[Lost in the Sauce] Barr tried to undermine Michael Cohen’s conviction

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. The title refers to the second-to-last section, “AG Barr’s interference.”

There was SO MUCH news to cover, I couldn’t fit it all in one post. I’ll do a coronavirus-centric post tomorrow and maybe a “miscellaneous” post later in the week.

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More details on the Russia-Taliban story

One American official had told The Times that the intelligence finding that the Russians had offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants and criminals had been briefed at the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a written document which draws from spywork… The briefing document is given to the president to read and they serve as the basis for oral briefings to him several times a week.

  • On Saturday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Trump and Pence never received a briefing on the subject. On Sunday, the ODNI declined to say whether the intel was included in the daily brief. Critically, the ODNI never said the reports weren’t true.

Trump responded to the reports by casting doubt on the bounties and attacks themselves, targeting the media instead for publishing the intel: “Probably just another phony Times hit job, just like their failed Russia Hoax. Who is their ‘source’?” (tweet)

  • UPDATE: Late last night Trump claimed that American intelligence didn’t find the reports of bounties credible enough to tell him about, tweeting: “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”

U.S. intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

  • Two officials said the information about the bounty hunting was “well-known” among the intel community in Afghanistan, including the CIA’s chief of station and other top officials there, like the military commandos hunting the Taliban. The information was distributed in intelligence reports and highlighted in some of them.

The Russain bounties are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members… The intelligence was passed up from the U.S. Special Operations forces based in Afghanistan and led to a restricted high-level White House meeting in late March.

  • The administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, preferred confronting the Russians directly about the matter, while some National Security Council officials in charge of Russia were more dismissive of taking immediate action, the official said.

More problematic nominees and undermining agencies

In a previously undisclosed conference call last year, a senior Justice Department official rejected key aspects of the Trump White House plan to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), saying moves to abolish the crucial, little-known agency were unlawful. Those steps and others to undercut OPM could pave the way for installing political cronies throughout the ranks of the nation’s two million federal civil servants and weaken their protections.

  • In April 2019, Steve Engel, the head of the Justice Department’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel, told senior administration lawyers that it would be illegal to carry out a White House blueprint to dismember OPM… That legal “opinion,” as the notes call it, was never shared with a House oversight panel that held two subsequent hearings last year on the White House proposal…
  • Background: “Trump administration plans to dismantle agency overseeing civil service,” CNN, April , 2019

Another aspect of the documents obtained by POGO (above) is the revelation of evidence that White House Advisor James Sherk sought a legal opinion to allow Trump to fire anyone In government… From the earliest days of the administration, officials have sought ways to weaken federal sector unions and reduce the pay, benefits, and workforce protections of federal employees. Many elements of the memo became federal policy nearly unchanged from how Sherk first proposed them.

Trump intends to nominate senior Housing and Urban Development appointee John Gibbs to run OPM. Gibbs is a former conservative commentator who sent tweets during the 2016 election pushing a baseless conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton had engaged in a Satanic ritual known as “spirit cooking.”

The new Trump-appointed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack, is being sued for the mass firing of top executives and advisory boards of federally funded international broadcasters in what was described as a “Wednesday night massacre.” The lawsuit alleges that Pack violated a clause in federal broadcasting law that protects government-funded news outlets from political interference.

  • Related: The president’s fiscal 2021 budget would eliminate funding for Stars and Stripes, essentially forcing it to cease operation. The Stripes retains editorial independence and is mandated by Congress to be governed by First Amendment principles. It often publishes content meant to hold the Defense Department accountable.

The White House is intensifying an effort to hire Pentagon personnel with an undisputed allegiance to President Trump at a moment when his relationship with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has become strained… White House officials are now redoubling efforts as Trump complains to aides that he has never had a defense secretary who is fully aligned with his foreign policy views and accuses Pentagon officials of trying to undermine him

More than 50 advocacy groups are calling on senators to oppose Anthony Tata, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be Pentagon policy chief. Tata has been under fire for tweets calling former President Barack Obama “a terrorist leader” and calling Islam “the most oppressive violent religion I know of.”

  • KFile revealed that Tata had called Obama “a manchurian candidate” — i.e., a sleeper agent — for “Hamas & Muslim brotherhood.” In other tweets, Tata accused the Obama administration of “sedition and/or treason” and threatened former CIA director John Brennan: “Might be a good time to pick your poison: firing squad, public hanging, life sentence as prison b*tch, or just suck on your pistol. Your call. #Treason #Sedition #crossfirehurricane #Obamagate.”

Trump said he plans to nominate William Perry Pendley to permanently lead the Bureau of Land Management, which has not had a Senate-confirmed chief since Trump took office. Pendley is an anti-environmental extremist who has pushed for the government to sell off millions of federal acres and called climate science “junk science.”

Consumer Product Safety Commission nominee Nancy Beck draws bipartisan opposition from lawmakers over her background in the chemical industry, including relaxing rules on dangerous chemicals linked to serious human health problems. Over 90 scientists are also opposing her nomination.


What is Congress up to?

Three Republican senators – Graham, Cotton, and Blackburn – introduced a bill this week to allow law enforcement access to encrypted digital devices with signed court orders. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden has vociferously spoken out against the bill.

  • Explainer: “The False Promise of ‘Lawful Access’ to Private Data,” The Wired

The Senate Judiciary Cmte. advanced a measure to give the DOJ IG more power to investigate department lawyers, over the objections of AG Barr. Chairman Lindsey Graham tried to water down the bill by giving Barr the ability to veto investigations by the IG, but the committee voted it down. The legislation is now under McConnell’s control.

Senators are pushing U.S. intelligence leaders to publicly testify about global threats before the monthlong August recess, in part to avoid their comments from being politicized during the final stretch of the 2020 campaign.

House approves statehood for DC in 232-180 vote, but it is unlikely to get a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

  • Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) on D.C. Statehood: “Yes, Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and ten times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state… What vital industries would the new state of Washington represent? Lobbying? Bureaucracy? Give me a break. By far, the largest group of workers in the city are bureaucrats & other white-collar professionals.”
  • Mother Jones: It was a startlingly blunt assertion—that Washingtonians should be entitled to fewer rights because they are simply the wrong kind of people… [DC] still has a higher percentage of Black residents than any state. The contention that places with large non-white populations would be too inept—or would lack the proper values—to govern themselves and others has been used to block statehood and home rule repeatedly in the nation’s history.
  • Republican Sen. James Risch (Ida.): If DC and Puerto Rico become states, “I will be the last Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee forever because they will pick up four Democratic seats that will never flip over. … Republicans will never be in the majority in the United States Senate,” he said.

Court cases and rulings

On Thursday, the Trump administration submitted a SCOTUS filing arguing the high court should declare the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) invalid. The administration, in a case brought by Republican AGs, posits that the individual mandate is unconstitutional and therefore “the entire ACA must fall.”

  • More than 20 million Americans could lose their health coverage and protections for people with preexisting health conditions also would be put at risk if the court agrees with the administration in a case that won’t be heard before the fall.
  • Op-Ed: Overturning the ACA will make COVID-19 much worse
  • Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the Trump administration does not have the “exact details” of a health care alternative in case they get their way and the Supreme Court wipes out Obamacare… Republicans have had 10 years to come up with a replacement plan and failed to do so. (video)

A three-judge panel of the DC Appeals Court ordered the dismissal of the case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, overruling District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan. The 2-1 ruling was authored by Trump-appointee Neomi Rao, who has repeatedly handed down opinions benefiting Trump and his aides that rely on highly dubious legal reasoning.

  • The case could be heard by the full DC Court of Appeals if either Sullivan or any active DC appellate judge requests it.
  • Further reading: How Michael Flynn’s Defense Team Found Powerful Allies: The lawyer who took on the Flynn case had private calls with President Trump, wrote a secret letter to AG Barr, and months later saw the DOJ drop the case.

District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has ordered Roger Stone to report to prison July 14, denying the two-month delay requested by his lawyers and the DOJ due to the coronavirus. Jackson has also ordered Stone to remain under home confinement until his surrender date.

  • A day after Jackson’s ruling, Trump retweeted a story about a petition for the president to pardon Stone

A Queens County, N.Y., Surrogate’s Court judge on Thursday rejected a request to bar President Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump, from publishing a tell-all book about the family because the court lacked jurisdiction in the case. Charles Harder, a lawyer for Robert Trump, said he would now file suit in the New York State Supreme Court, which is a lower-level court in the state, in an effort to stop Simon & Schuster from publishing the book on July 28.

  • Mary is a clinical psychologist and reportedly uses her background to dissect “a nightmare of traumas, destructive relationships and a tragic combination of neglect and abuse,” including “the strange and harmful relationship between” her late father and Donald Trump.

A judge has ruled that Rep. Devin Nunes has no right to sue Twitter over statements made by a fake Internet cow, someone parodying his mother, and a Republican strategist.


AG Barr’s interference

Since we had a thread about the hearing on political interference by the AG, I won’t go into details again here. Instead, you can check out this Twitter thread of video highlights and Courthouse News’ summary.

Just as the hearing was getting underway, AG Bill Barr agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee for a “general oversight hearing” on July 28, following Chairman Nadler’s threat of a subpoena. It is not clear why Nadler accepted such a long delay, as his subpoena was for testimony on July 2. Barr isn’t busy, he was just on Ted Cruz’s podcast.

Some House Democrats are pushing to impeach Barr, by Speaker Pelosi stands in their way. Rep. Steve Cohen plans to file a resolution calling for an investigation into whether Barr has committed impeachable conduct. Chairman Nadler has stated his openness to impeaching Barr, as well.

  • Pelosi: “Barr is a mess who’s disgraced the Department of Justice,” she said. “He is contemptible, there’s no question about that. But at this point, let’s solve our problems by going to the polls and voting on Election Day.” (video)
  • Op-Ed by Asha Rangappa: “Put another way, Barr has the potential to inflict more damage on the U.S. than even the president because he can use the levers of justice to stonewall investigations, bury evidence, and provide a veneer of legality to illegal acts.”

One day later, the New York Times reported that Barr tried to pressure SDNY to undermine the part of Michael Cohen’s conviction that implicated the President in financial crimes. He went so far as to instruct Justice Department officials to draft a legal memo casting doubt on the legitimacy of Cohen’s conviction.

  • Former DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller: “Why would Barr attack the legal theory underpinning the conviction of someone who had already turned on Trump? Because that same theory would’ve been crucial to charging Trump, his business, and one of his top execs.”
  • Reminder from a 2018 article: Trump pushed then-acting-AG Whitaker on why more wasn’t being done to control the SDNY prosecutors who brought the case against Cohen. The president of the United States, in that moment, was essentially pressuring an acting official whose job hangs on his personal whims to shut down an investigation into himself.

Jay Clayton, Trump’s nominee to take over the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office after the abrupt dismissal of SDNY U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, refused to say whether he would recuse himself from pending investigations involving Trump’s interests and associates if confirmed for the post.

Clayton also admitted to playing golf with Trump numerous times, including the day that they agreed he’d be nominated to Berman’s position… Video of the questioning below:

Rep. Katie Porter: Do you think independence from the President is possible if you and the President are golfing buddies?

Clayton: I absolutely do.

Later, Porter: How many times have you and President Trump golfed together?

Clayton: I’m not going to get into— This is, you know, it’s…


Voting rights

The Census Bureau said on Tuesday that it had created two new top-level positions and filled them with political appointees from outside the agency, an unprecedented move that revived concerns the national population count has turned increasingly partisan. Critics fear the appointments are another way for Republicans to bend census results to advance their electoral interests.

The Federal Election Commission is losing its short-lived quorum after Caroline Hunter, a longtime Republican commissioner of the FEC and former chair of the agency, is resigning… Her departure from the agency means that the FEC will be unable to make major enforcement actions.

Seven years ago from last Thursday, the Supreme Court gutted the most powerful provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, undermining a law regarded as the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. A bill passed by House to restore the VRA has been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk for over 200 days.

  • States that previously had to approve voting changes under Voting Rights Act have closed 1,688 polling places since SCOTUS gutted the law (count as of last Fall): 750 in Texas, 320 in Arizona, 214 in Georgia, 126 in Louisiana, 96 in Mississippi, and 72 in Alabama.
  • John Roberts has been trying to weaken Voting Rights Act since he was young lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department. “Violations of [VRA] should not be made too easy to prove” he wrote in 1981.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) on Tuesday blocked an attempt by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to push legislation through the Senate that would promote mail-in voting and expand early voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There has been a real desire at the federal level to take over the elections process, I don’t think that’s a good idea, and if it was a good idea, it wouldn’t be a good idea six months before the election,” Blunt said.

Despite a surge of absentee voting, consolidating polling locations in the city of Milwaukee reduced turnout by nearly 9 percentage points, disproportionately affecting Black voters. Using the pandemic for reasoning, the number of polling places in Milwaukee City were cut from 182 in 2016 to just five for this year’s primary. In the rest of Wisconsin, the number of polling places dropped by 11 percent.

More articles:

  • Barr claims voting by mail will lead to fraud, ‘counterfeiting.’ Admits he has zero evidence.
  • The simple reason Trump’s imagined flood of foreign mail-in ballots wouldn’t actually work
  • Michigan launched a pilot program that issues inmates new IDs and registers them to vote as they are released from prison.
  • Lawsuits aim to ease rules limiting Wisconsin college voters
  • Republicans controlling a Georgia House committee approved legislation Wednesday that would prevent election officials from proactively sending mail ballot request forms to voters ahead of an election.
  • Montana commissioner determined that the Montana Republican Party and two minor party qualification committees violated state campaign finance laws in a successful effort to qualify the Green Party of Montana for the primary ballot.
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