Trump administration invokes privilege again, blocks intel committee from classified Mueller docs

The Trump administration has been quietly engaged in an escalating tug-of-war with the House and Senate intelligence committees over sensitive documents from the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, the latest in a series of attempts to stymie Congress, including with claims of executive privilege, sources have told ABC News.

“The scope of confidentiality interests being asserted by the executive branch is breathtaking,” said Andrew M. Wright, an expert on executive privilege who served as a congressional investigator and as a White House attorney in two Democratic administrations. As is “the lack of accommodation and compromise,” he added.

Members of the Senate intelligence committee sent a letter in mid-April to the CIA and other covert agencies asking them to share copies of all the materials they had provided to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team over the course of their 22-month investigation, according to sources familiar with the request. The requests were referred by the intelligence agencies to the Department of Justice, which has custody of all of the records gathered as part of the Mueller probe.

Though Mueller’s report does not discuss the classified intelligence gathered during the investigation, congressional investigators believe the team was given access to a range of materials that could include intercepts, secretive source interviews, and material shared by the spy agencies of other foreign governments.

More than three months later, the attorney general’s office has still not produced them. Sources told ABC News that Justice Department officials have argued that they are, for now, shielded by the same blanket privilege they initially asserted in response to a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee for the entire trove of special counsel records.

Trump administration attorneys declined to comment on the matter, and the Department of Justice has not responded to questions. Experts said the response was part of a pattern.

A spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee said the DOJ did produce a subset of underlying documents related to the special counsel’s investigation to their members for review, “although it has failed in recent weeks, despite repeated requests, to produce key materials central to the Committee’s oversight work.”

The House committee said Justice Department lawyers did not invoke privilege with them when refusing the requests. “None would be warranted given the Committee’s jurisdiction,” a committee spokesman said. “The Committee remains engaged with DOJ to ensure it complies fully and completely with the Committee’s duly authorized subpoena.”

Experts have been monitoring the conflict between branches as it has escalated.

“The way the administration has been using executive privilege has been extraordinary,” said Steven Schwinn, a professor at the John Marshall Law School and a co-founder and co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog. “It’s a level of non-cooperation with Congress that has been striking. We’ve never seen it to this degree.”

Congress and the White House have been locked in a range of disputes over records and testimony that the administration has withheld – covering a variety of subjects that includes the president’s personal finances, his tax returns and the administration’s policy on the census. Just Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled House voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt over their refusal to produce documents concerning the addition of a citizenship question to the census.

In May, the Trump administration invoked executive privilege for the first time in response to the request from Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, for the un-redacted Mueller report and the entire trove of investigative documents.

“Faced with Chairman Nadler’s blatant abuse of power, and at the attorney general’s request, the president has no other option than to make a protective assertion of executive privilege,” then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at the time.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the time that members of Congress were exercising their proper authority to review the Mueller material on behalf of their constituents.

“This is not about Congress or any committee of Congress,” Pelosi told ABC News at the time. “It’s about the American people and their right to know and their election that is at stake and that a foreign government intervened in our election and the president thinks it is a laughing matter.”

This latest stalemate – over sensitive materials gathered in connection with the 2016 elections — has frustrated leaders on the intelligence committees, sources told ABC News. In part, that is because the committees have sweeping oversight powers when it comes to the secretive agencies. The National Security Act says “congressional intelligence committees [must] be kept fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities.”

The congressional committees have invoked such powers during a range of sensitive probes. Congress fought for and received intelligence documents during its investigation into the Iran-Contra affair during the late 1980s. And more recently, the senate prevailed during a review of allegations that the agencies engaged in torture during the interrogation of terror suspects. After a protracted fight, the senate received the documents and drafted its scathing report.

One Trump administration source familiar with the matter told ABC News that the stand-off is temporary – with the response to the intelligence committee on hold until the Department of Justice finishes releasing Mueller-related materials to the Judiciary Committee.

In early June, the DOJ and House Judiciary Committee reached an agreement allowing committee members access to some of the documents that underpinned Mueller’s investigation of possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. Members and some committee staff were also allowed to see a less-redacted version of the full Mueller report, with the exception of grand jury material that was included.

The DOJ is in the midst of reviewing the special counsel documents, and under an agreement with the Judiciary Committee, has pledged to turn over documents they believe do not run afoul of their assertions of privilege.

As the review process for the House Judiciary Committee grinds forward, an administration official familiar with the effort said that may free up some of the documents in the subset of materials requested by the intelligence committees. But, the source said, the intelligence request will have to wait until the negotiations with Judiciary are resolved.

Congressional sources told ABC News they believe Justice Department officials have no grounds to hold the intelligence records, and are merely stalling.

Experts said the stand-offs between branches of government may ultimately force the third branch of government – the judiciary – to get involved.

“A lot of it is going to get resolved in court,” said Wright, the expert on executive privilege who served in two Democratic administrations. “But some may only get resolved at the ballot box.”

[ABC News]

Trump asserts executive privilege over subpoenaed census docs

President Trump has asserted executive privilege over congressionally subpoenaed documents on the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

The announcement comes as the House Oversight and Reform Committee is set to vote on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas for the documents.

“By proceeding with today’s vote, you have abandoned the accommodation process with respect to your requests and subpoenas for documents concerning the secretary’s decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter to House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

“The executive branch has engaged in good-faith efforts to satisfy the legislative needs of the committee. Moreover, until the committee’s abrupt decision to seek a contempt resolution, the department was prepared to provide a significant number of additional documents responsive to the committee’s April 2, 2019 subpoena.” 

“Unfortunately, rather than allowing the department to complete its document production, you have chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote.”

Boyd wrote that Trump has asserted executive privilege over some of the subpoenaed documents, including drafts of a letter sent from the Justice Department to Commerce Department officials requesting that the citizenship question be added to the 2020 census.

Cummings blasted the administration over the assertion, saying that he has been asking for the documents at hand for more than a year and questioning why the departments didn’t send their letters until moments before the vote was scheduled to be held.

“This does not appear to be an effort to engage in good faith negotiations or accommodations,” he said.

The chairman said that he would delay the contempt vote until this afternoon to allow members to review the letters on executive privilege.

The announcement came one day after Boyd sent a separate letter to Cummings, warning that executive privilege would be invoked if the House panel moved forward with the contempt votes for Barr and Ross. The Justice Department official also asked Cummings to delay the vote as Trump weighs whether the documents fall under the scope of executive privilege.

“As I indicated in my letter to you yesterday, this protective assertion ensures the president’s ability to make a final decision whether to assert privilege following a full review of these materials,” Boyd wrote Wednesday.

The Commerce Department on Wednesday also sent Cummings a letter notifying him that Trump has asserted executive privilege over some of the documents subpoenaed from that agency.

“The department regrets that you have made this assertion necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote,” wrote Charles Rathburn, the acting assistant secretary for legislative and intergovernmental affairs at the Commerce Department.

In a letter sent Tuesday night, Cummings offered to delay the contempt vote if the two agencies handed over unredacted copies of certain documents requested by the lawmakers.

Boyd wrote in the letter Wednesday that the “department has explained to the committee on several occasions that these identified documents consist of attorney-client communications, attorney work product, and deliberative communications, and a federal court has already held many of these documents to be privileged in litigation.”

Wednesday’s move is the latest effort by the White House to assert executive privilege over documents sought by Democrats investigating Trump and his administration.

[The Hill]

Trump: ‘Mueller should not testify’

President Donald Trump said on Sunday that Robert Mueller “should not testify” before Congress, hours after a Democratic lawmaker confirmed that the House Judiciary Committee was still seeking to schedule a hearing with the special counsel for later this month.

“Bob Mueller should not testify. No redos for the Dems!” the president wrote on Twitter, after excoriating Mueller’s 22-month investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in a previous post.

“After spending more than $35,000,000 over a two year period, interviewing 500 people, using 18 Trump Hating Angry Democrats & 49 FBI Agents — all culminating in a more than 400 page Report showing NO COLLUSION — why would the Democrats in Congress now need Robert Mueller to testify,” Trumptweeted.

“Are they looking for a redo because they hated seeing the strong NO COLLUSION conclusion? There was no crime, except on the other side (incredibly not covered in the Report), and NO OBSTRUCTION,” the president added.

Attorney General William Barr previously told Congress that he has no objection to Mueller, who is a Justice Department employee, testifying before lawmakers. Peter Carr, the special counsel’s spokesman, declined to comment on the president’s tweet.

Earlier Sunday, a Judiciary Committee member, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), told “Fox News Sunday” that Mueller was tentatively scheduled to testify on May 15, but he later walked back that remark on social media.

“Just to clarify: we are aiming to bring Mueller in on the 15th, but nothing has been agreed to yet,” Cicilline wrote online. “That’s the date the Committee has proposed, and we hope the Special Counsel will agree to it. Sorry for the confusion.”

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) has said the committee is eyeing May 15 for Mueller to testify. The committee did not immediately respond to Cicilline’s comments.

The White House, Cicilline said in the Fox interview, has indicated it would not interfere with Mueller’s attempt to testify and “we hope that won’t change.”

As recently as last month, the request for Mueller to appear before the House Judiciary Committee was bipartisan; the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, wrote to Nadler in April encouraging him to invite the special counsel to testify.

Trump’s tweet — if interpreted by the attorney general as a direct order to stifle Mueller’s testimony — could set up the most consequential legal question related to the special counsel’s probe: whether executive privilege can be used to stop an executive branch employee from testifying about an investigation into the president.

The president’s post also aggravates a partisan fight over Mueller’s findings that was already under way Sunday morning when Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) criticized the special counsel for not revealing sooner that he had not found that the Trump campaign and the Kremlin criminally conspired to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

“It couldn’t have taken Bob Mueller that long to find that out,” King told a New York radio show. “The reports we get are that they knew a year ago there was no collusion. Well, didn’t he have an obligation to tell the president of the United States that? To let the world know?”

Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, later tweeted a news report on King’s comments, adding: “More evidence that Mueller probe was part of a political plan,ie., insurance policy, to remove or hurt ⁦@realDonaldTrump⁩. They failed because people wouldn’t lie.”

It is possible that Mueller could also appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked him in a letter Friday whether he “would like to provide testimony regarding any misrepresentation” by Barr concerning an exchange he had with the attorney general about the special counsel’s report.

Barr already faces a torrent of criticism from congressional Democrats after his testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. At that hearing, he was grilled by lawmakers about a letter he received from Mueller that expressed disagreement with the way the Justice Department handled the release of the special counsel’s report.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday accused Barr of committing a crime by lying to Congress about similar concerns by Mueller’s investigators, and Nadler on Friday threatened to hold Barr in contempt of Congress if he did not grant access to Mueller’s unredacted report and its underlying documents by Monday morning.

The scrutiny of Barr is likely to intensify in the coming days, as Democratic lawmakers await a potential response from the attorney general to the president’s tweet.

The issue of executive privilege has featured prominently in debates concerning Mueller’s report since the special counsel concluded his investigation in mid-March and submitted his findings to the attorney general later that month.

Trump waived the privilege during the probe, allowing former White House counsel Don McGahn and other figures in his administration to cooperate with Mueller’s team of federal prosecutors. But it is now unclear whether the president will try to assert the power to block those officials from publicly testifying.

Asked on Wednesday whether he had any objections to McGahn appearing before Congress, Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that McGahn was “a close adviser to the president” and remarked: “We haven’t waived executive privilege.”

Trump said Thursday that he did not want McGahn to testify.

“Congress shouldn‘t be looking anymore,” the president told Fox News. “This is all. It‘s done.”

[Politico]

Trump, Trump Organization sue House Oversight’s Elijah Cummings to block subpoena

President Trump and the Trump Organization filed suit against House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings in federal court on Monday in an attempt to block Cummings’ subpoena of Trump’s longtime accountant, Mazars USA LLP.

The big picture: Cummings wrote last week that the subpoena — for all of Trump’s financial records — is a result of testimony from Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who claimed that the president “altered the estimated value of his assets and liabilities on financial statements.”

  • Trump’s suit claims that Cummings and House Oversight are “assuming the powers of the Department of Justice, investigating (dubious and partisan) allegations of illegal conduct by private individuals outside of government” solely to dig up dirt ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

State Department bars press corps from Pompeo briefing, won’t release list of attendees

The State Department on Monday said it would not be distributing a transcript or list of attendees from a briefing call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held that evening — a call from which the department’s press corps was excluded and only “faith-based media” allowed.

The afternoon phone briefing was to discuss “international religious freedom” with the secretary — who rarely participates in such calls — ahead of his trip to the Middle East. One member of the State Department press corps was invited, only to be un-invited after RSVPing. That reporter was told that the call was for “faith-based media only.”

CNN also RSVP’d to organizers, asking to be included, but received no reply.Despite repeated inquires and complaints from members of the press corps who are based at the department, the State Department on Monday night said they would not be providing a transcript of the call, a list of faith-based media outlets who were allowed to participate or the criteria to be invited.

Officials would not answer questions about whether a range of faiths was included.A reporter with EWTN Global Catholic Television told CNN they were not originally invited to take part in Monday’s call with Pompeo but had asked the State Department if they could take part. The reporter was then invited to a different call involving faith-based organizations and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback that took place Tuesday and was organized by an outside group.

An article from Religion News Service — which notes that it “is not a faith-based media organization, but rather a secular news service that covers religion, spirituality and ethics” — said participants in the Pompeo briefing “were not told that the call was limited to faith-based media.””While it was not clear which outlets were part of the call, questions were asked by Religion News Service, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Algemeiner, World Magazine and The Leaven, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. America Magazine also participated in the call,” according to RNS.On Tuesday evening, one of the participants shared a transcript of the call with the press corps. That transcript showed that Pompeo faced questions about the Israeli election, terrorism and the omission of the word “occupied” when describing the Golan Heights and the West Bank.Pompeo did take part in an on-the-record briefing with the traveling press en route to the Middle East, where he was asked similar questions and provided similar responses.The State Department told the press traveling with Pompeo that the department does not release transcripts for print roundtables. However, they typically release transcripts for all of the secretary’s public press engagements. Former State Department spokesperson John Kirby, who is a CNN Global Affairs analyst, said “it is typical practice that any on the record interview in which a Cabinet official participates is transcribed and published at the earliest appropriate opportunity.””These officials are public servants. What they say — in its entirety — is inherently of public interest. It’s inappropriate and irresponsible not to observe that obligation,” he told CNN.Kirby said he has “certainly seen times when particular journalists or columnists have been targeted for inclusion on given topics.” However, “to exclude beat reporters from something as universally relevant as religious freedom in the Middle East strikes me as not only self-defeating but incredibly small-minded,” he said. “It’s perfectly fine to ensure faith-based media have a seat at such a table. But it’s PR malpractice to cut off access to the broader press corps. I wish I could say I expected more from this crowd,” Kirby said.A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that some press engagements — “Department press briefings, teleconferences on a myriad of policy issues, briefings and sprays by the Secretary of State and other officials— are open to any interested domestic or international press.”

[CNN]

Trump cancels Obama policy of reporting drone strike deaths

In the latest step toward rolling back Obama-era rules for targeted killings, President Donald Trump will no longer require U.S. intelligence officials to publicly disclose the numbers of people killed in drone strikes and other attacks on terrorist targets outside of war zones.

Trump ended the reporting requirement by signing an executive order Wednesday. The move had been expected since the administration last year failed to release an annual accounting of civilian and enemy casualties required under an order signed in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama.

The order signed by Trump revokes a specific requirement that the administration release an unclassified summary of “the number of strikes undertaken by the United States government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities, as well as assessments of combatant and noncombatant deaths resulting from those strikes, among other information.”

Obama dramatically expanded the use of targeted strikes with drone strikes against al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. He also sought to put in place a set of rules designed to promote accountability and encourage policymakers to minimize civilian casualties. Critics said those rules placed unwarranted constraints on counterterrorism operatives.

Among the rules was a requirement that there be a “near certainty” of no civilian casualties before the CIA launched a strike. That rule did not apply in war zones, where the standard is less strict. It’s unclear whether that rule remains in place.

The reporting requirement was the first-ever effort by the U.S. government to account for how many people have been killed in targeted strikes in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Obama’s first report in 2016 said the U.S. launched 473 strikes from Jan. 20, 2009, until Dec. 31, 2015, killing 2,372 to 2,581 combatants and 64 to 116 noncombatants.

Outside groups have much higher estimates for the death toll in American drone strikes.

That requirement is now repealed.

Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at the Human Rights Watch, called Trump’s decision “deeply troubling.”

[NBC News]

Trump leaves press pool behind at National Christmas Tree lighting

President Trump on Wednesday departed the National Christmas Tree lighting event without White House staff notifying a pool of reporters assigned to monitor the president’s movements of his whereabouts following a logistical mixup.

Members of the protective press pool – a group of reporters assigned to remain with the president and document his activities – indicated shortly after 6:30 p.m. that Trump had returned to the White House without any warning or comment from staffers.

Reporters were briefly held at the Ellipse outside the White House without any immediate indication of where the president had gone. They were later notified that Trump had returned to the White House via motorcade without the press pool in tow.

Members of the press pool protested the situation on Twitter.

[The Hill]

Trump Dismisses Report on Ivanka: She ‘Did Some Emails,’ They Weren’t Classified Like Hillary’s

President Donald Trump dismissed the Washington Post report on his daughterIvanka Trump, accessing and sending government-related emails on her private email account.

“Early on, and for a little period of time, Ivanka did some emails,” the president said. “They weren’t classified like Hillary Clinton. They weren’t deleted like Hillary Clinton, who deleted 33 [thousand] … She wasn’t doing anything to hide her e-mails.”

Trump claimed that his daughter’s emails were in the presidential record. The Washington Post piece was unclear on that point.

“Using personal emails for government business could violate the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all official White House communications and records be preserved as a permanent archive of each administration,” the piece read.

“What Ivanka Trump did, all in the presidential records, everything is there,” Trump said. “There was no deletion, no nothing. What it is is a false story. Hillary Clinton deleted 33,000 e-mails, she had a server in the basement, that is the real story.”

[Mediaite]

Trump on prospect of Dems demanding his tax returns: ‘They can do whatever they want’

President Trump on Monday downplayed the possibility that Democrats could demand his tax returns if they retake control of the House in Tuesday’s elections.

“I don’t care. They can do whatever they want and I can do whatever I want,” Trump said when asked if he was concerned Democrats may go after his tax returns if they win the majority.

Trump spoke to reporters upon arriving in Fort Wayne, Ind., for one of three campaign rallies he was set to hold on Monday. He suggested that a Democratic majority would force the White House to “have to work a little bit differently.”

“It’ll all work out but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Trump said, expressing confidence in Republicans’ chances on Tuesday. “I think we’re doing very well in the House. I think we’re doing very well in the Senate.”

Democrats and critics of the president have suggested that Trump’s tax returns could reveal potential conflicts of interest, and liberal groups have urged Democratic lawmakers to demand the president’s filings should they regain control of the House.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last month that compelling Trump to turn over his tax returns would be “one of the first things we’d do” if Democrats win back the House majority.

Under federal tax law, the chairmen of congressional tax committees can request tax returns from the Treasury Department and review them in a closed session before voting to make all or parts of the returns public.

While Trump may protest such a request, the decision would ultimately fall to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Mnuchin told The New York Times earlier this month that he would work with the department’s general counsel and the general counsel for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to address any requests should Democrats win the House.

The president broke with decades of precedent when he opted not to release his tax returns during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The White House has repeatedly brushed off questions about releasing Trump’s taxes after the election, claiming the documents were under audit and therefore could not be made public. Financial experts, reporters and lawmakers have noted that the president could still request that they be released.

Calls for Trump to release his returns intensified following a New York Times report that cited records and interviews indicating the president engaged in “dubious” tax practices to shield income from his father’s real estate empire from taxes. Trump and the White House blasted the story, though they did not refute specific claims.

[The Hill]

Here’s the photo of a very white summer intern class the White House didn’t release

Past group photos of White House interns under President Donald Trump have drawn criticism for showing a group of overwhelmingly white young people. This summer, the White House didn’t make much progress on diversity — they just didn’t release the photo.

A group picture with President Donald Trump showed the summer 2017 class was very white and very male. In the fall 2017 picture, observers pointed out one of the interns seemed to be making a white power gesture. (He denied it.) And the spring 2018 class was, again, very white(although with more female interns represented).

The White House appears not to be in a hurry to put out its summer 2018 intern picture, but Vox obtained a copy.

The photo of 128 summer interns surrounding President Trump gives an overall impression of a sea of white faces, with those who appear to be people of color dramatically outnumbered. That’s despite the fact that almost half of millennials in the United States are minorities.

The White House’s summer internship program this year ran from May 30 to August 10, and the photo, which has appeared on at least one now-former intern’s Instagram account, has yet to be released. Last year, members of the media were invited into the summer 2017 photo op, with the Associated Press capturing video of the picture being taken. This year, the spring 2018 class picture was distributed by the White House as one of its photos of the week.

But the summer internship program has been over for two and a half weeks, and the White House has yet to distribute it, as its photo of the week or otherwise. The White House did not immediately return a request for comment on the photo, its release, and the diversity of its intern class.

[Vox]

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