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  1. #51
    Trump defends his Syria pullout against Republican criticism

    Steve Holland

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday rejected criticism from fellow Republicans over his decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, and dismissed worries that captured Islamic State fighters might escape in the chaos of a Turkish attack.

    Trump’s abrupt move on Sunday to remove 50 U.S. troops out of northern Syria, which has allowed Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies unimpeded, has drawn sharp fire from many Republican lawmakers who are normally his strong supporters.

    As Turkey launched an attack on Kurdish militia positions on Wednesday, Trump aligned himself with anti-war voices in the Republican Party like Senator Rand Paul, saying the United States should have never been involved in conflicts in the Middle East in the first place.

    Pressed on the situation by reporters during a White House event, Trump said he was open to imposing sanctions on Turkey if the Turks do not treat the Kurds humanely.

    Asked what he would do if Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan were to wipe out the Kurds, Trump said: “I will wipe out his economy if he does that.”

    The Trump pullout has prompted bipartisan concerns that some of the thousands of Islamic State fighters held by Kurdish-led forces might escape in the chaos surrounding the Turkish incursion.

    Trump said many of these fighters are of European origin and that he had given European nations four chances to take responsibility for them.

    Asked if he had any concerns that some of these ISIS fighters could escape and pose a threat elsewhere, Trump adopted a dismissive tone.

    “Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go,” he said.

    Reaction to Trump’s move has enraged many Republicans and Democrats.

    U.S. Representative Liz Cheney, a national security hawk and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said in a statement that Trump’s decision would have “sickening and predictable consequences.”

    “The U.S. is abandoning our ally the Kurds, who fought ISIS on the ground and helped protect the U.S. homeland. This decision aids America’s adversaries, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and paves the way for a resurgence of ISIS. This action imperils American security and that of our allies. Congress must and will act to limit the catastrophic impact of this decision,” she said.

    Trump cast his decision as in line with his long-held belief that the United States cannot be the world’s policeman and must bring some troops home.

    But it comes as he needs as much Republican support as possible to fight an impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats who control the U.S. House of Representatives based on his attempt to get Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.

    U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is one of Trump’s closest confidants in Congress and a frequent golf partner, has angrily split with Trump over Syria.

    “This is the pre-9/11 mentality that paved the way for 9/11: ‘What’s happening in Afghanistan is no concern to us.’ So if he follows through with this, it’d be the biggest mistake of his presidency,” Graham told Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends.”

    Graham said on Twitter that he would lead an effort in Congress “to make Erdogan pay a heavy price” for the incursion.

    Trump on Monday had threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy if Turkey took any action he considered “off-limits” following his decision.

  2. #52
    From GQ online ...

    The Trump-Ukraine Call Notes Are Much Worse for the President Than Anyone Predicted

    Even the White House's in-house account includes a record of the president asking a foreign power to interfere in American elections.

    By Jay Willis

    September 25, 2019

    In this column, Due Diligence, erstwhile attorney and GQ staff writer Jay Willis untangles the messy intersection of law, politics, and culture.

    On Wednesday, the morning after House Democrats launched an official impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, the White House released what it called a "transcript" of Trump's July phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Already, Trump has admitted to asking Zelensky to investigate the Ukraine business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden—and, more consequentially for the 2020 race, to look into the former vice president's involvement in that country's politics, too.

    For days, Trump has insisted that the conversation was "absolutely perfect" and "totally appropriate," and denied suggestions that he conditioned Ukraine's receiving U.S. aid on Zelensky's willingness to look for dirt on one of Trump's political rivals. After seeing the document the White House released, House speaker Nancy Pelosi did not agree with his assessment. "The release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the President engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security," she said in a statement. "Clearly, the Congress must act."

    At Pelosi's "notes of the call" language indicates, what the White House released is not a "complete, fully-declassified, and unredacted transcript," as Trump promised. It is a "Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation"—a document cobbled together from staffers' notes and polished for posterity's sake. Since this is the White House that allowed the president to use a Sharpie to doctor a hurricane map that didn't match his amateur weather forecasts, there is good reason to be skeptical that these notes are a full accounting of what the two leaders discussed. Everything it claims that either man "says" should be taken with a Kellyanne Conway-sized grain of salt.

    Even with this caveat in mind, the document is an astonishing record of how untroubled Trump seems to be with abusing the powers of his office, and doing so for personal gain—classic hallmarks of what previous congresses have treated as impeachable conduct. "The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine," he says. "I wouldn't say that it's reciprocal, necessarily, because things are happening that are not good, but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine."

    Hearing Trump's unhappiness, Zelensky quickly agrees. "You are absolutely right," he says. He thanks Trump for the United States's commitment to his country, and especially for its "great support in the area of defense." Consistent with this good working relationship, he reminds Trump that he intends to purchase more Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States sometime in the near future.

    It is at this point—when Zelensky mentions the sale of arms to support its ongoing military conflict with Russia—that Trump breaks in to ask that Zelensky do something about one of the "things that are happening that are not good" that Trump referred to moments earlier. "I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it," he says. "I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike—I guess you have one of your wealthy people...The server, they say Ukraine has it."

    It isn't clear what's going on, exactly, in this jumble of Fox News buzzwords. (Especially here, the use of an ellipsis is rather conspicuous.) CrowdStrike is a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm that concluded Russia was behind the 2016 Democratic National Committee hacks. But Trump doesn't explain the significance of this information to Zelensky. His invocation of a "server" could refer to debunked conspiracy theories that the FBI didn't seize a DNC server purportedly containing evidence that someone other than the Russian government directed the pro-Trump 2016 hacks. It could be a sloppy reference to the alleged efforts of Ukrainian government officials to support Hillary Clinton's 2016 candidacy. His usage of Robert Mueller's name could mean that this is just a general condemnation of the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which has placed Trump under a cloud of suspicion.

    In any event, Trump makes clear that his request is a serious one. "Whatever you can do," he says, "it's very important that you do it, if that's possible." As I wrote this morning, a quid pro quo need not be explicit to be understood by everyone involved: Given the power imbalance between the two nations and Ukraine's reliance on receiving U.S. aid and buying U.S. arms, making clear that a "favor" is "very important" implies that Ukraine's failure to perform as requested could lead to harmful consequences. As California congressman Adam Schiff noted, it is an international diplomacy version of the classic mafiosi threat: Beautiful country you have there. It'd be a real shame if something happened to it.

    Again, Zelensky does what he can to assuage Trump's somewhat-nebulous concerns, this time by bringing up former New York City mayor and current Trump TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has spent months lobbying Ukrainian officials to take a closer look at the Biden family's activities in Ukraine. "One of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently," Zelensky confirms, "and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine, and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine." He pledges that "all investigations will be done openly and candidly."

    And again, Trump seems pleased. "Good," he replies. "Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man."

    Here, Trump extends his earlier request for an investigation to what he calls "the other thing": the Biden family. "There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that," he says. He then suggests that U.S. attorney general William Barr might be able to be of assistance: "Whatever you can do" with Barr, Trump adds, "would be great." It seems that Zelensky got the message loud and clear: According to Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, Zelensky privately expressed concern that, in Murphy's words, "aid that was being cut off to Ukraine by the president was a consequence for their unwillingness, at the time, to investigate the Bidens.”

    For a third time, Zelensky acquiesces to Trump's request, promising that his new prosecutor general will begin working on the matter upon their approval by the Ukrainian parliament. (After a ten-month investigation, the previous Ukraine prosecutor general had cleared the company for which Hunter Biden worked of wrongdoing.) In turn, Trump twice promises to have Giuliani and Barr call to offer their assistance and, as he puts it, to "get to the bottom of it."

    During a lengthy exchange of goodbyes, Zelensky casually slips in the fact that he stayed at Trump Tower during his most recent trip to New York City. After everything else that this call revealed, it's easy to forget that before we knew Trump was enlisting foreign heads of state to help fight his political battles, the efforts of foreign heads of state to curry the president's favor by staying in Trump-branded properties was already among the chief rationales for his impeachment.

    Perhaps the most incredible detail about this document is that it is, presumably, what Trump and his White House see as the good version of what happened on this phone call. (After the release, the White House circulated talking points claiming that the notes "clearly show there was no quid pro quo or anything inappropriate.") What the public hasn't seen, however, is the document that kickstarted this entire controversy: a whistleblower report that an anonymous intelligence official, alarmed by something about Trump's call with Zelensky, filed with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community last month. The White House, of course, can spin its in-house record of the call, but not the account of an outside whistleblower.

    Trump's acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, at first seemed to ignore federal law that requires him to turn the report over to Congress. But yesterday, Schiff revealed that the whistleblower's lawyers have reached out to schedule testimony before the House Intelligence Committee he chairs, perhaps as soon as this week. In the meantime, these call notes reveal a president with absolutely no qualms about hijacking the powers of the presidency to try and sink a political opponent. By releasing them, the White House gave any Democratic lawmakers still leery of impeachment plenty of reasons to support an inquiry.

  3. #53
    From GQ online ...

    Russian Disinformation Trolls Targeted Black American Voters at an Alarming Rate

    It doesn’t bode well for 2020.

    By Luke Darby

    October 10, 2019

    It's been three years since the 2016 presidential election, and experts are still uncovering the scope of online Russian-organized disinformation campaigns. For example, investigations discovered that trolls flooded Facebook with fake posts and invented news, as well as faked accounts of organizations that actually did exist. And some of the conspiracy theories they spread were so successful that Fox News breathlessly covered one—the unfounded rumor that the Clintons ordered the murder of a Democratic National Committee staffer—for a solid month in 2017.

    Now, a Senate inquiry has found that these trolls targeted "no single group...more than African-Americans." According to the BBC, after a two-year-long inquiry, the Senate Intelligence Committee uncovered evidence that Russian operatives tried to depress black voter turnout by posting subtly racist propaganda. Per the BBC:

    Thousands of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and You Tube accounts created by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) were aimed at harming Hillary Clinton's campaign and supporting Donald Trump, the committee concludes. More than 66% of Facebook adverts posted by the Russian troll farm contained a term related to race. African-American community voters were discouraged from voting, and from supporting Hillary Clinton.

    Several of the example posts provided to the Senate had targeted titles including "Our Votes Don't Matter," "Don't Vote for Hillary Clinton," and "A Vote for Jill Stein Is Not a Wasted Vote," all of which were targeted at black voters in particular.

    In a statement, Facebook said, "We have stepped up our efforts to build strong defenses on multiple fronts... We have also invested in technology and people to block and remove fake accounts; find and remove co-ordinated manipulation campaigns; and bring unprecedented transparency to political advertising." Meanwhile, Facebook's head of global elections policy, Katie Harbath, wrote in a letter, "Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is."

    Social-media companies are still struggling to figure out how best to handle election-related material on their user-generated-content platforms, though. Donald Trump's presidential re-election campaign released a 30-second ad accusing former vice president and Democratic candidate Joe Biden of promising money to Ukraine in exchange for firing a prosecutor investigating a company that employed his son Hunter. It's the same conspiracy theory at the center of Trump's Ukraine scandal—that he pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenksy to open an investigation into the Bidens' business connections. The specific claims of the ad—that Biden offered money to get heat taken off his son—are unfounded; the particular prosecutor was better known for not investigating corruption. As Vox reports, CNN reportedly refused to air the ad for that reason, but Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter won't take it down.

    While the GOP-led Senate panel found that Russia did definitively meddle in the 2016 election in favor of Trump, it's not clear just how effective IRA's social-media campaigns were. According to the Pew Research Center, the 2016 election was the first time in 20 years that black voter turnout dropped, falling significantly from 66 percent to 59. Given the success of disinformation in the last presidential election, it's likely that these campaigns will continue. As Richard Burr, Republican senator from North Carolina and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Wednesday, "Russia is waging an information-warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election. Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government."

  4. #54
    Unfettered by advisers, Trump’s presidency gets less predictable

    Published October 8, 2019 9:15pm


    LONDON — On Monday, having effectively and unexpectedly given the green light to a Turkish military incursion against America's sometime Syrian Kurdish allies, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter once again. If Turkey took any action that he in his "great and unmatched wisdom," considered to be off-limits, he would "totally destroy and obliterate" its economy.

    Even by Trump's standards, his approach to Turkey and Syria has been a roller coaster. What would normally be heavily discussed and planned policy decisions have increasingly simply been blasted out on Twitter, to the clear alarm of America's allies. According to reports, some decisions have even come as surprises to America's own military, which finds itself racing to catch up with a president who appears to take pride in unpredictable decisions and disdains a thought-through strategy.

    Where earlier in his presidency Trump was still sometimes constrained by those around him—particularly the trio of senior former and serving generals who held key roles—he now seems to be acting on his own. His senior officials, it seems, most often simply do what they can to catch up. That includes correcting themselves or deleting awkward statements when events catch them out. Defense Secretary Mark Esper erased a tweet in which he said the Pentagon did not endorse a Turkish operation in Syria after Trump appeared to say the opposite.

    Given Trump's varied and contradictory statements, it is likely none of the key players—Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, America's now abandoned Kurdish allies from the Syrian Democratic Forces, other Middle Eastern and European states, and anyone else—really know where he stands. But that may be the intent. What the president did make clear in an earlier Twitter storm, however, was that he felt America should not really care. It was 7,000 miles away, and he had been elected to end these "ridiculous, endless foreign wars."

    Messy war

    That's a message that may well resonate ahead of next year's US presidential election. By early evening, the president was himself re-tweeting others saying he was doing the right thing by keeping the United States out of a messy Turkish-Kurdish war.

    What is equally clear, however, is that Trump's actions—both in this case and elsewhere—increasingly run contrary to the advice and instincts of an entire generation of US foreign policy and national security thinkers. Indeed, the cornerstone of America's approach to the world since 1945 has been standing by its allies, even though sometimes imperfectly. Trump's "America first" approach explicitly views them as expendable.

    Evidence suggests the US president views his most senior advisers and officials in much the same way. In the Atlantic this month, "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden recounts mostly anonymous interviews with senior US military figures who have worked with Trump. Sometimes with wry amusement, sometimes with outright horror, they describe a president who disdains expertise, trusts only his own instincts and was "reflexively contrary."

    That was explosive enough in the first half of his presidency, when he chafed against the advice of top officials such as former Marines White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis. When National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster delivered a multipage global strategy based on Trump's "America First" rhetoric, the president was effusive. But no one believes he read it. Now, he seemingly feels the need for advice less than ever.


    For Trump, all diplomatic relationships are unambiguously transactional—and he sees no problem in including his own domestic and political priorities in those deals. That has alarmed officials and opened the door to impeachment proceedings after he apparently pushed Ukraine to investigate potential Democratic challenger Joe Biden and his family. But Trump knows he can almost certainly beat such proceedings given the Republican majority in the Senate, and there are no signs he cares what anybody else thinks.

    Chinese officials were reportedly alarmed last week when Trump publicly suggested that Beijing should also investigate the Bidens. But the most revealing detail in Trump's dealings with President Xi Jinping comes from a reported telephone call, in which the US president clearly implied he would remain quiet about protests in Hong Kong provided progress was made towards a trade deal.

    Those who want to influence Trump are always looking for ways to curry favor, from buying advertising on the Fox News shows he watches to doing business with his family firms. A House of Representatives committee is investigating allegations that a trade group and a foreign government have made large bookings in his hotel and then not used them, something one Democratic congressman described as "near raw bribery."

    That may be to miss the point. Trump might see relationships as transactional, but that does not make them lasting. Positions, to him, are almost never fixed. The Syrian Kurds might have been amongst America's strongest allies against Islamic State, but that does not mean they cannot be abandoned. America may be pulling out from Mideast wars, but that does not mean it might not suddenly return.

    In the gangland parlance, Trump is not the kind of man who "stays bought," or who listens to anyone but himself. It's an approach that has made him the most powerful man on earth, and he believes it will win him a second term.

    He could be right. Either way, expect his time in office to get more unpredictable. — Reuters

    Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party.

  5. #55
    Hillary Clinton: Democrats’ 2020 Race Has a New Shadow

    AFP / 05:00 AM October 23, 2019

    Some Democrats are putting up caution signs for Hillary Clinton as she wades back into presidential politics by casting 2020 candidate Tulsi Gabbard as a “Russian asset,” mocking President Donald Trump’s dealings with a foreign leader and drawing counterattacks from both.

    Bernie Sanders, who lost the 2016 nomination to Clinton and is running again in 2020, took to Twitter with implicit criticisms of his erstwhile rival.

    “People can disagree on issues,” Sanders wrote Monday, “but it is outrageous for anyone to suggest that Tulsi is a foreign asset.”

    Larry Cohen, one of Sanders’ top supporters, was more conciliatory but warned in an interview that Clinton could harm the eventual 2020 nominee by weighing in against specific candidates, even a longshot like Gabbard.

    The former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state has “put a lifetime into the Democratic Party.

    She deserves to be heard,” said Cohen, a prominent member of the Democratic National Committee who also chairs Our Revolution, the spinoff of Sanders’ last presidential campaign.

    But “in this senior leadership role she has,” Cohen said, “it’s her job to embrace the range of politics within the party and not polarize within it.”

    Her scuffle with Gabbard and other recent headlines she’s driven demonstrate that the 71-year-old remains a political lightning rod, just as she’s been through much of the last three decades.

    The dynamics raise questions about how Clinton and her party can best leverage her strengths and navigate her weaknesses through next November.

    For her part, aides say Clinton isn’t attempting any calculated play.

    “The short of it is that she’s on a book tour and is feeling unconstrained about speaking her mind,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill.

    “It’s easy to over-ascribe a strategy about every word she utters, but it’s as simple as that. She’s out there telling the truth.”

    Yet the results can frustrate those trying to win the office that Clinton twice lost, a reality presidential hopeful Cory Booker observed with a carefully calibrated critique while he campaigned Monday in New Hampshire.

    “We need to focus on winning this election talking about the urgencies that we have before us and not indulging in what I think is, for me, not a relevant story,” Booker said, targeting the news media more than Clinton or Gabbard.

    There’s no settled playbook for former nominees or former presidents in party politics.

    Sitting senators like Democrat John Kerry and Republican John McCain returned quietly to Capitol Hill. Democrat Al Gore became a leading advocate for climate action.

    McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, has made perhaps the biggest recent splash as a conservative media sensation who helped stoke a base that ultimately embraced Trump.

    But Clinton “is in her own category,” said Karen Finney, a top aide on her 2016 campaign.

    The first woman to win a major party presidential nomination and the national popular vote leader with almost 3 million more votes than Trump Clinton remains a popular figure in her party, even after enduring criticism for losing key Midwestern states to Trump.

    For Republicans, she’s an evergreen foil, used currently in the Mississippi governor’s race, where Democratic nominee Jim Hood, a longtime attorney general, is being attacked for acknowledging he voted for her over Trump.

    Finney said the 2016 circumstances, a continued focus on Russian interference and the ongoing House impeachment inquiry against Trump all add to the intensity of feelings for Democrats and Republicans alike: “That gives her a unique voice and perspective.”

    The latest fracas started last week when Clinton suggested on a podcast that Russians are “grooming (Gabbard) to be the third-party candidate.”

    Clinton produced no evidence that Moscow is directly backing Gabbard, but Russian state-owned media and a number of alt-right websites have promoted the congresswoman’s Democratic campaign, and the Russian Embassy has defended her on Twitter.

    A military veteran, Gabbard has carved an unusual political profile with criticisms of long-held U.S. foreign policy and defenses of Trump.

    Gabbard retorted by calling Clinton “the queen of warmongers and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.”

    Trump piled on as well.

    “Anybody that is opposed to her is a Russian agent,” Trump complained at the White House on Monday. These people are sick. There’s something wrong with them.”

    Separately, Clinton needled Trump in recent days by tweeting a parody letter in the voice of President John F. Kennedy to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cold War’s Cuban Missile Crisis.

    The document, originally from comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show, played off Trump’s recent letter warning the Turkish president that history would judge him “forever as the devil” if he didn’t “work out a good deal!” over Kurdish lands in northern Syria.

    And amid all that, the State Department released its final report into Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, an issue Trump seized upon in 2016 to paint Clinton as corrupt.

    Illustrating the perpetual Clinton dichotomy, most mainstream media and Democratic partisans emphasized the report’s core finding that there was “no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information,” while conservative media and Republicans played up the determination that 38 current and former State Department officials violated protocol on handling sensitive information.

    Cohen, the Sanders backer, said none of that means Clinton isn’t in prime position to help Democrats in 2020.

    And Booker, even as he lamented the Gabbard kerfuffle, called Clinton an “extraordinary statesperson in our party.”

    Clinton has headlined at least two DNC fundraisers this cycle and more are expected.

    Merrill said she talks regularly to several Democratic presidential candidates.

    And Finney predicts Clinton “will be out on the trail in 2020,” if not for the nominee, then for “any of the record number of women who will be running” for other offices.

    And while Republicans, including Trump, continue aiming at a long-favored target, not everyone in the GOP thinks it will work as well as it has in the past.

    “All the things that she warned us about in 2016 have come true,” said GOP strategist Rick Tyler.

    “So she has the gravitas to weigh in. She’s now a net positive for Democrats, not a negative.”

  6. #56
    From GQ online ...

    Ukraine Envoy Bill Taylor's “Powerful” Testimony Is Damning for Trump

    A top U.S. diplomat meticulously documented a timeline of Trump's quid pro quo to Ukraine.

    By Jay Willis

    October 22, 2019

    On Tuesday, Bill Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, offered closed-door testimony to lawmakers on Capitol Hill as part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump. Taylor's name first surfaced in connection with the Ukraine scandal earlier this month, when the House released a series of text messages between him fellow diplomat Gordon Sondland in which Taylor described it as "crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

    In a reply several hours later, Sondland asserted that Taylor was "incorrect about President Trump's intentions," and had been "crystal clear" that he wanted "no quid pro quos of any kind"—a denial of Taylor's allegation that the administration had conditioned military aid to Ukraine on whether it would investigate Trump's potential 2020 challenger, Joe Biden. Sondland also suggested that they refrain from exchanging further text messages on the subject.

    According to Taylor's written statement, a quid pro quo was, in fact, exactly what Trump had in mind. In the 15-page document, Taylor describes a "weird" months-long ordeal in which he discovered that the administration's policy towards Ukraine was split into two communications channels: a "regular channel" that offered support to Ukraine in the face of Russian military aggression, and an "irregular channel" spearheaded by Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

    Over time, Taylor says, the latter channel gained more influence. He recounts a phone call in which Sondland allegedly stated that "President Trump had told him that [Trump] wants President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma," a Ukrainian energy company on whose board Joe Biden's son sat, "and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election." In his retelling of Sondland's communications, he said Trump's goal was to put Zelensky "in a public box," and that "everything"—including Ukraine's receipt of the money—was contingent on Zelensky's willingness to order the probe.

    In the most damning passage of Taylor's testimony, he discusses a conversation with National Security Council staffer Tim Morrison, who told Taylor that Trump's position was that he was not asking for any quid pro quo, but "did insist that President Zelenskyy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference." The next day, Taylor says, Sondland shared that he had relayed this message, telling Zelensky that there was no quid pro quo, but that if Zelensky did not "clear things up," the two countries would be at a "stalemate"—which seems to be the rhetorical equivalent of telling someone it's not a threat but that their legs will get broken if they don't pay shakedown fees.

    Trump's apparent objection using the phrase does not change the fundamental nature of the transaction: A demand that Ukraine open a politically-motivated investigation into a rival of President Trump in exchange for financial assistance is a quid pro quo. According to Taylor, Sondland even compared the deal to an explicit cash-for-services transaction in which Trump "paid" for the Biden investigation using congressionally-appropriated, taxpayer-funded military aid.

    After hearing Taylor's testimony, Democratic congressman Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts called it a "sea change" in the impeachment process, and "without question the most powerful testimony we've heard." Fellow Democrat Andy Levin, a freshman from Michigan, called it "very troubling, and "his most disturbing day in the Congress so far." Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said it is impossible to "draw any other conclusion, except that the president abused his power and withheld foreign aid," from Taylor's testimony.

    Republican Mark Meadows of North Carolina, by contrast, professed to be unbothered by what Bill Taylor revealed. "Nothing new here," he said.

  7. #57
    Trump Could Be Prosecuted As Soon As He's No Longer President

    A federal appeals court affirms that state and local officials are free to investigate Trump now for use in possible prosecutions down the road.

    By Jay Willis

    November 4, 2019

    In this column, Due Diligence, erstwhile attorney and GQ staff writer Jay Willis untangles the messy intersection of law, politics, and culture.

    In the latest bit of legal wrangling over President Donald Trump's tax returns, a federal court ruled on Monday that Trump cannot prevent his accounting firm, Mazars USA, from turning over eight years' worth of his tax returns to Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. In doing so, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Trump's assertions that he enjoys "broad presidential immunity from state criminal process" while he is in office—and hints at the criminal liability he could face the moment he leaves it.

    Monday's order relates to Vance's ongoing criminal probes of, among other things, the Trump Organization's involvement in hush money payments made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, two women with whom Trump allegedly had extramarital affairs, in order to keep their stories out of the headlines during the 2016 presidential election. As part of that investigation, Vance issued a subpoena for financial records to the Trump Organization earlier this year. Trump has fought to keep confidential throughout his presidency, despite repeated campaign promises to make them public. So when the president's lawyers unsurprisingly declined to include the president's tax returns, Vance issued a subpoena to the president's accounting firm instead.

    In September, Trump sued Vance to prevent enforcement of the Mazars subpoena, arguing to a federal District Court judge that sitting presidents are immune from any and all criminal investigations, including those conducted by state authorities. This would be a significant expansion of the existing Department of Justice policy against charging presidents with federal crimes, and U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero flatly rejected it. Such a "categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity from judicial process," he wrote, is an "overreach of executive power" and "repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values."

    In this appeal to the Second Circuit, the president's lawyers did not retreat from the extraordinary notion of what they called "temporary absolute presidential immunity." At oral argument, Trump attorney William Consovoy even extended it to his client's infamous campaign-trail hypothetical about how his supporters were so loyal that he could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" without losing any votes. In that situation, Consovoy argued to an audibly-incredulous Judge Denny Chin, he could perhaps be charged with murder, but not until after his White House tenure had concluded.

    Like Judge Marrero, Judge Chin and his colleagues on the Second Circuit were having none of this line of reasoning. In a 34-page order, authored by Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, they acknowledge that courts, mindful of a president's unique responsibilities in the constitutional order, should not blindly treat a president like they would anyone else—for example, by ordering their attendance at trials, or compelling them to provide live, in-court testimony. But, the order continues, this subpoena is directed at a third party, not at Trump; in context, the court notes, "compliance does not require the President to do anything at all." This is Trump's second loss on the subject in less than a month, after a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided in mid-October that the House of Representatives, too, can enforce a subpoena against Mazars as part of its congressional oversight responsibilities.

    In a pointed footnote, the Second Circuit panel observes that based on recent precedent, requiring Mazars to hand over the specific documents at issue—Trump's personal financial records—would "not implicate, in any way, the performance of his official duties."

    The order's most interesting passage, though, relates not to Trump's elusive tax returns, but more generally to the potential liability looming in his post-presidential future. Vance's office is hardly the only one looking at the president's alleged misconduct right now. The office of New York attorney general Barbara Underwood examined claims that the president used his since-dissolved charitable organization, the Trump Foundation, to enrich itself and his campaign in what she called a "shocking pattern of illegality." The attorneys general in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. are investigating the Trump inauguration committee's fundraising practices, and whether its members used the money to enrich themselves while planning his swearing-in ceremony. This past spring, shortly after former Trump attorney Michael Cohen publicly testified that Trump sometimes inflated his assets to insurance companies, regulators in New York issued a subpoena to the family business's preferred insurance broker.

    The Second Circuit's order today lends further legitimacy to all these efforts. Even if a sitting president can't be indicted—a disputed proposition the court notes it is not deciding here—that principle doesn't mean state and local officials are barred from investigating anyone or anything tangentially related to Trump in the meantime. In theory, Vance and anyone else examining the president's alleged crimes could prosecute him using the information they collect as soon as his term is over. In other words, the day after he leaves the White House could prove to be a very eventful one for the outgoing commander-in-chief.

    Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow has already promised to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, and to ask the justices to hear the case before their term ends next summer. In exchange for Trump's commitment to seek this fast-track treatment, Vance's office has agreed not to attempt to enforce the Mazars subpoena until the Supreme Court either declines to hear the case—given the stakes and the court's conservative bent, an unlikely outcome—or issues an opinion resolving it once and for all. In other words, Vance isn't getting everything he wants from Mazars on a thumb drive tomorrow.

    Nevertheless, the panel's order reiterates that the responsibility to enforce the law is not automatically suspended just because a potential person of interest manages to take a four-year refuge in the West Wing. Unless and until the Supreme Court says otherwise, attorneys general and prosecutors in New York and New Jersey and D.C. and anywhere else can keep quietly building cases against Trump, waiting for a time when his status as President of the United States is no longer an impediment to holding him accountable.

  8. #58
    Judge strikes down new Trump rule on religious objections

    Associated Press / 07:16 AM November 07, 2019

    NEW YORK – A federal judge on Wednesday struck down a new Trump administration rule that could open the way for more health care workers to refuse to participate in abortions or other procedures on moral or religious grounds.

    U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer said the U.S. Health and Human Services Department overstepped its authority and went beyond existing law in issuing the rule. He also said that the measure could be costly, burdensome and damaging to emergency care and that the whole rationale for the rule was based on a lie.

    He said the department’s claim that there was a significant increase in complaints about workers being forced to violate their conscience was “flatly untrue.” The HHS rule, he said, is a classic “solution in search of a problem.”

    Nineteen states, the District of Columbia, three local governments, health organizations and others had sued to block the rule from taking effect Nov. 22, arguing that it would be discriminatory and would interfere with people’s access to health care.

    “Today, the Trump administration has been blocked from providing legal cover for discrimination,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of Planned Parenthood. “As the federal district court made clear, the administration acted outside its authority and made false claims to try to justify this rule.”

    Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association, said the HHS rule “could have jeopardized the health of some of our most vulnerable populations, including women, LGBT people and people with HIV or AIDS.”

    But Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, called the ruling “absurd mush” and urged the Trump administration to appeal.

    Health care institutions have long relied on federal Conscience Provisions first created in 1973 and amended since then that protected health care professionals from carrying out services that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs.

    The new HHS rule broadens the list of health care personnel who can refuse to participate, expanding it to those who counsel, refer, train or make arrangements for a medical procedure.

    It also restricts the ability of employers to inquire about employees’ objections and broadens the definition of health care entities to include pharmacists and medical laboratories.

    Thus, the judge warned, a hospital or clinic receptionist who schedules appointments, an elevator operator or an ambulance driver could refuse on moral or religious grounds to do their jobs.

    He said the rule could force some health care employers to double or triple staff, particularly during emergencies.

    “These limits have clear potential to inhibit the employer’s ability to organize workplace arrangements to avoid inefficiencies and dislocations,” Engelmayer said.

    Engelmayer, who was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, said HHS lacked authority to create major portions of the rule, including a provision that said a health care institution’s federal funding can be cut off for violating the measure.

    He said it should be left to Congress to decide whether to change the laws regarding employers’ duty to accommodate religious objections.

  9. #59
    How Trump’s impeachment will unroll

    Agence France-Presse / 10:03 AM November 11, 2019

    The words Trump had to hear: Investigations, Biden, Clinton

    WASHINGTON, United States — The start of open hearings in the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump on Wednesday will give the American public their first chance to witness live the explosive showdown between Democrats and Republicans over the US leader’s future.

    The hearing before the House Intelligence Committee marks the second phase of the impeachment investigation into allegations that Trump abused his powers by seeking help for his 2020 reelection campaign from Ukraine.

    Trump is under threat of becoming only the third president in US history to be impeached — formally charged with violating his duties as president or committing crimes, and placed on trial in the Senate.

    With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, impeachment appears highly likely, as soon as the end of 2019.

    But the Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, a bulwark against him being convicted and removed from office — unless they turn against him.

    There is still much to do, but analysts believe the entire process could be completed before the end of January.

    Evidentiary hearings

    On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee takes the impeachment investigation public after six weeks of closed-door depositions from White House, State Department and other officials.

    Those depositions have already painted a fairly complete picture of how Trump and aides, including personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, pressured Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations that could conceivably find political dirt against the Democrats and Trump’s possible 2020 election rival Joe Biden.

    Some of the witnesses who already testified privately will be recalled to face the public panel, starting with Ambassador William Taylor, Washington’s top diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent on Wednesday, and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday.

    The aim is to further compile the evidence against the president, or, for Republicans, in his support.

    Democrats chose all the witnesses for the initial private depositions phase.

    In the open hearings, both parties can propose and subpoena witnesses — although Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff will be able to prevent Republicans from inviting witnesses who have no relation to the core allegations or who simply seek to stall the proceedings.

    Setting the charges

    The next step is hearings by the Judiciary Committee, under Chairmen Jerry Nadler, a longtime Trump nemesis, to decide whether the evidence is strong enough to support formal charges, or articles of impeachment.

    Trump and his lawyers will be able to appear, cross-examine witnesses, and submit evidence in their favor.

    At the end of those hearings, the Democratic-controlled committee will vote on specific articles of impeachment, based on the US Constitution’s standard of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” and whether Trump’s actions constituted abuse of presidential power.

    Currently, the charges are expected to be abuse of power and obstruction of the investigation.

    The impeachment vote

    The Judiciary Committee then sends the articles of impeachment to the entire House for a vote.

    Only a basic majority of the 435 member House is required to approve impeachment. Democrats currently hold a solid majority, 233 seats to 197 for Republicans, with four seats currently vacant and one held by an independent.

    That suggests that, if the evidence is strong enough, Democrats will easily pass the impeachment resolution.

    The trial

    The resolution would then go to the Senate, where Trump would stand trial, with the 100 senators his jury.

    Democrats from the House would act as the prosecuting team, while Trump’s lawyers would defend him, and Trump could argue in his own favor. Both sides can call witnesses and present testimony.

    Presiding over the trial would likely be Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed to the court by Republican President George W. Bush in 2005.

    A trial could take a few weeks. The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999 lasted five weeks, and ultimately ended in his acquittal: while Republicans had a majority in the Senate, Clinton had enough support among Democrats to easily beat the required two-thirds majority to convict.

  10. #60
    Court rules against warrantless searches of phones, laptops

    Associated Press / 06:45 AM November 13, 2019

    BOSTON – A federal court in Boston has ruled that warrantless U.S. government searches of the phones and laptops of international travelers at airports and other U.S. ports of entry violate the Fourth Amendment.

    Tuesday’s ruling in U.S. District Court came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of 11 travelers whose smartphones and laptops were searched without individualized suspicion at U.S. ports of entry.

    ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said the ruling strengthens Fourth Amendment protections of international travelers who enter the United States every year.

    The ACLU describes the searches as “fishing expeditions.” They say border officers must now demonstrate individualized suspicion of contraband before they can search a traveler’s device.

    The government has vigorously defended the searches as a critical tool to protect America.

    The number of electronic device searches at U.S. ports of entry has increased significantly, the ACLU said. Last year, the government conducted more than 33,000 searches, almost four times the number from just three years prior.

    Documents filed as part of the lawsuit claim the scope of the warrantless searches has expanded to assist in enforcement of tax, bankruptcy, environmental and consumer protection laws, gather intelligence and advance criminal investigations.

    The court documents also said agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement consider requests from other government agencies in determining whether to search travelers’ electronic devices. They added that agents are searching the electronic devices of not only targeted individuals but their associates, friends and relatives.

    “By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicionless fishing expeditions, the court reaffirms that the border is not a lawless place and that we don’t lose our privacy rights when we travel,” Bhandari said in a press release. / gsg

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