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By Leigh Ann Caldwell and Frank Thorp V

WASHINGTON — A controversial judicial nominee is in danger of being derailed in the U.S. Senate because of objections over his past work defending state laws viewed as discriminatory and senate leadership’s refusal to vote on legislation aimed at protecting special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Thomas Farr, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina, has come under fire because of his work on cases that Democrats say have disenfranchised African Americans from voting. That issue has at least one GOP senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, undecided on whether to support Farr’s confirmation.

When asked on Monday if he would support Farr, Scott said,”that’s a good question.”

Another Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is blocking all judicial nominees, including Farr’s, until GOP leaders agree to hold a vote on a bill to put up guardrails against any threat of Trump firing Mueller.

“I was uncomfortably moving ahead (with Farr’s nomination) in October because people raising some other issues, so it was delayed until this month,” Flake said, telling reporters he would vote no “if we haven’t voted on the special counsel bill.”

Senate Democrats are united in opposition and if two Republicans join them to vote against Farr, his nomination would be defeated.

Thomas Farr is an employment lawyer at Ogletree and Deakins in Raleigh, where he has been the lead counsel defending clients against racial discrimination and workplace violation complaints.

Democrats say that he was instrumental in keeping minorities from voting, including working to defend North Carolina’s restrictive voter identification law. They also point to his legal work on the campaign of former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who was investigated for intimidating black voters in 1990.

“Mr. Farr was chief cook and bottle washer for the state that probably did more to prevent people, particularly African Americans, from voting than any other state,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said. “This is despicable. Absolutely despicable.”

Sen. Scott has helped defeat a Trump judicial nominee in the past for racially insensitive writings, raising objections about Ryan Bounds, a nominee for the ninth circuit. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sided with Scott and came out in opposition to Bounds, resulting in the nomination being pulled just moments before the final vote was set to take place.

Rubio’s spokeswoman, Olivia Perez-Cubas, said the senator would support Farr in this vote. “The Senator sees no reason not to support his nomination, so he’ll be a yes,” she said.

The NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus oppose the nomination and held a protest outside a Senate hearing room last January when the committee advanced his nomination on a party-line vote.

Two African American gubernatorial candidates, Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida, released a joint statement of opposition to Farr on Tuesday. “When it comes to the trifecta of voter disenfranchisement — voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, and restriction of voting rights — Thomas Farr is, sadly, one of the most experienced election lawyers in the country,” they wrote.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he will support Farr’s nomination after reviewing his work “a lot.”

“This is an attorney doing his job working for different clients,” Lankford said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate who sometimes bucks her party, said she’d support him, too, citing his rating of “well qualified” with the American Bar Association.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed.



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You may be disappointed by the Mueller report

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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans are waiting for Robert Mueller to give them the final word on whether the Trump campaign conspired with the 2016 Russian election interference effort — and whether their president is under the influence of a foreign adversary.

Millions of Americans may be sorely disappointed.

Unless Mueller files a detailed indictment charging members of the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russia, the public may never learn the full scope of what Mueller and his team has found — including potentially scandalous behavior that doesn’t amount to a provable crime.

The reason: The special counsel operates under rules that severely constrain how much information can be made public.

Those rules require that the special counsel’s report to the attorney general be “confidential.” And, while the attorney general is required to notify Congress about Mueller’s findings, the rules say those reports must amount to “brief notifications, with an outline of the actions and the reasons for them.”

“Expectations that we will see a comprehensive report from the special counsel are high. But the written regulations that govern the special counsel’s reporting requirements should arguably dampen those expectations,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor and NBC News analyst.

When Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr released the report of his investigation of President Bill Clinton in 1998, all of Washington paused to digest the 453-page document (plus 2,000 pages of appendixes), with its salacious details of the president’s sexual dalliance with an intern. It was made public at the same time it was sent to Congress.

The Mueller report won’t be anything like that. Starr operated under the now-defunct independent counsel law, meaning he called many of his own shots, outside the purview of the Justice Department. Mueller is a special counsel under Justice Department supervision, subject to very specific regulations.

Here is the sum total of what the rules say about a final report:

“At the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel.”

What’s more, a 1999 document outlining that rule in the federal register criticizes the way in which independent counsel reports like Starr’s were made public, saying that a public prosecutors report “provides an incentive to over-investigate, in order to avoid potential public criticism for not having turned over every stone, and creates potential harm to individual privacy interests.”

Memos explaining decisions not to prosecute can be long or short, and there is nothing in the rules to prevent Mueller from writing a 500-page narrative laying out the behavior of the Trump team with regard to Russia in excruciating detail.

However, that report will go to the attorney general, and under the regulations, it is secret.

The attorney general is required to send a report to Congress. But here is what the rule says about that:

“To help ensure congressional and public confidence in the integrity of the process, the regulations impose on the Attorney General these reporting requirements to the Judiciary Committees of the Congress. These reports will occur on three occasions: on the appointment of a Special Counsel, on the Attorney General’s decision to remove a Special Counsel, and on the completion of the Special Counsel’s work.

“These reports will be brief notifications, with an outline of the actions and the reasons for them.”

There is a wildcard — if the Mueller report contains allegations of potentially impeachable offenses against the president, scholars have said the Justice Department would have to pass the full details of that to Congress.

But short of that, it’s not clear Congress will get access to the evidence Mueller has gathered.



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Despite pressure from Trump, 2 coal-fueled power plants to shutter in Kentucky, Tennessee

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By Phil McCausland

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced Thursday that it would close two coal plants, including one that buys its fuel from one of Donald Trump’s campaign contributors, despite public pressure from the president to keep it open.

In a 5-2 vote, the public utility’s board of directors chose to shutter Kentucky’s Paradise Fossil plant in 2020 and Tennessee’s Bull Run plant in 2023. The Kentucky plant buys much of its fuel from Murray Energy, which is owned by Robert Murray, a generous supporter of Trump. The two dissenting votes came from Trump administration appointees.

The board met Thursday to discuss the potential shuttering of the plants that are 50 years old after a series of TVA assessments deemed them to be obsolescent and wasteful of energy. The independent federal agency said earlier in the week that the facilities produced a steady, inflexible amount of power and could not bend to “the increased volatility in energy consumption” of its customer base.

“Making decisions that impact employees and communities is difficult as we fulfill our commitment to keep power rates as low as possible,” TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson said. “We value the contributions of the employees of Paradise and Bull Run, and we will be working directly with them and local communities to ease the transition as much as possible.”

The decision came even though Republican politicians, including Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky, urged the TVA to keep the plants open.

The president entered the fray over the potential closure Monday, stating on Twitter that the TVA needed to “give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky.”

Data compiled by the Energy Information Administration shows that the Paradise Fossil plant, outside Drakesboro, Kentucky, has trucked in millions of tons of coal since at least 2013 from the nearby Paradise #9 Mine, which is owned and operated by Murray Energy.

Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., speaks during an interview in his office at the Crandall Canyon Mine, in Huntington, Utah on Aug. 22, 2007.Jae C. Hong / AP file

Murray is a prolific donor to Republican causes through the Murray Energy Corporation Political Action Committee. The group donated almost $350,000 in the 2016 election, including $100,000 to the Trump Victory Super PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Murray Energy said in an email earlier this week that its chairman “did not have any contact with President Trump or anyone in his administration on this issue.”

In a statement Thursday, Murray said that his company is “extremely disappointed in the TVA board decision.”

“We have 690 employees in the vicinity of the plant,” he said. “Further, every coal mining job, according to university studies, results in up to 11 additional jobs in our communities. This is up to 7,500 jobs in West Kentucky that could be affected.”

Neither he nor the company immediately clarified whether those employees faced losing their jobs because of the decision.

The White House declined to comment Thursday.

In an environmental assessment draft in November, the TVA estimated that there would be a direct loss of 231 jobs between the two plants, which they could reassign, but that would not account for employment at the coal mines that provide it the fuel.

After its vote, the TVA said it was committed to working with the affected employees and communities.

“Obviously every facility, every community is unique in its needs,” Jim Hopson, TVA’s public information officer, said. “We will be spending the next several weeks and months working with the affected employees as well as community leaders to learn how best to mitigate the effects of this decision.”

Hopson said that some employees may elect to retire, others could be moved to other facilities — which would likely require them to leave their communities — and still others may be offered “incentives” to pursue other opportunities.

As for the affected communities, he said that the TVA would try to redevelop the two properties into other viable revenue streams. He noted that the agency had previously found success by attracting Google to refurbish a TVA-retired coal facility in North Alabama into a data center.

About 39 percent of coal-mining jobs have disappeared over the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting for tens of thousands of lost jobs in largely rural communities.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., told NBC News prior to the decision that the TVA should maintain a “diverse portfolio.”

The congressman, who represents the district in Kentucky that would be affected by the plant’s closure, noted that coal once made up half of the utility’s resources. It is now less than a quarter.

“If you look at the future, no one knows what the future holds. Now natural gas is cheap, but no one knows what the price of natural gas is in the future,” Comer said. “I fear completely abandoning coal when coal is still going to be a reliable, affordable, clean source of energy in the future.”



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Rights groups sue Trump admin for making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico

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By Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — Several immigrant rights groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday challenging the Trump administration policy that requires asylum-seekers, mainly from Central America, to wait in Mexico — sometimes for months or even years — for U.S. immigration judges to hear their cases.

The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, said the policy is “in violation of the humanitarian protections to which [asylum-seekers] are entitled under United States and international law.”

Under the direction of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Customs and Border Protection officers began turning back asylum-seekers at the border between Tijuana and San Diego late last month. They began by denying entry to single men and recently started including families with children.

The plaintiffs point out that the areas where asylum-seekers are forced to wait in Mexico are experiencing record levels of violence. In Tijuana in December two Central American boys who were part of a migrant caravan were lured out of a shelter and murdered.

The judge could temporarily block the policy, teeing up yet another fight between the Trump administration and immigration advocates. The plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have previously used lawsuits to block Trump administration immigration policies, including the travel ban, family separation policy and a recent policy that denied asylum to immigrants who crossed the border illegally.

The Trump administration has said they are within legal bounds to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico under a provision of immigration law that says immigrants can be returned to the country from which they last set foot. Challengers, however, say that law should not apply to asylum-seekers.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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