Trump pardons Bernard Kerik

President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who rose to national fame in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was later sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to felony charges including tax fraud and lying to White House officials.

The White House announced Tuesday that Trump had granted a full pardon to Kerik, as well as a commutation for disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The White House said in a statement that since Kerik’s conviction, “he has focused on improving the lives of others, including as a passionate advocate for criminal justice and prisoner re-entry reform.”

“His 30 years of law enforcement service and tenure as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction have given him a unique understanding and perspective on criminal justice and prisoner re-entry reform, and he remains an invaluable contributor to these endeavors.”

Kerik was sentenced to four years in prison in 2010 after pleading guilty to eight felony charges for offenses including failure to pay taxes and lying to White House officials during a failed nomination to be Homeland Security secretary.

An Army veteran, Kerik once worked on Rudy Giuliani’s security detail when Giuliani was mayor. Giuliani made Kerik commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction, and in 2000 named him police commissioner. The pair worked side by side on Sept. 11, 2001.

The fall of Kerik’s career began when President George W. Bush nominated him to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Kerik abruptly withdrew his name, citing questions raised about the immigration status of a former housekeeper and nanny.

Prosecutors would later say that Kerik gave “false and misleading statements” to White House officials while being vetted for that position.

The federal case centered on charges that he had received more than $250,000 in renovations for his Bronx apartment from a construction company suspected of having ties to organized crime and helping the company’s bids for city contracts.

Kerik admitted to contacting New York City regulators about the company, named Interstate. Prosecutors said Kerik did not report the value of the renovations on his federal tax returns and made false statements about the renovations and his relationship with Interstate to White House officials.

Judge Stephen Robinson of U.S. District Court in White Plains, New York, sentenced Kerik to four years, exceeding the sentencing guidelines of less than three years.

“I think it’s fair to say that with great power comes great responsibility and great consequences,” Judge Robinson said at the time. “I think the damage caused by Mr. Kerik is in some ways immeasurable.”

He was also sentenced to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay nearly $188,000 in restitution.

“It is a very sad day when the former commissioner of the greatest police department in the world is sentenced to prison for base criminal conduct,” Preet Bharara, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement at the time.

Prior to the federal case, Kerik pleaded guilty in New York State Supreme Court in 2006 for two misdemeanors related to the renovations and was fined but did not receive jail time.

He was released from federal prison in 2013 after serving three years.

Since Kerik’s release, he’s become an advocate for prison reform and a frequent presence and Trump advocate on Fox News.

Kerik has also worked as a strategist for Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who was accused of war crimes for the fatal stabbing of a wounded fighter of the Islamic State extremist group. In July, Gallagher was found not guilty by a military court of six of the seven charges against him, including murder and attempted murder.

Last week, a former associate of Kerik’s was arrested and charged with counts that include extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor and money laundering in connection with alleged crimes against students from Sarah Lawrence College, according to an unsealed indictment.

Lawrence Ray was the best man at Kerik’s wedding before the two had a falling out and Ray eventually served as a cooperating witness in an investigation against Kerik.

On Tuesday afternoon, Kerik thanked Trump in a statement.

“With the exception of the birth of my children, today is one of the greatest days in my life — being made a full and whole American citizen again,” he wrote. “Going to prison is like dying with your eyes open. Its aftermath of collateral consequences and the permanent loss of many of your civil and constitutional rights are personally devastating.”

“This pardon restores those rights, for which I will be eternally grateful,” he said.

[NBC News]

Trump commutes sentence of former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he had commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office in 2009 on corruption charges, and pardoned former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

A federal spokesman said Tuesday night that Blagojevich had been released and was no longer in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The news came hours after Trump signed an executive order granting a full pardon to former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. related to a decades-old corruption charge, one of nearly a dozen pardons and commutations the White House announced Tuesday.

Another big name on the list was that of Michael Milken, the former junk bond trader who pleaded guilty in 1990 to racketeering and securities fraud. The man who prosecuted Milken was one of the people who advocated for his pardon, according to the White House — Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s personal lawyers.

Giuliani also advocated for a pardon for Kerik, who was Giuliani’s hand-picked police commissioner when he was mayor of New York. Kerik was sentenced in 2010 to four years in prison after pleading guilty to eight felony charges, including tax fraud.

Blagojevich, 63, was sentenced in 2011 to 14 years in federal prison on corruption charges related to his solicitation of bribes in an attempt to “sell” the Senate seat Barack Obama left open after he was elected president.

Trump, who has repeatedly floated the idea of pardoning Blagojevich, told reporters that he had received “a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence.”

“He served eight years in jail, a long time,” Trump told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. “I don’t know him very well. I met him a couple of times. He was on for a short while on ‘The Apprentice’ some years ago. He seems like a very nice person. I don’t know him.”

Trump said “many people” thought the sentence was unfair. “He’ll be able to go back home to his family,” he added.

Blagojevich, a Democrat, had been at the low-security Federal Correctional Institute in Englewood, Colorado. He’d been a contestant on Trump’s reality TV show “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010.

The president said in August that he was “very strongly” considering giving Blagojevich a reprieve.

“I’m thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One then.

“He’s been in jail for seven years, over a phone call where nothing happens … over a phone call where, you know, he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio, you would say. I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them, by the way — that have said a lot worse over telephones,” he added.

In one wiretapped phone call, Blagojevich said of Obama’s Senate seat: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f—— golden. And I’m just not giving it up for f—— nothing.”

The current Democratic governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, took to Twitter to blast the pardon.

“President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” Pritzker tweeted.

Prosecutors said Blagojevich and others working for him began “a pattern of racketeering activity” soon after he took office in 2002, using the powers of the governorship in “exchange for financial benefits for themselves and others.”

He was arrested in late 2008 on allegations that he had tried to profit from selling off Obama’s open Senate seat, and he was impeached in January 2009 after he refused to resign.

Blagojevich was convicted in federal court in Chicago later that year on one of 24 felony counts — lying to the FBI about the extent of his involvement in campaign fundraising. Jurors deadlocked on the other counts.

At his 2011 retrial, he was convicted of three separate shakedown attempts — one involving a children’s hospital, one involving a racetrack and one involving the Senate seat.

In between his trials, he tried to rehabilitate his image and signed up as a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010. He was “fired” after four episodes after bungling a Harry Potter presentation.

[NBC News]

Trump pardons former 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr.

President Donald Trump has pardoned Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal.

DeBartolo, 73, who helped to build the 49ers’ dynasty of the 1980s and ’90s, was involved in one of the biggest owners’ scandals in the sport’s history.

In 1998, he pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony when he paid $400,000 to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in exchange for a riverboat gambling license.

The White House announced the surprise decision to reporters on Tuesday. NFL greats Jerry Rice, Jim Brown, Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley were in attendance.

DeBartolo, whose 49ers won five Super Bowls under his leadership, stepped down as owner in 1997 after two Louisiana newspapers reported he would be indicted for gambling fraud. He avoided prison, was fined $1 million and was suspended for a year by the NFL. But the episode effectively ended his NFL career.

Rice, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played on three of DeBartolo’s Super Bowl-winning teams, said DeBartolo “was like that 12th man” of the great 49ers teams.

“He’s the main reason why we won so many Super Bowls,” Rice said. “So today is a great day for him. I’m glad to be here and be a part of that. It’s just something I will never forget. This man, he has done so much in the community, has done so much in NFL football.”

DeBartolo withdrew from the riverboat project after the state gambling board demanded he hand over all documents he gave to the grand jury. The documents included an “unexecuted agreement” between DeBartolo and Stephen Edwards, according to a copy of a grand jury subpoena obtained by the newspapers.

The state gambling board canceled the project after DeBartolo withdrew.

The DeBartolo family built their fortune through commercial real estate — mostly owning shopping malls. The family business was started by DeBartolo’s father, who died in 1994. In addition to the 49ers, the family also owned the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League before selling the team in 1991.

DeBartolo Jr. ran the 49ers starting in 1977, and his hiring of coach Bill Walsh in 1979 led to the franchise’s most successful era. From 1982 to 1995, the team won five Super Bowls.

After the suspension, DeBartolo gave control of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York.

He never returned to the NFL after his suspension. The team is now run by his nephew, Jed York.

DeBartolo was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

[ESPN]

Reality

Eddie DeBartolo is a longtime friend of Donald Trump who donated to his inauguration in 2017.

Trump quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Suggesting He’s a ‘King’

The tweets of Donald J. Trump are sometimes inane, sometimes scary, and sometimes baffling. On Saturday he made two that are the latter. Only a few days after inexplicably sharing a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm that clearly mocked his supporters, the president decided to post something even more Mad Libs-weird: He quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Technically he was quoting someone else quoting Emerson: a piece from his dreaded New York Times that dropped back in early February. The headline was, alas, not exactly flattering: “While Stained in History, Trump Will Emerge From Trial Triumphant and Unshackled.” The article itself, by Peter Baker, wasn’t complimentary about the president’s newfound confidence after getting impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate. Perhaps Trump didn’t read the whole thing. But he did single out one passage.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to foresee the lesson of the Senate Impeachment Trial of President Trump. ‘When you strike at the King, Emerson famously said, “you must kill him.’ Mr. Trump’s foes struck at him but did not take him down,” the tweet read. “A triumphant Mr.Trump emerges from the biggest test of his presidency emboldened, ready to claim exoneration, and take his case of grievance, persecution and resentment to the campaign trail.” He then cited Baker, at-ed the NYT, and added one of his greatest go-tos: “The Greatest Witch Hunt in American History!

Trump’s out-of-context (but still far from positive) tweeting read as a boast, even if he was quoting a publication he routinely demonizes. The fact that the president was quoting someone quoting Emerson truly weirded some people out.

Others were horrified. After all, he was essentially referring to himself as a king, not a president.

Some pointed out that Trump had been reduced to quoting the “failing” (though actually thriving) New York Times.

[Uproxx]

Federal Judge blasted White House involvement in DOJ case like a ‘banana republic’

Justice Department attorneys struggled with mounting frustration and skepticism from a federal judge about producing documents related to the investigation of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, according to transcripts of closed-door conversations released in response to a lawsuit from a government watchdog group. 

The McCabe case—and President Donald Trump’s personal involvement in it—prompted federal judge Reggie Barnett Walton to call the government’s handling of it “disturbing,” a “mess,” and veering close to a “banana republic.”

“I think it’s very unfortunate,” Judge Walton told prosecutors as the case hung in limbo in late September. “And I think as a government and as a society we’re going to pay a price at some point for this.”

The comments were made in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) against the Justice Department.

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for CREW, said the eventual release of the court transcripts on Friday, after a lengthy court battle, showed that the government was “trying to cover up the fact that they were stringing this [lawsuit] along while looking for a reason to indict McCabe.”

The court released the transcripts on Friday afternoon hours after McCabe’s lawyers released a letter from Justice Department officials saying they did not plan to charge McCabe with a crime. Two years ago, the DOJ’s top watchdog released a report finding that McCabe lacked candor when answering questions about leaks to the media. McCabe vehemently disputed the report’s findings. 

The CREW lawsuit sought material on how the Trump administration handled the criminal investigation into McCabe, who served as the acting FBI Director after Trump fired James Comey. In that capacity, McCabe helped oversee Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. He also became one of Trump’s top bête noires. The president has tweeted about him dozens of times, once accusing him of treason. McCabe, in turn, has vociferously pushed back. After Trump insinuated that McCabe deserved the death penalty, McCabe told CNN the comment was “quite honestly terrifying.” 

“It’s just a disgusting level of disrespect for the people who serve this country every day,” he said. 

Throughout the course of the CREW lawsuit, prosecutors appeared unable to predict when their investigation of McCabe would conclude, which would allow them to hand over documents related to the case through the Freedom of Information Act process.

In mid-September, McCabe’s attorneys wrote in an email to the Justice Department that they’d heard “credible” rumors that a grand jury investigating possible criminal charges against their client “had declined to vote an indictment.” They asked Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to drop the case but Rosen declined.

By the end of September, the transcripts released by the CREW lawsuit show the Justice Department had asked the court for another three months to decide whether to continue the McCabe case, calling it “an exceedingly difficult matter and situation.”  

That requested delay, as well as others in the months preceding it, created mounting frustration for Judge Walton as the government seemed unable to determine whether the case against McCabe would continue throughout the summer and fall of September 2019.

Walton chided prosecutors in late September, saying that their delays hindered CREW’s right to the documents and “from the standpoint of Mr. McCabe, he has a right to have the government make a decision and not hold his life in limbo pending a decision as to what’s going to happen.”

“I don’t know why it’s so difficult for a decision to be made. Either you have a case or you don’t,” he said.

Judge Walton also took issue with President Trump’s apparent personal involvement in the case. He told prosecutors that Trump’s comments about the case complicated the ability to receive a fair hearing in the FOIA lawsuit.

“[T]he public is listening to what’s going on, and I don’t think people like the fact that you’ve got somebody at the top basically trying to dictate whether somebody should be prosecuted,” Walton told prosecutors when they asked for another delay in late September. “I just think it’s a banana republic when we go down that road and we have those type of statements being made that are conceivably—even if not—influencing the ultimate decision. I think there are a lot of people on the outside who perceive that there is undue, inappropriate pressure being brought to bear.”

As recently as December 10, prosecutors pushed back on the release of the transcripts showing Walton’s questions about the timing of prosecutors’ decisions in the McCabe case. They argued it would give the public an incomplete picture of the investigation and potentially compromise the case. 

“To understand the Department’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion in this case would necessitate a broader disclosure of internal deliberative information than contained in the staled ex parte hearing transcripts,” J.P. Cooney, a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., wrote in one filing obtained by the CREW lawsuit. Their release, he claimed, “risks unfairly calling into question the integrity of the investigation and any future decisions in the McCabe matter”.

Libowitz said Friday that it was “not surprising that the announcement of no indictment [of McCabe] was timed along with the release of these transcripts.”

A 2018 investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility found McCabe had “made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor—including under oath—on multiple occasions” about the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server and handling of classified information. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe in March 2018 just hours before his scheduled retirement date.

[The Daily Beast]

Barr appoints outside prosecutor to review criminal case against Michael Flynn

Attorney General William Barr has appointed an outside prosecutor to review the criminal case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, an official familiar with the matter said Friday.

Barr has tapped Jeffrey Jensen, the chief federal prosecutor in St. Louis, to conduct the review. Flynn and his attorneys have sought to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming the FBI and federal prosecutors engaged in misconduct.

Flynn’s case was one of the first brought by former special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible ties to the Trump campaign.

The development, first reported by The New York Times, caps off a controversial week for the Justice Department as the agency faces allegations it has succumbed to political pressure from President Donald Trump.

The Justice Department caused an uproar earlier this week after it intervened to reduce its recommended prison sentence for Roger Stone, a longtime friend and ally of Trump who was convicted of seven felonies, including lying to Congress. Career prosecutors who handled the case had asked for a sentence of seven to nine years in prison, which Trump said was a “miscarriage of justice.” 

The Justice Department overruled the attorneys, saying the prison recommendation was too harsh. The prosecutors withdrew from Stone’s case in apparent protest. One resigned from the Justice Department. 

In an interview with ABC News, Barr pushed back against criticism that he was doing Trump’s bidding. The president “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” he said. 

But the fast-moving developments have cast a harsh spotlight on the Justice Department’s leadership, primarily Barr, and have raised fresh questions about the department’s independence from the White House. 

Flynn is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 27. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his communication with Sergey Kislyak, a former Russian ambassador to the U.S., in the weeks before Trump took office.

Flynn’s case has been stalled in federal court for two years as his defense team alleges the former Army general was framed in a government conspiracy. Last month, Flynn withdrew his guilty plea, accusing prosecutors of acting in “bad faith” during their investigation. 

His defense team, led by conservative lawyer and Fox News commentator Sidney Powell, declared his innocence. Flynn’s attorneys accused the government of forcing him to admit to crimes he didn’t commit and hiding evidence that would’ve exonerated him. A federal judge has rejected those claims. 

Flynn’s attorneys did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The government initially recommended Flynn be sentenced to six months in prison, citing his attempts to “thwart” prosecutors and his “apparent failure to accept responsibility.” 

Federal prosecutors later softened their position, suggesting that probation is also an “appropriate” sentence for Flynn.

Barr’s decision to tap outside prosecutors to review Flynn’s case comes as the Justice Department conducts another politically charged inquiry into the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That probe led to the criminal charges against Flynn and cast a cloud over the first years of Trump’s presidency. 

That inquiry, which Barr launched last year, focuses on whether federal investigators abused their surveillance authority in the initial stages of the Russia investigation. John Durham, Connecticut’s chief federal prosecutor, is leading the investigation.

Also this week, the Justice Department decided not to file criminal charges against former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, one of several former FBI officials who have been the target of Trump’s attacks. 

The investigation into McCabe stemmed from a Justice Department Inspector General’s report that found he improperly authorized a leak about a federal investigation into the Clinton Foundation in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign. Investigators concluded he displayed a lack of candor when asked about the leak. 

[USA Today]

Trump Openly Claims Authority to Direct Attorney General To Investigate Anyone He Wants

President Donald Trump addressed the latest kerfuffle-cum-constitutional crisis in a Friday morning tweet following Attorney General Bill Barr’s apparent intervention in the sentencing of Roger Stone.

Stone was found guilty of seven felony counts last November, including lying to Congress and witness tampering during the investigation into Russian intelligence and interference in the general election. As such, prosecutors recommended a seven to nine-year prison sentence, which Trump criticized vocally. Barr eventually intervened to recommend a lighter sentence, to which Trump tweeted his thanks.

In an interview with ABC News, Barr claimed that he would never be bullied by anyone (including the president) and criticized Trump’s tweets for creating a distraction. It is worth noting that, despite his claims otherwise, Barr appeared to do exactly what Trump had asked, eventually earning Trump’s praise. So that’s the context… still with me?

Ever one to jump on a news cycle, and get ahead of a story, Trump addressed this story obliquely, saying that he has the “legal right” to ask his attorney general to do anything in a criminal case.

“Trump just openly and explicitly stated that it’s perfectly within his authority to direct his Attorney General to open criminal investigations into anyone he wants,” offered Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent, in as a pure expression of what many will see as an open flouting of checks and balances in the U.S. government.

This is the very point made Thursday night on CNN by Jeffrey Toobin following a Washington Post report about this very concept. “The idea [James Comey] committed a crime is absurd. The person in a really perilous condition right now is the CNN contributor Andrew McCabe, who is under investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s office right now. And, you know, has had his case dangling out there. The president obviously wants Andy McCabe prosecuted and it’s just grotesque that you have the President of the United States behaving this way with the power of prosecution exercised in this way.”

The attorney general IS appointed by the president, then confirmed by Congress. And it’s not unusual for the top law enforcement official to work hand in glove with the sitting president. Many might read Trump’s tweet, however, as a rather foreboding omen of what may come to Trump’s political foes.

If he feels that someone has done him wrong, and he can direct the AG to serve as his own personal henchman (of which there is an abundance of evidence) then what is to keep him from seeking investigations into those he feels might threaten his reelection? Oh wait, he’s already done that.

[Mediaite]

Trump contradicts past denials, admits sending Giuliani to Ukraine

Emboldened after his impeachment acquittal, President Donald Trump now openly admits to sending his attorney Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to find damaging information about his political opponents, even though he strongly denied it during the impeachment inquiry.

The reversal came Thursday in a podcast interview Trump did with journalist Geraldo Rivera, who asked, “Was it strange to send Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine, your personal lawyer? Are you sorry you did that?” Trump responded, “No, not at all,” and praised Giuliani’s role as a “crime fighter.”

“Here’s my choice: I deal with the Comeys of the world, or I deal with Rudy,” Trump said, referring to former FBI Director James Comey. Trump explained that he has “a very bad taste” of the US intelligence community, because of the Russia investigation, so he turned to Giuliani.

“So when you tell me, why did I use Rudy, and one of the things about Rudy, number one, he was the best prosecutor, you know, one of the best prosecutors, and the best mayor,” Trump said. “But also, other presidents had them. FDR had a lawyer who was practically, you know, was totally involved with government. Eisenhower had a lawyer. They all had lawyers.”

Trump had previously denied that he sent Giuliani to Ukraine. Asked in November if he directed Giuliani to “do anything” in Ukraine, Trump said, “No, I didn’t direct him,” but went on to call Giuliani a “great corruption fighter.” Giuliani says he’s exposing legitimate corruption in Ukraine, even though his claims about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden have been widely debunked.

In the new interview, Trump defended the decision to “use” Giuliani, even though US diplomats previously testified that Giuliani had undermined long-standing US policy toward Ukraine.

Giuliani was a central player in the scandal that got Trump impeached, though the President was acquitted by the Senate last week. Multiple witnesses described how Giuliani met with former Ukrainian officials in search of dirt against Joe and Hunter Biden. Other key players described how Giuliani and his allies pressured Ukraine to announce investigations into the Bidens.

Trump’s past denials came in November, when the House of Representatives was investigating the President’s conduct with Ukraine. Multiple US diplomats and national security officials testified that Giuliani was a central figure in the pressure campaign to secure political favors from Ukraine. Trump also mentioned Giuliani in his phone call last summer with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In the week since his acquittal, Trump has taken a series of bold steps to punish his opponents and reward his supporters. He fired several US officials who had testified against him in the impeachment inquiry, and he successfully lobbied the Justice Department to water down its request that his longtime adviser Roger Stone face as many as nine years in prison for lying to Congress.

[CNN]

Trump Administration Diverts $3.8 Billion In Pentagon Funding To Border Wall

The Trump administration has notified Congress that it plans to divert $3.8 billion from the Defense Department’s budget to build the border wall.

This is in addition to more than $11 billion that’s already been identified to construct more than 500 miles of new barriers along the southern U.S. border with Mexico. That includes money that Congress has appropriated and funding that was previously diverted from military construction and counternarcotic operations.

The latest funding diversion takes $1.5 billion originally allocated for buying equipment for National Guard and Reserve units, such as trucks, generators and spare parts, as well as fighter jets and ships.

This administration said the diversion of funds was in support of “higher priority items” that were “necessary in the national interest,” according to the notice transmitted to Congress. It continues:

“[The Department of Homeland Security] has identified areas along the southern border of the United States that are being used by individuals, groups, and transnational criminal organizations as drug smuggling corridors, and determined that the construction of additional physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the United States border is necessary in order to impede and deny drug smuggling activities.”

The move drew bipartisan criticism, including from the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry.

“The wall should be funded, but the funding must come through the Department of Homeland Security rather than diverting critical military resources that are needed and in law,” Thornberry said in a statement.

He added that Congress must act and is weighing how to proceed.

“Congress has the constitutional responsibility to determine how defense dollars are spent,” he said. “The re-programming announced today is contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action. I will be working with my colleagues to determine the appropriate steps to take.”

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, accused the president of being “obsessed with fulfilling a campaign promise” while accusing the administration in a tweet of “stealing billions” from the Department of Defense.

Meanwhile, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the ranking member on the House Committee on Appropriations, championed the President’s decision.

She blamed Democrats for failing to work on securing the border, which in turn “forced the president to redirect funds.”

“I unequivocally support President Trump’s efforts to secure our nation’s borders and support our men and women in uniform. Democrats have refused to work with us on border security, which has forced the President to redirect funds from other defense programs in the short term in order to secure the southern border,” she said in a statement.

Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the Department of Defense was “committed” to helping Homeland Security to construct fences and roads, and install lighting to thwart drug smuggling. He said the $3.8 billion will build more miles of barrier “to protect our borders.”

“Last month we received a new request from the Department of Homeland Security asking for assistance in blocking drug-smuggling corridors on Federal land along the southern border of the United States,” Mitchell said.

“In response, the Secretary of Defense authorized support of $3.8B to build approximately 177 miles of fencing that will help to protect our borders. We will continue to support DHS and other agencies as needed to keep our homeland is secure.”

Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York disagree.

They issued a joint statement that said Congress, not the executive branch, has the power of the purse, adding that it’s “a power that cannot be nullified so the President can fulfill an outrageous campaign promise.”

“This latest theft of nearly $4 billion in military funds represents another of President Trump’s broken promises to our servicemembers, especially our brave sailors who he assured would receive funding for urgently needed, state-of-the-art ships,” the press release said.

This is not the first time the Trump administration has redirected funds from the Pentagon to go toward a wall along the southern border.

Last March the Defense Department announced it would shift $1 billion from a military personnel account in order to pay for a 57-mile section of fencing.

The administration said at the time the dollars became available after recruiting goals of some service branches came up short of expectations.

The border wall has been controversial since then-candidate Trump made building a barrier a central pillar of his 2016 presidential campaign. He promised back then the wall would come at no cost to U.S. taxpayers and that Mexico would fully fund the project, which it has not.

In a status report last month, NPR’s John Burnett noted that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is overseeing the barrier construction, said the price tag for project has exceeded $11 billion dollars, making it the most expensive wall of its kind in the world.

[NPR]

Trump installs loyalists in top jobs after impeachment purge

President Donald Trump is surrounding himself with loyalists after a week of banishing staffers across the government in a post-impeachment revenge plot.

On Thursday, the White House confirmed that Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s most trusted confidants, will return to the White House to work directly for the president’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, as a senior adviser after nearly two years away. Trump’s “body man” Johnny McEntee is also being promoted to run the office responsible for filling hundreds of top political jobs throughout the federal agencies, according to three senior administration officials, replacing Sean Doocey, who will move over to the State Department.

One senior administration official said the West Wing personnel changes are likely to continue in the coming weeks to prepare for both the 2020 campaign season and a potential second term.

Taken together, the moves have signaled a pattern of reinstating and promoting those closest to Trump after purging staffers Trump viewed as insufficiently loyal or part of the alleged “deep state” plot to get him. The last seven days have seen a makeover of White House and agency offices, driven partly by Trump’s desire for revenge post-impeachment and partly by his wish to staff the West Wing with people with whom he feels comfortable.

The new hires and promotions like Hicks and McEntee also happen to be close with Kushner, who is overseeing the reelection campaign and has his own influential power center within the White House.

“POTUS is surrounding himself with people who believe in him and his policy agenda,” said Jason Miller, a former top communications adviser on the 2016 campaign who applauded Hicks and McEntee’s return to the West Wing.

Trump’s vengeance campaign has claimed people across the government.

At the White House, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a top National Security Council Ukraine staffer, was escorted off the premises as retaliation for damaging testimony during the House impeachment hearings. His twin brother, an NSC lawyer, was also booted from his job. Both have returned to the military, where they worked before being detailed to the White House.

At the State Department, Trump fired Gordon Sondland, the now-former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, after he also took a turn on the witness stand. Elsewhere, Trump pulled the nomination of former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu for a top position at the Treasury Department because of her role in special counsel Robert Mueller’s case against Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political confidant who was convicted on charges of lying to Congress.

McEntee’s new position atop the White House personnel office will be critical for staffing up across the government in 2020 and into a potential second Trump term. The office has long been seen as a weak spot within the administration, given the huge number of vacancies across agencies and a lack of vetting of several top officials that led to fallen nominees and embarrassing headlines. Trump even once said he was simply outsourcing his vetting process to the media instead of doing it in-house.

Donors and the business community have also been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness from the personnel office, according to one Republican close to the White House — not to mention the office’s reputation for frat boy antics inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Over in the West Wing, Hicks will work in her new role under Kushner as a counselor to the president and senior adviser, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham confirmed, calling Hicks “one of the most talented and savvy individuals I have come across.” Hicks departed the White House in March 2018 after working as communications director for Trump. She then moved to Los Angeles to work in a senior communications role at Fox Corporation.

“There is no one more devoted to implementing President Trump’s agenda than Hope Hicks,” Kushner said in a statement. “We are excited to have her back on the team.”

Hicks’ return to the White House gives Trump an ally who’s adept at translating his wishes to the broader staff.

Hicks was always well-liked among the communications and press staff, getting along well with the competing factions from the 2016 campaign and the Republican National Committee. Since leaving the White House, she has also remained close with Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump, visiting them at the president’s Bedminster resort. McEntee is also extremely close with the entire Trump family.

Hicks will likely start her new position early next month, though the exact details are still being worked out, according to a senior administration official.

Hicks, Doocey and McEntee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

[Politico]

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