Lost in the Sauce: Feb. 2 – 8
Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater.
THIS WEEK: Trump admits to retaliation, Giuliani gives Biden dirt directly to Barr, another pressure campaign on Ukraine is revealed, Erik Prince under the microscope, DeVos refuses to testify, Parnas trial date set, sacred Native American burial site destroyed for Trump’s wall, and more…
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Let’s dig in!
Next steps following impeachment
The Ukraine investigation proved one thing: the House must aggressively use its power to check the administration’s rampant abuses. Trump released the aid to Ukraine just two days after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff announced an investigation into the matter. The following 5 months were more successful in exposing corruption than the first 8 months that the Democrats controlled the House. In those 8 months, the House failed time and again to hold officials in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas. House leaders must not revert to that passive approach now that Trump is impeached but not convicted.
What can Democrats do? To start:
- Subpoena Bolton immediately. Fight in court if necessary.
- Call Lev Parnas to testify.
- Investigate Attorney General Barr’s involvement in the Ukrainian scheme and in his investigation of the Russia probe
As The Washington Post points out, there is no shortage of abuses that require congressional oversight:
But Democrats don’t need to be as shameless as Republicans to be successful. The Trump administration has served up a target-rich landscape to investigate; House Democrats need not fall prey to conspiracy theories or pursue politically motivated vendettas. Why was former national security adviser John Bolton concerned the president was granting personal favors to autocrats? Why has the president been handing out pardons and commutations to war criminals and conservative political allies while largely ignoring other applicants? What are the details of the president’s reported promises to pardon Department of Homeland Security officials if they would violate the law to build his election-year wall along the southern border? Even allies outside the administration are worthy targets: How about investigating reports that supporters of the president are handing out thousands of dollars in cash to voters.
Republican lawmakers have made it clear they are not going to let the Ukraine issue die – in fact, they’ve said they will continue to do Trump’s dirty work for him. From Sen. Rand Paul revealing who he believed to be the whistleblower on the Senate floor to Lindsey Graham’s promise to subpoena the whistleblower, all signs indicate the next nine months will be full of disinformation, propaganda, and right wing smears in an effort to protect President Trump.
- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham told Face the Nation that the Justice Department has established a new “process” by which Rudy Giuliani will send his Biden “dirt” directly to the Attorney General. Graham continued by praising Giuliani, calling him a “crime fighter” who is “loyal” to Trump.
- In an interview with NPR last week, Giuliani said that he was still seeking “more information” about Biden’s activities in Ukraine. When asked whether he was doing that on the authority of the president, he replied: “He hasn’t told me not to do it.”
- The Treasury Department turned over “highly sensitive and closely held financial records” about Hunter and Joe Biden and their associates to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “Applying a blatant double standard, Trump administration agencies like the Treasury Department are rapidly complying with Senate Republican requests — no subpoenas necessary — and producing ‘evidence’ of questionable origin,” ranking Democratic senator on the Finance Committee Ron Wyden said through a spokesperson.
- Grassley and Johnson also requested records of Hunter Biden’s travel from the Secret Service. In a letter to Secret Service Director James Murray, the Chairman state that their panels “are reviewing potential conflicts of interest posed by the business activities of Hunter Biden and his associates during the Obama administration.”
On Friday, Trump fired two witnesses who provided damaging testimony in the impeachment hearings – Ambassador to the EU George Sondland and National Security Council Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman – as well as Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who was not involved in the Ukraine scandal other than being the twin brother of Alexander. In the two preceding days, since his acquittal, Trump railed against those who stood against him, calling them “evil,” “corrupt” and “crooked,” while his press secretary declared that those who hurt the president “should pay for” it.
David Pressman, Colonel Vindman’s lawyer: “There is no question in the mind of any American why this man’s job is over, why this country now has one less soldier serving it at the White House. Lt. Col. Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth. His honor, his commitment to right, frightened the powerful.”
Strikingly, some Republican senators tried to convince Trump not to fire Sondland… yet remained silent on the departure of the Vindmans.
The senators were concerned that it would look bad for Mr. Trump to dismiss Mr. Sondland and argued that it was unnecessary, since the ambassador was already talking with senior officials about leaving after the Senate trial, the people said. The senators told White House officials that Mr. Sondland should be allowed to depart on his own terms, which would have reduced any political backlash.
Senators Susan Collins, Thom Tillis, Martha McSally, and Ron Johnson were among those who warned against firing Sondland, a major donor to Senate Republicans and the party as a whole. The senators were not concerned about Vindman.
In the open
At first, the White House tried to defend firing the Vindmans by claiming it was part of a larger plan to cut down on the size of the National Security Council staff. Then Don Jr. sent a tweet admitting that Vindman was fired because of his testimony:
Allow me a moment to thank—and this may be a bit of a surprise—Adam Schiff. Were it not for his crack investigation skills, @realDonaldTrump might have had a tougher time unearthing who all needed to be fired. Thanks, Adam! 🤣 #FullOfSchiff
President Trump followed with a tweet of his own, admitting that Vindman’s testimony played a role in his dismissal:
Fake News @CNN & MSDNC keep talking about “Lt. Col.” Vindman as though I should think only how wonderful he was. Actually, I don’t know him, never spoke to him, or met him (I don’t believe!) but, he was very insubordinate, reported contents of my “perfect” calls incorrectly, &…….was given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information. In other words, “OUT”.
Those two tweets indicate that Vindman’s firing, technically a “reassignment,” is retaliation that breaks federal law known as the Presidential Policy Directive 19 (PPD-19). However, the White House can try to exploit a loophole by arguing that “testifying to Congress does not meet the strict requirements of PPD-19 and its implementing regulations.” Another law that could potentially have been broken: 18 USC 1513, which states that it is illegal to retaliate against a witness or informant.
Unfortunately, Trump has broken many laws without being held accountable by the Republican-controlled Senate or his own Justice Department. There is little reason to believe Vindman’s firing will turn out any differently.
What will be the effect of such retaliation? It is clearly intended to send a message that if you cooperate with Congress or you tell the politically-inconvenient truth about the president, you will be publicly attacked, shamed, and fired.
“Every career official will tell you it’s not just chilling but frightening,” said Fernando Cutz, who served on the NSC as a senior adviser to then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster before they both left in 2018. “You’re seeing things happen in an unprecedented way that even Nixon didn’t do. . . . The broader message to career officials is that you can’t speak up. Even if you see something illegal, something unethical, you can’t speak up. That’s the message the president wants to send.” The Washington Post
The White House is expected to dismiss more National Security Council staffers this week, cutting down on experts whose knowledge is critical to setting effective policy and – more importantly to Trump – reducing the number of possible dissenting voices. “As of December, 40 to 45 staff detailed to the NSC had already been sent back to the departments and agencies where they originally worked,” CNN reports.
Schumer asks IGs to step up
This morning, we learned that Schumer is sending letters to all 74 inspectors general asking them to disclose if there’s been any retaliation against whistleblowers who have raised concerns about potential presidential misconduct.
Not only is the retaliation against LTC Vindman, the anonymous whistleblower, and others like them shameful, it is also illegal. For decades, Republicans and Democrats have worked in a bipartisan manner to protect whistleblowers and encourage federal employees to report wrongdoing, mismanagement, and corruption. As a result, all federal employees have the legal right to make protected disclosures to Congress and to Inspectors General anonymously and free from reprisals.
Regrettably, these rights are now being challenged like never before, creating a chilling effect among those who, in previous administrations, may have come forward to expose abuses of power. If this chilling effect persists, it will inhibit our ability to hold public officials and institutions accountable and it will irreparably harm the ability of Congress to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibilities.
In a letter to Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine at the Defense Department, Schumer said the firings of NSC experts were “part of a dangerous, growing pattern of retaliation against those who report wrongdoing only to find themselves targeted by the president and subject to his wrath and vindictiveness.”
In addition to asking Fine to investigate all acts of retaliation against those who reported presidential misconduct, Schumer also requested that the acting inspector general report the last time that personnel at the Defense Department were informed of their rights as whistleblowers. He also asked that Fine assure Congress in writing that the Pentagon’s general counsel would not allow retaliation against “anyone who has, or in the future makes, protected disclosures of presidential misconduct to Congress or Inspectors General.” (Politico)
More pressure on Ukraine
Not only did the Trump administration freeze $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, and not only is the administration still refusing to invite Ukrainian President Zelensky to the White House- the Trump administration is currently withholding approval for at least six commercial orders for arms and ammunition from US companies to Ukraine, despite the country already making significant down payments. Together the six deals are worth roughly $30 million and have been delayed for at least a year.
Ukrainian officials told Buzzfeed News that “they haven’t been able to get any answers from the Trump administration about why the deals, which typically take around two months to approve and must be licensed by the State Department, haven’t received approval.”
The Ukrainian and US officials agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News because they said the sales are vital to Ukraine’s national security amid the simmering conflict with Russia and its separatist proxy forces in the country’s east. The sales would also strengthen Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s negotiating position as he pushes for lasting peace with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- Trump Tower Kyiv: We learned a small tidbit last week about the lengths Ukrainian officials were willing to go to last year to get the $391 million aid released. One member of Zelensky’s team reportedly “urged him to offer Trump the opportunity to build a Trump Tower in Kyiv” in order to please the U.S. president.
- Pressure on two presidents: “Text messages obtained by TPM show that former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko was scheduled to announce investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election to John Solomon of The Hill in March 2019. Ultimately, Poroshenko backed out of the interview at the last minute. The planned appearance came in the wake of a late February meeting that the then-Ukrainian leader held with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, in which they offered what Parnas has described as a “quid pro quo” on behalf of Rudy Giuliani and his client, President Trump: announce investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election, and receive in return a state visit to the U.S. that could bolster Poroshenko’s re-election chances.”
Another Emoluments case bites the dust
A three-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a case brought against Trump by 215 Democratic members of Congress alleging that Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Judges Karen Henderson and Thomas Griffith, both Republican-appointees, were joined by Clinton-appointee Judge David Tatel in the unanimous decision that individual members of Congress cannot sue the president on behalf of the entire Congress.
“Our conclusion is straightforward because the members — 29 senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives — do not constitute a majority of either body and are, therefore, powerless to approve or deny the president’s acceptance of foreign emoluments,” the judges wrote.
The dismissal was not unexpected, as legal experts generally viewed the case as the weakest of the three Emoluments-related lawsuits currently in the court system. A ruling in the lawsuit brought by the Attorneys General of Maryland and D.C. in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., is expected this year. The third case, involving watchdog agency CREW and multiple hotel and restaurant owners, is pending in the New York court system
Overcharging Secret Service
President Trump’s company charges the Secret Service for the rooms agents use while protecting him at his luxury properties — billing U.S. taxpayers at rates as high as $650 per night, according to federal records and people who have seen receipts.
…And at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, the Secret Service was charged $17,000 a month to use a three-bedroom cottage on the property, an unusually high rent for homes in that area, according to receipts from 2017. Trump’s company billed the government even for days when Trump wasn’t there. (The Washington Post)
For comparison, the maximum amount federal employees can charge the government for their stays in the same area is between $118-203 a day according to the U.S. General Services Administration.
Erik Prince complaint
Almost a year later, the Justice Department is finally getting around to reviewing a complaint submitted by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff alleging that Erik Prince “knowingly and willfully provided materially false testimony to” his committee during its investigation into Russian election interference in 2017.
In his April 30 letter, Schiff highlighted six instances in which information revealed about Prince in Mueller’s report diverged from his testimony in November 2017 before the committee. He homed in on Prince’s meeting, in the Seychelles in January 2017, with a Russian banker who is reportedly close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, an encounter Prince later told congressional officials took place purely by chance. (Politico)
Another batch of Mueller memos
Buzzfeed published the latest release of memos from Mueller’s investigation, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Among the highlights are snippets from the FBI’s interviews with Rick Gates, including his version of events surrounding the Trump Tower meeting:
Gates was aware of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower which was attended by Manafort and others. Gates learned of this meeting before it happened. Gates attended a “Family Meeting” every Monday morning with DTJ, ivanka, Eric, Kushner, Hicks, Lewandoski, and Manafort. At the Family Meeting on June 9, 2016, DTJ said he was planning to meet with someone who had information on Hilary Clinton’s illegal contributions through the Clinton Foundation. Manafort laughed and told DTJ to be careful as such things were often “B.S.”
Another interesting tidbit: Trump met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman around two months after a meeting in which George Nader told Don Jr. that bin Salman and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan wanted to support the Trump campaign:
Gates was aware of Trump meeting with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia a week before the election at Trump’s private residence.
Reminder: The entirety of the FBI’s interviews with Jared Kushner have been redacted. The DOJ claims it will release an unclassified version…sometime.
Jason Leopold: “The [government] told us intelligence agencies were reviewing Jared Kushner’s FBI interview summary for classified information and that is why it wasn’t turned over to us last month. But the redactions here are attorney client privilege (not deliberative process).”
A Manhattan court the trial of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman to begin on Oct. 5, just weeks before election day.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors are attempting to hack into more than 20 electronic devices belonging to Parnas and Fruman, both of whom refused to provide the government with passwords. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos told the court that prosecutors are still considering whether to file additional charges against the defendants. A decision on the matter is expected in the coming months.
Gaetz bar complaint
The Miami-Dade Democratic Party on Thursday filed a formal bar complaint against Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), urging the Florida Bar to sanction the Trump acolyte for storming a secure congressional facility during the closed-door phase of the impeachment inquiry.
“Both intrusions are improper, unethical, and were meant only to feed Gaetz’s unjustifiably large ego and penchant for grandstanding,” the complaint said, per the New Times. “These instances were in direct violation of the operative rules contained in the 116th Congress Regulations for Use of Deposition authority.” (Law & Crime)
How to get a pardon
…all but five of the 24 people who have received clemency from Trump had a line into the White House or currency with his political base…As the administration takes its cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News, thousands of other offenders who followed Justice Department rules are waiting, passed over as cases that were brought directly to Trump leaped to the front of the line.
…Most of Trump’s grants of clemency have gone to well-connected offenders who had not filed petitions with the pardon office or did not meet its requirements… Of the five people who received clemency without White House connections or appeal to Trump’s political base, one went to a man whose pardon from Obama mistakenly omitted one conviction. The other four were for men who committed minor crimes in the 1980s and ’90s. (The Washington Post)
The list of retaliation against whistleblowers, victims, and complainants in the Trump administration continues to grow:
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie personally sought damaging information about a congressional aide who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital, according to an anonymous complaint to the House committee the woman works for… In addition, a former senior official with direct knowledge of the matter said Wilkie discussed damaging information he collected about the aide and suggested using it to discredit her. (ProPublica)
DeVos refuses to testify
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos refused to provide testimony before the House Oversight Committee, instead choosing to attend several of Trump’s re-election campaign events. The committee is threatening to subpoena DeVos for stonewalling multiple requests for documents and attempts to schedule testimony dates.
The Committee sent a letter in December 2019 inviting DeVos to testify in January regarding “critical issues facing the Department, including oversight of federal student loans, policies on campus sexual harassment and assault, protections for students at for-profit colleges, the independence of the Department’s Inspector General, compliance with collective bargaining requirements, and other matters.”
- NBC News: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that the state will sue the Trump administration over its decision to bar New Yorkers from enrolling in Global Entry and other programs that allow travelers to pass quickly through airport security and customs… The [Trump administration’s] decision comes after New York passed a law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
- CBS News: A national monument in Arizona, home to rare species and sacred Native American burial sites, is being blown up this week as part of construction for President Trump’s border wall…”Controlled blasting” inside Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument began this week without consultation from the Native American nation whose ancestral land it affects…The explosions are occurring on Monument Hill, a burial site for the Tohono O’odham Nation.
- PBS News: At least 138 people deported to El Salvador from the U.S. in recent years were subsequently killed…A majority of the deaths documented by Human Rights Watch in the report being released Wednesday occurred less than a year after the deportees returned to El Salvador, and some within days. The organization also confirmed at least 70 cases of sexual assault or other violence following their arrival in the country.
- CNN: US Customs and Border Protection is now considered a “security agency,” a move that allows the agency to shield information about personnel from the public. The move has raised concerns among lawyers and advocates of government transparency, who say the agency will be further shrouded in secrecy…[and] worry that it could shield personnel from being held accountable for wrongdoing.
- Wall Street Journal: The Trump administration has bought access to a commercial database that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it for immigration and border enforcement…Experts say the information amounts to one of the largest known troves of bulk data being deployed by law enforcement in the U.S.