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Washington on Edge as Mueller Probe Nears Completion

Get ready for some fireworks over the long-awaited “Mueller Report.”

Word that Special Counsel Robert Mueller may wrap up his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and issue his final report as early as next week has Washington on edge.  

Speculation is rife over what Mueller will conclude in his report: Will he implicate President Donald Trump in criminal conduct or will he exonerate him, in a probe the president has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.”

Another hotly-debated question: Will the report be made public or will Americans and the rest of the world be kept in the dark about details of an investigation that has cast a shadow over the Trump presidency?

Mueller could submit his report to Attorney General William Barr in the coming days, according to several unconfirmed reports, bringing to an end an investigation that began two years ago amid allegations Russian government agents colluded with members of the Trump campaign to tip the election against Democrat Hillary Clinton and in favor of the billionaire real estate mogul.

The probe has netted criminal charges against more than two dozen Russian operatives and six former Trump business and campaign associates but thus far has not revealed evidence of collusion or wrongdoing on the part of Trump surrounding the operations of his campaign.   Whether reported efforts by Trump to influence or derail the investigation rise to the level of obstruction of justice is another unanswered question.   

Here are five questions that legal experts and veterans of a former independent counsel investigation have been asking about the report:

Will the report be made public?

Under current Justice Department regulations, Mueller is required to submit a “confidential report” of his findings to the attorney general and for the attorney general to notify Congress about it. There are no requirements for Mueller to make his findings public.

Trump said this week that it is up to Barr to decide whether to share the full report with Congress.  Barr, who served once before as attorney general during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, has been non-committal on the issue.  During his recent confirmation hearing, Barr pledged to provide “as much transparency as I can” on the Mueller report but declined to commit to releasing the report in its entirety.  

That has not gone over well with congressional Democrats who have threatened to subpoena the report or Mueller to testify before Congress.   Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told CNN this week that if the report is not fully disclosed, “the public will feel rightly that there is a cover-up.”

With lawmakers, the news media and voters clamoring for a resolution to the prolonged investigation, some version of the report is certain to be made public. Over time, more and more details of Mueller’s findings likely will leak out. Kim Wehle, a former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation now a professor of law at University of Baltimore, stressed that releasing the full report is key to insuring government accountability.

What will the report say?

The special counsel’s mandate was fairly broad: to determine whether Russians worked with the Trump campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections and pursue other tangential matters that might turn up during course of the investigation.   

However, what Mueller is required to say in his report is much narrower. Justice Department guidelines simply call for an explanation of his decision to charge or not to charge various targets of the probe.  Beyond that, there are no hard and fast rules about what form the report must take and how long it should be.

“It could be a brief report summarizing his conclusions or it could be a book,” said Randall D. Eliason, a former federal prosecutor now a law professor at George Washington University. 

The two biggest unanswered questions

There are two major questions that legal experts are looking to the report to address: Was there coordination between members of the Trump campaign and Russian operatives seeking to influence the election and was President Trump personally involved in any such conspiracy or other crimes?

Thus far, Mueller has offered no evidence of collusion.   While the special counsel has charged more than two dozen Russian operatives with seeking to influence the election and several former Trump associates with lying about their contacts with the Russians and other offenses, he has not connected them in a criminal conspiracy.

“That’s really the big [unresolved] question,” Eliason said.  “I think he has to answer that question somehow because that’s his primary charge.”

Another critical question is whether Mueller will present any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Trump that he may have uncovered during the course of his investigation.   “That’s the outstanding question everyone wants to know for purposes of a political solution to potential wrongdoing, which of course is impeachment,” Wehle said.

The U.S. Constitution says a president can be removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” leaving the question of “impeachable offenses” open to interpretation by Congress.

Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr included a list of impeachable offenses in his final report to Congress on the conduct of then-president Bill Clinton.  But current Justice Department regulations do not require Mueller to do so, said Eric Jaso, a former associate independent counsel who is now a partner at the Spiro Harrison law firm.

David Super, a law professor at Georgetown University, noted that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has already implicated Trump in unlawful conduct, testifying last year that he made hush money payments to two women during the 2016 campaign at the direction of Trump.  

“I’d be surprised if Mr. Mueller felt he could not say anything about the president in the course of describing what other people did with him,” Super said.

On the other hand, the report may exonerate the president.  

Are more indictments expected?

Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president can’t be indicted and Mueller is expected to adhere to those guidelines.  But if he is pursuing other indictments, Mueller hasn’t tipped his hand.  

Super of Georgetown said that any additional indictments could be announced in conjunction with the report or be handed over to other sections of the Justice department.   

Short of announcing new charges, the Mueller report could also shine a light on other players and institutions that have hummed in the background of the investigation but have not faced charges, Super said.

One example: Germany’s Deutsche Bank, which over the years was a major source of loans for the Trump Organization.  “I think the real headlines are going to be about people that haven’t figured in the indictments so far,” Super said.  

What happens after Mueller submits his report

The submission of the Mueller report does not mean the end of legal troubles for Trump, even if the president is not specifically accused of wrongdoing.  In recent months, Mueller has farmed out parts of his investigation to the Southern District of New York where prosecutors have opened separate investigation into Trump’s finances.

“I don’t think we should assume that just because he issues a final report, that that will be the end of prosecutions but rather that those prosecutions will be occurring through the ordinary process which is the U.S. attorney’s office,” Super said.

 

 

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Report: NYC Preparing to Charge Manafort in Face of Possible Pardon

The Manhattan district attorney’s office is preparing state criminal charges against Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, in case Trump pardons him for his federal crimes, the New York Times reported on Friday, citing several people with knowledge of the matter.

Manafort, 69, could spend the rest of his life in prison for charges stemming from his work as an international political consultant and lobbyist. He is due to be sentenced in a federal court in Virginia on March 8, where he faces a prison sentence of up to 24 years and a fine of up to $24 million, and in another federal court, in Washington, D.C., on March 13.

He is one of the first people in Trump’s orbit to face criminal charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

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Dem. Senator Klobuchar Takes Her Presidential Campaign to Georgia

Sen. Amy Klobuchar will meet with former President Jimmy Carter and Democrat Stacey Abrams on Friday as she brings her presidential campaign to Georgia.

Klobuchar spokeswoman Carlie Waibel says the Minnesota Democrat will meet privately with Abrams, who lost a bid for governor last year and delivered the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this month.

Klobuchar and Carter will speak about her campaign during their meeting, which is also private. Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, also represented Minnesota in the Senate and has been one of Klobuchar’s political mentors.

Klobuchar also will attend a roundtable discussion on voting rights with local leaders and activists before a fundraiser Friday night in Atlanta.

Klobuchar also will campaign this weekend in South Carolina and New Hampshire

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US Ambassador to Canada Front-Runner for UN Post

U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft is emerging as the front-runner to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is backing Craft for the post, and she also has the support of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters. They say President Donald Trump has been advised that Craft’s confirmation would be the smoothest of the three candidates he is considering to fill the job last held by Nikki Haley.

Craft, a Kentucky native, was a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. General Assembly under President George W. Bush’s administration. She is also friends with McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and thanked Chao for her “longtime friendship and support” at her swearing-in as ambassador.

As U.S. ambassador to Canada, she played a role in facilitating the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, a revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Nauert withdraws

Trump’s first pick to replace Haley, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, withdrew over the weekend.

Trump is also considering U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and former U.S. Senate candidate John James of Michigan for the post.

Nauert’s weekend withdrawal from consideration came amid a push within the administration to fill the position given a pressing array of foreign policy concerns in which the United Nations, particularly the U.N. Security Council, is likely to play a significant role. From Afghanistan to Venezuela, the administration has pressing concerns that involve the world body, and officials said there had been impatience with the delays on Nauert’s formal nomination.

Trump said Dec. 7 that he would pick the former Fox News anchor and State Department spokeswoman for the U.N. job, but her nomination was never formalized. Notwithstanding other concerns that may have arisen during her confirmation, Nauert’s nomination had languished in part because of the 35-day government shutdown that began Dec. 22 and interrupted key parts of the vetting process.

Demoting UN position

With Nauert out of the running, officials said Pompeo was keen on Craft to fill the position. Although Pompeo would like to see the job filled, the vacancy has created an opportunity for him and others to take on a more active role in U.N. diplomacy. On Thursday, for example, Pompeo was in New York to meet with U.N. chief Antonio Guterres.

Three other officials said both Pompeo and Bolton favor demoting the U.N. position to a sub-Cabinet level position, and Grenell has suggested he isn’t interested in a non-Cabinet role. The officials were not authorized to discuss internal personnel deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Haley had been a member of the Cabinet and had clashed repeatedly with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others during the administration’s first 14 months. Bolton was not a Cabinet member when he served as U.N. ambassador in President George W. Bush’s administration, and neither he nor Pompeo is eager to see a potential challenge to their foreign policy leadership in White House situation room meetings, according to the officials. 

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LGBTQ Group Skeptical of US Decriminalization Move

An LGBTQ rights group expressed skepticism Thursday of a reported campaign by the Trump administration to decriminalize homosexuality around the world, after President Donald Trump expressed no knowledge of the plan. 

“We have a lot of questions about their intentions and commitments and are eager to see what proof and action will follow,” said Jeremy Kadden, senior international policy advocate with the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.

Kadden added that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have “turned away LGBTQ people fleeing violence and persecution and sent them back to countries that criminalize them, and have consistently worked to undermine the fundamental equality of LGBTQ people and our families here at home from day one.”

Jerri Ann Henry, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a nonprofit organization representing LGBTQ conservatives, said, “I hope [Trump’s] comments were just a mistake. If they were not, that would be extremely disappointing.”

Henry added she would be watching closely to see that this plan “includes real action.”

NBC on Tuesday first reported the administration’s campaign to end criminalization of homosexuality worldwide. 

In an interview with NBC, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell announced the campaign and said the administration had strong backing for the plan at home from Republicans and religious conservatives.

Grenell, rumored to be a candidate for the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the highest-profile openly gay person in the administration.

Trump: Which report?

When VOA asked the president Wednesday about the decriminalization campaign, he appeared to have no knowledge of it:

“I don’t know which report you’re talking about,” Trump said. “We have many reports.” 

State Department spokesman Robert Palladino acknowledged that Grenell had a “strategy meeting” with European LGBTQ activists, calling it “a good opportunity to listen and to discuss ideas about how the United States can advance decriminalization of homosexuality around the world.”

Grenell had invited activists from the LGBTQ community in Europe, including the Lithuanian Gay League, to a dinner at his Berlin residence Tuesday to discuss the issue.

On Twitter, the Lithuanian Gay League called on European Union member states to “support the U.S. government global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality,” and thanked Grenell for “leading this human rights effort.” 

​The White House has not responded to VOA about whether the president was briefed on the initiative. The State Department did respond to VOA’s query but was elusive about Trump’s having been informed, or whether there had been coordination with the White House on the matter.

Campaign against Iran? 

Earlier this month, Grenell wrote an op-ed column in a German publication condemning a public hanging of a gay man by the government of Iran, calling it a “wake-up call for anyone who supports basic human rights.” 

Sexual intercourse between two men is punishable by death in the Islamic Republic.

The timing of Grenell’s column and his push to globally decriminalize homosexuality has fueled speculation that the motive behind the campaign is to get European allies to further isolate Iran, Washington’s geopolitical foe.

“I think the concerns that have been raised stem from the apparent instigating execution in Iran,” Henry said, adding that she wanted to see all countries held accountable, not just Iran.

The administration has often condemned what it calls the Iranian regime’s acts of oppression against its own people, and has made getting tough on Iran the centerpiece of its foreign policy.

In Out magazine, a monthly LGBTQ publication, journalist Matthew Rodriguez wrote, “Rather than actually being about helping queer people around the world, the campaign looks more like another instance of the right using queer people as a pawn to amass power and enact its own agenda.”

The administration has a less than stellar reputation with the LGBTQ community.

According to the Trump Accountability Project, a media-monitoring effort that catalogs anti-LGBTQ statements and actions of Trump and his associates, the administration has issued “more than 94 attacks against LGBTQ Americans in policy and rhetoric” since Trump took office. 

VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report.

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Waiting for Final Mueller Report? It May Be Short on Detail

Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation has to end with a report. But anyone looking for a grand narrative on President Donald Trump, Russian election interference and all the juicy details uncovered over the past 21 months could end up disappointed.

The exact timing of Mueller’s endgame is unclear. But new Attorney General William Barr, who oversees the investigation, has said he wants to release as much information as he can about the inquiry into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election. But during his confirmation hearing last month, Barr also made clear that he ultimately will decide what the public sees, and that any report will be in his words, not Mueller’s.

Some key questions:

What happens when the investigation ends?

Mueller will have to turn in a report of some kind when he’s done. It could be pretty bare-bones.

Justice Department regulations require only that Mueller give the attorney general a confidential report that explains the decisions to pursue or decline prosecutions. That could be as simple as a bullet point list or as fulsome as a report running hundreds of pages.

Mueller has given no guidance on what or when it will be, but there are signs a conclusion is coming soon. 

The number of prosecutors working for Mueller has dwindled, and his team, which had sought an interview with the president, has not had meaningful dialogue with Trump’s lawyers in the past two months. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, is expected to leave the Justice Department in mid-March. That’s a likely indication that Rosenstein expects the special counsel’s work to be wrapping up. Matthew Whitaker, who was acting attorney general before Barr was confirmed, also has said the investigation is nearly done.

What does Barr say he will do?

Barr said he envisions two reports, and only one for congressional and public consumption.

Barr has said he takes seriously the “shall be confidential” part of the regulations governing Mueller’s report. He has noted that department protocol says internal memos explaining charging decisions should not be released.

During his confirmation hearing, Barr said that he will draft, after Mueller turns in his report, a second one for the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. But here again, the regulations provide little guidance for what such a report would say.

The attorney general is required only to say the investigation has concluded and describe or explain any times when he or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided an action Mueller proposed “was so inappropriate or unwarranted” that it should not be pursued.

Barr indicated that he expects to use his report to share the results of Mueller’s investigation with the public, which the regulations allow him to do. But he hedged on specifics and said his plans could change after speaking with Mueller and Rosenstein.

What will Trump do?

Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said the president’s legal team wants to review any report before it’s released. Giuliani also raised the prospect that Trump lawyers could try to invoke executive privilege to prevent the disclosure of any confidential conversation the president has had with his aides.

It’s not clear whether the president’s lawyers will get an advance look at Mueller’s conclusions. Mueller, after all, reports to the Justice Department, not the White House.

Barr himself seemed to dismiss that idea. When Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Barr whether Trump and his lawyers would be able to correct the report before its release and put their own spin on it, Barr replied: “That will not happen.”

Will there be a final news conference?

It seems unlikely, especially if prosecutors plan to discuss people they never charged.

Then-FBI Director James Comey broke from Justice Department protocol in extraordinary fashion with his July 2016 news conference announcing the FBI would not recommend criminal charges against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server. Barr has made clear his disapproval of Comey’s public move.

“If you’re not going to indict someone, you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person,” Barr said.

There have been times when the department has elaborated on decisions not to pursue criminal charges. Also, there is some precedent for special counsels appointed by the Justice Department to hold news conferences.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel who investigated the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame and who was granted even broader authority than Mueller, held a 2005 news conference when he charged I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. But even then, Fitzgerald drew a clear line.

“One of the obligations of the prosecutors and the grand juries is to keep the information obtained in the investigation secret, not to share it with the public,” Fitzgerald said then. “And as frustrating as that may be for the public, that is important because, the way our system of justice works, if information is gathered about people and they’re not charged with a crime, we don’t hold up that information for the public to look at. We either charge them with a crime or we don’t.”

Can Democrats in Congress subpoena Mueller and his report?

Sure. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has said as much.

“We could subpoena the final report. We could subpoena Mueller and ask him in front of the committee what was in your final report. Those are things we could do,” Nadler told ABC’s “This Week” in October.

But Trump, as the leader of the executive branch, could direct the Justice Department to defy the subpoena, setting the stage for a court fight that would almost certainly go to the Supreme Court.

Will Trump be able to see the report?

It is unclear whether Trump will ask to see the report and under what circumstances he or his attorneys might be able to view it, especially because the document is meant to be confidential for Justice Department leadership. 

Barr said at his confirmation hearing that he would not permit White House interference in the investigation. But he also has voiced an expansive view of executive power in which the president functions as the country’s chief law enforcement officer and has wide latitude in giving directives to the FBI and Justice Department.

Democrats could seize on any disclosure to the president to argue that the report really isn’t confidential and should be immediately provided to them as well.   

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As Democrats Lean Left for 2020, Trump Cries Socialism

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is the latest entrant into the increasingly crowded Democratic presidential field for 2020. Sanders and several other Democrats in the race advocate progressive views on key issues like the economy, the environment and health care. In response, President Donald Trump charged that the Democratic Party is headed down the road of socialism, setting up what could be a major ideological debate next year. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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US Judge Grants Former Trump Lawyer Prison Delay

A U.S. judge on Wednesday granted a request by Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, to delay the start of his prison term by two months.

Cohen, 52, had been scheduled to report to prison on March 6 to begin a three-year sentence for fraud, tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and lying to Congress.

In a letter to Judge William Pauley, one of Cohen’s lawyers asked that the date be pushed back to May 6 so Cohen can recover from shoulder surgery and prepare for upcoming testimony before Congress.

Judge Pauley agreed to the request.

Cohen is scheduled to deliver closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on February 28 and has also been subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Planned open-door testimony to the House Oversight Committee was put off after what Cohen alleged were public threats against him and his family from Trump and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Cohen admitted multiple charges in December related to work he performed for the real estate tycoon and pledged to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller leads the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, a probe that increasingly menaces the White House.

Cohen notably told prosecutors that Trump directed him to arrange illegal hush payments to two alleged former lovers ahead of the 2016 election.

He also admitted lying to Congress over pursuing a Moscow real estate deal in Trump’s name during the election, even after Trump had secured the Republican nomination.

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Sanders’ Early Fundraising Surpasses Rivals

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ campaign announced Wednesday it raised nearly $6 million during its first day of online fundraising, easily exceeding first-day totals amassed by his rivals.

More than 220,000 donors contributed to Sanders, a Senator from Vermont, in a 24-hour period since he announced his bid Tuesday for the White House, eclipsing his 2015 first-day fundraising total of more than $1.5 million.

Public disclosures showed Senator Kamala Harris of California was previously the top early Democratic fundraiser, with more than 38,000 donors contributing $1.5 million. Harris announced her candidacy on January 21.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts raised nearly $300,000 online on December 31, the day she announced an exploratory campaign committee.

Senator Amy Klobuchar raised more than $1 million in 48 hours after launching her campaign on February 10, campaign officials said.

Sanders’ show of strength is not surprising. He raised more than $200 million when he opposed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

In its announcement Wednesday, the Sanders campaign touted a large grassroots donor base that includes individuals who have already “contributed $600,000 in donations that will recur every month.”

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Trump’s National Emergency Declaration: What’s Next?

President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday after Congress declined to fulfill his request for $5.7 billion to help build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that was his signature 2016 campaign promise. His move aims to let him spend money appropriated by Congress for other purposes.

What’s next?

Legal challenges to Trump: On Monday, a coalition of 16 U.S. states led by California sued the Trump administration over the declaration and the president’s plan to use billions of dollars to erect a wall. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, came just days after Trump invoked emergency powers on Friday.

In Washington, D.C., the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen filed a federal suit Friday evening. The lawsuit argued against the constitutionality of the declaration and that Trump exceeded his powers.

Options before Congress: Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, could either join a lawsuit filed by a third party, or they could file a lawsuit of their own, although the legality of that is in question.

House Democrats are also preparing legislation — a “joint resolution of termination” — and it would likely pass, which would send it to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it may run into a roadblock. Should any legislation pass, a Trump adviser has said the president would veto it. Congress would then need a two-thirds majority to override a veto.

Other lawsuits?

The New York Times reported that at least two more lawsuits may be filed this week. The American Civil Liberties Union has said it will file a case but has not publicly identified its client, according to the report. And Protect Democracy, a watchdog group, and center-right policy institute the Niskanen Center, will file a suit on behalf of El Paso County and the Border Network for Human Rights, the Times reported.

Outcome: Any legal challenge is likely to tie up Trump’s efforts in court, delaying the building of a border wall. A protracted legal battle is likely, with an ultimate hearing seen before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Money for border wall

In a recent spending bill, Trump asked for $5.7 billion in government funding for a border wall; Congress provided just $1.37 billion. To avoid a government shutdown, Trump signed the legislation, yet declared a national emergency along the border to gain access to other funds. He identified funds, totaling $8 billion.

Where did the money come from?

$1.37 billion: Congress

$3.6 billion: Defense Department, military construction budget

$2.5 billion: Defense Department, drug interdiction efforts

$600 million: Treasury Department, drug forfeiture program

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