Beto O'Rourke: I'd 'absolutely' do a Fox town hall

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke said Monday he would “absolutely” do a Fox News town hall — breaking with some of his Democratic rivals who've sworn off the pro-Trump network.

“Absolutely,” O’Rourke said when asked about his willingness to appear on Fox. “This campaign is about going to where people are, and you see that physically in where I show up. But it also has to be in those channels or those social media streams where people get their news and their information. That also includes Fox.”

Speaking to reporters after touring flood damage in eastern Iowa, O’Rourke said he was unaware of any current talks with Fox, but that it's possible his campaign has had discussions.

“Very open to doing that,” he said.

O’Rourke’s remarks come a day after South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg participated in a town hall hosted by Fox News’ Chris Wallace in New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar have done events on the channel, as well.

But other Democrats have refused. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, turning down a Fox News invitation recently, called the network a “hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.” The Democratic National Committee has refused to partner with FOX for DNC-sanctioned primary debates.

O’Rourke began his fourth visit to Iowa as a presidential candidate on Monday, with two town halls scheduled in the state before a Tuesday night appearance at a televised CNN town hall — his first of the campaign.

O'Rourke has recently started going on national TV more as he seeks to regain his footing in the primary. He was at 5 percent nationally in the most recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Judge upholds Dem subpoena for Trump financial records

A federal judge on Monday upheld a congressional subpoena seeking President Donald Trump’s financial records from an accounting firm, arguing that Congress is well within its rights to investigate potential illegal behavior by a president — even without launching a formal impeachment inquiry.

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta’s ruling delivers a striking blow to the president’s efforts to resist Democratic investigations, and is certain to give Democrats further legal basis to investigate Trump, his finances, and his presidential campaign.

In addition to upholding the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subpoena to accounting firm Mazars USA for eight years of Trump’s financial records, Mehta took the extra step of denying the president’s request for a stay pending appeal.

Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal attorneys, said: “We will be filing a timely notice of appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Speaking with reporters at the White House on Monday, Trump called Mehta’s ruling “ridiculous” and “totally wrong.” He also noted that Mehta was appointed by President Barack Obama.

Mehta's decision is a sweeping repudiation of Trump's claim to be largely immune from congressional scrutiny, particularly in matters of potential legal violations. Mehta's opinion emphasizes that lawmakers have the authority to investigate Trump’s conduct from both before and after he took office.

The ruling represents the first time the federal judiciary has weighed in on the ongoing oversight battle between Trump and House Democrats. Mehta’s ruling is likely to provide a blueprint for other judges who are set to make their own rulings on Trump’s vow to defy all congressional subpoenas.

In a 41-page opinion issued Monday, Mehta systematically dismantled the Trump legal team’s arguments against the validity of the subpoena — and he pushed back on claims from congressional Republicans that the House Judiciary Committee must formally launch an impeachment inquiry before issuing such subpoenas.

“It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a president for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct — past or present — even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry," Mehta wrote.

Mehta noted that Congress had twice investigated alleged illegal activity by presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. “Congress plainly views itself as having sweeping authority to investigate illegal conduct of a president, before and after taking office,” Mehta wrote. “This court is not prepared to roll back the tide of history.”

The president filed suit last month to block the subpoena, arguing that it amounted to an improper and overtly political abuse of congressional authority.

Mehta eviscerated that argument, too, emphasizing that a judge’s analysis of a congressional investigation “must be highly deferential to the legislative branch.”

“Thus, it is not the court’s role to decipher whether Congress’s true purpose in pursuing an investigation is to aid legislation or something more sinister such as exacting political retribution,” Mehta wrote, adding that there are “fundamental” problems with Trump’s legal arguments.

Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) issued the subpoena to Mazars last month as part of the panel’s investigation into whether Trump committed financial crimes before he became president.

In particular, the committee has sought to corroborate specific claims made by Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen. Earlier this year, Cohen turned over documents to the panel which purport to show that Trump artificially inflated and deflated the values of his assets to suit his personal financial benefit.

For example, Cohen told lawmakers that Trump submitted false financial statements to Deutsche Bank in 2014 as he was seeking a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills NFL team.

"The court recognized the basic, but crucial fact that Congress has authority to conduct investigations as part of our core function under the Constitution," Cummings said in a statement.

Mehta emphasized that even though the committee never adopted a formal resolution outlining the purpose of its investigation, many other factors would deem the probe legitimate. Mehta pointed to Cummings’ reliance on federal ethics law in letters outlining the purpose of his investigation, and noted that legislation could conceivably be connected to the results of that probe. The judge also noted that Congress has unique constitutional power to oversee potential “emoluments,” or improper foreign payments, steered toward the president.

“Surely, incident to Congress’s authority to consent to the president’s receipt of emoluments is the power to investigate the president’s compliance with the Clause,” Mehta argued.

Congress is also allowed to investigate presidential conflicts of interest and a president's conduct “before and during his term,” Mehta ruled, pushing back on an argument from Republicans that Congress shouldn’t be investigating Trump’s conduct that pre-dates his political career.

That Mehta ruled in favor of House Democrats wasn’t entirely unexpected. Last week, he heard arguments from Trump attorney William Consovoy and House General Counsel Douglas Letter last week, during which the judge cast serious doubt on Consovoy’s legal arguments.

Consovoy contended that Congress has no legitimate authority to investigate whether the president violated the law, because such probes are handled by “law enforcement” entities and aren’t tied to a specific legislative remedy.

But Mehta pushed back strongly on Consovoy during the hearing, stating those types of investigations are “strictly” within Congress’ purview. He also said Congress has the authority to investigate conflicts of interest — for example, whether a president has a “financial interest in a particular piece of legislation that was being considered.”

In addition to the Mazars suit, Trump has asked a federal court to invalidate the House Intelligence and Financial Services committees’ subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and Capital One. Those subpoenas also seek Trump’s personal and business financial records, as part of a joint investigation centering on whether Trump is compromised, financially or otherwise, by foreign actors.

Trump and his GOP allies have argued that the Democrats’ probes are illegitimate and amount to an abuse of power.

Darren Samuelsohn and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

White House instructs McGahn to defy Dem subpoena to testify

The White House on Monday directed former White House Counsel Don McGahn to defy a subpoena to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, and the Justice Department released a corresponding legal opinion arguing that McGahn is not obligated to answer lawmakers’ questions.

The move deals a blow to House Democrats, who have sought testimony from McGahn after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailed President Donald Trump’s efforts to shut down the Russia probe.

“The Department of Justice has provided a legal opinion stating that, based on long-standing, bipartisan, and constitutional precedent, the former counsel to the president cannot be forced to give such testimony, and Mr. McGahn has been directed to act accordingly,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “This action has been taken in order to ensure that future presidents can effectively execute the responsibilities of the Office of the Presidency.”

Though the new opinion draws heavily on directives drafted in previous administrations, the 15-page Office of Legal Counsel memo incorporates some of the president's broader legal arguments against congressional oversight — a signal that it views the fight to block McGahn's testimony as part of a bigger effort to resist congressional scrutiny.

“Coercing senior presidential advisers into situations where they must repeatedly decline to provide answers, citing executive privilege, would be inefficient and contrary to good-faith governance,” the new opinion reads. “The president's immediate advisers, if compelled to testify, are unlikely to answer many of the members’ questions, suggesting that the hearing itself will not serve any legitimate purpose for the committee.”

The opinion, authored by Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel, also states: “Congress may not constitutionally compel the president’s senior advisers to testify about their official duties.”

McGahn’s attorney, William Burck, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Judiciary Committee did not immediately comment.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told Burck earlier this month that he would move to hold McGahn in contempt of Congress “unless the White House secures a court order” blocking McGahn from complying with the subpoena. The committee’s subpoena sought documents and public testimony from McGahn.

Earlier this month, McGahn refused to turn over the requested documents after the White House instructed him not to comply with that part of the subpoena.

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, latched onto the new Justice Department opinion and noted that McGahn’s claims are outlined in the Mueller report.

“What better way to ensure we don’t hear from McGahn this week than by subpoenaing a witness who’s categorically immune from testifying? Thankfully, McGahn’s testimony is in Vol 2 of the #MuellerReport, 99.9% of which is available to the chairman, should he ever choose to read it,” Collins wrote on Twitter.

A less-redacted version of the report is available to Nadler, Collins and 10 other lawmakers, but Nadler has not viewed it out of protest of the restrictions placed by the Justice Department.

The Judiciary Committee kicked off a wide-ranging investigation in March into Trump for allegations of obstruction of justice and abuses of power. McGahn is emerging as a central witness in the committee’s probe, after Mueller’s report outlined Trump’s directives to McGahn to shut down the Mueller probe.

At its core, the new opinion argues that current and former advisers to the president must be equally immune from congressional subpoenas for testimony.

“[The] risk to the separation of powers and to the President's autonomy posed by a former adviser's testimony on official matters continues after the conclusion of that adviser's tenure,” Engel argued. “Mr. McGahn's departure as Counsel to the President does not alter his immunity from compelled congressional testimony on matters related to his service to the president.”

The new opinion also takes direct aim at Nadler's argument that McGahn is not bound by executive privilege from discussing his testimony to Mueller. Nadler has suggested that Trump waived executive privilege when he permitted McGahn to testify to Mueller without restriction — and elements of that testimony ended up in Mueller’s public report without any executive privilege claim.

But the new opinion argues that the president's decision to authorize McGahn to disclose information to Mueller does not waive his immunity from testifying. “To the contrary, presidents have frequently authorized aides to share information as an accommodation to Congress, notwithstanding claims of immunity,” the office wrote.

The OLC opinion also indicates that Congress is unable, legally, to attempt to invoke inherent contempt against McGahn. Inherent contempt, which has become an increasingly favored strategy for House Democrats, despite decades of disuse, is an effort by Congress to unilaterally enforce its own subpoenas by levying fines to potential witnesses or throwing them in jail.

“The constitutional separation of powers bars Congress from exercising its inherent contempt power in the face of a presidential assertion of executive privilege,” Engel writes, signaling a potential court fight should Congress pursue this strategy.

The new Justice Department opinion issued Monday builds upon an earlier one drafted in 2014 under the Obama administration.

“The executive branch’s longstanding position, reaffirmed by numerous administrations of both political parties, is that the president’s immediate advisers are absolutely immune from congressional testimonial process,” according to the 2014 opinion. “This immunity is rooted in the constitutional separation of powers, and in the immunity of the president himself from congressional compulsion to testify.”

That opinion noted that the federal court in Washington had previously ruled that a “former counsel to the president” was “not entitled to absolute immunity from congressional compulsion to testify.” But the Obama Justice Department argued that this ruling was erroneous.

“[W]e believe those cases do not undermine the executive branch’s longstanding position that the president’s immediate advisers are immune from congressional compulsion to testify,” according to the opinion. “We therefore respectfully disagree with the ... court’s analysis and conclusion, and adhere to the executive branch’s longstanding view that the president’s immediate advisers have absolute immunity from congressional compulsion to testify.”

Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this story.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Florida Democrats get an early start on the legal battle for 2020

The 2020 presidential election is still 18 months off, but in Florida the legal battle over voting is already well underway.

Despite being outgunned and outspent in past legal battles, Florida Democrats have established a standalone “election protection” team led by an attorney whose job will be to build a network of lawyers ready to spring into action between now and Election Day.

Democrats are framing the move as a reaction to ongoing Republican efforts that the left claims are designed to suppress the vote. Their most recent example is the GOP-controlled Legislature’s passage of a bill this spring that would restrict the voting rights of ex-felons despite a voter-approved amendment that ended Florida’s long-standing disenfranchisement of convicted felons.

“We don’t have confidence that Republicans in power are protecting our elections,” said Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “What we have learned over the past two cycles is voter suppression happens 365 days a year.”

Republicans bristle over the accusation of voter suppression, but there is no doubt that the two sides are locked in a widening fracas over Florida voting laws ahead of an election that could make or break President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term.

GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he plans to sign the recently passed election overhaul into law. The legislation requires ex-felons to pay off all court-ordered restitution, fees and fines before they can be eligible to vote. A judge would have the ability to waive the costs or turn it into community service.

Critics have called the provision a modern poll tax designed to limit the eligibility of tens of thousands of voters who won back their voting rights after Amendment 4 was passed in November.

Rep. James Grant, a Republican from Tampa and one of the main authors of the election overhaul, has defended the legislation as an effort to clarify the scope of an amendment that he said was poorly worded and ill-defined. But he blasted Democrats for accusing of him of pushing the bill for partisan gain.

“I find it fascinating that only one political party is talking about political ramifications,” Grant said. “It’s offensive at its core for a political party to assume that people who break the law are Democrats.”

Both sides expect civil rights groups to file a lawsuit once DeSantis signs the bill into law. It would be one of several voting lawsuits still lingering after 2018’s bitterly contentious election and chaotic recount.

A federal judge in Tallahassee is still grappling with lawsuits over Spanish-language ballots, early voting locations, the process used to verify signatures on mail-in ballots, and even the placement of candidate names on the ballot.

Lawyers waging election-law battles in Florida are nothing new. In 2000, a disputed recount resulted in Republican George W. Bush winning the White House after he defeated Democrat Al Gore by 537 votes. But in past cycles, the effort usually has ramped up a few months before the election.

Even then, Republicans in Florida have complained about Democratic operatives filing lawsuits ahead of Election Day as a way to garner publicity and stoke up voter turnout.

Now Democrats are getting involved much earlier.

Brandon Peters, an attorney and one-time Congressional candidate, will lead the new election protection team, which includes Alma Gonzalez, a veteran Democratic fundraiser, and Charles Lichtman, a Democratic attorney who represented former Sen. Bill Nelson in his failed recount fight last year.

Peters said Democrats plan to set up a hotline to take in complaints about efforts to restrict voters. The goal, he said, is to diffuse any problems. But he and other Democrats are worried that the drive to win in 2020 could lead to efforts to disenfranchise voters in the battleground state.

“It’s our belief that people with inflamed passions will act in ways not consistent in allowing every eligible Floridian to cast a ballot,” Peters said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

McConnell, Kaine unveil bill to raise smoking age to 21

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today introduced legislation to broadly raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 — now a bipartisan effort that addresses some of the criticism public health groups had of an earlier proposal they saw as too industry-friendly.

McConnell‘s bill is now joined by Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who has sponsored legislation to raise the age in the past. The version released would raise the age to 21 for everyone, backtracking on McConnell’s April promise to exempt “men and women who served in uniform." And his Tobacco-Free Youth Act does not block states from taking more stringent steps on tobacco.

Anti-smoking advocates have fought states' T21 — the shorthand for Tobacco at 21 — bills that they say include tobacco industry-backed provisions to weaken enforcement or prohibit local moves to raise taxes and ban flavored cigarettes or other tobacco products.

The bill also encompasses all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, a provision that the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky declared a win after pushing for e-cigarette regulations in a meeting with McConnell last month.

"Since Sen. McConnell stood in our offices just last month and announced plans to file this bill, new data has come out showing that youth e-cigarette use in Kentucky doubled over the past two years," said Foundation president and CEO Ben Chandler.

Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

How Kamala Harris would solve the gender wage gap

Sen. Kamala Harris pledged Monday to eliminate the gender wage gap, releasing a campaign proposal billed as “the most aggressive equal pay proposal in history.”

“This has got to end, and it is an outrage,” Harris (D-Calif.) told a crowd in Los Angeles on Sunday.

What would the plan do?

Companies would face a 1 percent profit fine for every 1 percent wage gap that they allow to exist in their ranks. The fines would total $180 billion in the first decade, according to the campaign‘s projections, with smaller takes in later years as companies come into compliance. The money would support paid family and medical leave under the FAMILY Act, a bill widely embraced by Democrats and sponsored by one of Harris’ rivals, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

To avoid paying fines, businesses with 100 or more employees would have to achieve a new type of “equal pay certification“ every two years under a new federal program headed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Harris campaign, in its announcement, said her plan would require employers to prove they’re not engaging in discrimination. The current system, by contrast, puts the burden on employees to prove individual cases of discrimination — a process that can take years and run up monstrous legal fees.

“Our current equal pay laws rely exclusively on proving instances of individual discrimination and place the burden entirely on employees to hold big corporations accountable,” the campaign’s fact sheet says. “But too often, individual cases of discrimination go unnoticed or are too difficult or expensive to prove in court, and workers face increasingly high barriers in banding together to prove their claims.“

Harris’ plan would also require companies to report the percentage of women in leadership positions and the percentage of women who are their top earners. In addition, it would require federal contractors to prove equal pay certification in order to bid for contracts over $500,000.

How would it work?

Harris says she won’t wait for Congress — “she’ll take executive action herself.“

But it’s unclear how that would work. Harris’ plan effectively proposes a new tax on employers, a power that the Constitution gives to Congress alone. She also promises to “significantly strengthen and expand anti-discrimination protections“ under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but doesn’t provide more detail on what she would do absent changes to the law.

Harris‘ plan builds upon changes made by the Obama administration to collect detailed data from companies on race, ethnicity and gender through an expanded EEOC reporting form, called the EEO-1. A federal judge recently instructed the EEOC to collect the expanded data by Sept. 30, but the Trump administration has signaled it won’t be able to comply and has appealed the order.

Furthermore, the EEOC has for years been criticized as ineffective, strapped by backlogs and a shortage of cash (though Harris says the penalties from companies would strengthen the commission). The EEOC's work ground to a halt earlier this year when Republican Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) held up the nomination of a Democratic member, resulting in the loss of a quorum for the five-member commission. The EEOC could find itself in the same situation come July, when commissioner Charlotte Burrows’ term is set to expire.

While Harris claims she could end-run Congress, it‘s conceivable that Senate Republicans could stonewall her nominations and gut the commission altogether.

Harris also says her plan would ban companies “from implementing policies that perpetuate the pay gap,” including forced arbitration agreements for pay discrimination complaints. It doesn’t specify how she would do that without changes to the law, or whether the ban would extend to sexual harassment complaints.

What have other Democrats proposed?

Most Democratic candidates support the Paycheck Fairness Act, House-approved legislation that would strengthen penalties for businesses that pay unequal wages and protect employees from retaliation for sharing information about their salaries. They also support the FAMILY Act for paid leave and a $15 minimum wage.

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Pence calls for USMCA approval 'this summer'

Vice President Mike Pence on Monday called upon Congress to pass the new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico by the end of this summer, putting pressure on House Democrats now holding up a vote on the pact.

"The president has done his job. It's time for the Congress to do its job and pass the USMCA this summer," Pence said in a speech in Jacksonville, Fla., using the abbreviation for the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

The push comes as Democrats in Congress say they still have a number of concerns about the agreement's labor, environmental and pharmaceutical provisions, as well as the pact's overall enforceability.

Pence did not acknowledge any of those concerns in his speech, nor did he mention the possibility of President Donald Trump withdrawing from NAFTA if Congress balks at ratifying its intended replacement this year.

Instead, Pence argued the USMCA must be approved to correct NAFTA's deficiencies and to spur U.S. economic growth.

"I'm here to ask for your help," Pence told the crowd. "We can't afford for Congress to do nothing. We need Congress to approve the USMCA this summer to keep America growing."

Pence hailed a deal struck with Canada and Mexico last week that lifted U.S. tariffs on their steel and aluminum exports in exchange for those countries dropping retaliatory duties they imposed on U.S. agricultural goods and other exports.

"Our great farmers can begin doing business again in Canada and Mexico. The retaliatory tariffs are gone. It's a big deal," Pence said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Some Republicans unsettled by Trump’s sweeping claims of immunity

Senior House Republicans are breaking with Donald Trump over the president’s legal claims that Congress can’t investigate whether a commander-in-chief violated the law.

That view, advanced by Trump’s personal attorney and White House counsel late last week, would upend long-held understandings about Congress’ ability to scrutinize presidential conduct — especially alleged criminal activity.

“I’m in Congress. I’m aligned with Congress. I’m not aligned with the executive branch. And I think we have oversight authority over the administration,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “And if the president has acted illegally, then I think we have oversight authority.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran lawmaker who first came to Capitol Hill in the early 1980s as a congressional staffer, also said he didn’t agree with Trump’s legal theories.

“Obviously there is such a thing as congressional oversight,” Cole said.

Institutionalist-minded Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the far-reaching arguments Trump and his lawyers are using to make their case, amid fears the claims of near-immunity from congressional scrutiny will set dangerous precedents.

But these lawmakers also are not preparing to act in any way that constrains Trump. They roundly support the president’s rejection of House Democrats’ investigations and subpoenas, arguing Democrats are taking their investigations of the president too far — particularly those targeting his business dealings and personal finances.

“[Democrats] are taking too broad of a view of the investigative powers of Congress and the administration’s taking way too narrow of one,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).

Cole added, “I think the executive branch has a right to [say] whether it’s legitimate or not. And I think it’s very hard with a straight face to argue that what we’re seeing now is legitimate oversight and legitimate investigation.”

Trump and Attorney General William Barr's handling of Mueller's conclusions motivated one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, to call for his impeachment over the weekend.

"We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees—on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice—depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump," Amash tweeted on Saturday.

Amash argued that Mueller's report proved Trump had obstructed justice and that he only escaped indictment because of Justice Department rules that prohibit the indictment of a sitting president.

Trump argued through his personal lawyers in federal court and in a letter from his White House counsel to House Democrats last week that the executive branch can deem what is or isn't legitimate oversight, embracing the notion that Congress has limited ability to investigate presidential conduct and potential violations of the law.

"Say for example if a president had a financial interest in a particular piece of legislation that was being considered … in your view Congress could not investigate whether a president has a conflict of interest?” asked U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta, who will soon decide whether the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subpoena for eight years of Trump’s financial records is valid.

The subpoena stems from allegations that the president artificially inflated the value of his assets when he sought a loan from Deutsche Bank in 2014 to purchase the Buffalo Bills NFL team. Those allegations and others were made public by Trump’s former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, during an Oversight Committee hearing earlier this year.

"It would lack legitimate legislative purpose,” replied Trump lawyer William Consovoy.

Consovoy’s argument comes just weeks after Barr declared that Trump — or any president — could shutter an investigation into himself he deemed unfair, advancing yet another expansive view of presidential power.

Responding to Consovoy’s claims, Mehta seemed perplexed by the reasoning and wondered whether that rationale would have rendered the investigations of the Watergate and Whitewater scandals illegitimate. Consovoy said he would have to examine the cases further, but later suggested that they weren’t valid investigations when he said it was a “law enforcement” issue that Congress, by its nature, can’t probe.

Consovoy similarly said Congress would have no valid reason to investigate whether a president falsified his or her financial disclosures — the very issue that prompted the Oversight Committee to issue a subpoena to accounting firm Mazars USA for Trump’s financial records. Consovoy added that Congress can’t investigate a president’s conflicts of interest or violations of the law unless there’s a clear “legislative purpose” to the probe.

Mehta cast serious doubt on those claims, strongly suggesting that he would eventually rule in House Democrats’ favor. A ruling in the case could come as soon as Monday.

But a day after that court hearing, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone advanced the same legal theories, arguing that a House Judiciary Committee investigation of potential obstruction of justice and abuses of power by Trump exceeded Congress’ authority.

“[T]he committee’s inquiries transparently amount to little more than an attempt to duplicate — and supplant — law enforcement inquiries, and apparently to do so simply because the actual law enforcement investigations conducted by the Department of Justice did not reach a conclusion favored by some members of the committee,” Cipollone wrote to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). “That is not a proper legislative purpose.”

Cipollone cited precedents including the Senate’s subpoena for President Richard Nixon’s White House tapes, as well as the legal arguments offered by former Attorney General Eric Holder in his resistance to House inquiries related to the Fast and Furious gun-running operation. A Republican Congress ultimately held Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over documents.

“In addition, even if the committee were to attempt to articulate a legitimate legislative purpose for some of its inquiries, the authority of congressional committees to explore in detail any particular case of alleged wrongdoing is limited,” Cipollone added.

Speaking to reporters, Nadler derided the theory as “nonsense” and predicted it would be eviscerated in court.

“Frankly the American people ought to be astonished by a claim by the White House that a president cannot be held accountable, that he is above the law, that he is in fact a dictator,” said Nadler, who also pointed to the Justice Department’s longstanding policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Though Republicans have uniformly panned Nadler’s efforts to investigate Trump, many also see a White House that has become unmoored from the traditional back-and-forth between Congress and the executive branch.

Republicans say Trump’s claims, through attorneys, that Congress can’t investigate a president’s use of executive power are flawed and overly broad — but they believe the courts should ultimately resolve the disputes.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who led the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe in 2017 and 2018, said he’s content allowing federal judges to decide how much deference to provide Congress or the executive branch in these disputes.

“Nobody being investigated likes it. President Obama didn’t like it. Attorney General Holder didn’t like it. That’s why we have a third branch of government to litigate it,” said Conaway. “It’s exactly the normal tug of war.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

'Big 4' leaders to meet Tuesday on budget caps, debt limit

The four top party leaders will meet on Tuesday morning to begin talks on a potential deal to raise the budget caps, as well as a possible boost to the debt ceiling, according to multiple sources, although any agreement will be hard to reach.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will attend the session, as well as their top aides.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will take the lead for the Trump administration in the negotiations, the sources added.

Without action by Congress and the White House, the Pentagon faces a cut of $71 billion under current law, while domestic programs would be slashed $55 billion.

President Donald Trump has agreed to initiate the negotiation after lobbying from McConnell and McCarthy, who warned Trump that defense spending increases obtained under his presidency would be in jeopardy without a spending caps agreement.

Both GOP leaders and senior Democrats want to avoid a replay of the disastrous 35-day partial government shutdown from earlier this year.

Yet the two sides remain deeply divided over spending priorities, and Democrats are still furious over Trump's decision to declare a national emergency and divert billions of dollars in Pentagon funding for his border wall along the Southern border. Democrats have sued Trump over the move.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Graham warns of 'overwhelming military response' if Iran harms American interests

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday that he believes Iran is behind recent attacks on pipelines and ships around the Middle East, and warned that Tehran should expect "an overwhelming military response" if it harms "American personnel and interests” in the region.

“Just received a briefing from National Security Advisor [John] Bolton about escalating tensions with Iran,” the South Carolina Republican wrote on Twitter. “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq.”

“The fault lies with the Iranians, not the United States or any other nation,” Graham continued. “If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response. Stand firm Mr. President.”

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have been ramping up in recent weeks. Bolton announced the deployment of a Navy strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East earlier this month, saying it would send a "clear and unmistakable message" to Iran’s government.

Members of Congress, including Graham, had expressed frustration that they were out of the loop on what intelligence the Trump administration was seeing on Iran. After briefings on Capitol Hill last week, Democrats voiced fears that Trump could slide into war with Iran, while Republicans expressed concerns about Iran's actions.

Senior administration officials including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford are planning to provide all members of Congress briefings on Iran beginning as soon as Tuesday.

The New York Times reported last week that Shanahan presented President Donald Trump’s national security team with a plan to deploy as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East in response to U.S. intelligence that suggested Iran might be planning attacks on American people and facilities in the region.

Trump, however, said that there was no such plan and that he would send “a hell of a lot more troops than that” if he decided to project a more aggressive posture toward Tehran.

Trump again threatened Iran’s government on Sunday, warning that a military conflict would bring about “the official end” of the Middle Eastern nation.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

How Michael Bennet would address climate change

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet on May 20 released his plan to fight climate change, making him the third candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee to unveil a broad proposal on the issue this cycle.

What would the plan do?

Bennet’s plan aims to put the nation on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or earlier, but it does not outline specific policies such as a carbon tax or clean energy mandates. Bennet says specifics policies would come “in the first 100 days of the administration” through talks with Congress and voters.

Instead, the plan calls for a “Climate X Option” that would require utilities to provide “zero-emission energy to every household and business,” a new national conservation initiative and a “Climate Bank” to spur private investment. A net-zero goal would require any greenhouse gas emissions to be offset by reforestation or other techniques.

If Congress does not pass climate legislation, Bennet said he would use the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory powers to drive carbon reductions.

“I think the Clean Air Act is a very strong and flexible tool for requiring reductions from individual sectors,” the senator said on a press call Monday.

How much would it cost?

$1 trillion in federal spending over a decade.

Bennet would use that federal funding to launch a Climate Bank to “catalyze $10 trillion in private-sector innovation and infrastructure investment in climate technologies at home and abroad," according to the plan.

Who would it help?

Bennet says the “Climate X Option” will expand opportunities for Americans to choose clean energy technologies, and the Climate Bank would create “new markets for American businesses not just at home, but also around the world.”

What have other Democrats proposed?

Bennet’s plan is less detailed than recent policy announcements from two of his rivals, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Early in May, Inslee released a plan for 100% clean energy, including mandating carbon-neutral power from the nation’s electric utilities by 2030 and a goal for zero-emission cars and small trucks by 2030. Last week, he bolstered those proposals with his Evergreen Economy Plan, a slate of 28 policies that he says will support the transition.

Late last month, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke unveiled his vision for the government and private sector to spend $5 trillion over 10 years on clean energy infrastructure. That plan, however, did not detail how the U.S. would reach dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Many of the other candidates have coalesced around ambitious climate action along the lines of the Green New Deal advanced by activists and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

Who opposes it?

Republicans and the fossil-fuel sector are likely to oppose a nationwide mandate for carbon-free power from electric utilities. They also are likely to fight any greenhouse gas regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency in court.

Progressive Democrats and activists, conversely, are likely to call for more ambitious and specific plans from presidential candidates than Bennet's initial plan lays out. In particular, activists in the Sunrise Movement and other left-of-center environmental groups have called for policies to end fossil fuel consumption.

How would it work?

Bennet’s plan leaves much of the detailed policymaking for the first days of his potential administration. In the first 100 days, he would launch an initiative to “engage people from across the country” to develop the particulars of his climate policy. He also would convene world leaders for a “global climate summit.”

If Congress does not pass climate legislation, Bennet said on Monday that his EPA regulations could look similar to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut carbon from electric utilities before it was rolled back by President Donald Trump.

“Although it’s our strong preference that Congress take on this issue, if a corruption of inaction continues to prevent it, we will act through the authority the Clean Air Act and other statutes grant the President,” the plan reads. “And we will commit the resources necessary to the Departments of Justice and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to defend that action in court.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump FCC prepares to approve T-Mobile-Sprint merger

A Trump administration regulator on Monday moved to bless T-Mobile’s $26 billion merger with Sprint, a deal that critics say will reduce wireless competition and raise prices for consumers.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he would recommend approval of the transaction, based on a series of commitments made by the two companies. That signals he likely has the FCC's Republican majority lined up to give the green light. The Justice Department, which is conducting its own review, declined to comment.

The development represents a positive sign for the two companies and T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who made headlines for his frequent stays at the Trump International Hotel in Washington during the merger review. Approval would mark a sharp contrast with the administration's approach to another recent deal involving T-Mobile rival AT&T. The Justice Department unsuccessfully sought to block AT&T's $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, which President Donald Trump, a frequent critic of Time Warner's CNN, opposed.

In a statement Monday, Pai pointed to commitments made by T-Mobile and Sprint, including deployment of a 5G network covering 85 percent of rural America within three years. The companies are also committing to delivering specific data speed benchmarks, which would be verified by sending cars with testing gear out across the post-merger footprint. The companies also agreed to divest a prepaid wireless service, Boost Mobile, to address concerns about the competitive impact of the deal.

Failure to meet the obligations could lead to a $2.4 billion penalty.

"I believe that this transaction is in the public interest and intend to recommend to my colleagues that the FCC approve it," Pai said in a statement. "This is a unique opportunity to speed up the deployment of 5G throughout the United States and bring much faster mobile broadband to rural Americans."

GOP commissioner Brendan Carr quickly sided with Pai, saying in a statement that the "proposed transaction’s investment in rural 5G will help close the digital divide—this FCC’s top priority." Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, meanwhile, said she has "serious doubts" about the deal, tweeting that the FCC should seek public comment on the commitments, “so the public can tell us just what they think about this new proposal.”

And public interest group Free Press argued the Boost spin-off won't actually preserve competition in the low-cost wireless market. “If and when that brand is actually cleaved off from T-Mobile and Sprint, it’ll no longer have access to those companies’ networks," Free Press general counsel Matt Wood said. "It would, like other wireless resellers, need to lease capacity from the new T-Mobile, and that means that this divestiture would do nothing to address the vast market power T-Mobile is accumulating.”

T-Mobile and Sprint, the third- and fourth-largest U.S. wireless carriers, announced their $26 billion merger in April 2018, saying that by combining forces they could create a strong and lasting competitor to industry behemoths Verizon and AT&T.

From the beginning, the companies tailored their pitch to appeal to Trump. They said the merger would give the U.S. a leg up on China in the race to develop next-generation 5G networks, which promise super-fast internet speeds.

During the Obama administration, officials at the Justice Department and FCC resisted the idea of a merger of Sprint and T-Mobile in 2014, because they believed it would reduce competition by eliminating one of the top four U.S. wireless carriers. The DOJ moved to block a combination of AT&T and T-Mobile in 2011 over similar concerns.

But T-Mobile and Sprint decided to give it another shot in the Trump era. The companies beefed up their lobbying operations with Washington insiders and also received advice from Trump veterans like Reince Priebus and Corey Lewandowski. Legere and Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure, now an executive at Sprint parent SoftBank, made numerous trips to Washington to meet with regulators.

Before the 2016 election, Legere and Trump traded insults on Twitter, with Trump slamming T-Mobile's service and Legere complaining about one of Trump's hotels. But Legere, after announcing the Sprint bid, repeatedly stayed at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. T-Mobile executives spent a total of $195,000 at the property since the merger was announced, The Washington Post reported in March.

House Democrats sharply questioned Legere about his lodging choices at a March hearing, with one saying the situation "doesn’t pass the smell test with the American public." And other opponents of the deal kept up pressure.

Satellite TV provider DISH, the Communications Workers of America, the Rural Wireless Association and others formed a coalition to oppose the transaction, arguing it would lead to higher prices for consumers and make the market less competitive. CWA warned that the merger would guarantee the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs.

Legere promised in February that prices for T-Mobile and Sprint subscribers would remain the same or better for three years following the merger, but critics were quick to point out potential loopholes in that commitment. DISH said the language used by T-Mobile left room for the company to replace cheaper legacy plans with more expensive ones as it makes network improvements.

Despite its pro-corporate leanings, the Trump administration has not always looked kindly on mega mergers. The Justice Department, under antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block AT&T's $85 billion deal for Time Warner, which Trump, as a candidate for president, promised to kill.

Over at the FCC, Pai has also doomed some large transactions, including Sinclair Broadcast Group's bid for Tribune Media and the proposed merger of two prison phone companies, Securus Technologies and ICSolutions.

The T-Mobile-Sprint deal has already cleared two national security reviews. The companies in December said they won approval from both the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and Team Telecom, an interagency group made up of the Justice, Homeland Security and Defense departments that assesses the national security implications of mergers. T-Mobile is owned by German company Deutsche Telekom and Sprint's parent SoftBank is based in Japan.

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son has actively courted Trump, pledging at a December 2016 meeting with the then-president-elect to invest $50 billion in the U.S. and create 50,000 jobs. The concession delighted Trump, who took credit for the announcement, but it appeared to align with the company's previously disclosed business plans, raising questions about whether SoftBank was simply recycling old news in a Trump-friendly package.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

NBC aims to cover more ground with 2020 embed class

A network embed’s primary job — capturing whatever a candidate does and says on the campaign trail — hasn’t changed much over time. But in 2020, NBC embeds' reporting "is going to be used 7,000 different ways," political director Chuck Todd said.

Every four years, the networks pick a stable of young journalists who obsessively follow a campaign or move to an early voting state, racking up airline miles and hotel points while serving as the news division’s eyes and ears on the ground.

This cycle, the NBC embeds’ video and written work, once meant largely for internal consumption, will be spread across the broadcast network, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, NBCNews.com, on podcasts and on platforms such as Snapchat and YouTube, Todd said.

On Monday, NBC announced its 2020 embed class, a group of 10 reporters and producers selected from more than 300 applicants: Maura Barrett, Micki Fahner, Amanda Golden, Gary Grumbach, Jordan Jackson, Julia Jester, Ben Pu, Marianna Sotomayor, Deepa Shivaram and Priscilla Thompson.

Todd, who hosts "Meet the Press" and oversees the embed program with NBC News Politics managing editor Dafna Linzer, said the group, combined with a new stable of national political reporters and veteran TV correspondents, will allow the news division to broaden its national footprint from four years earlier.

“Maybe we covered this country too much from the air only, and we were not on the ground in enough places,” Todd said. “Now, we can be on the ground arguably in twice as many places as we were in 2016, four times the places as we were in ‘12.”

The sprawling 2020 Democratic primary field, with nearly two dozen contenders, presents a unique challenge to political directors and editors. But Todd said if he deployed his entire team, NBC News could assign a reporter to every candidate.

“If we really needed to put a person on everybody, we could right now put a person on everybody,” he said. “Is that how we’re going to cover this? No, that’s not the smart way to cover this.”

Todd expects some candidates will be covered daily by embeds or national political reporters. There will also be zone coverage, with embeds assigned to key states or regions. Those assignments could shift as the Democratic field changes.

Life on the road for upward of 18 months can be grueling, but the embed gig is also a traditional stepping stone. NBC political reporters and editors such as Monica Alba, Shaq Brewster, Carrie Dann, Garrett Haake, Vaughn Hillyard, Jo Ling Kent, Ali Vitali, Alex Moe and Mike Memoli, who is currently covering former Vice President Joe Biden, all served as embeds.

CBS News came under scrutiny earlier this year when it announced its team of a dozen journalists, which didn’t include any African-Americans. “Unacceptable in 2019,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). “Try again.”

The NBC embed team for 2020 includes eight women and several journalists of color. “We have the 10 best people here, regardless of what they look like and where they came from,” said Todd, who said the network considered “all sorts of diversity, including geographic.”

“I think if you don’t look like 21st century America,” he added, “then you can’t cover American politics very well.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump lashes out after report bank found suspicious transactions

President Donald Trump lashed out at The New York Times on Monday, disputing the paper’s reporting on his relationship with Deutsche Bank and launching into a broader criticism of the news media.

The president appeared to be responding to a Times report that anti-money laundering experts at the German bank noticed suspicious activity in accounts belonging to Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner in 2016 and 2017. According to the Times, bank executives blocked employees from reporting the suspect transactions to the U.S. Treasury and one former employee says she was fired for raising concerns about the bank’s scrutiny of certain clients.

In a string of tweets Monday, the president pushed back on the paper’s characterization of his relationship with the German lender, which has given Trump's and Kushner’s companies billions over the years, showing a willingness to work with Trump despite his rocky financial history in the 1980s and 90s.

“The Failing New York Times (it will pass away when I leave office in 6 years), and others of the Fake News Media, keep writing phony stories about how I didn’t use many banks because they didn’t want to do business with me,” Trump wrote, kicking off a flurry of posts. “WRONG! It is because I didn’t need money. Very old fashioned, but true. When you don’t need or want money, you don’t need or want banks. Banks have always been available to me, they want to make money.”

Trump also appeared to criticize reporting from a year ago that cast suspicion on his transition over the last decade or so to using cash for real estate purchases, a break with industry norms.

“Now the new big story is that Trump made a lot of money and buys everything for cash, he doesn’t need banks,” he claimed in a subsequent tweet, before offering praise for Deutsche Bank’s service. “But where did he get all of that cash? Could it be Russia? No, I built a great business and don’t need banks, but if I did they would be there...and DeutscheBank was very good and highly professional to deal with - and if for any reason I didn’t like them, I would have gone elsewhere....there was always plenty of money around and banks to choose from. They would be very happy to take my money.”

“Fake Media only says this to disparage,” Trump claimed, railing against the media's reliance on unnamed sources even though members of his own administration routinely request not to be quoted by name.

David Enrich, who authored the Times story, pushed back on Trump’s denial.

“This is not true. I have spent a long time looking into this, and @DeutscheBank was the only bank willing to lend to @realDonaldTrump for 20 years because of his pattern of defaults and the bank’s hunger for growth in the US,” he wrote in a tweet.

A Times spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

Trump’s history with Deutsche Bank has become a renewed focus as Democrats in Congress battle the White House for the release of his financial records and tax returns. Last month, Trump and his family sued Deutsche Bank and Capital One to block them from turning over those records in response to congressional subpoenas.

On Monday, Trump turned his ire on news outlets who have churned out damaging stories about the president, proclaiming that “the Mainstream Media has never been as corrupt and deranged as it is today.” He reiterated his claim that the press and congressional Democrats were ignoring the “REAL Russia Hoax,” which he claimed were “all of the crimes committed by Crooked Hillary and the phony Russia Investigation.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine