Some in GOP question finally question Trump’s antics

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The shifting White House explanation for President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine drew alarm Friday from Republicans as the impeachment inquiry brought a new test of their alliance.

Trump, in remarks at the White House, stood by his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, whose earlier comments undermined the administration’s defense in the impeachment probe. Speaking Thursday at a news conference, Mulvaney essentially acknowledged a quid pro quo with Ukraine that Trump has long denied, saying U.S. aid was withheld from Kyiv to push for an investigation of the Democratic National Committee and the 2016 election. He later clarified his remarks.

Trump appeared satisfied with Mulvaney’s clarification and the president dismissed the entire House inquiry as “a terrible witch hunt. This is so bad for our country.”

But former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, said he now supports impeaching the president.

Mulvaney’s admission, he said, was the “final straw.” ″The last 24 hours has really forced me to review all of this,” Kasich said on CNN.

In Congress, at least one Republican, Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, spoke out publicly, telling reporters that he and others were concerned by Mulvaney’s remarks. Rooney said he’s open to considering all sides in the impeachment inquiry. He also said Mulvaney’s comments cannot simply undone by a follow-up statement.

“It’s not an Etch-A-Sketch,” said Rooney, a former ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush.

“The only thing I can assume is, he meant what he had to say — that there was a quid pro quo on this stuff,” he said.

The tumult over Mulvaney’s remarks capped a momentous week in the impeachment investigation as the admission, from highest levels of the administration, undercut the White House defense and pushed more evidence into the inquiry.

GOP leaders tried to contain the fallout. But four weeks into the inquiry, the events around Trump’s interaction with the Ukraine president, which are are at the heart of impeachment, have upended Washington.

A beloved House chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a leading figure in the investigation, died amid ongoing health challenges.

The Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, who has been caught up in the probe, announced his resignation. On Friday, the Energy Department sent a letter to House committee chairs saying it would not comply with a subpoena for documents and communications.

The march toward an impeachment vote now seems all but inevitable, so much so that the highest-ranking Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, privately told his GOP colleagues this week to expect action in the House by Thanksgiving with a Senate trial by Christmas.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has given no timeline for conclusion but wants the inquiry completed “expeditiously.” She said Thursday that facts of the investigation will determine next steps.

“The timeline will depend on the truth line,” she told reporters.

This week’s hours of back-to-back closed-door hearings from diplomats and former top aides appeared to be providing investigators with a remarkably consistent account of the run-up and aftermath of Trump’s call with Ukraine President Volodymy Zelenskiy.

In that July call, Trump asked the newly elected Zelenskiy for a “favor” in investigating the Democratic National Committee’s email situation, which was central to the 2016 election, as well as a Ukraine gas company, Burisma, linked to the family of Trump’s 2020 Democratic rival, Joe Biden, according to a rough transcript of the phone conversation released by the White House.

Republican leaders tried to align with Trump Friday, amid their own mixed messages as House Democrats, who already issued a subpoena to Mulvaney for documents, now want to hear directly from him.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP leader, cited Mulvaney’s clarification as evidence that there was no quid pro quo. He said witnesses have also testified similarly behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry.

“We’ve been very clear,” McCarthy said. “There was no quid pro quo.”

Lawmakers involved in the three House committees conducting the investigation want to hear more next week, which promises another packed schedule of witnesses appearing behind closed doors.

Republicans want the interviews made open to the public, including releasing transcripts.

Democrats in the probe being led by Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, are keeping the proceedings closed for now, partly to prevent witnesses from comparing notes.

Three House committees investigating impeachment have tentatively scheduled several closed-door interviews next week, including one with Bill Taylor, the current top official at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

Taylor’s interview, scheduled for Tuesday, is significant because he was among the diplomats on a text message string during the time around the July phone call. He raised a red flag and said it was “crazy” to withhold the military aid for a political investigation.

It’s unclear whether all the witnesses will appear, given that the White House is opposing the inquiry and trying to block officials from testifying.

The schedule includes a mix of State Department officials and White House aides.

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Trump gives written answers to Mueller

President Donald Trump gestures as he walks to Marine One after speaking to media at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump has provided the special counsel with written answers to questions about his knowledge of Russian interference in the 2016 election, his lawyers said Tuesday, avoiding at least for now a potentially risky sit-down with prosecutors. It’s the first time he has directly cooperated with the long investigation.

The step is a milestone in the negotiations between Trump’s attorneys and special counsel Robert Mueller’s team over whether and when the president might sit for an interview.

The compromise outcome, nearly a year in the making, offers some benefit to both sides. Trump at least temporarily averts the threat of an in-person interview, which his lawyers have long resisted, while Mueller secures on-the-record statements whose accuracy the president will be expected to stand by for the duration of the investigation.

The responses may also help stave off a potential subpoena fight over Trump’s testimony if Mueller deems them satisfactory. They represent the first time the president is known to have described to investigators his knowledge of key moments under scrutiny by prosecutors.

But investigators may still press for more information.

Mueller’s team months ago presented Trump’s legal team with dozens of questions they wanted to ask the president related to whether his campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to tip the 2016 election and whether he sought to obstruct the Russia probe by actions including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. The investigators agreed to accept written responses to questions about potential Russian collusion and tabled, for the moment, obstruction-related inquiries.

Mueller left open the possibility that he would follow up with additional questions on obstruction, though Trump’s lawyers — who had long resisted any face-to-face interview — have been especially adamant that the Constitution shields him from having to answer any questions about actions he took as president.

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow offered no details on the current Q&A, saying merely that “the written questions submitted by the special counsel’s office … dealt with issues regarding the Russia-related topics of the inquiry. The president responded in writing.” He said the legal team would not release copies of the questions and answers or discuss any correspondence it has had with the special counsel’s office.

Another of Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said the lawyers continue to believe that “much of what has been asked raised serious constitutional issues and was beyond the scope of a legitimate inquiry.” He said Mueller’s office had received “unprecedented cooperation from the White House,” including about 1.4 million pages of materials.

“It is time to bring this inquiry to a conclusion,” Giuliani said.

The president told reporters last week that he had prepared the responses himself.

Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday that he was unlikely to answer questions about obstruction, saying, “I think we’ve wasted enough time on this witch hunt and the answer is, probably, we’re finished.”

Trump joins a list of recent presidents who have submitted to questioning as part of a criminal investigation.

In 2004, President George W. Bush was interviewed by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s office during an investigation into the leaked identity of a covert CIA officer. In 1998, President Bill Clinton testified before a federal grand jury in independent counsel Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation.

“It’s very extraordinary if this were a regular case, but it’s not every day that you have an investigation that touches upon the White House,” Solomon Wisenberg, a Washington lawyer who was part of Starr’s team and conducted the grand jury questioning of Clinton, said of a prosecutor accepting written answers.

Mueller could theoretically still try to subpoena the president if he feels the answers are not satisfactory.

But Justice Department leaders, including acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker — who now oversees the investigation and has spoken pejoratively of it in the past — would have to sign off on such a move, and it’s far from clear that they would. It’s also not clear that Mueller’s team would prevail if a subpoena fight reached the Supreme Court.

“Mueller certainly could have forced the issue and issued a subpoena, but I think he wants to present a record of having bent over backwards to be fair,” Wisenberg said.

The Supreme Court has never directly ruled on whether a president can be subpoenaed to testify in a criminal case. Clinton was subpoenaed to appear before the Whitewater grand jury, but investigators withdrew the subpoena after he agreed to appear voluntarily.

Other cases involving Presidents Richard Nixon and Clinton have presented similar issues for the justices that could be instructive now.

In 1974, for instance, the court ruled that Nixon could be ordered to turn over subpoenaed recordings, a decision that hastened his resignation. The court in 1997 said Clinton could be questioned under oath in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones.

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

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Kavanaugh wants Americans spied upon…a lot

President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has frequently supported giving the U.S. government wide latitude in the name of national security, including the secret collection of personal data from Americans.

It’s a subject Democrats plan to grill Kavanaugh about during his confirmation hearings scheduled to begin next Tuesday. Beyond his writings as an appeals court judge, some senators suspect Kavanaugh was more involved in crafting counterterrorism policies during the George W. Bush administration than he has let on.

Kavanaugh stated in past congressional testimony that he wasn’t involved in such provocative matters as warrantless surveillance and the treatment of enemy combatants in the years immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But legal experts say he could shift the court on national security issues, if he is confirmed to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor whose expertise includes national security and counterterrorism, cites opinions he says show Kavanaugh “is a lot less willing (than Kennedy) to look at international law as a relevant source of authority and constraint.” He said on matters such as Guantanamo detention, Kavanaugh is “much more deferential to the executive branch in this context than Kennedy would have been.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, calls Kavanaugh “incredibly well-qualified.” The former U.S. trade representative and White House budget director knows Kavanaugh from their time together in the Bush administration. He said Kavanaugh “believes strongly in the Constitution” and the Bill of Rights.

“I think he’s in the mainstream with regard to these issues, and frankly, I don’t think it’s a difference with any meaning between where he is and where the court is currently,” Portman said.

Democrats facing an uphill battle in blocking Kavanaugh’s nomination have focused less on his judicial counterterrorism record than whether he misled senators about his role in Bush policies while testifying in 2006 confirmation hearings.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy are among Democrats who want to see more records from Kavanaugh’s White House days, saying news media accounts after he was seated on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia raised new questions.

White House spokesman Raj Shah said Durbin has been doing the misleading by taking Kavanaugh’s answers out of context.

“As several colleagues have stated, and Judge Kavanaugh accurately said in his 2006 testimony, he was not involved in crafting legal policies that formed the rules governing detention of combatants,” Shah said in an emailed statement.

After meeting recently with Kavanaugh, Durbin said the judge “acknowledged that he was involved in conversations involving enemy combatants.”

Shah responded with a tweet saying Kavanaugh was truthful, and that the conversations Durbin referred to “were about public litigation, not the legal framework or policies that formed the rules governing detention of combatants.”

Kavanaugh’s confirmation got past a potential obstacle when libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., endorsed him last month.

Paul had cited Kavanaugh’s 2015 defense of the National Security Agency’s widescale secret collection of telephone metadata — records of callers and recipients’ phone numbers and times and durations of the calls. But after meeting with Kavanaugh, Paul said he’s confident Kavanaugh will “carefully adhere to the Constitution and will take his job to protect individual liberty seriously.”

The NSA program didn’t include capturing conversations themselves, and Kavanaugh wrote that it served “a critically important special need — preventing terrorist attacks on the United States … In my view, that critical national security need outweighs the impact on privacy occasioned by this program.”

Larry Klayman, founder of the conservative group Freedom Watch and lead plaintiff in the NSA case, said Kavanaugh approved what a U.S. district court judge had called government use of “almost Orwellian technology.”

Kavanaugh defended the NSA program in an opinion attached to a procedural ruling in which he and his colleagues agreed not to rehear the case, so there was no pressing need for him to weigh in .

University of Louisville law professor Justin Walker, a former Kavanaugh clerk, said that’s not unusual for the judge. For example, Kavanaugh added his opinion to a procedural ruling in a case that led to a Supreme Court decision for a drug suspect who had a police-placed GPS tracker on his car.

The high court found in USA vs. Antoine Jones that Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated, with a majority opinion that incorporated Kavanaugh’s observation that police intruded on the defendant’s personal property: his car.

“I’ve been surprised that his one short opinion (in Klayman) has not been seen in a broader context with more perspective,” Walker said, adding that when senators study Kavanaugh’s complete record on civil liberties, “they’re going to like what they see.”

But Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to digital privacy rights, worries that “he has a very broad view of the government’s ability to do mass surveillance and specifically in the context where the government is claiming national security.”

Cohn has pursued a lawsuit alleging illegal NSA surveillance of “millions of ordinary Americans,” among cases she said could eventually reach the Supreme Court. She questions whether Kavanaugh supports “real checks and balances on the power of the executive branch” on privacy issues.

Kavanaugh discussed judicial restraint on national security in an 87-page 2010 opinion. That one went against a Yemeni citizen U.S. forces captured in Afghanistan.

“Put simply, Congress knows how to limit the executive’s authority in national security and foreign policy; there is no reason or basis for courts to strain to do so absent such congressional direction,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Vladeck pointed to such cases as Kavanaugh’s 2011 ruling for turning over a U.S. citizen linked to al-Qaida terrorism in Iraq to Iraqi authorities the man said were likely to torture him, and in 2009 joining in a 2-1 vote against plaintiffs who wanted to sue private contractors they accused of beatings, dog attacks and other abuse at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

There are still 40 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. naval base, with the possibility of more .

In a 2013 lecture , Kavanaugh talked about his appeals court’s rulings in cases involving Guantanamo detainees and counterterrorism, saying he disagreed with people who believed “the courts should be creating new rules to constrain the executive — that this new kind of war requires new rules created by the courts.”

“He’s incredibly smart; he’s a thoughtful and thorough judge,” said Vladeck. “He just has pretty exceptionally conservative views about the role of the federal courts in the kinds of cases that I work on.”

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Find AP’s reporting on the Kavanaugh nomination at https://apnews.com/tag/Kavanaughnomination

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Follow Dan Sewell on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell
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Mueller provides list of questions to Trump

President Donald Trump pauses during a during a news conference with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 30, 2018.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Special counsel Robert Mueller has given a list of almost four dozen questions to lawyers for President Donald Trump as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether Trump obstructed justice, according to a report published in The New York Times.

The Times obtained a list of the questions, which range from Trump’s motivations for firing FBI Director James Comey a year ago to contacts Trump’s campaign had with Russians.

Although Mueller’s team has indicated to Trump’s lawyers that he’s not considered a target, investigators remain interested in whether the president’s actions constitute obstruction of justice and want to interview him about several episodes in office. The lawyers want to resolve the investigation as quickly as possible, but there’s no agreement on how to do that.

Many of the questions obtained by the Times center on the obstruction issue, including his reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation, a decision Trump has angrily criticized.

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow declined to comment to The Associated Press on Monday night, as did White House lawyer Ty Cobb.

The questions also touch on the Russian meddling and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin in any way. In one question obtained by the Times, Mueller asks what Trump knew about campaign staff, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, reaching out to Moscow.

Mueller has brought several charges against Manafort, but none are for any crimes related to Russian election interference during the 2016 campaign. And he has denied having anything to do with such an effort.

The queries also touch on Trump’s businesses and his discussions with his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, about a possible Moscow real estate deal. Cohen’s business dealings are part of a separate FBI investigation.

One question asks what discussions Trump may have had regarding “any meeting with Mr. Putin,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another question asks what the president may have known about a possible attempt by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel with Russia before Trump’s inauguration.

Additional questions center on Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his discussions on sanctions against Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition. Flynn is now cooperating with Mueller’s investigators.

“What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?” reads one question. Another asks if there were any efforts to reach out to Flynn “about seeking immunity or possible pardon.”

Flynn was fired Feb. 13, 2017, after White House officials said he had misled them about his Russian contacts during the transition period by saying that he had not discussed sanctions.

The following day, according to memos written by Comey, Trump cleared the Oval Office of other officials and encouraged Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn.
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