CAFE Brief 10/11: Tillerson’s story, “Garbage” arguments, and new Supreme Court term

CAFE Brief 10/11: Tillerson’s story, “Garbage” arguments, and new Supreme Court term


The news is breaking at dizzying speed, and we’re on top of it. Let’s dive in!

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 10: Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Attorneys office of Southern District of New York on October 10, 2019 in New York City. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of President Trumps personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have arrested on campaign finance charges. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Giuliani associates arrested

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, Soviet-born businessmen based in Florida, were arrested Wednesday at the Washington Dulles International Airport in connection with an alleged scheme to circumvent federal campaign finance laws. The indictment, brought by SDNY prosecutors, stated that the defendants’ “contributions were made for the purpose of gaining influence with politicians so as to advance their own personal financial interests and the political interests of Ukrainian government officials, including at least one Ukrainian government official with whom they were working.”

Announcing the arrests at a press conference on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said: “Protecting the integrity of our elections and protecting our elections from unlawful foreign influence are core functions of our campaign finance laws.” The indictment also lists two other defendants—Andrey Kukushkin and David Correia—who were involved in the donation cover-up scheme. The SDNY press release states that Kukushkin was arrested in California on Wednesday, but Correia remains at large.

According to prosecutors, Parnas and Fruman, both naturalized U.S. citizens who had almost no history of making political donations prior to March 2018, started making significant donations last year to Republican campaigns including Trump’s re-election bid and other pro-Trump groups. The indictment alleges that the two funneled up to $2 million from a Russian donor into the U.S. political system between June 2018 and April of this year.

On Thursday, the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry issued a subpoena demanding documents from Parnas and Fruman, who according to press reports, assisted Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden.

Trump asked Rex Tillerson to scrap a criminal investigation

On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that during a 2017 meeting in the Oval Office, President Trump urged then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to persuade the Justice Department to drop the criminal investigation into Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was being prosecuted for skirting U.S. sanctions against Iran. Zarrab, who has ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was represented by Rudy Giuliani and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

Tillerson reportedly rebuffed Trump, “arguing it would constitute interference in an ongoing investigation,” and “immediately repeated his objections to then-Chief of Staff John Kelly.” In December 2018, Tillerson told Bob Schieffer of CBS News that Trump would frequently ask him to do things that were illegal: “I had to say to him, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law…he got really frustrated when we’d have those conversations.”

Asked whether he ever raised Zarrab’s case with Trump, Giuliani told Bloomberg, “Suppose I did talk to Trump about it — so what? I was a private lawyer at the time…I was trying to do a prisoner swap,” referring to his effort to arrange a swap of Zarrab for American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was jailed in Turkey and released in 2018.

This isn’t the first news report about attempted interference in the Zarrab case. In a private meeting with then-Vice President Joe Biden in September 2016, Erdogan unsuccessfully demanded Zarrab’s release and the firing of then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. He resumed his efforts once Trump took office in 2017. Later that year, Zarrab pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 11: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) looks at President Donald Trump during a ceremony to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon September 11, 2017 in Washington, D.C. U.S. President Donald Trump was presiding over his first 9/11 commemoration on the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people when hijackers flew commercial airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Impeachment Update

On Tuesday, White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to the House Democratic leadership criticizing their impeachment inquiry as violating “fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process.” Cipollone describes the impeachment inquiry as an “attempt to overturn the 2016 presidential election results and to influence the upcoming 2020 campaign.” His main argument is that the Democrats’ inquiry is illegitimate because there hasn’t been a full House vote on impeachment.

Although the House did vote on an impeachment inquiry for Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon—which Cipollone argues is the “precedent” Speaker Nancy Pelosi is breaking—there is no rule that requires it. In an interview for Stay Tuned with Preet, George Conway, a conservative attorney, described Cippollone’s letter as “a disgrace to the country, a disgrace to the presidency, and a disgrace to the legal profession.” Calling the letter “garbage,” Conway said the White House’s demand for a full House vote is “complete nonsense” because “all the Constitution says is that the House has the sole power over impeachment” and “the House gets to decide how to go about doing that.”

Given the White House’s refusal to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, it remains to be seen whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Pentagon, and the Office of Management and Budget will comply with their subpoenas. Meanwhile, just hours after Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, failed to show for a scheduled deposition on Tuesday, the Intelligence Committee, in consultation with the Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees, issued him a subpoena to produce documents by October 14. Similarly, the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday to turn over documents by October 18. House Democrats have also sent a letter to Trump’s former advisor Fiona Hill, asking her to appear for a deposition on Monday. The ousted former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch is expected to appear for a deposition today.

The Supreme Court, back in session

The Supreme Court’s new term began this week, as it does, by statute, on the first Monday in October, usually continuing until late June or early July. As the Court settles into its new conservative majority, a number of blockbuster decisions on divisive issues could be issued leading up to the 2020 election. The upcoming term will almost certainly cover some of the most controversial issues in America: abortion, guns, LGBT rights, the separation of church and state, immigration, and presidential power. Here are a few key cases to watch in the coming months:

Sex discrimination: Altitude Express v. ZardaBostock v. Clayton CountyGeorgia; and R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In most of the country, job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is lawful. The justices will decide whether the federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, offers nationwide protection. In Altitude Express v. Zarda, at issue is whether federal laws banning employment discrimination apply to gay and lesbian employees. The Altitude Express case was consolidated for oral arguments on October 8 with the second case involving the rights of gay and lesbian employees: Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. In the third case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, the justices will consider whether Title VII’s protections apply to transgender employees.

Abortion: June Medical Services LLC v. Gee 

The court will hear June Medical Services LLC v. Gee, which challenges a Louisiana law that its opponents say would leave the state with only one doctor in a single clinic authorized to provide abortions. While the Louisiana law requires that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at local hospitals, the trial court found that doctors who tried to secure these privileges were routinely denied them, despite their “good-faith efforts” to navigate the complicated processes required by Louisiana hospitals. On appeal, however, the Fifth Circuit Court disputed the trial court’s claim, finding that the doctors “sat on their hands” and did not try to secure admitting privileges. Ultimately, this case will turn on whether the justices are committed to maintaining doctrinal consistency and the decades-old precedent in Roe v. Wade.

Immigration: Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of CaliforniaTrump v. NAACP; and McAleenan v. Vidal.

At stake this term is the fate of the nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the U.S. as children. The justices will consider three consolidated cases—filed in California, the District of Columbia, and New York. The challengers in all three cases argued that the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program violated the Administrative Procedure Act—which is the federal law governing administrative agencies—as well as the rights of DACA recipients.

Further reading

“White House official told whistleblower Trump Ukraine call was ‘frightening’,” ABC News, 10/8/2019

“CIA’s top lawyer made ‘criminal referral’ on complaint about Trump Ukraine call,” NBC News, 10/4/2019

“Judge orders White House to preserve records of Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders,” Politico, 10/5/2019

“Trump told Perry and State Department officials as early as May to talk to Giuliani about Ukraine,” CNN, 10/9/2019

“Profit, not politics: Trump allies sought Ukraine gas deal,” The Associated Press, 10/7/2019

“Impeachment probe goes beyond Ukraine to lying and obstruction of justice, House lawyer says,” CNN, 10/8/2019

“Justice Department asks judge to block House from getting Mueller grand jury materials, says Watergate decision was wrong,” CNBC, 10/8/2019

“Federal judge rules Trump must turn over his tax returns to Manhattan DA, but Trump has appealed,” The Washington Post, 10/7/2019

“Treasury inspector general to review handling of Trump’s tax returns,” The Washington Post, 10/4/2019

“Michael Cohen Takes Starring Role in DA’s Pursuit of Trump’s Business,” Bloomberg, 10/8/2019

“Engel Denounces Trump Administration Potential Plans to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Press Release, 10/7/2019

“Senate Intel report warns Russia’s 2016 playbook offers roadmap for 2020 election meddling,” CBS News, 10/9/2019 (Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election)

Stay Informed,

Adrienne Cobb & the CAFE team: Tamara Sepper, Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, David Kurlander, and Aaron Dalton

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