Lost in the Sauce: National reopen hearing derailed with 4 in quarantine

Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater… or a global health crisis. Title refers to section “What is Congress up to?”

Short summary is at the very end, scroll down if you’re short on time.

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Loyalists taking over

Under the cover of a pandemic, the Trump administration is continuing to purge those who are deemed “disloyal” to the president and install individuals willing to advance Trump’s agenda.

Intelligence community

At the beginning of April, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) sent a letter to acting-Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Ric Grenell warning that high-level staff changes within the intelligence community should not be made until a permanent director is in place:

“Congress has neither authorized organizational changes at ODNI, nor appropriated funds for that purpose…The committee is concerned, moreover, by the removal or departure of every Senate-confirmed official at ODNI, as well as of other senior officials across ODNI’s leadership team, including [National Counterterrorism Center] Acting Director Russell Travers and Acting Deputy Director Peter Hall.”

Both leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee – Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) – also sent a letter to Grenell insisting that Congress be consulted on any personnel changes.

However, Grenell responded to Schiff’s letter with his own, refusing to provide any information about personnel changes and accusing Schiff of over-extending his committee’s mandate. Grenell likewise did not comply with the Senate’s request for more information.

On Friday, Grenell continued reorganizing the ODNI, eliminating the Directorate of National Security Partnerships and folding its functions into other offices. The directorate coordinates between civilian and defense intelligence agencies. Four separate cyber-focused organizations will be consolidated into a single entity called the IC Cyber Executive, which Grenell says will “provide a single ODNI focus point for the cyber mission, which will strengthen the IC’s cyber posture to better defend U.S. national security interests.”

As part of the reorganization, a top career official was pushed out of her position. Deirdre Walsh spent more than 10 years at ODNI, most recently as chief operating officer. It is unclear who will replace her. Nick Ciarlante, a former staffer to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), recently joined ODNI to serve as a deputy to the COO; he started his job there the same week Walsh was dismissed.

  • Reminder: ODNI has seen a wave of senior departures over the last year, including principal deputy director Sue Gordon; Joseph Maguire, Grenell’s predecessor as acting director; principal executive Andrew Hallman; general counsel Jason Klitenic; chief of staff Viraj Mirani; and Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who was fired by the president.

Pandemic officials

Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, once in charge of the National Security Council’s pandemic team (before Trump and Bolton disbanded it in 2018), is leaving the administration. He announced his decision to retire from the U.S. Agency for International Development effective June 5. Ziemer is described as “an authoritative voice on health and disaster issues who was advising others more directly involved in the overall Trump administration response.”

USAID recently acquired a new acting administrator, John Barsa, and there have been some leadership changes as a result. Ziemer, who did not respond to a request for comment, may have felt it was a natural time to depart.

Note that Barsa was a member of Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition team.

Additionally, White House Domestic Policy Council head and coronavirus task force member Joe Grogan, who’s been very involved in the administration’s coronavirus response, is leaving his post on May 24. FEMA is also losing an official with a key role during the pandemic: Josh Dozor, deputy assistant administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response group and a 13-year FEMA veteran, is expected to leave the administration in the next few weeks.

Installing loyalists

The nomination of Rep. John Ratcliffe to lead the ODNI is the most well-known example of a Trump-loyalist recently put into power, but there have been many others. In case you missed it, despite being massively unqualified for the job, it appears that Ratcliffe is likely to be confirmed – especially after Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) came out in favor.

Sen. Mark Warner: “I don’t see what has changed since last summer when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination over concerns about your inexperience, partisanship, and past statements that seemed to embellish your record.” (video

US Postal Service: Louis DeJoy, a top donor to Trump and the RNC, is the new head of the Post office – at a time when Trump is trying to force the service to renegotiate its terms with companies (like Amazon) and its own union workforce. DeJoy was confirmed by the Postal Service’s board of governors, which currently has the minimum number of members for a quorum after Republicans in the Senate denied Obama the opportunity to appoint members for the last three years of his term.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, denounced the move as a reward by Trump to a “partisan donor.” … “The Postal Service is in crisis and needs real leadership and someone with knowledge of the issues,” Connolly said. “This crony doesn’t cut it.”

Voice of America: Trump has railed against Voice of America, the U.S. government’s non-military, external broadcasting arm, for its coverage of the coronavirus – which has not been as harsh on China as conservatives would like. VOA is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), an independent agency that aims to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Trump has used his criticism of VOA to push the Senate to finally confirm his pick to lead USAGM: Michael Pack, a close ally of Stephen K. Bannon’s and a favorite of conservative activists.

“If you hear what’s coming out of the Voice of America, it’s disgusting,” Trump said. “The things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jim Risch (R-ID) has scheduled a hearing on Thursday this week to advance Pack’s nomination. Democrats on the panel say Pack is not fit to lead the agency due to evidence that he has been funding his own private film company with donations from a nonprofit that he runs.

  • Note: USAGM used to be run by a bipartisan board with nine members. However, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 did away with the board and gave the President the power to nominate a single CEO to lead the agency.

ICE appointees: Acting-Director of ICE Matthew Albence is reportedly resisting an effort by the White House to install multiple political appointees at the immigration agency. The candidates were chosen by White House Presidential Personnel Office chief John McEntee, the 29-year-old former campaign staffer in charge of installing Trump-loyalists across the federal government.

The director’s defenders say he opposed efforts to install the White House’s picks because they didn’t have enough law enforcement experience and weren’t qualified for the roles available. Some did have connections to the 2016 Trump campaign for which McEntee was Donald Trump’s body man and has been drawing people to fill jobs in the administration.

Defense purge: A White House loyalist is being sent (non-paywalled) to the Defense Department to “serve in a behind-the-scenes role vetting Defense Department officials for loyalty to the president.” Michael Cutrone previously served as Vice President Mike Pence’s top national security aide for South Asia.

“[Trump] is pushing to replace and remove civilians in OSD that are not aligned with the White House,” one current senior administration official told Foreign Policy of Cutrone’s plans to reshuffle officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Esper has no say in who the key people are going into senior positions.”


What is Congress up to?

The Senate returned to DC last week and focused on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s priorities: ramming through controversial nominations. Republicans and the White House say it is too early to consider additional coronavirus relief for the nation: “We’ve kind of paused as far as formal negotiations go,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said. McConnell echoed the sentiment, saying “we ought to take a pause here, do a good job of evaluating what we’ve already done.”

  • House Democrats could bring their version of CARES 2 to the floor for a vote this week. It is a $1.2 trillion+ package that is largely made up of aid to state and local governments. The remainder is funding for hospitals, for COVID-19 testing, for unemployment insurance, and for another round of direct payments to Americans. Additionally, the bill includes $25 billion to keep the USPS afloat.
  • Three Democratic senators have revealed legislation to send Americans at least $2,000 a month until the coronavirus crisis subsides, called the Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act.
  • White House advisors are worried that the federal government is spending too much to assist the nation through the pandemic. WaPo reports that some officials are considering allowing Americans to get cash immediately in exchange for curbing their Social Security benefits.
  • Trump said he won’t support another round of coronavirus stimulus legislation unless it includes a payroll tax cut. “I want to see a payroll tax cut on both sides, a very strong one, because that’s going to really put people to work…And I told Steve just today, we’re not doing anything unless we get a payroll tax cut. That is so important to the success of our country,” (video). Payroll taxes are withheld from workers’ wages and are used to fund government programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Tuesday with the nation’s top officials in charge of that coronavirus response: Dr. Anthony Fauci (NIH), Dr. Brett Girior (HHS), Dr. Robert Redfield (CDC), and Dr. Stephen Hahn (FDA). Notably, all four plus the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), will appear remotely after being exposed to the coronavirus. In other words, a hearing on how to safely reopen the economy is too unsafe for in-person attendance.

House Intelligence Cmte transcripts

The House Intelligence Committee released thousands of pages of transcripts of over 50 closed door interviews conducted in 2017 and 2018 related to the Russia investigation. The interviews include Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks, Brad Parscale, and Carter Page, as well as Obama-era officials James Clapper, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Andrew McCabe, and Loretta Lynch.

Overall, there is nothing particularly ground-breaking in the transcripts. The main story about the release is the months-long battle between Chairman Adam Schiff and the Trump administration, which delayed the publication significantly. The White House insisted that it be able to review the transcripts first, but Schiff refused. Rightwing media, including Trump himself, inaccurately portrayed the delay as Schiff’s fault, saying he was trying to hide something.

A couple of nuggets:

  • Hope Hicks told lawmakers that senior Trump-world figures worried Paul Manafort was stealing money from the Trump campaign. She also refused to answer questions about Trump and associates asking her to lie, giving the impression that, yes, he did.
  • In his House Intel interview, Michael Cohen repeatedly tripped over the date he terminated the Trump Tower Moscow effort. “Sorry. I don’t know what it is with me and dates today.” He later pleaded guilty to lying about that date.
  • Kushner admitted to proposing a Flynn set up a back-channel of communications with then-Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, but claimed the idea was ultimately turned down by Kislyak. “There’s nothing wrong with giving an idea that is wrong, because, you know, if you do something that’s wrong, then that’s something that you have to look at,” Kushner told the committee in his own defense.

Biden probe

The chairmen of the Senate Homeland Security and Senate Finance Committee, Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), are continuing to pursue their investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. Finance Cmte Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) accuses the State Department of complying only with Republican requests for documents related to the probe, saying that he department has provided Senate Republicans with more than 4,000 pages of records – including 1,000 pages in the midst of the pandemic.

“It is wholly inappropriate for the State Department to dedicate its limited resources to voluntarily complying with Republican requests without also making a good faith effort to respond to Democratic requests,” Wyden wrote in the letter.

On April 30, Johnson and Grassley requested additional documents from the State Dept.

Obama’s take

Late last year, Johnson and Grassley requested Obama-era information from the National Archives and Records Administration regarding Ukraine and the Bidens. Obama’s office responded by warning that the GOP-led panel is an effort “to give credence to a Russian disinformation campaign.” The letter continues, “It arises out of efforts by some, actively supported by Russia, to shift the blame for Russian interference in the 2016 election to Ukraine.”

Obama’s office ultimately agreed to release the records “in the interest of countering the misinformation campaign underlying this request.”


Fallout from Flynn

During an interview following the DOJ’s decision to drop all charges against Michael Flynn, Attorney General Bill Barr further degraded the reputation of the department that’s supposed to dispense justice in the nation:

Reporter Catherine Herridge: How will history look back on your decision to drop charges against Flynn?

Barr: “Well, history is written by the winners. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.” (video)

In other words, if Trump wins re-election, if Republicans control the government, he will be hailed as a hero for dropping the case. As Sen. Christ Murphy (D-CT), said: “My god. The entire idea of the rule of law – that thing the Attorney General is supposed to be in charge of upholding – is predicated on the outcome of elections NOT mattering when it comes to the operation of the legal system.”

Obama in crosshairs

On Friday, audio of Obama speaking during a private web chat conversation with members of the Obama Alumni Association was published by Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff. Obama told members that dropping charges against Flynn jeopardizes the “rule of law.”

“The news over the last 24 hours I think has been somewhat downplayed — about the Justice Department dropping charges against Michael Flynn…And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic — not just institutional norms — but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places.”

Obama also slammed Trump’s response to the pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster.” Of course, this enraged Trump, who took to Twitter on Mother’s Day to tweet and retweet catch-phrase criticisms like “OBAMAGATE,” which refers to conspiracy theories that Obama and his staff faked charges against Flynn and, ultimately, that the entire Russia investigation is a hoax.

Even before audio of Obama surfaced, Trump was on this track, telling Fox News:

“What you’ve seen so far is incredible, especially as it relates to President Obama, because if anyone thinks that he and sleepy Joe Biden didn’t know what was going on, they have another thing coming.” (video)

Putin must be happy

On the same day that the DOJ dropped its case against Flynn, Trump held another phone call with Vladimir Putin, in which he called the Russia investigation a “hoax:”

“The Russia hoax made it very hard for Russia and the United States to deal with each other…and we discussed that. I said, ‘You know, it’s a very appropriate time, because things are falling out now and coming in line showing what a hoax this whole investigation was, it was a total disgrace, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a lot of things happen over the next number of weeks.’ This is just one piece of a very dishonest puzzle,” Trump told reporters after the call. (video)

Further reading

Barr ally Tim Shea extensively cited testimony from former DOJ official Mary McCord in the filing asking to drop the Flynn case. McCord published an op-ed in NYT disavowing essentially everything that Barr and Shea claimed about her testimony, point by point.

“The Justice Department Wants to Drop Flynn’s Case. Can the Judge Say No?” Lawfare

“Filing error adds to twists of Flynn case reversal,” CNN

“An Ugly Day for the Justice Department,” Lawfare


Court cases

  • Tomorrow, May 12, the Supreme Court will live stream arguments in three cases about Trump’s finances. Both the House and Trump’s lawyers argued in filings last week that the court has the ability to rule on issues of the case, urging the justices not to punt the dispute back to lower courts.
  • Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has rejected (doc) a request for an investigation into the retirement of an appeals court judge that created a coveted vacancy for President Trump to fill months before the 2020 election. D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan requested the probe after it was reported that Sen. McConnell was urging veteran conservative judges to retire this year so that Trump could replace them with ideological allies before the election.
  • As expected, the Supreme Court put a temporary hold on the release of Mueller grand jury materials to the House while it decides whether to issue a longer stay and take the case. Both the district court and appeals court have ruled against the Justice Department.
  • Last week, the Supreme Court unanimously threw out fraud convictions on Thursday against two New Jersey officials involved in the “Bridgegate” political scandal, the George Washington Bridge traffic jam that rocked the administration of then-Gov. Chris Christie… The ruling is the latest example of the court narrowing the type of conduct by public officials that can be considered fraud under federal law.
    • Further reading: “The Supreme Court Says Sorry, It Just Can’t Help With Political Corruption,” The Atlantic
  • The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case concerning the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance plans cover birth control as a preventive service and pits supporters of the Obamacare provision against those who say it violates their religious and moral beliefs. Justice Ginsberg repeatedly pressed on the notion that women would lose their coverage even if they didn’t share the employers’ religious beliefs.
    • Further reading: “The Supreme Court Can Only See Certain People’s Suffering,” Slate
  • Don’t miss this amazing Reuters piece on qualified immunity, a legal defense enabled by the Supreme Court that allows cops to evade accountability in excessive force cases: “For cops who kill, special Supreme Court protection. The U.S. high court’s continual refinement of an obscure legal doctrine has made it harder to hold police accountable when accused of using excessive force.”

Trump properties

  • Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club is in the midst of a local legal battle over the president’s desire to have a private dock at the Palm Beach club.
    • More details: His neighbors and preservationists, who have pushed back on the plan, recently came upon new legal grounds to deny the dock: Trump agreed in writing years ago to change the use of the Mar-a-Lago property from a single-family residence to a private club owned by a corporation he controls. However, the president recently changed his official domicile from Manhattan to Mar-a-Lago, registering to vote in Florida using the club’s address. The property is taxed as a private club — not as a residence: “It’s one or the other — it’s a club or it’s your home.”
  • CREW: In February, President Trump traveled to the West Coast for a multi-day trip through four states. But instead of staying locally, President Trump traveled each evening to the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, likely costing taxpayers an extra million dollars. When he was asked about the wasteful and costly travel, President Trump blamed the Secret Service. Earlier this week, CREW received an email from the Department of Homeland Security saying no such records exist.
  • The House Oversight Committee is investigating the Trump Organization’s recent request for financial benefits from domestic and foreign government entities during the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
  • On Sunday, Trump used his official Twitter account to promote his Los Angeles golf course reopening.

Trump campaign

  • The Trump campaign has not returned an illegal donation it received from a foreign national in 2019, records from the FEC show. A PAC, Trump Victory, gave the foreign donor the money back, but the donation is still in the Trump campaign coffers: “Trump Victory appears to have covered a refund to the Trump campaign’s only known foreign donor on behalf of the campaign in a possible attempt to shield it from allegations of wrongdoing — while at the same time leaving it in possession of the illicit funds.”
  • Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has already collected $38.9 million through his companies from Trump’s various reelection committees between January 2017 and the end of March
  • Trump’s political team has begun discussions about organizing a high-dollar, in-person fundraiser next month, as well as preliminary planning about staging rallies and what sort of screenings might be necessary.
  • An investor group aligned with Don Jr. is about to acquire a major stake in One America News Network (OANN), which pushes conspiracy theories and unabashed pro-Trump content.

Immigration news

  • “U.S. suspends protections for migrant kids at border, expelling hundreds amid pandemic,” CBS
  • President Trump is once more pushing to have his border wall painted black, a design change that is projected to add at least $500 million in costs… military commanders and border officials believed as recently as last fall that they had finally talked him out of it… Trump has not let go of the idea, insisting that the dark color will enhance its forbidding appearance and leave the steel too hot to touch during summer months.
    • Cost estimates range from $1.2 million per mile to apply two coats of acrylic paint, all the way up to $6.8M per mile for fancy “powder coating” used on automobiles and appliances.
    • Keep in mind that Congress still hasn’t appropriated any money for wall construction, so this amounts to an additional half billion dollars Trump will “steal” from other federal programs under his emergency powers.
  • The Trump administration is suing an orphanage in South Texas in order to exercise its eminent domain powers and obtain temporary access to the property to plan for construction along the border with Mexico.
    • Kushner expressed frustration at the pace of land acquisition in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where the Trump administration is preparing to seize hundreds of parcels of private land from owners who have refused to sell.

Further reading…

  • “Trump increasingly engaged in legal battles unfolding over mail-in voting,” CNN
    • Fact check: The False Narrative of Vote-by-Mail Fraud, Brennan Center
    • “…Democrats and Republicans benefit about the same amount [from mail-in voting]… Nevertheless, many Republicans, who are overwhelmingly white, are convinced that the bigger the electorate, the more it will resemble an increasingly diverse electorate — and therefore disadvantage them.”
  • The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has rejected an ultimatum by South Dakota’s governor to remove [coronavirus] checkpoints on state highways within tribal reservations or risk legal action.
  • “The Trump Administration Just Overhauled the Rules for Campus Sexual Assault Hearings,” Mother Jones
  • Yet Another State Quietly Moves To Criminalize Fossil Fuel Protests Amid Coronavirus. In March, Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia passed laws restricting pipeline protests. Alabama is poised to become the fourth.
  • “Critics alarmed by US nuclear agency’s bid to relax rules on radioactive waste,” Guardian

SUMMARY

  • REOPEN HEARING: The Senate is scheduled to hold a hearing on Tuesday with the nation’s top officials in charge of that coronavirus response. Notably, all four plus the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), will appear remotely after being exposed to the coronavirus. In other words, a hearing on how to safely reopen the economy is too unsafe for in-person attendance.
  • PURGE: Trump loyalist Ric Grenell ignored both House and Senate warnings not to make personnel changes in the intelligence community – Grenell continued reorganizing the ODNI, pushing out a career intelligence official in the process.
  • PURGE: Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, once in charge of the National Security Council’s pandemic team (before Trump and Bolton disbanded it in 2018), is leaving the administration. As is a coronavirus task force member and a FEMA response leader.
  • PURGE: Trump installed one of his donors to lead the USPS. Ratcliffe, despite being immensely unqualified, is about to be confirmed to lead the intelligence community. An ally of Steve Bannon was chosen to lead the agency that oversees Voice of America.
  • PURGE: Trump sent a White House loyalist to the Defense Department to seek out any officials who are disloyal to the president. Acting-Director of ICE Matthew Albence is reportedly resisting an effort by the White House to install multiple political appointees at the immigration agency.
  • CONGRESS: House Democrats could bring their version of CARES 2 to the floor for a vote this week. It is a $1.2 trillion+ package that is largely made up of aid to state and local governments. The remainder is funding for hospitals, for COVID-19 testing, for unemployment insurance, and for another round of direct payments to Americans. Additionally, the bill includes $25 billion to keep the USPS afloat.
  • CONGRESS: Senate GOP are continuing to pursue their investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. Obama warned that the GOP-led panel is an effort “to give credence to a Russian disinformation campaign.”
  • PUTIN: On the same day that the DOJ dropped its case against Flynn, Trump held another phone call with Vladimir Putin, in which he called the Russia investigation a “hoax.”
  • SCOTUS: Tomorrow, May 12, the Supreme Court will live stream arguments in three cases about Trump’s finances
  • PROFIT: Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has already collected $38.9 million through his companies from Trump’s various reelection committees between January 2017 and the end of March
  • BORDER: President Trump is once more pushing to have his border wall painted black, a design change that is projected to add at least $500 million in costs
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