Lost in the Sauce: Feb. 9 – 15

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:

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Let’s dig in!

MAIN COURSE

The destruction of justice

In the 11 days since the Republican-controlled Senate voted to acquit the impeached-President, Trump and Attorney General Barr committed 17 acts that subverted “justice” in America. In order to keep this newsletter at a somewhat manageable length, please visit this post for details and sources.

  1. Vowed revenge/payback at the National Prayer Breakfast
  2. Fired impeachment witness Alexander Vindman and his brother Yevgeny Vindman
  3. Attacked former Chief of Staff John Kelly for defending Vindman
  4. Fired impeachment witness & Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland
  5. Attacked the prosecutors in Roger Stone’s case for recommending a sentence of 7-9 years in prison
  6. Attacked the four prosecutors who withdrew from the case
  7. Attacked Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who oversaw Roger Stone’s case and Paul Manafort’s case
  8. Attacked the foreperson on the Stone jury
  9. Suggested he is considering a pardon for Stone and/or Flynn
  10. Accused Mueller of lying to Congress while also praising Barr for intervening in the Stone case
  11. Claimed he has a legal right to intervene in any legal cases
  12. Withdrew the nomination of Jessie Liu, who oversaw Stone’s case and McCabe’s case
  13. Attacked FBI Director Christopher Wray:
  14. Attacked former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe after the DOJ finally decided not to prosecute him
  15. Likely played a role in AG Barr deciding to assign an outside prosecutor to scrutinize the case against Flynn
  16. Likely played a role in more outside prosecutors being assigned to review other cases in the DC Attorney’s office
  17. Is reportedly considering withdrawing the nomination of Elaine McCusker to be Pentagon comptroller

Barr to testify

House Democrats will be able to question Attorney General Bill Barr in a public hearing on March 31. In a letter confirming the appearance, House Judiciary Committee Democrats write: “In your tenure as Attorney General, you have engaged in a pattern of conduct in legal matters relating to the President that raises significant concerns for this Committee.”

Barr is likely to be questioned about the most recent interference (above), as well as Trump’s illegal withholding of aid to Ukraine and the whistleblower complaint that the DOJ tried to bury. Furthermore, the hearing is set just days after John Bolton’s book is due to be released – in the book, Bolton reportedly writes that he raised concerns directly to Barr that Trump might be doing personal favors for foreign autocrats.

Roger Stone update coming…

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson has ordered both the defense and prosecution (including the 4 lawyers who withdrew) in Roger Stone’s case to take part in a telephone hearing Tuesday to discuss the status of the case. Jackson is likely to dig into why the 4 career prosecutors withdrew from the case and may decide to postpone Stone’s sentencing, which is currently scheduled for Thursday.

Whistleblowers under fire

Trump is reportedly angry that the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, allowed the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint to be transmitted to Congress last year. Though no final decision has been made, Trump and his advisors discussed firing Atkinson.

Following the firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sent letters to every agency inspector general in government (74) requesting they investigate retaliation against whistleblowers who report presidential misconduct. “Leader Schumer also asks inspectors general to ensure all federal personnel are notified of their legal rights to make disclosures to Congress or Inspectors General anonymously and free from reprisals and to seek certifications from agency or department’s general counsels that retaliation against those who report misconduct will not be tolerated.”

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed the first-ever director for the newly established House Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman, a position responsible for the provision of “best practices for whistleblower intake for offices of the House” and “training for offices of the House on whistleblower intake.” The new director, Shanna Devine, previously worked as an advocate for whistleblower rights at Public Citizen, a public interest organization in D.C.

Trump admits to sending Giuliani

Reversing his position during the impeachment trial, Trump now openly admits that he sent Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to seek out damaging information on his political opponents. In an interview with Geraldo Rivera, Trump was asked if he is “sorry” that he sent Giuliani to Ukraine. Trump replied: “No, not at all. Here’s my choice: I deal with the Comeys of the world, or I deal with Rudy… And it’s really circumventing . . . but very legally and maybe getting things done faster,” he added. “But Rudy is a high-quality guy who by the way has a treasure trove of information.”

According to a report by The Daily Beast, Trump is still encouraging Giuliani to investigate the Bidens. Giuliani did not comment beyond confirming that he still talks to the president, though he told Fox Business host Trish Regan that he was in Ukraine “three weeks ago to interview a witness.”

Meanwhile, Attorney General Barr confirmed that the Justice Department is receiving information from Giuliani that originates in Ukraine. “The DoJ has the obligation to have an open door to anybody who wishes to provide us information that they think is relevant,” Barr said.

Giuliani investigation

The SDNY investigation into Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman is still underway – for the time being. In recent weeks, federal prosecutors have sought information about former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovonavitch, and two companies tied to Parnas and Fruman.

In recent weeks, federal investigators have also continued to ask about Victor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko, two former Ukrainian prosecutors who Giuliani has said provided him with information about Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Investigators have also made new inquiries about Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-owned gas company, with which Parnas and Fruman sought business last year. A top executive for the company was interviewed in November as part of the investigation.

Investigators also appear intently focused on Parnas’s financial practices, according to the people familiar with their interest.

Hyde cooperating?

Robert Hyde, an associate of Lev Parnas who seemed to be surveilling Ambassador Yovanovitch in Ukraine, reportedly turned over documents to the House Foreign Affairs Committee related to its Ukraine investigations.

When asked what he gave the congressional committee, Hyde told The Daily Beast: “Everything that I had between Parnas and I.” He said the committee wanted to “talk about Parnas and how I know him.”

“You should look into Parnas. Bad man,” Hyde added.

Hyde said he’d spoken to the House committee several times to aid in its investigation. Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said Jan. 15 that his committee would investigate the Hyde-Parnas text messages, saying in a statement that they were “profoundly alarming.”

Another quid pro quo extortion

Two weeks ago, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security barred New Yorkers from joining Trusted Traveler programs — including Global Entry — which allow Americans to quickly pass through airports and borders. The move was retaliation for the state’s 2019 law that allowed undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and restricted immigration officials from gaining access to data collected by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo met with Trump at the White House in an attempt to persuade Trump to reverse the Trusted Traveler ban. Before the meeting, however, Trump took to Twitter to tie the ban to the numerous state lawsuits and investigations against him and his businesses:

I’m seeing Governor Cuomo today at The White House. He must understand that National Security far exceeds politics. New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment, start cleaning itself up, and lowering taxes. Build relationships, but don’t bring Fredo!

New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed numerous lawsuits against Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration policies and is currently investigating the Trump Organization. She has subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for the President’s financial records in her inquiry. Trump’s tweet appears to state that he will continue to hold New Yorkers’ travel abilities hostage until the state drops its lawful suits and investigations.

James responded:

When you stop violating the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, we will stand down. Until then, we have a duty and responsibility to defend the Constitution and the rule of law. BTW, I file the lawsuits, not the Governor.

  • James filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, calling it unlawful, unconstitutional and discriminatory. “The Trump administration’s new policy not only negatively impacts travelers, workers, commerce and our economy, but it jeopardizes public safety,” state Attorney General Letitia James said. “No one should ever use our nation’s security as a political weapon, let alone the commander in chief.”
  • Buzzfeed News reviewed a DHS memo that proves the Trump administration planned to retaliate against states that do not provide information on immigrants. Gov. Cuomo responded: “The leaked DHS memo is the smoking gun that proves that the Trump administration is once again knowingly abusing power by using government to extort states for political purposes, with no rational link to a legitimate policy.”

THE SIDES

Wyden leads one-man-fact-check

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, confronted (video) Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about the agency’s double standard – quickly responding to Republican requests for information while stonewalling those from Democrats. Wyden specifically pointed to Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson’s request for information on the Bidens and compared the response to the stonewalling of the House Ways and Means Committee’s subpoena for Trump’s tax returns:

“The request from the Democratic chair, with a firm legal basis, was met with nothing but legal foot-dragging,” Wyden said. “The request that came from the Republican chairs got VIP treatment. They got, you know, a response out the door in a flash. So it looks to me like there’s a double standard here. And that you all are tipping the scales of congressional oversight.”

…“As I explained, the House disclosure of tax returns is subject to [Code] 2103, which on the advice of counsel, as we have documented, we had significant concerns,” Mnuchin said.

“You’re stonewalling about stonewalling!” Wyden shot back.

“Well, that’s really not fair at all,” said Mnuchin.

The Republican-led Senate committees also requested information on the Bidens from the State Department. In an attempt to mitigate the expected bias in results, Wyden sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding his own set of documents on Ukraine. “As the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, I am concerned that, in the absence of additional information concerning similar activities during the Trump Administration, the Department’s production of information requested by the Senate Committees could create an incomplete and biased record of the State Department’s activities related to Ukraine,” Wyden wrote.

House investigates Secret Service payments

The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday asked the Secret Service to provide a full accounting of its payments to President Trump’s private company after The Washington Post revealed that the Secret Service had been charged as much as $650 per night for rooms at Trump clubs.

In a letter to the Secret Service, signed by Chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and member Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the committee asked for records of payments to Trump properties, and copies of contracts between the Secret Service and Trump clubs. (The Washington Post)

The most expensive presidency

  • Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a report documenting at least 19 policies and actions taken by the Trump administration that benefit the Trump family and Trump Organization. “The Trump administration policies and actions that benefit his own interests include removing environmental regulations that impact Trump’s golf courses and increasing specific visas to allow his businesses to hire cheaper seasonal workers.”
  • Friday, Feb. 14 marked the 29th golf-related trip Trump made to Mar-a-Lago as President. According to The Huffington Post, the total taxpayer tab for Trump’s golf outings is now $133.8 million – or “334 years of the presidential salary that Trump and his supporters frequently boast he is not taking.”
  • On Saturday, Trump attended a fundraiser at the Palm Beach estate of billionaire Nelson Peltz. The guests paid $580,600 per couple to support his reelection campaign, “making it the most expensive such fundraising event since Trump took office.”
  • The Trump administration is threatening to enact a 100% tariff on most or all European wines, a large increase from the 25% tariff currently in place. Many people forget that the Trumps own a winery in Virginia. Large tariffs on European wines would make them more expensive in comparison to American wines, possibly boosting sales of American wine like those produced by Trump Winery.

Investigating Trump’s farm bailout

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is opening a review of President Trump’s $28 billion bailout for farmers harmed by his trade war amid allegations that the money was mismanaged and allocated unfairly.

The investigation came at the request of Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, who has been vocal in her concern that the aid program was biased, providing more funds to southern states that voted for Mr. Trump and favoring large and foreign agriculture companies over small farms. (New York Times or non-paywalled)

Court dismisses Trump records suit

The U.S. District Court in D.C. dismissed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for failing to preserve records of Trump’s meeting with foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said legal precedents don’t permit her to police the White House’s enforcement of the laws that govern the handling of executive branch records: the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act. “The Court is bound by Circuit precedent to find that it lacks authority to oversee the President’s day-to-day compliance with the statutory provisions involved in this case,” wrote Jackson, a Washington-based appointee of President Barack Obama.

…Jackson said in her 22-page ruling that while she had limited power to examine official written or verbal “guidelines” on preserving records, the suit was fundamentally focused on the White House’s actions and not the underlying policies. The judge stressed, however, that she was not blessing the White House’s record keeping practices.

DOJ seeking to support Trump’s conspiracies

The prosecutor appointed by AG Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia probe, John Durham, is reportedly focused on finding evidence that undermines the determination that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help President Trump win.

Durham may have come to view with suspicion several clashes between analysts at different intelligence agencies over who could see each other’s highly sensitive secrets, the people said. Mr. Durham appears to be pursuing a theory that the C.I.A., under its former director John O. Brennan, had a preconceived notion about Russia or was trying to get to a particular result — and was nefariously trying to keep other agencies from seeing the full picture lest they interfere with that goal, the people said.

But officials from the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency have told Mr. Durham and his investigators that such an interpretation is wrong and based on a misunderstanding of how the intelligence community functions, the people said.

Gifts to Russia

Something strange happened in mid-December involving Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch. Late last year, the U.S. government signaled that it was about to level a new round of sanctions targeting people and entities linked to Deripaska

What’s strange is that despite the signal, Treasury didn’t follow through and the sanctions—which would have targeted the unnamed people and entities because of their proximity to Deripaska—didn’t materialize. It’s been two months since the U.S. indicated that the new sanctions were about to come out, and there’s been no movement from Treasury on the oligarch. The two months of inaction has stirred suspicions of political interference in the sanctions process. (Daily Beast)

The move is particularly suspicious because the Treasury recently sent a letter to Deripaska’s lawyers indicating that the department has evidence proving that Deripaska laundered money for President Vladimir Putin.

In another gift to Russia, the Trump administration’s FY2020 budget cuts funding for the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) for the second straight year. The EDI is focused on deterring Russian aggression against America’s European allies. “Included in the EDI funding is $250 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which can be used to replace any “weapons or defensive articles” provided to Ukraine by the U.S. government.“

In the midst of cutting funding to deter Russia, the Trump administration tried to keep secret a meeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Friday. As has become typical, Russian journalists were aware of the meeting in advance and wrote about it afterward.

Soleimani strike

Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Eliot Engel:

“The administration has sent Congress a legally mandated report outlining its legal and policy justifications for the strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. This official report directly contradicts the President’s false assertion that he attacked Iran to prevent an imminent attack against United States personnel and embassies. The administration’s explanation in this report makes no mention of any imminent threat and shows that the justification the President offered to the American people was false, plain and simple.”

After refusing to appear at a scheduled January 29 hearing, Secretary Pompeo has reportedly agreed to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Cmte. “before the end of the month” about U.S. policy in Iran.

Immigration news

  • NPR: Top Senate Democrats warn that the Trump administration is deliberately undermining the independence of immigration courts. In a bluntly worded letter to the Justice Department, which oversees the immigration courts, the senators accuse the administration of waging an “ongoing campaign to erode the independence of immigration courts,” including changing court rules to allow more political influence over decisions and promoting partisan judges to the Board of Immigration Appeals.
  • NYT: The Trump administration is deploying law enforcement tactical units from the southern border as part of a supercharged arrest operation in sanctuary cities across the country, an escalation in the president’s battle against localities that refuse to participate in immigration enforcement. The specially trained officers are being sent to cities including Chicago and New York to boost the enforcement power of local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. (non-paywalled).
  • Daily Beast: The Trump administration plans to take more than $1 billion from the National Guard and use it to fund border security, including new fencing, according to two congressional sources briefed on the matter. In total, the Pentagon aims to move $3.8 billion from their annual budget to border security spending.
    • CNN: The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee [Rep. Mac Thornberry] issued a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump Thursday, slamming the administration’s plan to divert $3.83 billion in Pentagon funding to border wall construction as unconstitutional and pledging to take action after lawmakers were notified of the move by the Department of Defense.
    • So far, the Pentagon has allocated/shifted nearly $10 billion since 2019 to help pay for Trump’s border wall.
  • In remarks to the National Sheriffs’ Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that the Justice Department is “meticulously reviewing” the decisions of local district attorneys, because he suspects they’re undercharging immigrants to avoid making them deportable
  • Buzzfeed News: A Customs and Border Protection officer said supervisors instructed them to lie about not having space to process asylum-seekers at the border and turning them away, according to court documents. In a Nov. 19 deposition, a CBP officer at the Tecate, California, port of entry said that despite having space to process asylum-seekers most days, they didn’t.

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