CAFE Brief 10/4: A White House Under Fire

CAFE Brief 10/4: A White House Under Fire


Inundated by the torrent of breaking news? Stay informed with the CAFE Insider podcast, where rule of law icons, Preet Bharara and Anne Milgram, break down the latest developments in the scandals consuming the White House.

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

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House in Washington, DC, for Florida on October 3, 2019. – Trump said Thursday he would “certainly” think about approaching Chinese leader Xi Jinping to investigate the US president’s domestic political rival Joe Biden. Trump told reporters at the White House Ukraine should probe the frontrunning Democratic presidential hopeful and his son, Hunter Biden — and that China should follow suit. “Certainly — something we can start thinking about,” the president said of asking China to get involved. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump ordered removal of US Amb. to Ukraine 

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that in Spring 2019, Trump ordered that U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch be removed from her post after allies outside the administration, including the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, complained for months that she was undermining him abroad and obstructing efforts to have Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The Journal reports that State Department officials were told that Yovanovitch’s removal—now a subject of the impeachment inquiry—was a priority for Trump, and that the move had the backing of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Trump urges China to investigate the Bidens

Speaking to reporters outside the White House, Trump publicly called on China to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden “because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.” His remarks followed his discussions with China about upcoming trade talks. Trump claims that Hunter Biden inappropriately got China to invest $1.5 billion into his fund in December 2013, shortly after he went to Beijing with his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden. In a statement, the Biden campaign said that the President was “desperately clutching for conspiracy theories that have been debunked and dismissed by independent, credible news organizations.”

CNN reported on Thursday evening that Trump raised Joe Biden’s political prospects, as well as those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), during a call with China’s President Xi Jinping on June 18. The White House reportedly stored a record of that call in the same highly secured electronic system used to safeguard the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Pompeo’s stonewalling

Last Friday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—after consulting with the House Intelligence and House Oversight committees—subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and scheduled depositions of five current and former State Department officials. The subpoena was issued following reports that the State Department was involved in Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens. In an October 1 letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, Pompeo said that he would resist the committees’ efforts, accusing House Democrats of attempting to “intimidate, bully, and treat improperly” State Department officials. The chairmen of the three House committees issued a joint statement on Tuesday in which they characterized Pompeo’s actions as “evidence of obstruction,” calling on him to “immediately cease intimidating [State] Department witnesses in order to protect himself and the President.”

Kurt Volker, former special envoy for Ukraine, testifies

Kurt Volker, who recently resigned as the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, was deposed on Thursday in a special spy-proof room used by the House Intelligence Committee, which jointly oversaw the testimony with the House Oversight and House Foreign Affairs committees. According to The Washington Post, Volker testified that he had warned Giuliani that the Ukrainian sources who provided information about alleged wrongdoing by Joe and Hunter Biden lacked credibility. The New York Times reported that Volker has told “friends and colleagues that he believed that the Trump administration was withholding the aid to Ukraine because of generalized concerns about corruption, rather than to force a specific investigation of the Biden family.” Volker is the first of five current or former State Department officials to be questioned.

In late breaking news on Thursday, the Times reported that Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, drafted a statement for President Zelensky of Ukraine in August “that would have committed Ukraine to pursuing investigations sought by Mr. Trump into his political rivals,” specifically Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

Steve Linick, State Dept. IG, testifies

On Wednesday, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick briefed senior congressional staff members behind closed doors about a matter pertaining to Ukraine that Linick billed as “urgent,” but turned out to be “a package of propaganda,” according to one lawmaker. Linick provided lawmakers a roughly 40-page packet, which originated with Giuliani and contained unsubstantiated claims about the Bidens and other Ukraine-related conspiracy theories. It was enclosed in multiple folders from Trump hotels and reportedly arrived at the State Department in an envelope indicating it was from the White House. In response to Linick’s briefing, the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight committees issued a joint statement saying that the documents “reinforce concern that the President and his allies sought to use the machinery of the State Department to further the President’s personal political interests.”

Impeachment document requests

On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee—after consulting with the House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight committees—issued a subpoena to Rudy Giluani setting a deadline of October 15 to provide documents relating to the impeachment inquiry. An accompanying letter cites a September 19 CNN interview with Chris Cuomo in which Giuliani contradicted himself when he first denied that he ever asked the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, only to say “of course I did” moments later.

On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) sent letters to Vice President Mike Pence and Energy Secretary Rick Perry questioning why Pence canceled his trip to Ukraine for President Zelensky’s inauguration and why Perry went in his place. Perry, who has met with Zelensky at least three times while in office, has publicly pledged to work with congressional investigators on the matter and “answer all their questions.” Meanwhile, Pence said on Thursday that he supported Trump’s calls for Ukraine to conduct an investigation into Joe Biden.

On Wednesday, Chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent a memorandum to his panel notifying members of his intent to issue a subpoena to the White House today. Of the impending subpoena, Cummings wrote: “The White House’s flagrant disregard of multiple voluntary requests for documents…left us with no choice but to issue this subpoena.”

TOPSHOT – A metal fence marked with the US Border Patrol sign prevents people to get close to the barbed/concertina wire covering the US/Mexico border fence, in Nogales, Arizona, on February 9, 2019. (Photo by Ariana Drehsler / AFP) (Photo credit should read ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP/Getty Images)

Barr seeks foreign help

According to The Washington Post, Attorney General Bill Barr has held private meetings with foreign leaders to seek assistance with an investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe, which is being conducted by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Barr met with UK intelligence agencies in July, and last week he and Durham met with Italian intelligence officials at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. In response to the reports, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said: “Mr. Durham is gathering information from numerous sources, including a number of foreign countries. At Attorney General Barr’s request, the President has contacted other countries to ask them to introduce the Attorney General and Mr. Durham to appropriate officials.”

Meanwhile, at Barr’s request, Trump reportedly pushed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a recent telephone call to help Barr discredit the Mueller investigation. According to The Times of London, Trump also called UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this year to make a similar request.

The whistleblower consulted Schiff’s staffer

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Ukraine call whistleblower approached a House Intelligence Committee staffer seeking guidance days before filing his complaint with the Intelligence Community Inspector General. The aide relayed some of the information the whistleblower shared with Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, but did not disclose the whistleblower’s identity. Schiff’s spokesman confirmed to the Times that the Committee did not see the complaint before it was filed. The spokesman said: “Like other whistle-blowers have done before and since under Republican and Democratic-controlled committees, the whistle-blower contacted the committee for guidance on how to report possible wrongdoing within the jurisdiction of the intelligence community.” However, in a September 17 interview with MSNBC, Schiff stated that his Office had not “spoken directly” with the whistleblower.

At a news conference alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Wednesday, Trump suggested that Schiff “probably helped write” the complaint. Meanwhile, Mark Zaid, an attorney for the whistleblower, told ABC News that “[t]he Whistleblower drafted the Complaint entirely on their own” and “no Member or congressional staff had any input into or reviewed the Complaint before it was submitted to the Intelligence Community Inspector General.”

IRS whistleblower

An IRS whistleblower alleges he was told that at least one Treasury Department political appointee tried to interfere with the annual audit of either President Trump’s or Vice President Pence’s tax returns, The Washington Post reported on Thursday, citing “multiple people familiar with the” complaint, the existence of which was revealed several months ago in a court filing. The whistleblower confirmed to the Post that he filed a formal complaint, and shared it with appropriate congressional committee chairs. House and Ways Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) said the complaint raises “serious and urgent concerns.” Congressional Democrats are reportedly debating whether to make the complaint public.

Fortifying the border wall, at any cost

On Wednesday, The New York Times printed an excerpt from “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration,” a book written by Times journalists Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear, which chronicles the President’s efforts to drastically curb illegal immigration. According to the book, Trump suggested shooting migrants in the legs to slow them down once they cross the southern border. The authors also allege that Trump privately “talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators,” wanting the wall electrified with “spikes on top that could pierce human flesh.” Trump reacted to the Times article in a typical fashion, tweeting: “I may be tough on Border Security, but not that tough. The press has gone Crazy. Fake News!”

Shielding science from politics 

On Thursday, the Brennan Center’s National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, a nonpartisan group of former government officials and policy experts co-chaired by Preet Bharara and former NJ Governor Christine Todd Whitman, released a report on protecting the integrity of government science and research. The report proposes legislative reforms to ensure that scientific research and the appointments process used to fill senior administration positions can be carried out without excessive politicalization.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Bharara and Whitman explain how recent presidential administrations have distorted and hindered the work of scientists. They believe that it is the role of Congress to shield government scientists and prevent any political party from having a “monopoly on science.” Bharara told The New York Times: “There’s truth and there’s science, and that shouldn’t be swayed by whether someone is a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican.”

Further reading

“State Dept. intensifies email probe of Hillary Clinton’s former aides,” The Washington Post, 9/28/2019

“Justice Department tells White House to preserve notes of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders,” CNN, 10/2/2019

“Trump told Russian officials in 2017 he wasn’t concerned about Moscow’s interference in U.S. election,” The Washington Post, 9/27/2019

“Trump v. the Whistleblower,” MSNBC, 10/2/2019

“More than 300 former officials call Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine ‘profound national security concern’,” The Washington Post, 9/27/2019

“John Dean: When I was a whistleblower, the Justice Department protected me,” CNN, 10/2019

“Trump may have lied to Mueller, House Democrats say,” Politico, 9/30/2019 (Application for release of Grand Jury Materials)

“Impeachment Rules Say Senate Must Act, but Its Act Might Be a Swift Dismissal,” The New York Times, 10/1/2019

“Federal Judge Upholds Harvard’s Race-Conscious Admissions Process,” NPR, 10/1/2019 (Judge Allison D. Burroughs’ ruling)

“Federal judge blocks California law requiring Trump to release tax returns to appear on ballot,” CNN, 10/2/2019 (Judge Morrison C. England’s ruling)

“Judge blocks Trump plan to expand fast-track deportations,” Politico, 9/29/2019 (Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ruling)

“Former GOP Rep. Chris Collins pleads guilty to insider trading charges,” NBC News, 10/1/2019

“Amber Guyger, Ex-Officer Who Killed Man In His Apartment, Given 10 Years In Prison,” NPR, 10/2/2019

Stay Informed,

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

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