Trump: ‘I’m above the law. You cannot impeach me’

President Donald Trump (Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock)

President Donald Trump Tuesday declared himself above the law and is refusing to cooperate or even acknowledge the impeachment inquiry by the Congressional House or Representatives.

“To fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the executive branch, and all future occupants of the Office of the presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances,” White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone claimed in a scathing eight-page letter to top congressional Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is not surprise or deterred by Trump’s latest antics.

“The White House should be warned that continued efforts to hide the truth of the President’s abuse of power from the American people will be regarded as further evidence of obstruction,” Pelosi’s response said in a statement. “Mr. President, you are not above the law. You will be held accountable.”

Trump’s actions come as new polls show growing support for the impeachment inquiry.  A new poll from Washington Post-School says a clear majority of Americans now endorse the decision by House Democrats and close to half of all adults say Congress should move to remove Trump from office.

Legal scholars note that the letter from the White House counsel “lacks substantive legal arguments” and repeats Trump’s “political broadsides” instead of valid claims.  House Democrats say his failure to comply with the legal requests for information bolsters their case for at least one article of impeachment.

Trump’s latest actions come just a week he promised to cooperate with the inquiry.

“I always cooperate,” he said.  “We’ll work together.”

Instead, the White House blocked an appearance Tuesday of Gordon D. Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, to testify on the impeachment inquiry.

The White House has put “a full halt” on any cooperation.

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify,” the president wrote on Twitter Tuesday, “but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away.”

House leaders responded with a subpoena ordering Sondland to appear next week and turn over documents they are seeking.

“The president is obstructing Congress from getting the facts that we need,” Pelosi told reporters. “It is an abuse of power for him to act in this way.”

Text messages provided to Congress last week shows Sondland worked with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on a statement for the president of Ukraine committing to an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden while Trump was holding up $391 million in security aid to the country as leverage.

That effort led to the top American diplomat based in Ukraine to question Trump’s actions.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” William B. Taylor Jr., the diplomat, wrote in early September.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin later told The Wall Street Journal that Sondland confirmed to him that release of the aid was contingent upon Ukraine opening the investigation of Biden.

Robert Luskin, Sondland’s lawyer, said Tuesday that his client, as a State Department employee had to comply with Trump’s demand that he not testify, but added that Sondland was “profoundly disappointed” that he not allowed to appear and promised he would do o “in the future if allowed.”

“We were looking forward to hearing from Ambassador Sondland,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee.

Legal experts say Trump is on thin ice by trying to block what is considered a legal Congressional impeachment inquiry.

“I think the goal of this letter is to further inflame the president’s supporters and attempt to delegitimize the process in the eyes of his supporters,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, tells The Associated Press.  “It does not strike me as an effort to provide sober legal analysis.”

Philadelphia attorney Gregg Nunziata calls the White House letter a “direct assault on the very legitimacy of Congress’ oversight authority.”

“The Founders very deliberately chose to put the impeachment power in a political branch rather the Supreme Court,” Nunziata told The Associated Press. “They wanted this to be a political process and it is.”

University of Louisiana political science professor G. Pearson Cross calls the latter “an accelerant on a smoldering fire.”

“It’s a response that seems to welcome a constitutional crisis rather than defusing one or pointing toward some strategy that would deescalate the situation,” Cross added.

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Trump survived Mueller probe, but at what cost?

resident Donald Trump waves after speaking with the media after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Sunday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The cloud that has hung over President Donald Trump since the day he walked into the White House has been lifted.

Yes, special counsel Robert Mueller left open the question of whether Trump tried to obstruct the investigation. Yes, separate federal probes still put Trump and his associates in legal jeopardy. And yes, Democrats will spend the coming months pushing for more details from Mueller, all while launching new probes into Trump’s administration and businesses.

But at its core, Mueller’s investigation gave the president what he wanted: public affirmation that he and his campaign did not coordinate with Russia to win the 2016 election. The findings, summarized Sunday by the Justice Department , are sure to embolden Trump as he plunges into his re-election campaign, armed now with new fodder to claim the investigation was little more than a politically motivated effort to undermine his presidency.

“It’s a shame that our country had to go through this,” Trump said. “To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this.”

Mueller’s investigation stretched on for nearly two years, enveloping Trump’s presidency in a cloud of uncertainty and sending him into frequent fits of rage. The scope of the probe was sweeping: Mueller issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, obtained nearly 500 search warrants and interviewed 500 witnesses, including some of the president’s closest advisers.

And Trump’s ultimate vindication on the question of collusion with Russia came at a steep cost.

The investigation took down his campaign chairman, his White House national security adviser and his longtime lawyer. It revealed the extent of Moscow’s desire to swing the 2016 contest toward Trump, as well as Trump’s pursuit of business deals in Russia deep into the campaign. And the Justice Department didn’t explain why so many Trump associates lied throughout the investigation.

But in the end, Mueller concluded that those lies were not an effort to obscure a criminal conspiracy by Trump and his advisers to work with Russia. There was smoke, and plenty of it — including an eyebrow-raising meeting between Trump’s son and a Russian lawyer — but ultimately, no fire.

“Good day for the rule of law. Great day for President Trump and his team,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “Bad day for those hoping the Mueller investigation would take President Trump down.”

Democrats quickly sought to puncture Trump and fellow Republicans’ jubilation, vowing to subpoena Mueller’s full report, which remains a secret. After spending years questioning Trump’s ties to Moscow, the Democrats’ focus is shifting to the question Mueller pointedly left unanswered: whether Trump obstructed the investigation by firing FBI Director James Comey and dictating a misleading statement about his son’s meeting with the Russian lawyer.

“The fact that special counsel Mueller’s report does not exonerate the president on a charge as serious as obstruction of justice demonstrates how urgent it is that the full report and underlying documentation be made public without any further delay,” House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement.

The fight for those documents will be lengthy and contentious, particularly against the backdrop of the 2020 presidential election. It will involve complex debates over the rules that govern special counsel investigations, which put a member of Trump’s Cabinet in charge of summarizing Mueller’s findings for the public, and a president’s right to keep his private discussions out of the public eye.

Previewing the case Democrats will make to get more details about Trump’s actions, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., declared: “Executive privilege cannot be used to shield or hide wrongdoing.”

For Trump and his associates, the argument will be far simpler: Democrats already tried to go after the president once and failed.

“Just as important a victory as this is for President Trump, this is a crushing defeat for Democrats and members of the media who have pushed the collusion delusion myth for the past two years. That officially ends today,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign official.

Trump’s legal troubles are far from over. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are pursuing at least two criminal inquiries involving the president or people in his orbit, one involving his inaugural committee and another focused on the hush-money scandal that led his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to plead guilty last year to campaign finance violations. New York Attorney General Letitia James is also looking into whether Trump exaggerated his wealth when seeking loans for real estate projects and a failed bid to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

But in the hours after Mueller’s findings were released, those investigations appeared to be a world away for Trump. As he walked into the White House Sunday night, he pumped his fist to a group of supporters and declared, “America is the greatest place on earth, the greatest place on earth.”

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Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC .
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Embattled Trump gears up for distractions & more

President Donald Trump departs after a signing ceremony at the White House Tuesday. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The White House has beefed up its legal team. Its political team is ready to distract and disparage. And President Donald Trump is venting against Democratic prying.

Trump’s plan for responding to the multiplying congressional probes into his campaign, White House and personal affairs is coming into focus as newly empowered Democrats intensify their efforts. Deploying a mix of legal legwork and political posturing, the administration is trying to minimize its exposure while casting the president as the victim of overzealous partisans.

“It’s a disgrace, it’s a disgrace for our country,” Trump said at the White House on Tuesday as he accused Democrats of “presidential harassment.”

Typically used to setting the national or global agenda, presidents are by definition on their back foot when they come under investigation. And the latest fusillade of requests for information has the Trump White House, already increasingly focused on the twin challenges of dealing with the probes and the 2020 election, in a reactive position.

Trump’s response points to his increasing frustration with Congress and his intention to seize on the investigations as evidence that he is under siege in Washington.

While Trump is far from the first president to bristle at Capitol Hill oversight, his enthusiastic embrace of political victimhood is still novel — and stands to serve as a key part of his re-election argument. Trump has made railing against the so-called witch hunt against him a staple of his rallies and speeches, revving up crowds by mocking his investigators and news coverage of their proceedings.

That attitude was emphasized Tuesday by Trump’s son Eric, who was among the 81 people and organizations that the House Judiciary Committee has contacted seeking documents as part of a probe into possible obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power. Calling Congress “incompetent,” Eric Trump told Fox News Radio “we’re going to fight the hell out of it. And we’ll fight where we need and we’ll cooperate where we need, but the desperation shows.”

Aware that the shift to divided government would usher in an onslaught of investigations, the White House began making defensive moves late last year. Seeking to be ready for the Democratic-led House, more than a dozen lawyers were added to the White House Counsel’s Office and a seasoned attorney was added to the communications team to handle questions related to the probes.

After Democrats took the House last November, Trump declared that they had to choose between investigating him and earning White House cooperation on matters of bipartisan concern like health care and infrastructure. Trump assessed publicly Tuesday that Democrats had made their choice, saying, “So the campaign begins.”

His aides had already made that determination, with press secretary Sarah Sanders issuing an acerbic statement late Monday calling the Judiciary Committee probe a “disgraceful and abusive investigation.” Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, accused Democrats of stopping “at nothing, including destroying the lives and reputations of many innocent Americans who only have sought to serve their country honorably, but who hold different political views than their own.”

White House officials described their plan for addressing the mounting requests as multi-layered. Lawyers in the counsel’s office plan to be cooperative, but are unlikely to provide Democrats with the vast array of documents they’re looking for. In particular, they intend to be deeply protective of executive power and privilege — a defense used by previous administrations against probing lawmakers with varying degrees of success.

Trump said President Barack Obama “didn’t give one letter” when his administration came under congressional investigation. But Obama spokesman Eric Shultz tweeted that the Obama White House produced hundreds of thousands of documents for various congressional inquiries.

Meanwhile, others in the White House and the president’s orbit are preparing to do what they can to bring the fight to Democrats, preparing dossiers about Obama’s invocation of executive privilege when House Republicans investigated his administration. And all acknowledge there is no chance that Trump will stop commenting and criticizing the investigations.

The officials declined to speak on the record in order to discuss the sensitive planning.

The administration approach was on display this week as White House counsel Pat Cipollone pushed back against a request from the House Oversight and Reform Committee for documents related to security clearances for White House officials. In a letter released by the committee chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Cipollone called the request “unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive” and offered to provide a briefing and documents “describing the security clearance process.” White House officials said the Cummings inquiries were seen by aides as a thinly veiled attempt to gain potentially embarrassing information on the president’s son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Cummings shot back that the White House position defied “plain common-sense” and said he would consult with colleagues on his next move.

The exchange was predictable, with both sides using the exchange of letters for political means, and in anticipation of almost certain judicial proceedings.

Former Obama administration associate counsel Andy Wright, who also worked as a Capitol Hill investigator, said both parties are aware that their correspondence has multiple audiences.

“You have to assume it’s going to play out in the public space,” he said. “But you also want to create that record of reasonableness so that the court will be inclined to rule in your favor if and when it comes to that.”

As the Judiciary Committee’s voluminous requests circulated around Washington on Monday, the president’s outside array of former allies, associates and staffers communicated among themselves about who was named in the requests and whether they faced new legal jeopardy. Still, some expressed some relief that the requests dealt with documents previously turned over to other investigators. Others maintained the wide-ranging request would bolster Trump’s argument that the probe was a vendetta against him.

But the request affirmed the shadow that current and former staffers still live under. Nearly all the current and former administration officials, friends and family listed on the request have hired private attorneys to navigate both the Mueller probe and now the oversight process — among them Hope Hicks, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Kushner and Don McGahn.

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Mueller: Lots of evidence against Stone

Roger Stone, longtime friend and confidant of President Donald Trump, waits to speak to members of the media at at a hotel in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone is due back in court Friday in the special counsel’s Russia investigation as prosecutors say they have recovered “voluminous and complex” potential evidence in the case, including financial records, emails and computer hard drives.

Stone faces a status conference in federal court in Washington just three days after he pleaded not guilty to felony charges of witness tampering, obstruction and false statements.

The appearance is likely to be perfunctory, though prosecutors may seek an order that would prevent Stone — who held a news conference Thursday where he proclaimed his innocence — from discussing the case against him. The judge overseeing Stone’s prosecution, Amy Berman Jackson, also presides over special counsel Robert Mueller’s case against former Trump campaign chairman and issued a similar gag order in that matter after a lawyer for Manafort addressed reporters after his first court appearance.

“Obviously I would adhere to any ruling of the court if they should do that. On the other hand, I would also have the right, as I understand it, to appeal,” Stone told reporters. He said he would have made a statement to reporters outside court after his arraignment Tuesday but “that was obviously physically impossible given the pushing, the shoving, the shouting, the spitting.”

Stone has been outspoken since his indictment last week, repeatedly asserting his innocence and criticizing Mueller’s team for having him arrested before dawn. He made the rounds on television last weekend and held a news conference at a Washington hotel on Thursday where he said he was prepared to tell the truth Mueller but that he had no derogatory information about Trump, his longtime friend.

“I have great affection and remain a strong and loyal supporter of the president,” Stone said.

He suggested that he was accused of “after-the-fact process crimes,” including lying to lawmakers investigating potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, rather than any illegal collusion.

“I am not accused of Russian collusion, I am not accused of collaboration with WikiLeaks, I am not accused of conspiracy,” Stone said. There is no evidence or accusation that I knew in advance about the source or content of the WikiLeaks material.

In a court filing Thursday, prosecutors with Mueller’s office said the FBI seized physical devices from his home, apartment and office. They said multiple hard drives containing several terabytes of information have been recovered, including bank and financial records and the contents of numerous phones and computers.

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Stone pleads ‘not guilty’ to witness tampering, obstruction

Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone arrives at Federal Court, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Roger Stone, a longtime adviser and confidant of President Donald Trump, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony charges in the Russia investigation after a publicity-filled few days spent slamming the probe as politically motivated.

The political operative and self-described dirty trickster faces charges that he lied to lawmakers, engaged in witness tampering and obstructed a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

He was uncharacteristically quiet during Tuesday’s brief court appearance, rising to his feet to say, “Yes, Your Honor,” as U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson asked if he would agree to the conditions of his release, including restricted travel.

Stone attorney Robert Buschel entered the plea on his client’s behalf.

The voluble Stone, 66, held no press conference as he arrived and departed the courthouse amid dueling chants of “Lock Him Up” and “We Love Roger.” He waved and smiled to the small crowd, some holding up glowing photos of him, and he largely ignored a group of protesters carrying signs reading “Dirty traitor.” The Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” blared from speakers outside the courthouse.

Although large crowds surrounded him as he was driven away in a black SUV, Stone was more subdued than during the circus-like atmosphere of his Friday court appearance, when he emerged in a blue polo shirt, flashed a Richard Nixon victory sign, predicted his vindication and vowed that he would not “bear false witness against the president, nor will I make up lies to ease the pressure on myself.”

Stone, who was arrested last week at his Florida home, is the sixth Trump aide charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The indictment does not accuse Stone of coordinating with Russia or with WikiLeaks on the release of hacked Democratic emails. But it does allege that he misled lawmakers about his pursuit of those communications and interest in them. The anti-secrecy website published emails in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election that the U.S. says were stolen from Democrats by Russian operatives.

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Monday that the investigation is “close to being completed,” although an exact timetable is unclear.

Mueller continues to be interested in hearing from Stone aide Andrew Miller, who is fighting a grand jury subpoena, indicating the special counsel could be pursuing additional criminal charges against Stone or others related to the release of hacked material during the 2016 election by WikiLeaks, its founder, Julian Assange, and the online persona Guccifer 2.0.

Paul Kamenar, Miller’s attorney, said Mueller’s team notified him of their continued interest late Monday. Miller defied the grand jury subpoena last summer and took his challenge of Mueller’s authority to a federal appeals court. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has yet to rule in the case.

Mueller’s team and lawyers with the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia are jointly prosecuting the case against Stone. They did not push for Stone to be jailed or for Robinson to impose a gag order in the case.

He remains free on $250,000 bond.

Stone, who has alleged without evidence that the FBI used “Gestapo tactics” in arresting him, has said he did nothing more than exercise his First Amendment rights to drum up interest with voters about the WikiLeaks disclosures. He has also denied discussing the issue with Trump.

“That’s what I engaged in. It’s called politics and they haven’t criminalized it, at least not yet,” Stone said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

“All I did was take publicly available information and try to hype it to get it as much attention as possible, because I had a tip, the information was politically significant and that it would come in October,” he added.

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Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.

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Roger Stone arrested for witness tampering, other crimes

Roger Stone speaks at the American Priority Conference in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Roger Stone, a confidant of President Donald Trump, was arrested Friday morning on several criminal charges stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

Stone is charged in a seven-count indictment with witness tampering, obstruction and false statements about his interactions related to the release by WikiLeaks of hacked emails during the 2016 presidential election. Some of those false statements were made to the House intelligence committee, according to the indictment.

The indictment brought by special counsel Robert Mueller does not accuse Stone of coordinating with the Russian government’s election interference in 2016, the key matter under investigation in the probe. But the indictment lays out in detail Stone’s conversations about stolen Democratic emails posted by WikiLeaks in the weeks before the Republican beat Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Mueller’s office has said those emails, belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, were hacked by Russian intelligence officers.

Stone is scheduled to appear in court in Florida later Friday. The indictment had been expected. Stone has said for months he was prepared to be charged, though he has denied any wrongdoing. A grand jury for months had heard from witnesses connected to Stone. And the intelligence committee last year voted to release a transcript of Stone’s testimony to Mueller as a precursor to an indictment.

Stone has publicly denigrated the Mueller investigation and echoed the president’s descriptions of it as a witch hunt. But he has long attracted investigators’ attention, especially in light of a 2016 tweet that appeared to presage knowledge that emails stolen from Podesta would soon be released. Stone has said he had no inside information about the contents of the emails in WikiLeaks’ possession or the timing of when they’d be released.

He has said he learned from Randy Credico, a New York radio host, that WikiLeaks had the emails and planned to disclose them. Stone has released emails that he says support that assertion.

Prosecutors had offered a plea agreement to Stone friend Jerome Corsi that would have required the conspiracy theorist and conservative author to admit that he intentionally lied to investigators about a discussion with Stone about WikiLeaks. But he rejected the offer.

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Barr argued Trump did not obstruct justice by firing Comey

President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general sent White House lawyers a memo arguing that the president could not have obstructed justice by firing ex-FBI Director James Comey, describing a critical prong of the special counsel’s Russia investigation as “fatally misconceived,” he told the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a letter Monday.

The development, revealed the night before William Barr’s confirmation hearing, raises questions about Barr’s communications with Trump’s attorneys ahead of his nomination and is likely to prompt questions about his ability to impartially oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Democrats were already seeking to question Barr about the memo, which he sent, unsolicited, to the Justice Department in June.

Barr sent the letter Monday to Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, detailing that he sent the memo to White House lawyer Emmet Flood, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Pat Cipollone, who is now White House counsel. Barr also discussed the contents of the memo with Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow and Jane and Martin Raskin, he said in the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

“The memorandum did not suggest that a President can never obstruct justice,” Barr wrote. “Quite the contrary, it expressed my belief that a President, just like anyone else, can obstruct justice if he or she engages in wrongful actions that impair the availability of evidence.”

Barr sent the memo while he was in private practice and months before he was selected by Trump for the top Justice Department job. On Tuesday, Barr will seek to assure lawmakers that the memo was narrowly focused on a single theory of obstruction that media reports suggested Mueller might be considering, according to a copy of his prepared remarks provided by the Justice Department.

Barr is expected to tell senators he wrote it himself as a former attorney general “who has often weighed in on legal issues of public importance.”

As part of his testimony, Barr is also expected to tell the senators that Trump didn’t seek any assurances or promises before nominating him.

In the memo, Barr argues that it could be disastrous for the presidency and the Justice Department if Mueller concludes that actions the president is legally permitted to take — including firing an FBI director or granting a pardon — could constitute obstruction because of a subjective determination that they were done with corrupt intent.

Barr acknowledged a president can commit obstruction of justice by destroying evidence or tampering with witnesses. But, he said, he wasn’t aware of any accusation like that in Mueller’s investigation.

Barr, who previously served as attorney general in the early 1990s, had contemplated writing an op-ed before he penned the memo, which he sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he said in Monday’s letter.

Barr insisted in his letter to Graham that the memo on Mueller’s investigation was “not to influence public opinion on the issue” and instead he wanted lawyers involved in the case to “make sure that all of the lawyers involved carefully considered the potential implications of the theory.”

He also provided or discussed the memo with at least nine other people, including Abbe Lowell, an attorney who represents Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, as well as George Terwilliger, who was Barr’s deputy attorney general in the 1990s, he said.

Barr’s role overseeing the Russia probe may be especially important since Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has overseen his day-to-day work, expects to leave the Justice Department soon after Barr is confirmed.

CNN first reported that Barr sent the memo to White House officials.

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.
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Legal issues debated on Cohen-Trump recording

Michael Cohen arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A secret recording of Donald Trump discussing payments to a Playboy model has brought renewed attention to the question of whether — and how — he might have tried to block politically damaging stories ahead of the 2016 presidential election. But it’s not clear that the tape, on its own, creates additional legal problems for the president.

The September 2016 conversation between Trump and his then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, took place weeks after the National Enquirer’s parent company reached a $150,000 deal to pay former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair she says she had with Trump. The recording captures Trump and Cohen discussing acquiring the rights to McDougal’s story and whether to pay by cash or check.

At issue is whether the payment the men are discussing was campaign-related and intended to influence the election, in which case it would likely be regarded as a contribution, or whether it was merely meant to shield the married Trump from an embarrassing revelation harmful to his personal life. Also important is whether the payment to McDougal from the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., functioned as a backdoor campaign contribution or as a legitimate media company expense.

“It’s a piece of evidence. It’s not a smoking gun,” Rick Hasen, a campaign finance law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said of the recording. “It’s relevant to the investigation, and it’s relevant to considering whether Trump or Cohen or AMI committed campaign finance violations, but on its own, it does not constitute proof of any violation.”

He added, “It does not establish either a motive to spend illegal or unreported money in violation of the campaign finance laws, and it doesn’t establish that any money was actually paid for this purpose.”

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has said the conversation wasn’t campaign-related and that Trump and Cohen didn’t make a payment to buy the rights.

The Justice Department has been investigating Cohen for months, raiding his home, office and hotel room in search of documents related to McDougal and a separate $130,000 payment the attorney facilitated before the election to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actress who says she had sex with Trump in 2006.

Cohen, long a loyal counselor to the president, has more recently signaled that he’d be open to cooperating with prosecutors.

His lawyer, Lanny Davis, released the recording to CNN in a reflection of open discord with Trump. Trump’s lawyers circulated a transcript of the call that challenged Davis’ assessment of it.

Legal experts say the case raises murky issues, especially as investigators discern the motivations behind AMI’s payment and the extent to which Cohen was involved in the arrangement.

Prosecutors could conclude that the Enquirer, which did not publish McDougal’s story as part of a tabloid strategy known as “catch and kill,” made the payment to aid Trump’s election bid in violation of campaign finance regulations that bar corporations from making coordinated contributions.

“If they coordinated to suppress this story in order to help Trump’s presidential campaign, that would be a campaign finance violation,” said Andrew Herman, a Washington lawyer. “It could be a civil violation. It could be a criminal violation.”

AMI, however, could argue that it was acting as a legitimate news organization and in the best interest of its readers by acquiring McDougal’s story and withholding it from publication.

A key question for investigators will be whether the arrangements would have taken place even if Trump weren’t a candidate because the primary purpose was to protect his reputation. Election references in the recording, including discussion of polls and anxiety over the possible release of Trump’s divorce records from first wife Ivana, may create circumstantial evidence that the campaign was a central focus.

The brief recording is unclear as to the purpose of any proposed transaction.

“I think the election was certainly on everybody’s mind, but that doesn’t make anyone’s acts an election contribution or expenditure,” said Craig Engle, former general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Daniel Petalas, former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, said the recording could be valuable to prosecutors to the extent it reveals Trump’s and Cohen’s intent. A former Justice Department prosecutor, Petalas said it was notable Trump seemed concerned that divorce papers could be unsealed, suggesting sensitivity to not wanting embarrassing information out before the election.

He said even if the conversation alone doesn’t establish wrongdoing, it could nonetheless be valuable to investigators reviewing the separate payment to Daniels as they examine a potential pattern to subvert campaign finance laws.

Lawyers for Trump and Cohen have made different representations about whether the recording shows Trump wanting to make the payment via cash or check. The Trump team’s transcript says he said “don’t pay with cash” and wanted it done by check. Davis has disputed that.

But that distinction probably doesn’t matter.

“The question comes down to whether or not there’s a payment, by any means, that violated the amount and source requirements of the law,” Petalas said. “Paying by check doesn’t change anything.”

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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