Lost in the Sauce: Dec 29 – Jan 4
Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater. (the previous edition can be found here if you are super behind)
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 have not had time lately to do a companion audio TLDR for Lost in the Sauce. I’m very sorry, these take so long to write and compile that suddenly it’s time to post it and I haven’t had a chance to record and edit audio.
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Let’s dig in!
Critical details in Ukraine docs
Last week, Just Security published new details of Trump administration communications regarding the freeze on aid to Ukraine. The emails were previously only available in redacted form as part of a FOIA release to the Center for Public Integrity. The new information sheds light on the role Trump and his aides played in the freeze and highlighted the administration’s ongoing cover-up.
A key person in the emails is acting Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker, who expressed concern almost immediately after the freeze was formalized on July 25 (91 minutes after Trump’s call with Zelensky). In August, McCusker warned senior OMB officials that time was running out to send the aid. Both of these emails from McCusker were redacted.
As the month wore on, the emails show officials bending over backwards to make every conceivable accommodation to keep the process moving without actually being able to obligate the funding. The idea was that as soon as the funds were given the green light, there would be zero delay, and presumably, impoundments could be avoided.
At the end of August, “McCusker’s frustration is palpable,” as associate director of national security programs at OMB Michael Duffey kept extended the hold with little explanation and OMB lawyers “continue[d] to consistently mischaracterize the process,” in McCusker’s own words. By Aug. 27, the Senate Armed Services Committee and House Appropriators began asking the Pentagon about the aid. All of McCusker’s emails during this time were redacted.
The cover-up doesn’t end at FOIA redactions. On Dec. 11, OMB general counsel Mark Paoletta wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stating that the Defense Department had not warned them that there was a risk that the aid money could not be spent if the freeze extended for too long. In fact, the unredacted communications reveal three concrete examples of the Defense Department pointing out that risk. One of these examples was an entire draft letter from the Deputy Defense Secretary to the OMB warning that “we have repeatedly advised OMB officials that pauses beyond Aug. 19, 2019 jeopardize the Department’s ability to obligate USAI funding prudently and fully.”
Why was this entire letter blacked out by the DOJ? Why did Paoletta lie in an official communication to the GAO, a congressional investigative office? Why redact practically all of McCusker’s concerns?
- Reminder: In last week’s edition of Lost in the Sauce, I wrote about a report by The New York Times that detailed the intense disagreement among top administration officials over Trump’s decision to withhold aid to Ukraine. Pentagon officials were generally against the hold, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, while Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Russell T. Vought, the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, Robert Blair, the senior adviser to Mulvaney, and Mark Paoletta were Trump’s accomplices.
- Latest cover-up action: Despite a court order in response to a FOIA lawsuit, the Trump administration is refusing (non-paywalled) to produce 20 emails between Robert Blair and Michael Duffey discussing the aid freeze. The New York Times plans to “challenge the blanket withholding of the documents and would ask the judge overseeing the lawsuit, Judge Amy Berman Jackson, to approve an expedited schedule.”
The unredacted documents reviewed by Just Security show that Trump was the sole decision-maker: “What is clear is that it all came down to the president and what he wanted; no one else appears to have supported his position.” This is made clear as early as the day after the hold is formalized, in a readout of a National Security Council meeting on July 26 that states the “OMB noted that the President’s direction via the Chief of Staff in early July was to suspend security assistance to Ukraine…”
Perhaps the most damning evidence, though, was in an email Duffey sent to McCusker following an Aug. 30 meeting between Trump, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Duffey stated there was a “Clear direction from POTUS to hold” and prepared paperwork to again extend the hold.
Finally, McCusker asked Duffey why the hold was lifted (on Sept. 11). He responded, “Not exactly clear but president made the decision to go. Will fill you in when I get details.” We now know what happened: Trump got caught. Just two days earlier, the House announced it was opening an investigation into whether Trump was illegally pressuring Ukraine.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer:
“The newly-revealed unredacted emails are a devastating blow to Sen. McConnell’s push to have a trial without the documents and witnesses we’ve requested. These emails further expose the serious concerns raised by Trump administration officials about the propriety and legality of the president’s decision to cut off aid to Ukraine to benefit himself.”
“Importantly, that Mr. Duffey said there was ‘clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold’ only further implicates President Trump and underscores the need for the Senate to subpoena the witnesses and documents we’ve requested at the onset of a trial,” Schumer continued. “The American people deserve a fair trial that gets to the truth, not a rigged process that enables a cover-up.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff:
“As part of our impeachment inquiry, the House subpoenaed these very documents. From their deeply incriminating character, we can now see why they were concealed: They directly corroborate witnesses who testified that military aid to Ukraine was withheld at the direction of the President and that the W.H. was informed doing so may violate the law… The disclosure of these incriminating documents reinforces the need for all of these materials to be produced, and that a fair trial in the Senate cannot take place without them. If they are not produced, the Senate and the American people must ask, what else is the President hiding?” (CNN)
Despite all the abuse from the White House, and the fact that he took office as an utter political neophyte in one of Europe’s most dysfunctional nations, Zelensky’s government so far has been an extraordinary — and, under the circumstances, almost miraculous — success.
…For decades, successive U.S. administrations have tried to coax this kind of performance from Ukrainian presidents, mostly without much success. Yet now that Zelensky is doing virtually everything the State Department once dreamed of, there is a U.S. vacuum in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, Zelensky, who still wants the legitimization of a White House visit, has yet to be given a date. It’s hard not to conclude that the Trump administration isn’t happy that Ukraine finally has a competent president. (The Washington Post)
Senate trial update
Not much has changed since Congress went on break – the Republican and Democratic leaders are still deadlocked over how a Senate impeachment trial will proceed. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he’s “content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate while House Democrats continue to flounder,” referring to House Speaker Pelosi’s decision not to nominate House managers and send articles of impeachment to the Senate. Schumer continues to back her plan, saying:
”There has never, never in the history of the country been an impeachment trial of the president in which the Senate was denied the ability to hear from witnesses… Yet, the Republican leader seems intent on violating that precedent.”
A Democratic aide told Axios that no decision has been made about when the articles could be sent to the Senate.
- Further reading: How long can Pelsoi hold the articles of impeachment? The Daily Beast published an op-ed on the matter. “Pushed for a time limit, Ornstein told The Daily Beast that he thinks Pelosi can extend through February, ‘keeping all options open,’ he said.”
- The opposing view: (1) “Democrats are the ones who stand to suffer by delaying the Senate impeachment trial.” The Washington Post. 1/2/2020. (2) Perhaps less credible, “Pelosi impeachment delay game ‘hurting Democrats,’ says Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz.” Boston Herald. 12/24/2019.
Change in rules?
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said he will push to change the Senate rules regarding impeachment so the trial can begin without receiving the managers/articles from the House. It’s unclear whether McConnell would be open to this approach, however, as the only person who seems to want a trial is Trump and Trump’s associates. Additionally, it would be very hard to change the rules before the trial starts:
It would take 60 votes to pass a resolution on impeachment outside a trial and 67 votes to change the impeachment rules. That threshold would require Democratic support, since McConnell has only 53 Republicans…
I want to note that the Associated Press appears to report that changing the rules would require 51 votes, but that is only true after the trial has begun.
On Monday, former National Security Adviser John Bolton released the following statement:
Accordingly, since my testimony is once again at issue, I have had to resolve the serious competing issues as best I could, based on careful consideration and study. I have concluded that, if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify.
According to The New York Times: “former White House officials and people close to Mr. Bolton have indicated that his testimony would likely be damning to Mr. Trump and put additional pressure on moderate Republicans to consider convicting him.”
Maine Senator Susan Collins said in an interview with local media that she is “open to witnesses” during the Senate trial, breaking with McConnell. Collins added that she has advocated that the Senate use the Clinton impeachment trial as a framework for Trump’s trial:
”What happened back then is Sen. Trent Lott on the Republican side, Sen. Tom Daschle on the Democratic side, negotiated the terms to begin the trial. And those terms were adopted unanimously by the Senate, 100-0. I can’t imagine anything like that happening today, regrettably. They decided that we would start with the opening arguments from both sides. And then we proceeded to a period where senators questioned the two sides through the chief justice… And those questions, of which there were more than 100, elicited a lot of information that was very useful. So I hope we do that approach this time as well.”
Then we move to what I call the third stage. At that point, we debated whether or not we wanted to hear from witnesses and get additional documents. And there was a roll call vote, with Republicans wanting witnesses at that point. And Democrats, with few exceptions, not wanting witnesses, so we have a reverse of the current situation. And we decided to call just three witnesses and to have them deposed, rather than testifying live.
Read more on how Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial worked.
Read about the role Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts could play in a Senate trial.
At Trump’s New Year’s Eve party, Rudy Giuliani told reporters that he’s not only willing to testify at Trump’s trial – he wants to “try the case.”
“I would testify, I would, um, do demonstrations. I’d give lectures, I’d give summations. Or, I’d do what I do best, I’d try the case. I’d love to try the case. Well I don’t know if anybody would have the courage to give me the case, but, uh, if you give me the case, I will prosecute it as a racketeering case, which I kind of invented anyway.”
So the private attorney of the defendant charged with abuse of power and obstructing congress wants to “prosecute” a RICO case… against his own client? Though that’s what Giuliani literally said, it seems what he intended to say was that he’d argue at Trump’s trial that Joe Biden and Hunter are the ones actually on trial.
Last Monday, D.C. District Court Judge Richard Leon dismissed (document) former Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman’s lawsuit challenging a subpoena from House impeachment investigators. Kupperman’s lawsuit sought to determine whether he had to obey the House subpoena or the president’s order not to comply with the subpoena. Judge Leon dismissed the case because the House Intelligence Committee withdrew the subpoena last month; a House Intelligence Committee official stated that they would not allow Kupperman to delay impeachment through long court cases.
With this case dismissed, the relevant precedent is Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ruling in the McGahn case that Executive branch employees do not have “absolute immunity.” This is especially applicable to former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said he was waiting on the outcome of Kupperman’s case to determine if he would testify in impeachment proceedings. Legal experts immediately called for his compliance:
Neal Katyal: “I think the bottom line is that John Bolton now has no rock to hide behind anymore, and that he really should testify.”
Former prosecutor Mimi Rocah: “Bolton has no excuse anymore. The standing case law says testify. Wanting to sell a book says testify. Doing the right thing for the good of your country says testify.” Source
Former prosecutor Joyce White Vance: “Bolton doesn’t have any legally cognizable privilege to assert and should testify. We can confirm this with common sense: Someone close to the president who has said he has information and who we now know was involved in counseling the president against the course of conduct he took in Ukraine must certainly testify if we’re going to learn the truth.” Source
Buzzfeed News and CNN obtained a third batch of FBI memos from Mueller’s investigation, released as part of a FOIA lawsuit. The following are some highlights of the new 365-page trove:
- The translator at the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Ike Kaveladze, told Mueller’s team that the Russians spoke at length about the Magnitsky Act, though Trump’s representatives were promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Kaveladze reported that Trump Jr. was annoyed by the focus on sanctions policy and half-way through the meeting interrupted to ask: “Is there anything you have on HILLARY?”
- Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort used Fox News host Sean Hannity as a “back channel” to Trump during the period he was under investigation in 2017. The memos state: “Manafort knew Hannity was speaking to Trump because Hannity would tell Manafort to hang in there, that he had been talking to Trump, that Trump had his back, and things like that…Manafort understood his conversations with Hannity to be a message from Trump.”
- Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen told investigators that he and Trump attorney Jay Sekulow considered having Trump issue “pre-pardons,” or “pardons to everyone so that no one had to comply with the investigations.” However, Cohen said the duo then learned that pre-pardons would have the opposite effect: individuals would have to cooperate with all investigations and could not take the Fifth Amendment.
- An unknown witness spoke to Mueller’s team on April 12 and 13 of 2018; the entire 31 pages documenting the interview is redacted. This witness is the only name withheld entirely in the 365-page release. CNN speculates that this individual could possibly be Jared Kushner.
- Then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told then-Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland that, before she was officially fired, Trump wanted her to write a letter stating that “the President never directed Flynn to call the Russians about sanctions.” McFarland relayed this request to White House lawyer John Eisenberg, who advised her not to comply because the concurrent offer of an ambassadorship would look “like a quid pro quo situation.”
McGahn and Grand Jury arguments
Two sets of three-judge panels in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments (audio) in two separation-of-powers cases Friday: a lawsuit over former White House Counsel Don McGahn’s subpoenaed testimony and a lawsuit to reveal evidence collected by Mueller’s grand jury.
In the McGahn case, two judges – Rogers and Griffith – appeared skeptical of the Justice Department’s argument that advisers like McGahn are “absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony.” The DOJ persisted claiming that courts had no role in arbitrating what they call a “political” conflict between the Executive and Legislative branch. The House general counsel, Douglas Letter, told the court that a third article of impeachment “is on the table,” dependent upon hearing testimony from McGahn.
The same two judges joined a Trump-appointee, Judge Neomi Rao, to hear the grand jury case. Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell previously ruled in October that the House was exempt from rules that normally shield grand jury material. On Friday, Judge Griffith advised the Justice Department that they were “going up against” history by arguing that the “gold standard” legal rulings in Nixon’s impeachment should not be followed in Trump’s.
Trump-appointee Neomi Rao made waves during her questioning by suggesting that there’s a possibility Attorney General Bill Barr could ignore a court ruling that the House was entitled to the grand jury information. Rao asked what the House would do if such an instance arose. Letter responded that the House could send out its sergeant at arms to collect the material, but “we don’t do that anymore” at the risk of having “a gun battle with Mr. Barr’s FBI security detail. Instead, we go to court. Everybody has recognized that we go to court.”
- Some media outlets have reported that Letter seriously suggested the sergeant at arms should have a shootout with the DOJ in order to arrest Barr. You can listen to the audio yourself; Letter was using sarcasm to show that argument advanced by the DOJ was unworkable: the House doesn’t have any realistic alternatives to obtain information it is legally-entitled to, other than going to court.
- Neomi Rao: Judge Rao had previously heard arguments in Trump’s challenge of the House’s subpoena to his accounting firm, Mazars USA. The majority ruled in favor of Congress. Rao, however, dissented with an opinion that has no basis in Supreme Court case law or historical precedent: She opined that Congress may not investigate the president, even for a valid legislative purpose, unless it through impeachment. As Slate correctly noted, her argument “would help place Trump above any congressional oversight and further insulate the executive branch from an important check by the judicial branch.”
- Further reading: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ collection of reasons to oppose the confirmation of Judge Rao (from early 2019)
Trump’s Deutsche Bank loans
On Friday, Forensic News (led by Scott Stedman) reported that a whistleblower told the FBI that Trump’s Deutsche Bank loans are underwritten by VTB, the Russian state-owned bank. The whistleblower is Val Broeksmit, whose late father was an executive at Deutsche Bank. Forensic News has verified parts of Val’s story but does not confirm the claim that Trump’s loans were co-signed or paid off by VTB. Val Broeksmit has provided valuable documents and information to prosecutors that led to successful prosecutions and fines against the bank – this provides more credibility to his claims regarding VTB.
A subsidiary of Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas (DBTCA), made the loans to Trump; it also maintained ties to VTB even after the latter was subjected to US sanctions. DBTCA owed approximately $48.6 million to VTB in 2013. Forensic News has verified these facts – yet another piece of evidence that supports Val’s claims.
Two Deutsche executives with knowledge of the alleged VTB arrangement—Bill Broeksmit and Thomas Bowers—have both committed suicide. Another, Rosemary Vrablic, has not commented publicly on the matter. It is now time she testify to Congress about what she knows. (source)
Finally, as one of the authors, Robert DeNault, points out – the timeline surrounding the article reveals suspicious activity:
Fri. (12/27): we notify Deutsche Bank about our piece
Sun. (12/29): Trump + Putin have mystery phone call
Wed. (1/1): we tell DB we are publishing Fri.
Wed. (1/1): Trump decides to kill Soleimani
Thurs. (1/2): Soleimani assassinated
Fri. (1/3): we are cyberattacked [and the site taken down for 24 hours]
Someone didn’t want the public to read Forensic News’ report… You can listen to the Counter Intelligence Podcast interview with Val here.
Prosecutors told District Judge Amy Berman Jackson that they are almost ready to release less-redacted documents about how Paul Manafort lied during his cooperation with the government. CNN: “Unsealing the details could potentially explain major questions about Manafort’s connections to the White House and fill in gaps about what Russia and Ukraine hoped from Trump after he took office.”
These details could potentially shed more light on Trump’s Ukraine policy:
Prosecutors said Manafort lied about 2017 and 2018 discussions with Kilimnik about Ukrainian policy, specifically, a Ukraine “peace plan” that would provide a “backdoor” way for Russia to control part of Ukraine, and their interest in getting Trump’s support for it, according to the Mueller report. The FBI believes Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence, according to court filings and the Mueller report.
Two U.S. officials told the Associated Press that Erik Prince had been referred to the Treasury Department for violating sanctions by meeting with Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez during a surprise trip to Caracas last month.
…the fact the visit was flagged underscores the concern of officials in the Trump administration over what appeared to be anunauthorized diplomatic outreach to Maduro… the mere presence in Venezuela of a businessman with longstanding ties to the U.S. national security establishment prompted questions about whether he was there to open a secret back channel to Maduro on behalf of the Trump administration
Rudy Giuliani, currently under federal investigation for his involvement in Ukrainian foreign affairs, was also part of a second “shadow diplomatic effort” in Venezuela. The Washington Post (non-paywalled) reported that Giuliani spoke to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in September 2018 to try to negotiate Maduro’s resignation. This is counter to official U.S. policy and alarmed administration officials. At the time, Giuliani was representing a wealthy Venezuelan energy executive and pushed for Maduro’s exit in order to open up the resource-rich country to business.
Giuliani’s actions in Venezuela appear to be a clear violation of the Logan Act (18 U.S.C. § 953), which criminalizes negotiation by unauthorized American citizens with foreign governments having a dispute with the U.S.
Venezuela is definitely a country engaged in a dispute with the United States, and Giuliani was arguably acting “to defeat the measures of the United States” by engaging in shadow diplomacy that contradicted official U.S. foreign policy. In fact, Bolton explicitly rejected the effort. (The Washington Post)
Giuliani: Cybersecurity adviser?
Days before his inauguration in January 2017, Trump announced that he appointed Rudy Giuliani to be a cybersecurity adviser, working with the private sector to find “the answer to cybersecurity.” However, Giuliani had little-to-no experience of knowledge about cybersecurity and reportedly had little input in practical cybersecurity matters inside the White House at the time.
So, why was Giuliani named cybersecurity adviser? It turns out that it was not an official government job, but just a publicized informal role in an area that Giuliani was trying to build a clientele for his consulting business. The unpaid informal position exempted Giuliani from federal ethics laws that would have required him to “reveal any financial connections that might enable him to profit from his position.”
Without an official government job — but with a publicized informal role — the former U.S. attorney and two-term mayor of New York was able to present himself to prospective clients as someone with a direct line to the president, without any transparency for the public.
…Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who was a White House ethics official under President George W. Bush…“The bottom line is, you can’t just delegate any U.S. government function to somebody and simply because they’re not getting a salary from the government, they get to ignore all the conflict-of-interest rules,” Painter said. “That’s a nonstarter in terms of ethics. It’s a disaster.”
…Painter, the law professor, said the 2017 cybersecurity advisory position also had the potential for Giuliani to enrich himself. Because Trump never made the job official, he said, the public may never know whether that happened. “It’s just another example with this administration,” Painter said, “and we see with Ukraine it’s the same thing.”
Parnas shares info
On Friday, we learned that District Judge Paul Oetken will allow Lev Parnas to share additional information with the House Intelligence Committee. The materials include documents seized from Parnas’ house and files taken from his iPhone. Attorney Joseph Bondy said the materials are relevant to the impeachment inquiry and “essential to the Committee’s ability to corroborate the strength of Mr. Parnas’s potential [impeachment] testimony.”
Bondy updated the press on Monday, saying that the government turned over the seized materials and Parnas has begun to share them with the House Intelligence Committee.
Did China give Trump dirt on Biden?
A little-noticed October report from The Financial Times (FT) received new attention last week. You may remember on October 3, Trump told reporters on the White House lawn that “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Michael Pillsbury, an informal adviser to Trump, told FT that China fulfilled Trump’s request by providing him with more dirt on the Bidens. In an email exchange released by FT’s Washington bureau chief, Pillsbury said: “Actually, I got quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden from the Chinese.”
However, hours later Pillsbury denied speaking with FT. The matter still has not been settled; we don’t know if Pillsbury was telling the truth.
Trump Org’s undocumented workers
The Trump Organization kept employing undocumented workers at the Trump Winery, recently firing them after workers had finished the annual grape harvest:
Nearly a year after the Trump Organization pledged to root out undocumented workers at its properties, supervisors at the Trump Winery on Monday summoned at least seven employees and fired them because of their lack of legal immigration status, according to two of the dismissed workers.
…“Donald Trump has known about these workers for months,” said Anibal Romero, an immigration lawyer who represents many of Trump’s former undocumented employees and is advising Miranda. “He waits until the fields are tended, grapes picked, wine made. He then discards them like a used paper bag. Happy New Year — you’re fired.”
- Further reading: Former Models for Donald Trump’s Agency Say They Violated Immigration Rules and Worked Illegally; Lawsuit accused Trump of “cheat[ing] with 200 other undocumented Polish immigrants out of meager wages and fringe benefits” to build Trump Tower; Management at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., used undocumented workers as housekeepers; CNN interviewed 19 undocumented immigrants who say they worked for the Trump Organization and that Donald Trump had to have known they were undocumented during their employment.
Trump’s taxpayer-funded properties
President Donald Trump has pushed his taxpayer-funded golf tab past $118 million on his 26th visit to Mar-a-Lago, his for-profit resort in Palm Beach, Florida, with a Saturday visit to his course in neighboring West Palm Beach.
The new total is the equivalent of 296 years of the $400,000 presidential salary that his supporters often boast that he is not taking.
And of that $118.3 million, at least several million has gone into Trump’s own cash registers, as Secret Service agents, White House staff and other administration officials stay and eat at his hotels and golf courses. (HuffPost)
According to CNN, since his inauguration Trump “has spent at least 252 days at a Trump golf club and 333 days at a Trump property.”
Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent who launched the bureau’s Russia probe in 2016 and was fired two years later for sending text messages critical of Donald Trump, has alleged in a new court filing challenging his dismissal that the FBI and Justice Department violated his rights to free speech and privacy. (Politico)
Strzok’s legal team argues: “The government’s argument would leave thousands of career federal government employees without protections from discipline over the content of their political speech.”
Twenty months later, the Justice Department still has not determined if it will bring criminal charges against former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for possibly committing perjury. In November, District Judge Reggie B. Walton criticized prosecutors for leaving McCabe in limbo: “This is not a hard case. I was a good prosecutor for a long time. Deciding whether or not you’re going to charge someone with false statements or perjury is not that hard, factually or legally — maybe politically, but not factually or legally.”
Since the case was first referred to the DOJ, one grand jury term has expired and a second did not issue an indictment. The Washington Post Editorial Board writes that “[i]t is hard not to read between the lines and see prosecutors who realize they have a bad legal case but won’t close it out for fear of angering the president.” Lawfare editor Susan Hennessey agrees: “DOJ refusing to close cases it does not genuinely intend to prosecute in order to place a cloud over the president’s political opponents is abusive, illegitimate, and immoral. Once upon a time, we would have expected people to resign over things like this. Now, they shrug.”
News in the lawsuit brought against Alex Jones by Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, for making defamatory statements against him and other victims’ families:
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Free Speech Systems, the parent company of his fringe right-wing website Infowars, must pay about $100,000 in his adversary’s legal expenses as a penalty stemming from a defamation suit against them. (CNN)
Added to an earlier October order against Infowars, Jones and his outlet have been ordered to pay $126,023.80 over the case, even before it reaches trial. (Daily Beast)
TIME: The Department of Homeland Security is agreeing to share citizenship information with the U.S. Census Bureau as part of President Donald Trump’s order to collect data on who is a citizen following the Supreme Court’s rejection of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form. Trump’s order is being challenged in federal court, but meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security two weeks ago announced the agreement in a report. It said the agency would share administrative records to help the Census Bureau determine the number of citizens and non-citizens in the U.S., as well as the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
CNN: The Trump administration will begin collecting DNA samples from some migrants in US Customs and Border Protection custody as part of a pilot program, something it says will allow the agency to be in compliance with an upcoming regulation change.
NBC News: The Defense Department’s internal watchdog plans to review a recent Army Corps of Engineers decision to award a $400 million contract for border wall construction to a North Dakota company [Fisher Sand & Gravel] that has been publicly and privately endorsed by members of the Trump administration, including the president himself.
NBC News: The acting secretary of Homeland Security is taking aim at new laws in New York and New Jersey that allow immigrants to get driver’s licenses without proof they are in the U.S. legally, and restrict data sharing with federal authorities.
San Diego Union-Tribune: Asylum seekers may face additional hurdles to winning protection in the United States after the Trump administration unveiled a proposed rule that would place new restrictions on the system… The rule would bar anyone from winning asylum who has a felony criminal conviction or a conviction for a crime that could have had a sentence for more than one year, regardless of how long of a sentence the person actually received. The rule would also specifically create bars to asylum for those convicted of harboring or smuggling people — including their close relatives — across the border.
Buzzfeed News: A 40-year-old French man died in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a New Mexico hospital on Sunday — the fourth person to do so since October, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The man had been in ICE custody since Nov. 12… Mavinga is the fourth person to die in ICE custody in the 2020 fiscal year, which began in October. Eight people died in ICE custody in the 2019 fiscal year.
Since there has been so much news in the past week about the situation with Iran, we don’t have space to cover it all. Instead, I will just include short blurbs from the latest developments:
- NYT: Iranian-Americans Questioned at the [Washington state] Border: ‘My Kids Shouldn’t Experience Such Things.’ Up to 200 people were held by border agents, with some of them reportedly asked to share their opinions about the situation in Iran and Iraq. (non-paywalled option)
- NYT: Top American military officials put the option of killing [Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani] — which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq — on the menu they presented to President Trump. They didn’t think he would take it…Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials. By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned. (non-paywalled option)
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were two of the most hawkish voices arguing for a response to Iranian aggression, according to administration officials.
- Politico: The White House is working to schedule a briefing this Wednesday for members of Congress and the so-called Gang of Eight congressional leaders on the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, a senior administration official said…Among those expected to brief the Senate…Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
- Members of Congress were largely kept in the dark on Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani with a drone strike on his convoy at Baghdad’s International Airport on Friday. On Saturday, the White House notified Congress of his decision as required by the 1973 War Powers Act, although its classified contents were immediately questioned by Democratic leaders. “The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security,” Pelosi said.
- CBS News: Pelosi said in a letter that, “The House will introduce and vote on a War Powers Resolution” in order “to limit the President’s military actions regarding Iran.” She explained that the resolution “is similar to the one introduced by Senator Tim Kaine in the Senate,” adding that it “reasserts Congress’s long-established oversight responsibilities by mandating that if no further Congressional action is taken, the Administration’s military hostilities with regard to Iran cease within 30 days.”
- WaPo: Some of the loudest critics of President Trump’s order to kill a senior Iranian commander — other than Iranians — are Russian officials, who have denounced it as an illegal assassination and a politically motivated election-year decision. But it is Russia that may end up benefiting from the fallout. If the United States withdraws from Iraq as backlash over the killing widens, Russia could strengthen its foothold in the country — much as it did in Syria after Trump ordered a troop pullout there last fall, a step that was later partly reversed.
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