies in contravention with foreign laws and individuals found in violation can be subject to fines and prison time.

Van Drew

Representative of New Jersey’s 2nd congressional district Jeff Van Drew switched parties after the House voted to impeach Trump. In a White House press conference beside the president, Van Drew pledged his “undying support” for Trump now that he is a Republican: “I believe that this is just a better fit for me. This is who I am,” Van Drew told reporters.

According to two Democrats interviewed by the Daily Beast, Van Drew often criticized Trump in private, calling him stupid and mentally unstable. “He was almost obsessively anti-Trump,” said one of the Democrats. “His only justification, and this was adamant, was that he thinks that [impeachment] will help Trump win.”

Immediately after Van Drew pledged his support, a pro-Trump PAC (Committee to Defend the President) announced it will air $200,000 worth of television ads in Van Drew’s 2nd Congressional District, plus another $50,000 in digital ads.

Voter Suppression

A top reelection advisor for Trump’s 2020 campaign, Justin Clark, was caught on tape telling influential Republicans in swing-state Wisconsin that the party has “traditionally” relied on voter suppression to compete in battleground states. Clark went on to praise the relaxed election rules in Wisconsin: “Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.”

Republican officials publicly signaled plans to step up their Election Day monitoring after a judge in 2018 lifted a consent decree in place since 1982 that barred the Republican National Committee from voter verification and other “ballot security” efforts. Critics have argued the tactics amount to voter intimidation. (The AP)

Domestic terrorist in state legislature

new report found that Republican Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, of Spokane (eastern WA), “planned, engaged in, and promoted a total of three armed conflicts of political violence against the United States.” Two of these instances involve Shea’s support of rancher Cliven Bundy. The independent investigators behind the report determined that Shea “participated in an act of domestic terrorism” when he took part in the armed Bundy militia takeover of the Oregon Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

Shea has refused to resign, arguing that like Trump he is a victim of forces out to get him: “Like we are seeing with our President this is a sham investigation meant to silence those of us who stand up against attempts to disarm and destroy our great country,” Shea wrote on Facebook. “I will not back down, I will not give in, I will not resign.”

  • Background: From his Wikipedia page: In October 2018, Shea acknowledged that he had distributed a four page manifesto which called for the killing of non-Christian males if a war were to occur and they do not agree to follow fundamentalist biblical law. In April 2019, The Guardian published records from a right-wing chat group of four people that Shea participated in, where Shea used an alias of ‘True Warrior’ in Latin. Other members in the chat group discussed carrying out surveillance, intimidation and violent attacks on political enemies, including Antifa activists and “communists.”
  • Further reading: 15 easily missed details from deep inside the Rep. Matt Shea report

Immigration news

  • “A federal judge skewered the Trump administration Thursday in advancing a lawsuit over the 1,700% increase in civil arrests that New York courthouses have seen as the government flouts a centuries-old tradition of common-law privilege.” Courthouse News
  • “Lawyers representing migrants seeking asylum at the border say U.S. border agents are systematically writing the same wrong address on the migrants’ papers, leaving hundreds with no way to receive communications from the government about their cases and undermining their ability to win asylum in the United States.” NBC News
  • “President Donald Trump’s border wall is facing a surprising new legal hurdle down in Texas: an obscure legislative provision crafted by House Republicans in 2014 when the GOP was targeting then-President Barack Obama’s budget powers. The amendment, carried forward into current law, has resurfaced with a vengeance in El Paso, Texas. U.S District Court Judge David Briones has been quoting back its words in a series of rulings against Trump’s decision to take $3.6 billion from military construction projects to expedite his wall.” Politico
  • Must read article on for-profit immigration prisons:” ‘These people are profitable’: Under Trump, private prisons are cashing in on ICE detainees. Private prison companies have detained immigrants for decades, but that business has exploded under President Trump.” USA Today
  • “A whistleblower report provided to BuzzFeed News alleges U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “systematically provided inadequate medical and mental health care” to detained migrants, leading to complications that included the removal of part of an 8-year-old boy’s forehead. The report published Thursday says poor medical care contributed to two preventable surgeries and contributed to four deaths in detention.” ABC News
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