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Dems tread cautiously on Trump investigations after impeachment – POLITICO

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As a result, the investigations that animated the House’s Trump-focused oversight work since taking the majority in 2019 has gone relatively quiet — just as Trump has embarked on a government-wide retribution campaign and appeared less restrained than ever before.

The change in posture is an acknowledgment, House Democrats say, that in a world where Senate Republicans are bear-hugging Trump, and the courts are declining to operate at the speed of the congressional calendar, there are very few options that a single chamber of Congress can pursue short of withholding funds for agencies like the Justice Department — particularly when impeachment is no longer in their election-year arsenal.

“There is nothing that Donald Trump can do that would cause [Senate Republicans] to convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. “So that has caused everybody in the House to take a deep breath and figure out what our next steps are.”

“That leaves us legislative and political answers,” Raskin added.

In other words, the end of the impeachment process has become the advent of a new, narrower focus on what Democrats say is a crucial theme revealed by their efforts: Trump’s indifference to, or even encouragement of, foreign interference in the 2020 election. It’s a throughline, they say, of Trump’s behavior toward Russia, his treatment of Ukraine and his public comments on whether he would reject foreign help in future elections.

Now, rather than revive the smashmouth impeachment approach that they adopted throughout the fall and winter, Democrats say they intend to use their investigative weapons to highlight these election security themes and keep pressure on Republicans who chided Trump for his behavior in Ukraine but ultimately acquitted him for it.

“I would argue that impeachment actually served its purpose. It highlighted for people what we’re dealing with here and what the stakes are,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “I would say it set the table for people to take a good hard look at what I think impeachment helped to remind us of, what a threat that represents, and conveniently for us his behavior subsequently has only made our case for us.”

Democrats are pondering whether to pass new election security measures, putting them in the Senate’s court as the primary gets underway. And they’re planning to drive a consistent election security message as the nation’s focus shifts toward the November election.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced a March 10 intelligence community briefing for lawmakers, and she’s slammed Trump for what she says is politicizing the intelligence community, in part by installing Richard Grenell, a loyalist ambassador, as the acting director of national intelligence. News reports that Russia is already interfering in the upcoming election have returned the issue to the fore.

Separately, Democrats on Friday dusted off their Trump oversight tools and took the first steps to confront the president’s campaign of post-acquittal retribution. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) requested testimony from a slew of high-profile Justice Department officials about political interference in criminal cases — including four career prosecutors who quit the case of longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone earlier this month after the president intervened in his sentencing.

Since the near-party-line Senate acquittal vote, Trump has embarked on a government-wide effort to oust perceived opponents and install loyalists in senior national security roles. Trump also almost daily has assailed the judge and jury in Stone’s case as he seeks a new trial but faces a 40-month jail term for lying to House investigators. And Trump recently insinuated that New York state should drop investigations of him and his administration in order to receive more favorable treatment on national security matters, a comment one of the House’s impeachment prosecutors said proved Trump was “expanding his abuse of power to blackmailing U.S. states.”

Still, the absence of a focus on Ukraine, along with some Democrats’ urging to leave the president’s fate to the voters, is a shift from House Democrats’ forceful argument during the impeachment process that their focus on the issue must continue even in the event of a Senate acquittal. During the Senate trial, Democrats insisted that if Trump were acquitted, the integrity of the 2020 election — and indeed American democracy itself — would be at risk at the hands of a president thirsty for vengeance and believing himself free of accountability.

“For precisely this reason, the president’s misconduct cannot be decided at the ballot box, for we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the House’s top impeachment prosecutor, argued on the Senate floor.

The House Intelligence Committee is declining to discuss the status of its Ukraine probe — or any others that may have begun since the impeachment trial — leaving open to prospect that its Trump-related work is continuing even though it has taken no public steps. That includes any actions to confront a series of loose ends.

“While we won’t specifically comment on any ongoing or new investigations that have not been publicly announced, the committee is continuing to pursue a number of investigations, along with the committee’s important oversight work focused on ensuring that our intelligence community is protecting the nation and our upcoming elections are free and fair,” said Patrick Boland, a spokesman for the Intelligence Committee.

Six Democrats, including two Intelligence Committee members, on Wednesday wrote to the World Bank head David Malpass about a trip he took to Ukraine in late August, while military aid was on hold and Trump’s allies continued to press Ukraine for politically motivated investigations.

But there are other indications that the Ukraine matter has moved off the frontburner.

When one witness to the Ukraine scandal, White House budget chief Russ Vought, came before the House Budget Committee earlier this month, no Democrats asked him about why millions of dollars in aid were withheld from Ukraine, even though he had defied a House Intelligence Committee subpoena to testify in November. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced questions from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday about coronavirus and the administration handling of Iran policy, but no Democrats inquired about Ukraine, despite Pompeo defying demands for documents from House impeachment investigators last year.

In recent days, three of the House’s top lawyers leading the impeachment drive — Judiciary Committee lawyers Barry Berke and Norm Eisen, as well as Intelligence Committee counsel Dan Goldman – have left their posts to return to the private sector. All three helped drive the House’s Ukraine investigation and impeachment strategy and know the intricate details of the case.

Similarly, though Democrats focused the bulk of the Senate trial on convincing Republicans to call former national security adviser John Bolton as a witness, the House has taken no post-trial action to force Bolton’s testimony on their side, even as the ex-Trump aide has spent recent days giving public speeches. During Trump’s impeachment trial, the New York Times reported that Bolton wrote in his unpublished manuscript that the president told him that aid to Ukraine would remain frozen until the country helped with investigations into his political rivals.

One reason, Democrats say, is Bolton has made clear he would resist any such demands for his testimony from the Democrat-led House even though he said he’d testify to the Senate if subpoenaed, likely leading to a lengthy court battle that would extend well past the 2020 election. Bolton is slated to publish his book in March on his tenure in the White House, and Democrats have indicated the notes he took while working at Trump’s side could be valuable new evidence.

And Democrats absorbed a huge body blow to renewing its Mueller-related investigation Friday when a federal appeals court rejected its effort to compel testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, a star witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In the 2-1 ruling, the court rejected the suggestion that Congress can sue to resolve this type of dispute with the Executive Branch, suggesting instead that Congress turn to its other tools: withholding appropriations, blocking nominations, censure, marshaling public opinion — and even impeachment. It’s unclear if the House will appeal that decision.

Another ruling is expected any day on the House’s suit to force the Justice Department to turn over Mueller’s grand jury material to congressional investigators.

In both cases, the House has argued that they need the testimony because they could form the basis of additional articles of impeachment against Trump, including for obstruction of justice. In fact, House lawyers had initially suggested that McGahn could have been made to testify during the Senate impeachment trial to provide evidence of a pattern of efforts by Trump to obstruct probes of his conduct.

Similarly, several House attempts to access Trump’s personal financial records are pending before the Supreme Court. The House filed a brief in that matter Wednesday but is unlikely to see a ruling until June.

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Cabinet slashes budgets to pay for 6 new ministries, including ‘alternate PM’ – The Times of Israel

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The cabinet on Sunday approved widespread fiscal reforms that will cut the budgets of most ministries in order to fund the establishment of six new ministries, including the office of the “alternate prime minister,” in a series of controversial decisions.

A unity coalition deal between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz ended over a year of political deadlock when the most minister-rich government in Israel’s history was sworn in earlier this month. New ministerial positions were created to accommodate the cabinet’s 33 ministers, who number over a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.

The price tag for the overhead costs of the new government has been estimated as high as a billion shekels ($285 million) over its three-year span. There have been widespread accusations that the government is overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the new offices created Sunday was the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office, which will be held by Defense Minister Gantz for 18 months and then be transferred to Netanyahu as part of a power-sharing deal designed to allow him to keep the prime ministerial title even after vacating the post. Unlike other ministers, a prime minister can remain in his post even after he is indicted on criminal charges.

Other offices are Ze’ev Elkin’s Water Resources and Higher Education ministries; Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Ministry of Community Empowerment; David Amsalem’s Cyber Ministry; and Tzipi Hotovely and Tzachi Hanegbi’s Settlements Ministry.

Gantz — who is currently defense minister, in addition to the new post of alternate premier — is set to take over as prime minister in 18 months under the coalition deal, at which point Netanyahu will become alternate prime minister.

As the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office was approved, Netanyahu on Sunday denied reports that the alternate prime minister would also be granted an alternate prime minister’s residence. “It’s not true. It didn’t come up and it won’t,” he said.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz are seen at the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (ALEX KOLOMOISKY/POOL)

In order to create the new posts, ministers approved a government decision that will see a 1.5% cut to the budgets of all government offices, specifically at the upper personnel level. The move will slash 300 posts from the various offices to free up some NIS 100 million ($28.5 million).

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi opposed the budget cuts to foreign service, whereupon the cuts to his ministry were reduced from NIS 11.5 million ($3.2 million) to NIS 4.8 million ($1.3 million), the Walla news site reported.

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, right, with his predecessor, incoming Finance Minister Israel Katz, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Foreign Ministry)

On the 22-item agenda, the cabinet was also voting on filling the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, led by Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, and other ministerial panels; appointing directors general of the defense and economy ministries; and giving the green light to new Finance Minister Israel Katz’s program to encourage employment amid the pandemic.

In a Saturday night address, Katz presented his new Finance Ministry plan aimed at encouraging employers to take back employees placed on unpaid leave during the height of the pandemic in March. For every employee called back, places of business will receive a grant of NIS 7,500 ($2,141) starting on June 1, according to the plan. An additional grant of some NIS 3,500 ($1,000) will be handed out to employers for employees called back in May. Katz said some NIS 500 million ($142 million) have been allocated for businesses that would put employees back to work.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz opposed the treasury proposal during the meeting, arguing that it rewards employers who dropped their workers while harming those who kept their employees on the payroll even at a loss, according to the Globes business daily.

Katz retorted: “There is an alternate prime minister. There is no alternate finance minister. I am the finance minister and I will lead the implementation of the government decisions, which I proposed, and which were accepted by an overwhelming majority,” the Ynet news site reported.

Incoming Economy Minister Amir Peretz at a changeover ceremony in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sunday’s cabinet meeting also saw Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri receive building and planning powers that were previously under the treasury’s purview, while the Health Ministry was granted additional powers to combat the coronavirus.

The meeting on Sunday was held in the Foreign Ministry’s auditorium as the regular cabinet meeting rooms were not large enough to accommodate all the ministers while maintaining social distancing, according to reports.

Opposition chairman Yair Lapid issued a statement blasting the government after ministers approved funding for the newly formed offices created by the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition deal.

“The government handed half a billion shekels to itself today. Not for the self-employed, not for the unemployed, not for small businesses, but for itself,” said Lapid.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid at the Knesset as the 35th government of Israel is presented on May 17, 2020. (Knesset/Adina Veldman)

“For redundant offices like the Water Resources Ministry, the nonexistent Community Empowerment Ministry and for deputy ministers that no one needs. Detached lawmakers, we’ve had enough of you.”

Separately, last Wednesday,  a bill allowing ministers to give up their positions as Knesset members in order to enable a different member of their party slate to take their spot in parliament passed its preliminary Knesset plenary reading. The so-called Norwegian Law — which still requires three more votes to become law — would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s list to enter parliament in his or her stead.

The opposition has blasted the bill, and the coalition’s rush to pass it, as a way of pushing more people into sweetheart jobs on the taxpayers’ dime.

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Tapper: Some of Trump’s allies think he’s not up to the task – CNN

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In Days of Discord, President Trump Fans the Flames – The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — With a nation on edge, ravaged by disease, hammered by economic collapse, divided over lockdowns and even face masks and now convulsed once again by race, President Trump’s first instinct has been to look for someone to fight.

Over the last week, America reeled from 100,000 pandemic deaths, 40 million people out of work and cities in flames over a brutal police killing of a subdued black man. But Mr. Trump was on the attack against China, the World Health Organization, Big Tech, former President Barack Obama, a cable television host and the mayor of a riot-torn city.

While other presidents seek to cool the situation in tinderbox moments like this, Mr. Trump plays with matches. He roars into any melee he finds, encouraging street uprisings against public health measures advanced by his own government, hurling made-up murder charges against a critic, accusing his predecessor of unspecified crimes, vowing to crack down on a social media company that angered him and then seemingly threatening to meet violence with violence in Minneapolis.

As several cities erupted in street protests after the killing of George Floyd, some of them resulting in clashes with the police, Mr. Trump made no appeal for calm. Instead in a series of tweets and comments to reporters on Saturday, he blamed the unrest on Democrats, called on “Liberal Governors and Mayors” to get “MUCH tougher” on the crowds, threatened to intervene with “the unlimited power of our Military” and even suggested his own supporters mount a counterdemonstration.

The turmoil came right to Mr. Trump’s doorstep for the second night in a row on Saturday as hundreds of people protesting Mr. Floyd’s death and the president’s response surged in streets near the White House. While most were peaceful, chanting “black lives matter” and “no peace, no justice,” some spray painted scatological advice for Mr. Trump, ignited small fires, set off firecrackers and threw bricks, bottles and fruit at Secret Service and United States Park Police officers, who responded with pepper spray.

The police cordoned off several blocks around the Executive Mansion as a phalanx of camouflage-wearing National Guard troops marched across nearby Lafayette Square. A man strode through the streets yelling, “Time for a revolution!” The image of the White House surrounded by police in helmets and riot gear behind plastic shields fueled the sense of a nation torn apart.

Mr. Trump praised the Secret Service for being “very cool” and “very professional” but assailed the Democratic mayor of Washington for not providing city police officers to help on Friday night, which she denied. While governors and mayors have urged restraint, Mr. Trump seemed more intent on taunting the protesters, bragging about the violence that would have met them had they tried to get onto White House grounds.

“Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence,” the president wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”

His suggestion that his own supporters should come to the White House on Saturday foreshadowed the possibility of a clash outside his own doors. “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” he wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for his first campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Asked about the tweet later, he denied encouraging violence by his supporters. “They love African-American people,” he said. “They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.” By evening, however, Mr. Trump’s supporters were not in evidence among the crowds at the White House.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington responded sharply on Saturday morning, saying her police department will protect anyone in Washington, including the president, and by Saturday evening her officers were out in force around the White House.

But she called the president a source of division. “While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism,” she wrote. “There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone …”

After his morning barrage, Mr. Trump tried to recalibrate later in the day, devoting the opening of a speech at the Kennedy Space Center following the SpaceX rocket launch to the unrest in the streets and clearly trying to temper his bellicose tone.

“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” he said. “We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peace. The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists.”

The days of discord have put the president’s leadership style on vivid display. From the start of his ascension to power, Mr. Trump has presented himself as someone who seeks conflict, not conciliation, a fighter, not a peacemaker. That appeals to a substantial portion of the public that sees in him a president willing to take on an entrenched and entitled establishment.

But the confluence of perilous health, economic and now racial crises has tested his approach and left him struggling to find his footing just months before an election in which polls currently show him behind.

“The president seems more out-of-touch and detached from the difficult reality the country is living than ever before,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Mr. Trump. “At a moment when America desperately needs healing, the president is focused on petty personal battles with his perceived adversaries.”

Such a moment would challenge any president, of course. It has been a year of national trauma that started out feeling like another 1998 with impeachment, then another 1918 with a killer pandemic combined with another 1929 given the shattering economic fallout. Now add to that another 1968, a year of deep social unrest.

It is fair to say that 2020 has turned out to be a year that has frayed the fabric of American society with an accumulation of anguish that has whipsawed the country and its people. But in some ways, Mr. Trump has become a totem for the nation’s polarization rather than a mender of it.

“I am daily thinking about why and how a society unravels and what we can do to stop the process,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “The calamity these days is about more than Trump. He is just the malicious con man who lives to exploit our vulnerabilities.”

As the nation has confronted a coronavirus pandemic at the same time as the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, whatever unified resolve that existed at the beginning of the twin crises quickly evaporated into yet another cultural clash. And the president has made everything into just another partisan dispute rather than a source of consensus, from when and how to reopen to whether to wear a mask in public.

Mr. Trump led no national mourning as the death toll from the coronavirus passed 100,000 beyond lowering the flags at the White House, posting a single tweet and offering a passing comment on camera only when asked about it. Rather than seek agreement on the best and safest way to restore daily life, he threatened to “override” governors who prevented places of worship from resuming crowded services.

“Crisis leadership demands much more from the White House than irresponsible threats on social media,” said Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University.

Mr. Trump’s initial response to the rioting in Minneapolis, where a police officer has been charged with murder after kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he cried out that he could not breathe, underscored the president’s most instinctive response to national challenges. Threatening to send in troops, he wrote early Friday morning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Only after a cascade of criticism did he try to walk it back, posting a new tweet 13 hours later, suggesting that all he had meant was that “looting leads to shooting” by people in the street.

“I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,” he said, a reformulation that convinced few if any of his critics.

Even some of Mr. Trump’s usual allies were distressed at the original shooting tweet. Geraldo Rivera, the television and radio host who often spends time with Mr. Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, decried “the recklessness” of that message and called on the president “to self-censor himself.”

“Come on, what is this, sixth grade?” Mr. Rivera said on Fox News. “You don’t put gasoline on the fire. That’s not calming anybody.” He added: “All he does is diminish himself.”

But many of the president’s defenders rejected the idea that he had mishandled the crises, pressing the argument that Democrats and the news media were to blame for the turmoil in the streets, which spread from Minneapolis to New York, Atlanta, Washington, Louisville, Portland and other cities.

“Keep track of cities where hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and serious injuries and death will take place,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has served as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, wrote on Twitter on Friday night. “All Democrat dominated cities with criminal friendly policies. This is the future if you elect Democrats.”

Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Mr. Trump for tax fraud earlier this year, amplified the point on Twitter. “It should be no surprise that every one of these cities that the anarchist have taken over, are the same cities run by leftist Democrats with the highest violence, murder and poverty rates,” he wrote on Twitter. “They can’t handle their cities normally, so how are they going to deal with this?”

Mr. Trump, who this past week retweeted a video of a supporter saying that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (though the supporter insisted he meant that in a political sense), picked up the theme on Saturday.

With crowds visible from his upstairs windows, Mr. Trump reached for his phone and again assailed the “Democrat Mayor” of Minneapolis for not responding more vigorously and called on New York to unleash its police against crowds. “Let New York’s Finest be New York’s Finest,” he wrote. “There is nobody better, but they must be allowed to do their job!”

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