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August 2, 2019

CAFE Brief 08/02: Democratic Debate Roundup, DNI Nomination, and the Southern Wall

No sign of the news cycle slowing down, and we’re on top of it. Democratic presidential hopefuls sparred on stage during the second set of debates of the 2020 election, clashing over some of the nation’s most divisive issues, with criminal justice reform the focus of attention during the second night. Let’s dive in!


Democratic presidential hopefuls participate in the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019.

Democratic debate roundup

Twenty presidential candidates took the stage in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings for the second presidential debate hosted by CNN. The first night of the debates focused largely on health care and immigration, with an emphasis on border security. Former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke said that he was not in favor of decriminalizing illegal border entry, but instead supports ending the prosecution of families and children seeking asylum, eliminating for-profit detention in the U.S., and assisting the home countries of asylum-seekers from Central America so that “no family ever has to make that 2,000-mile journey.” Governor Steve Bullock of Montana and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio agreed that decriminalizing border crossings was the wrong approach to addressing the immigration crisis. In contrast, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren argued that the criminalization of improper border crossing “has given Donald Trump the tool to break families apart.” Warren has already called for the contentious statute—Title 8, Section 1325 of the U.S. Code—to be repealed. 

On the second night, criminal justice reform took center stage as candidates challenged each other’s policy records. The night kicked off with protesters briefly interrupting opening statements made by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey with “Fire Pantaleo” chants, a reference to Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer involved in Eric Garner’s chokehold death, which galvanized the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. The debate was temporarily halted as the Detroit police removed five hecklers

Several candidates criticized de Blasio for not yet firing Pantaleo from the police force, including former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro who said, “[Pantaleo] was killing Eric Garner. And yet he was not brought to justice. That police officer should be off the street.” De Blasio expressed sympathy for the Garner family, but claimed his hands were tied by the federal investigation, which dragged on for five years amid internal disputes at the Justice Department, under both President Obama and President Trump. Attorney General Bill Barr Barr made the call last month not to seek a civil rights indictment against Officer Pantaleo, siding with prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York over the recommendation of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Omitted from the debate was the fact that while Mayor de Blasio certainly has influence over the Police Department, the decision of whether or not to fire Officer Pantaleo or punish him in some other way falls to NYC Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill who has yet to announce his final determination.

Former Vice President Joe Biden came under fire for his role shepherding “tough-on-crime” policies such as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—or the “1994 Crime Bill”—a law that many identify as one of the major contributors to the swelling of the U.S. prison population. Although Biden is attempting to reshape his “tough-on-crime” image by releasing a new criminal justice reform plan that would abolish the federal death penalty, decriminalize marijuana, and stop jailing people charged with only drug use, Booker criticized Biden for trying to “shift the view” on what he had authored in 1994: “There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.” Castro agreed that Biden has “flip-flopped on these things,” calling for sentencing and cash bail reform, as well as investment in public defenders and diversion programs. 

Senator Kamala Harris of California criticized Biden’s shifting stance on the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion except in the case of rape, incest or if a mother’s life is at risk. Biden only reversed his long-held support for the Hyde amendment in the wake of immense backlash and only after he announced his candidacy. Biden responded by accusing Harris of mischaracterizing his stance on the issue, emphasizing that he supports a woman’s right to choose. He explained that the Hyde Amendment was “available” in the past because “there was other access for” abortion services “provided privately,” and highlighted his role in crafting legislation to provide federal funding for abortion services, likely referring to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. 

Asked about the prospect of charging President Trump with a crime after he leaves office, Harris, Booker, and Castro agreed that their Justice Department would look into any potential crimes committed by Trump, but the three made it clear that a president should not direct an attorney general specifically to prosecute or not to prosecute. Booker—along with Castro and de Blasio—took the opportunity to call for impeachment proceedings, stating that Trump is “acting like an authoritarian against the actual Constitution that he swore an oath to uphold.” In contrast, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado warned against impeachment, fearing that an acquittal in the Senate would “play into” Trump’s hands, potentially harming the Democratic nominee’s chances of winning the general election.

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 24, 2019: Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) questions former Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.


  • President Trump tweeted on Sunday that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats will be leaving office on August 15, and that he was nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) to replace him. Trump’s nomination has been widely criticized because Rep. Ratcliffe lacks the qualifications of previous Directors of National Intelligence, and reportedly misrepresented his experience as a federal prosecutor. As The Washington Post points out, Rep. Ratcliffe—one of the GOP’s leading crictics of perceived anti-Trump bias at the FBI—was likely picked by Trump because of his staunch defense of the President during former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony last Wednesday. 


  • On Monday, the House Oversight Committee released a second interim staff report on its investigation into efforts to transfer U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Documents show that Thomas J. Barrack, Jr.—Trump’s longtime personal friend, campaign donor, and inaugural chairman— directly negotiated with the President and other White House officials to seek powerful positions within the administration that he ultimately did not attain—including the roles of Special Envoy to the Middle East and Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.


  • Last week, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling overturning a lower court order blocking Trump’s plan to use $2.5 billion in unspent military funds for border wall projects in California, Arizona and New Mexico. The majority’s decision suggests that they believed that the groups who obtained the injunction, the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition, lacked a valid legal mechanism to enforce the budget rider Trump officials were allegedly violating. Trump’s victory may be temporary, however, as others who are challenging the same policy, including 20 states and the House of Representatives, may have stronger claims. 


  • U.S. District Court Judge John Koeltl dismissed a racketeering lawsuit filed by the Democratic National Committee against the Trump campaign, Russian government, Wikileaks, and a number of individuals including Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. for their alleged involvement in the hacking of Democratic party email accounts in 2016. Judge Koeltl wrote that although Russia was the “primary wrongdoer” for hacking into Democratic computers and funneling the documents to WikiLeaks, it generally cannot be sued in U.S. courts due to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Judge Koeltl also held that the Trump team was not liable for the theft of the emails just because it encouraged WikiLeaks to publish the messages, and that WikiLeaks could not be sued as a recipient of the hacked information because what it released was of genuine public interest. 


  • The House Judiciary Committee filed a petition in federal district court last week to seek the release of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury material in order to determine whether they will ultimately recommend articles of impeachment against Trump. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee agreed to a two-month schedule of court filings with the Justice Department, which would likely result in an October ruling. 


  • President Trump made the unusual decision of ordering top Navy officials to rescind the Navy Achievement Medals given to the military prosecutors involved in the case against Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher. Gallagher was found not guilty last month of first-degree murder in the death of an ISIS captive, and was also acquitted of accusations that he had fired at unarmed civilians in Iraq who posed no threat. 


Further Reading

“FBI memo warns QAnon poses potential terror threat: report,” The Hill, 8/1/2019

“Chinese billionaire faces charges in $1.8-billion scheme to smuggle aluminum through L.A.,” LA Times, 7/31/2019

“Why my committee needs the president’s tax returns,” The Washington Post, 7/31/2019d

“Far-Right Proud Boys Go on Trial, but Anti-Fascists Are Boycotting,” The New York Times, 7/30/2019

“Manhattan D.A. Subpoenas Trump Organization Over Stormy Daniels Hush Money,” The New York Times, 8/1/2019

“Judge blocks New York from turning over Trump’s tax information to Democrats,” CNN, 8/1/2019

“Majority of House Democrats now support impeachment inquiry,” Politico, 8/1/2019

“California Requires Trump Tax Returns Under New Election Law,” The New York Times, 7/30/2019

 “More Than 900 Migrant Children Have Been Separated From Their Families Over Past Year,” The New York Times, 7/30/2019

“Barr reverses ruling on asylum for those with persecuted family members,” The Hill, 7/29/2019

“Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Russian Active Measures: Part One,” Lawfare, 7/25/2019

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