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Warren's charmed campaign just entered a brutal new phase

WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Elizabeth Warren has enjoyed many of the trappings of a front-runner: the polling lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, a near-tie with Joe Biden nationally, explosive fundraising, big crowds. The only thing missing was the scrutiny and sniping from competitors that normally accompanies the rise of a new primary leader.

That changed on Tuesday night at Otterbein University, a small college outside Columbus, Ohio. Otterbein was named after the founder of the United Brethren in Christ, but the mood was anything but brotherly as Warren faced a barrage of criticisms from most of the other 11 Democrats on stage.

The candidate who brags about having a plan for everything was pilloried for not detailing how she would pay for her most expensive proposal. She was accused — sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly — of being naive, dishonest, not adequately respecting her colleagues’ ideas, tearing people down, and failing to enact major legislation. She was attacked for believing in policies that were “punitive” and a theory of governing that was a “pipe dream.”

Warren’s biggest gains have come since the last debate, so Tuesday’s debate was the natural point for a more full-throated engagement from the other candidates. Until now, three elements central to Warren’s candidacy have received relatively little pressure from her opponents as she has slowly ticked up in the polls.

The first is whether the candidate of always having a plan can escape the question of Medicare for All’s cost that has haunted her candidacy for months. The second is the corollary character question about whether her refusal to cough up more details and numbers will damage Warren’s robust approval ratings. Finally, Warren has made strides to convince Democrats that she can beat Trump, but until Tuesday she hasn’t had to answer sustained attacks that her platform is too far left to win.

She seemed to hold up relatively well — no major slip-ups — but the arguments her rivals made against her are a harbinger of what’s to come this fall, after a relatively smooth ascent over the past several months.

Warren is often credited with running the most disciplined campaign, and she was clearly prepared for the evening’s offensive. Indeed, her most persistent critic, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has raised as much money as Warren but has only a fifth of the vote share to show for it, has been signaling for weeks that he would aggressively challenge her in Ohio.

Through three hours of sporadic attacks, Warren remained energetic (some voters had to be surprised to learn midway through the evening that Warren is 70 years old), occasionally cutting (“Medicare for all who can afford it,” she called Buttigieg’s plan), and unmoved by her interlocutors’ insistence that she confess to the true costs of her health care plan. (A direct question — “Will you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it? Yes or no?” — was answered with references to “my principles,” the number of selfies she’s taken this year and anecdotes about the indignities of the modern medical system, but neither a yes or a no.)

The evening’s attacks began with the issue that has dominated all four Democratic primary debates — in fact, the issue that has dominated Democratic politics since FDR: how to achieve universal medical insurance in the United States.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, the progenitor of the Warren policy, the Massachusetts senator has declined to explain how she would pay for her plan to transition all Americans into the popular Medicare program that now only serves people over 65. Her refusal to detail the costs was turned into cudgel by Buttigieg and others to question not just her policy but her honesty.

“We heard it tonight,” said Buttigieg when asked whether Warren was “evasive.” “A yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.”

When Sanders butted into the conversation, it was as a foil that Warren’s attackers could use. “I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” said Sanders, one of the few candidates who declined to press Warren.

“Well, at least that’s a straightforward answer,” said Buttigieg.

“Bernie is being honest,” added Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “We owe it to the American people to tell them where we will send the invoice.” Warren responded by trying to explain that her life’s work of studying “why hard-working people go broke” convinced her that only Medicare for All could address spiraling health costs that bankrupt Americans.

“I appreciate Elizabeth’s work,” Klobuchar said wryly. “But, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”

When the discussion turned to Warren’s wealth tax, candidates seized on the same perceived vulnerabilities: She is too idealistic and too dismissive of other ways to achieve the same goal. Andrew Yang noted that a wealth tax had been tried and abandoned in Germany, France, Denmark, and Sweden.

Klobuchar seemed peeved that Warren was too rigid in her policy thinking. “I want to give a reality check to Elizabeth,” she said. “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire” — Tom Steyer — “wants to protect billionaires. We have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.”

Beto O’Rourke leveled a new criticism. “Sometimes Sen. Warren is more about being punitive and pitting some part of the country against each other, instead of lifting people up,” he said. (An incredulous Warren retorted, “I’m really shocked at the notion that anyone thinks I’m punitive!”)

Much of the pile-on concerning health care was not really about the policy, but instead about Warren’s character. This is a familiar script. In the fall of 2007, when Barack Obama was struggling to gain ground against Hillary Clinton, his advisers told him he would never win a white paper war against a policy wonk like Clinton, and he needed to turn the race to a contest about character. That is precisely what Obama did in October and November of that year, when he subtly raised issues about whether Clinton was honest. (Two of the architects of that strategy, Larry Grisolano and the Benenson Strategy Group, now work for Buttigieg.)

There are obvious differences between 2007 and 2019. Clinton’s reputation had been battered during her husband’s presidency, while Warren’s favorability ratings are strong. But still, the strategy is familiar.

There were stretches Tuesday night when Biden, the co-front-runner, faded from the conversation as Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke engaged Warren. But in the final hour the two leaders in the race had a clash that was akin to an after-credits scene of a superhero movie that sets up the next film. Biden bragged that he was the only one on stage who has accomplished major legislative achievements, a claim that arguably has some merit.

Unsurprisingly, Warren pointed to her work, before she was a senator, helping pass the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Biden was quick to add that he personally rounded up votes for the legislation.

“I convinced people to vote for it,” he insisted.

Warren refused to cede an inch of credit to him for her signature accomplishment.

“I am deeply grateful,” she said slowly and with what may have been a smirk, “to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.”

Biden grinned widely, seeming to almost admire her ploy.

They both had reason to grin. By the end of the night, things were back to where they started: with Biden and Warren on top. But after months of Biden receiving the scrutiny and criticism of a front-runner, it’s now Warren being chased by a pack of much more aggressive rivals.

By |2019-10-16T07:11:26+00:00October 16th, 2019|

Warren rakes in tech donations as she pledges to break up donors’ companies

Employees of technology giants are pouring money into Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign for president, as Warren calls for breaking up the companies that sign their paychecks.

Warren brought in $248,000 from employees from Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google from the start of July through the end of September, according to new fundraising disclosures filed Tuesday. Warren raised $24.6 million overall in the third quarter of 2019, trailing only Bernie Sanders among candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The tech industry donors — many of whom were white-collar professionals, not warehouse workers or retail employees — gave to Warren amid the Massachusetts senator’s frequent criticism of major technology firms, saying they should be broken up in order to increase fairness and competition in the marketplace. More than two dozen Amazon employees, with titles ranging “vice president” to “engineer” to “manager,” gave between $28 and $615 to Warren, who does not hold private fundraising events and instead raises her money online.

“Giant tech companies have too much power.” Warren tweeted earlier this year. Referring to Amazon’s role in its store, she added: “You can be an umpire, or you can be a player—but you can’t be both.”

This week, Warren took another step to separate herself from Silicon Valley’s elite: She promised to not take any contributions over $200 from “executives at big tech companies, big banks, private equity firms, or hedge funds,” and her campaign said it would return donations from people who fit that mold.

Warren’s pointed comments about the tech industry have alarmed high-profile executives like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was caught on audio saying that his company would mount a legal challenge to any efforts by a Warren administration to break up Facebook.

“At the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight,” Zuckerberg said, according to leaked audio.

Employees of Facebook donated $41,000 to Warren’s campaign during the most recent fundraising quarter, which finished shortly before Zuckerberg’s comments became public.

Workers for a bevy of other tech companies also contributed to Warren during the third quarter, including individuals employed by Dropbox, Square, Twitter, SpaceX, Ancestry.com and Microsoft. She also drew a $2,800 donation from Sam Altman, the former president of the incubator Y Combinator.

By |2019-10-16T06:12:07+00:00October 16th, 2019|

NASA paid Musk millions to make sure his employees don't smoke pot

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s infamous pot-smoking incident last year prompted NASA to order a mandatory review of the federal contractor’s culture around workplace drug use – but taxpayers, not the company, are bearing the cost, according to records reviewed by POLITICO.

The payment by NASA, which has not previously been reported, strikes some space industry insiders as a highly unusual expenditure given that Musk prompted the concerns by violating the terms of his security clearance .

Moreover, SpaceX’s rival to build a new space capsule for NASA, aerospace giant Boeing, was also directed to undertake the same review but didn’t get any extra funds to cover the cost.

NASA’s decision to pay the $5 million to SpaceX, part of a contract the agency approved in May, marks the latest chapter in the ongoing tension between Boeing, a long-time NASA partner that helped the U.S. land humans on the moon, and SpaceX, a relative newcomer that maintains a more start-up mentality.

The affair raises a number of questions, said Pete Garrettson, a recently retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and space strategist.

“As a taxpayer why would I pay when I don’t have to?” he asked. “If I was Boeing, I also would have said, ‘Why am I being punished without the same compensation?’”

But if the aerospace giant wanted NASA to cover the costs of the review, he added, it may have faced uncomfortable questions about why its costs for the Commercial Crew Program are so much higher than SpaceX’s.

“If I was at NASA,” Garrettson said, “I’d say, ‘How much was your contract [for the Commercial Crew Program] padded compared to SpaceX?’”

SpaceX said that it is using the money to cover the cost of the review, which will include interviews with staff at all levels across the company and was not part of the original contract. Boeing said it is carrying out the culture review under its current contract.

NASA said it is “standard practice” for a company to receive additional money for work not included in the original contract , but did not directly respond to questions about why it didn’t offer the additional payment to Boeing.

It’s difficult to tell if both paying a contractor extra to do a culture review and only offering the additional money to one of the companies is unusual because there isn’t any public precedent. NASA ordered the review of the safety measures at SpaceX and Boeing in November after Musk smoked marijuana and sipped whiskey on Joe Rogan Experience podcast, but has not ordered such a preview of any past contractor. In fact, when the review was ordered, companies were not sure what exactly it entailed because it had not been done before at NASA, according to one person in the space industry.

“It would be odd for NASA to pay a contractor millions to tell its employees not to do drugs,” the industry official said, pointing out that other companies did not receive any extra money for “meeting basic contractual requirements.” The person spoke on condition of anonymity to criticize a competitor.

Boeing confirmed that it did not receive any extra money for its safety review, which will include reviewing documents and interviewing employees to ensure it is maintaining a drug-free workplace under its Starliner contract. It’s not clear how much the review will cost Boeing.

“NASA is moving forward with fulfilling the objectives of their safety assessment under our current contract, and we are prepared to help our customer meet those goals,” a Boeing spokesperson said.

But asked why Boeing didn’t receive a similar deal as SpaceX to cover its safety
assessment, NASA spokesman Joshua Finch declined to give a reason, telling POLITICO in a statement only that “after discussions with Boeing…we decided we wouldn’t pursue a contract modification to carry out the assessment that’s underway.”

Yet the implication that SpaceX is getting special treatment struck some as richly ironic given that Boeing has been paid nearly $1.7 billion more on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program than SpaceX — $4.82 billion compared with $3.14 billion.

The cost disparity makes some analysts think that the extra $5 million SpaceX received is not a big deal and does not constitute special treatment, since Boeing is receiving more overall.

“The idea of NASA ever giving SpaceX preferential treatment over Boeing is simply giggle-inducing to industry insiders,” said Greg Autry, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who served on the Trump administration’s NASA transition team. “At every step of the way Boeing got more [money] in the [Commercial Crew development] program. Far, far more than $5 million. Even discussing $5 million in this context is silly.”

SpaceX is building the Crew Dragon capsule and Boeing is manufacturing the Starliner as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Both programs are behind schedule.

The dust-up over how to handle Musk’s marijuana violation also highlights the clash of cultures between longtime contractors and their new – and often more innovative – competitors, said Garrettson.

“What we have here is an important cultural divide between what is considered appropriate behavior in the old guard in the space community and what is considered OK among Silicon Valley tech people and a growing sector of Americans,” Garrettson said.

While marijuana is legal in multiple states – including California, where Musk’s stunt took place – it remains illegal under federal law. Drug use is also not allowed for those who have a security clearance, which Musk does.

Aerospace contractors were “absolutely in horror” that Musk, whose company also launches sensitive national security satellites for the Air Force and spy agencies, would violate a federal law, recalled Garrettson.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained at the time that “if I see something that’s inappropriate, the key concern to me is what is the culture that led to that inappropriateness and is NASA involved in that.

“As an agency we’re not just leading ourselves but our contractors, as well. We need to show the American public that when we put an astronaut on a rocket, they’ll be safe,” Bridenstine added.

The safety reviews, which are still underway, are designed to “ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment,” NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said at the time.

SpaceX says the extra $5 million it has been granted by NASA will cover the additional costs of conducting the review — including interviews with employees ranging from senior managers to engineers – costs that were not accounted for in its original contract for the Crew Dragon capsule back in 2014. No one knew NASA would order the review when contracts were awarded, so the cost of one was also not included in Boeing’s contract.

“SpaceX worked closely with NASA to account for additional work beyond the scope of the contract,” said James Gleeson, a SpaceX spokesman.

By |2019-10-16T05:13:57+00:00October 16th, 2019|

Tech giants take a thumping at Democratic debate

Democratic presidential contenders ripped tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter at Tuesday night’s debate, rebuking the firms over their competitive practices and for their handling of President Donald Trump’s posts as well as for their disruption of jobs and the economy.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has proposed breaking up the biggest tech companies, hammered Amazon for competing with small vendors on its own platform, a practice that has lately drawn scrutiny from federal regulators. “Look, you get to be the umpire in the baseball game or you get to have a team, but you don’t get to do both at the same time,” Warren said, echoing a common refrain she’s used to tout her plan.

And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) fired back at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent suggestion that forcing the company to split up would actually hurt its efforts to crack down on harmful content online, like election-related disinformation. “I don’t agree with that at all … that’s a ridiculous argument he’s making,” Harris said, touting her familiarity with the topic as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In yet another pointed rebuke, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke blasted Facebook for allowing Trump’s re-election campaign to post a misleading attack ad against Joe Biden on the platform, vowing that as president he would look to place the same restrictions on social media platforms that exist for publishers. That could mean, for instance, seeking to erase tech companies’ immunity from lawsuits over user-posted content. “We would allow no publisher to do what Facebook is doing,” O’Rourke said.

The fiery exchanges represent an escalation of the war of words against Silicon Valley among the field of 2020 presidential contenders, marking the first time in months of Democratic debates that tech criticism has emerged as a major point of discussion. Frustration with the industry is already boiling over in Washington, but several candidates have made major campaign planks out of vows to turn up the heat on the tech sector if elected.

Those calls continued Wednesday night at the fourth Democratic Presidential Debate, moderated by CNN and The New York Times, where candidates took turns airing their long list of grievances against industry giants.

Former tech entrepreneur-turned-critic Andrew Yang kicked off the bashing session early on, jabbing Amazon for not paying any federal income taxes in 2018 and suggesting it and other tech titans like Google and Facebook should face a stiffer tax bill. That argument has become a frequent line of attack by not just Yang but also top contenders Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who have unveiled plans to raise taxes on massive corporations like Amazon.

They also pointed to the vanishing of jobs from wide swaths of the U.S. economy as online commerce and automation take hold — a trend that has included factory workers and brick-and-mortar retailers but could someday include truckers sidelined by self-driving semis.

The hits later turned to longstanding Democratic criticisms that social media companies have allowed Trump to get away with breaking their policies against hate speech, disinformation and targeted harassment with impunity.

Harris, who recently called on Twitter to suspend Trump’s account over a series of incendiary tweets, said it’s a “grave injustice when rules apply to some but not equally to all, and particularly when the rules that apply to the powerless don’t apply to the powerful.”

“Twitter should be held accountable and shut down that site,” she said of Trump’s Twitter page. “It is a matter of safety and corporate accountability.”

But even as candidates found agreement calling for more scrutiny of Silicon Valley heavyweights, they diverged on how to go about cracking down on those companies.

O’Rourke, for one, said it wasn’t a candidate’s place to call for the break up for a specific company, like Warren has done. But instead, he said, “We need to set very tough, very clear, transparent rules of the road” for the digital companies, including setting restrictions for how they handle users’ personal information online.

Yang similarly expressed skepticism about the push to break up the major companies, saying that that action alone won’t “revive main street businesses around the country.” But he did suggest that taxing tech giants higher could fund programs like his signature proposal to give every citizen $1,000 a month as a universal basic income.

“If we give the American people a tiny slice of every Amazon sale, every Google search, every robot-truck mile, every Facebook ad — we can generate hundreds of billions of dollars and then put it into our hands, because we know best how to use it,” he said.

Alexandra S. Levine contributed to this report.

By |2019-10-16T05:13:50+00:00October 16th, 2019|

Republicans buckle to Trump on Syria

The Republican rebellion against President Donald Trump was short-lived.

Republicans unleashed perhaps their most aggressive outcry of the Trump era after he abandoned the U.S.’s Kurdish allies and ceded northeastern Syria to Turkey. But now GOP lawmakers are dialing back their direct criticism of the president — instead working with Trump, dinging Democrats and trying to move forward.

Senior Republicans are coordinating with Trump’s top officials to try to rein in Turkey with sanctions and protect the Kurds, and while they’re still dissatisfied with the situation, they’ve shifted gears away from confrontation with the president.

“I do appreciate what the administration has done against Turkey through executive action but more to follow,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Tuesday afternoon, after joining Trump for a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan on Monday. “I appreciate the phone calls yesterday with Erdogan, I think [Trump] reached out in a good way to let Turkey know they needed a cease fire right now.”

“I blame Turkey but I look to President Trump to fix this,” Graham added later on Fox News.

It was just a few days ago that Graham let loose on Trump as potentially “tired of fighting radical Islam” and compared him to the GOP’s favorite bogeyman, Barack Obama. The president has since embraced sanctions, engaged with Erdogan and dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence to Turkey to start ceasefire talks. Trump’s administration will spend the week shoring up Republican support.

But already, the GOP fury toward Trump is winding down — just the latest example of how eager Republicans are to avoid a breach with the president and a reminder of how difficult it will be for Democrats to win over Republicans in the fast-moving impeachment inquiry.

“Look, Obama didn’t have a strategy in Syria and unfortunately that’s what President Trump inherited. This was an untenable situation in a civil war,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I don’t think the actual decision, itself, is surprising when you consider the alternatives.”

It appears impossible for the U.S. government to ever fully reverse the consequences of Trump’s abrupt decision: a bloody Turkish incursion that freed hundreds of Islamic State terrorists, a deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government long opposed by the U.S. and a rise in Russian and Iranian influence in the region. But the White House is going all-out to win over Republicans, with the president hosting lawmakers from both parties at the White House on Wednesday and scheduling an all-senators briefing for later in the week.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with House Republicans on Tuesday, where he explained the administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria’s northern border, according to Republicans who were present. Esper told lawmakers that Trump received a phone call from Turkey’s president that they were going to move ahead with their planned military offensive in “48 hours,” leaving the United States with few options.

Republicans are still dissatisfied with the situation overseas, and they may pass a tough sanctions bill against Turkey or vote to formally recommend the Trump administration reverse its position. But they are also taking aim at Democrats and leaving out the personal references to Trump.

Last week, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) called out the “betrayal of the Kurds” and said, “President Trump should rethink this decision immediately.” On Tuesday through a spokesman, he said he still “opposes the administration’s withdrawal from Northern Syria [but] supports sanctions targeting Turkey’s military, economy, and top officials.”

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) backs a House resolution urging the administration to reverse its position. But he made clear that it’s about policy, not Trump himself.

“It does not condemn the president. It condemns Turkey. It condemns the policy of withdrawing but it does not condemn the president,” McCaul said. The resolution does not directly reference the president other than in its recap of recent events that led to the chaos in Syria.

Both McCaul and Graham also turned the criticism away from Republican infighting and onto Democrats. McCaul complained that Democrats are treating a nonbinding resolution as a direct rebuke to Trump and Graham urged them to do more than write a resolution — “not just criticizing President Trump but being for the idea that we need a residual force” in Syria.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saw an opportunity to hammer the Democratic presidential candidates. He noted Tuesday that 70 senators supported keeping a U.S. presence in Syria in a vote earlier this year — but not most of the party’s 2020 contenders.

“I hope those aspiring commanders in chief are asked to explain how they reconcile their criticism of the administration today with their voters just a few months ago. Maybe they’ll even be asked on the debate stage this evening,” McConnell said.

It was a shift from when McConnell pressed Trump directly to rethink his position last week and said Monday that he was “gravely concerned by recent events in Syria and by our nation’s apparent response thus far.” By Tuesday, he was “heartened” that the administration was sending administration officials overseas.

“The initial reaction by many Republicans reflected what they’ve been saying to us behind the scenes for a long time,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “If they come back to town here and they’re getting religion from the White House, it really is a sad commentary on the party.”

A group of Capitol Hill leaders — including McCaul and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise — will meet with Trump at the White House Wednesday to discuss the situation in Syria and a potential legislative response. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been in contact with Graham, while House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is teaming up with McCaul on a package of sanctions that the Texas Republican described as “very targeted in scope.”

Some Republicans are keeping their powder dry until after they huddle with the president.

“We’ve got a lot of conversations that are still ongoing,” Scalise said.

Senate Republicans were noncommittal on whether Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-Md.) sanctions bill or the nonbinding resolution will come to the floor.

“We’re probably going to be discussing a number of different options on the best approach there,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “As you know there are very strong objections among our members to what’s happening in Syria.”

Indeed, there’s plenty of lingering discontent in the party.

The sanctions deployed under Trump’s executive authority are “not enough to counteract it but given the events that have happened at this point, it’s probably the most you can do in the short term,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who did not mention the president directly on Tuesday. “There’s no way to undo some of the damages from it.”

Administration officials are planning to brief all senators on Thursday. They are sure to face a lot of questions from the GOP, but it’s unclear how adversarial their GOP audience will be if the administration takes a tough approach toward Turkey, reassures senators on the Islamic State and commits to assisting the Kurds.

“With the sanctions that we’re proposing and other actions, I do support those. I am very cognizant of the fact that the Kurds worked so well with us,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who said last week she was “troubled” by the administration’s policies and urged them not to “abandon” the Kurds.

Despite the more measured response on Tuesday, some Republicans who have sought distance from Trump kept the heat on the president on Monday. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the administration’s efforts were not enough thus far.

“I disagree very strongly with the president’s decision,” Collins said Tuesday.

She was one of the few willing to still castigate the president directly, little more than a week after Trump’s decision inflamed most in his party.

Quint Forgey contributed to this report.

By |2019-10-16T00:13:12+00:00October 15th, 2019|

Prosecutors flag that DOJ is not in sync with Trump on tax returns claim

New York prosecutors pressing for access to President Donald Trump’s tax returns are drawing attention to the Justice Department’s refusal to back up a claim by Trump’s personal attorneys that he is entirely immune from the state-run criminal justice process.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. highlighted the disagreement Tuesday in a brief filed with a federal appeals court considering a suit Trump filed to block a grand jury subpoena issued to one of his accounting firms, Mazars USA.

“Given the DOJ’s own recent investigations, prosecutions, and convictions involving Appellant and his affiliates, including the prosecution of Michael Cohen, in which Appellant was referenced as an unindicted co-conspirator, the DOJ cannot (and does not) join in Appellant’s claim to an absolute immunity,” Vance and his colleagues wrote in a submission to the 2nd Circuit. “Appellant’s aggressive immunity claim here is particularly hollow in view of his failure to raise it in these recent investigations and prosecutions.”

The Justice Department brief filed last week in the case said that the effort to use a criminal subpoena to obtain Trump’s tax returns raised “significant constitutional questions” and should be put on hold so its impact could be reconsidered by a federal district judge.

But Justice officials did not go as far as Trump lawyers, who argued that a sitting president is entirely off-limits to state prosecutors.

Vance’s team also scoffed at arguments from Trump and the Justice Department that impeachment is the mechanism the Constitution prescribes for misconduct by a president. The local prosecutors noted that Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to Congress last week defying its demands for information in an impeachment inquiry.

“The reality is that Appellant has refused to participate in the very impeachment process that he presents here as the bulwark against placing a president above the law… His core position on every one of these matters is that the United States Presidency places him beyond the reach of the law,” Vance’s office wrote.

Prosecutors also emphasized their argument that allowing Trump to fend off the subpoena would threaten investigations of other individuals who could potentially be charged, regardless of whatever legal protections a president may claim.

Vance’s office says it is investigating various matters relating to the Trump Organization, including how the business recorded so-called “hush money” payments to two women who claimed sexual encounters with Trump, Stephanie Clifford and Karen McDougal.

Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, has pleaded guilty in federal court to arranging those payments as part of an effort to elect Trump to the presidency in 2016. Court documents filed by federal prosecutors in Manhattan alluded to Trump as a co-conspirator in that case, but he has not been charged. Justice Department policy bars charging a sitting president with a crime.

A three-judge panel of 2nd Circuit judges is scheduled to hear arguments on Trump’s appeal next week.

The dispute involving the Manhattan D.A. is one of at least four ongoing court cases involving efforts to obtain Trump’s financial records.

Last week, Trump lost the first of those cases to reach a federal appeals court as a D.C. Circuit panel ruled, 2-1, against his attempt to block a subpoena from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Trump’s attorneys have indicated they plan to go to the Supreme Court if lower courts don’t back his demands to quash the subpoenas.

By |2019-10-16T00:13:09+00:00October 15th, 2019|

Appeals court revives emoluments suit against Trump

A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit that the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland brought against President Donald Trump in which they alleged that he violated the Constitution’s ban on federal officials profiting from dealings with foreign and state governments.

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va., announced on Tuesday that the full bench of the court would hear arguments Dec. 12 on Trump’s effort to stymie the litigation filed in a federal court in Maryland in 2017 and focused largely on patronage of his luxury Trump International Hotel in the nation’s capital.

The announcement of the “en banc” rehearing effectively set aside a ruling that a three-judge panel of the same appeals court had issued in July. Those judges ordered the case dismissed as fatally flawed, contending that the states had no legal right to enforce the so-called emoluments clauses in the Constitution.

The new development is the second major setback for Trump in emoluments litigation in recent weeks. Last month, the New York-based Second Circuit revived a similar lawsuit that had been dismissed by a federal District Court judge in Manhattan. That suit was brought by restaurant owners and hospitality industry workers, as well as a watchdog group.

Another federal appeals court, the D.C. Circuit, is currently considering a bid by Trump to block a separate emoluments suit brought by Democratic senators and House members that a District Court judge in Washington has ruled should proceed to depositions and evidence gathering.

The Fourth Circuit panel that previously ruled for Trump in the D.C. and Maryland case consisted entirely of Republican appointees. Lawyers pressing the case were openly chagrined when the assignment of judges was revealed just prior to an oral argument session in March.

The officials who launched the suit welcomed the news that the appeals court was taking up the case anew.

“Today’s decision by the Fourth Circuit granting the District of Columbia and Maryland a rehearing in our anti-corruption case against President Trump is significant,” D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a joint statement. “We look forward to arguing our case before the full panel to stop President Trump from violating the Constitution and profiting from the presidency.”

The local governments could find more traction for their position at the en banc session in December. Democratic appointees outnumber Republican appointees on the court’s active bench, 8-6. There is also one judge who was recess-appointed by President Bill Clinton and re-nominated by President George W. Bush.

The order setting the case for rehearing did not provide any rationale for the move, but indicated that a majority of the appeals court’s active judges voted to rehear the case.

Trump personally celebrated the July ruling as a victory against a wave of meritless litigation over his business interests, which he seemed to acknowledge were suffering in the wake of his election.

“Word just out that I won a big part of the Deep State and Democrat induced Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote on Twitter at the time. “Unanimous decision in my favor from The United States Court of Appeals For The Fourth Circuit on the ridiculous Emoluments Case. I don’t make money, but lose a fortune for the honor of …. serving and doing a great job as your President (including accepting Zero salary!)”

A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment on Tuesday. A spokesperson for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

By |2019-10-15T23:14:21+00:00October 15th, 2019|

Giuliani goes without a lawyer amid federal scrutiny

Rudy Giuliani said Tuesday he’s operating without an attorney despite growing federal scrutiny over potential lobbying violations.

The former New York mayor and personal lawyer to President Donald Trump confirmed in a text message that “no one” is representing him, even as the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan reportedly probes his dealings in Ukraine, which have also become central to the Democrat-led impeachment investigation.

Giuliani had previously been leaning on Jon Sale, a former Watergate prosecutor and law school classmate, to handle a congressional subpoena for documents tied to his work Ukraine.

Facing a Tuesday deadline, Sale sent a two-paragraph letter to the House Intelligence Committee telling the panel that Giuliani would not comply with the subpoena “because this appears to be an unconstitutional, baseless, and illegitimate ‘impeachment inquiry.'”

Giuliani also “adopts all the positions” that White House Counsel Pat Cipollone spelled out last week in a separate letter resisting compliance with the House’s impeachment subpoenas, Sale added. And he suggested Democrats would need to litigate if they wanted to see Giuliani’s documents, explaining that they were all protected by attorney-client, attorney work-product and executive privileges.

Legal experts have cast doubt on Giuliani’s claims that he can defy a subpoena from Congress by citing lawyer privileges when he’s publicly confirmed his outreach to a variety of people besides his client, as well as his statements that he works for Trump in other capacities besides just being the president’s lawyer. But securing those materials won’t come without a fight that Democrats may not even need to pursue.

“The trouble is if you want to get information out of Giuliani you’re going to have to get it one axe fight at a time,” Frank Bowman, a University of Missouri law professor and impeachment expert, said in a recent interview.

For his part, Giuliani explained to POLITICO on Tuesday that he wasn’t represented by Sale anymore. “Jon has done what I retained him for,” Giuliani wrote.

Federal prosecutors haven’t confirmed a Giuliani-specific investigation, though the U.S. attorney in New York who last week brought criminal charges against two of Giuliani’s associates for alleged campaign finance violations said during a press conference that the Justice Department probe was ongoing.

On Friday, the New York Times reported Giuliani was under federal investigation tied to his efforts to undermine Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled earlier this spring amid a wider campaign to pressure the country’s leaders into investigating Trump’s political opponents.

Giuliani said this weekend he had “no knowledge of any probe” into his dealings in Ukraine and that he continued to serve as a personal attorney for Trump. Another source familiar with the Trump legal team’s arrangements said Giuliani would still work on all impeachment matters but would be restricted from handling anything dealing with Ukraine because he’s also likely to be a witness in the congressional proceedings.

Sources familiar with Giuliani’s situation said the former New York mayor doesn’t think he needs to tap a new lawyer for any potential criminal case. But a back-channel effort is nonetheless underway to try to line him up with new counsel. Among the names floated include Marc Mukasey, though the former Giuliani law partner has his own conflict representing the president and his namesake Trump Organization.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

By |2019-10-15T20:12:30+00:00October 15th, 2019|