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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court appeared unlikely Thursday to change its long-standing rule that putting someone on trial more than once for the same crime does not violate the Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy.

That outcome — keeping existing rules in place — would potentially be a blow to Paul Manafort, who faces prison time for violating federal fraud laws. A presidential pardon could keep him out of federal prison, but it would not free him from being prosecuted on similar state charges — unless the Supreme Court changes the rule. But that seemed did not seem possible after Thursday’s oral argument before the justices.

Neither Manafort’s case nor the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller came up in the courtroom argument.

The Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall be “twice put in jeopardy of life or limb” for the same offense. But for nearly two centuries, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that being prosecuted for the same crime once by a state and again in federal court, or the other way around, doesn’t violate the provision because the states and the federal government are “separate sovereigns.”

The lawyer for an Alabama man, Terance Gamble, urged the justices to overturn those earlier decisions. Convicted of robbery in 2008, Gamble was pulled over seven years later for a traffic violation. Police found a handgun in his car, and he was prosecuted under Alabama’s law barring felons from possessing firearms. The local U.S. attorney then charged him with violating a similar federal law. Because of the added federal conviction, Gamble’s prison sentence was extended by nearly three years.

“This is a 170-year-old rule that close to 30 justices have voted for,” said Justice Elena Kagan. “You’re asking us to throw it out because we think we can do better?”

Gamble’s lawyer, Louis Chaiten of Cleveland, said the nation’s founders understood the protection against double jeopardy to ban any second prosecution for the same offense. He said that under English common law, the roots of American law, there was no “separate sovereigns” exception. A person could not be put on trial in England if already tried for the same offense in another country.

But Justice Samuel Alito said changing the rule would block the U.S. government from prosecuting someone who attacked Americans overseas and was given only a light sentence by a foreign court.

“The logic of your position,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh told Chaiten, “is that the U.S. couldn’t prosecute someone like that even if it was important for national security.”

And Justice Stephen Breyer said changing the rule would prevent the federal government from bringing civil rights cases when the states decline to prosecute or do so only half-heartedly.

The Trump administration urged the court to keep the current rule, arguing the state and the federal governments should be able to pursue their own interests without interfering with each other.

The court was originally scheduled to hear the case Wednesday, but Chief Justice John Roberts issued an order closing the court that day in observance of the national day of mourning for George H. W. Bush. The justices will issue their decision by late June.

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The Trump administration has already built its case for Iran war



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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump may not need Congress to go to war with Iran.

That’s the case his lieutenants have been quietly building as tensions between the two nations have escalated.

The key elements involve drawing links between al Qaeda and Iran and casting Iran as a terrorist threat to the U.S. — which is exactly what administration officials have been doing in recent weeks.

That could give Trump the justification he needs to fight Iran under the still-in-effect 2001 use-of-force resolution without congressional approval.

That prospect is unsettling to most Democrats, and even some Republicans, in part because Iran didn’t attack the U.S. on 9/11, in part because there is a reluctance to engage U.S. forces in another theater of war, and in part because many lawmakers believe Congress has given too much of its war-making authority to the president over the years.

With Congress unlikely to grant him new authority to strike Iran under the current circumstances, and amid a campaign of “maximum pressure” against the regime in Tehran that has escalated tension between the two countries, Trump administration officials have sent strong signals that they will be ready to make an end run around lawmakers, using the 2001 authorization for the use of military force — or “AUMF” in Washington-speak — if necessary.

That law gave the president the power to use force against “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the region. Three U.S. officials told NBC that a surge in American forces in the region was a response in part to intelligence-gathering suggesting that the Iranian regime had given proxies a green light to attack U.S. personnel and assets in the region.

And in recent weeks, the Trump administration has accused Iran of assisting al Qaeda, designated an arm of the Iranian military as a foreign terrorist organization and accused Iran of being linked to a terrorist threat against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.

National Security Council officials declined to speak on the record with NBC about whether such incidents would satisfy the legal threshold necessary for the president to determine he had the authority to use force against Iran.

But former government lawyers familiar with the 2001 law and its applications say it’s obvious from those moves what the Trump administration is trying to do.

“The whole thing is building up to the notion that they don’t have to go to Congress for approval,” Yale University law professor Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer under Secretary Hillary Clinton, said in a telephone interview with NBC News.

Yet Koh said an attempt to shoehorn Iran into the 2001 AUMF is absurd and shouldn’t pass legal muster.

“The theory of war powers has to be that Congress doesn’t just sign off once,” he said. “The suggestion now that Iran attacked us on 9/11 is ridiculous.”

The original law essentially creates a two-part test for the president to make a determination that force is warranted: a country, group or person has aided al Qaeda and force is necessary to prevent a terrorist attack against the U.S. from that entity.

Under questioning from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a critic of the executive branch’s expansive view of its war powers under both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that he would “leave it to the lawyers” to sort out whether Trump had the authority to go to war with Iran absent a new authorization from Congress.

But he also forwarded an argument that he has been making since the early days of the administration that is tantamount to a case that the first part of the test has been met.

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“The factual question with respect to Iran’s connections to Al-Qaeda is very real. They have hosted al Qaeda, they have permitted al Qaeda to transit their country,” he said at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al Qaeda. Period, full stop.”

There has been intense debate in recent years about the extent to which the remnants of al Qaeda have found assistance in Iran, with Iran hawks taking the position that the ties are deep and significant and others contending that attempts to link the Shia regime to terrorism carried out by Sunni groups are wrong or disingenuous.

But the deployment of more forces to the region to counter the threat of attacks on American personnel and assets, as well as the partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, could be seen as satisfying the second part of the use-of-force test. That is, the idea that force is appropriate to prevent a terrorist threat from a country that has given assistance to al Qaeda.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that she appreciates that Trump has generally been reluctant to go to war and cast his advisers as the drivers of the current escalation of tensions. She said the president doesn’t currently have the power to go to war with Iran.

“The responsibility in the Congress is for Congress to declare war,” she said. “So I hope the president’s advisors recognize that they have no authorization to go forward in any way. They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force, that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now,”

Trump himself has left the door open.

Asked about the possibility this week, he said, “I hope not.”

But there’s little question that his administration is getting ready — and getting ready to go it alone.

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Joe Biden at rally casts himself as candidate who could unify the nation



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By Mike Memoli

PHILADELPHIA — Joe Biden framed the 2020 presidential election as a choice between unity over division and cast himself as the candidate uniquely positioned to close the nation’s political divide, promising Saturday “a different path.”

Speaking in the heart of Philadelphia at a rally billed as a campaign kickoff, the former vice president doubled down on his view of the Democratic Party and the broader political climate in which more extreme voices often carry the day.

And his remarks once again appeared designed to look beyond the very crowded primary field toward the general election fight to come against President Trump, even as he acknowledged some skepticism in his party about his approach.

“I know some of the really smart folks said that Democrats do not want to hear about unity. The Democrats are so angry, the angrier that candidate could be the better chance to win the nomination. I do not believe it,” Biden said. “I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.”

America already has someone who would “add more divisions,” or “demonize” his opponents in Trump, Biden added.

“I am running to offer our country — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — a different path, not back to a past that never was but to a future that fulfills our true potential,” he said.

In more than three weeks as an announced candidate, the former two-term vice president to Barack Obama has seen his lead in national polls grow even as the field has as well. His perceived strength as a Democrat who can go toe-to-toe with Trump in the general election, but on substance and politically with an appeal in bellwether states like Pennsylvania, is a major reason why.

As he has for weeks, Biden warned in stark terms about the threat Trump’s presidency poses to America’s standing in the world and to our democratic system itself. On Saturday, he also took on Trump over what could be a critical 2020 issue: the economy.

“I know President Trump likes to take credit for the economy,” he said. “But just look at the facts — not the alternative facts. President Trump inherited an economy from an Obama/Biden administration that was given to him — just like he inherited everything else in his life. And just like everything else he has been given in life, he is in the process of squandering that as well.”

Even as he trained his sights on Trump, Biden addressed head-on the questions that will dominate the Democratic primary. He acknowledged that Democrats doubt his view that he could work with Republicans in Washington if elected.

“I’m going to say some thing outrageous: I know how to make government work. Not because I have talked or tweeted about it, but because I have done it,” he said, citing his work to convince swing Republican votes to back the 2009 Recovery Act as one example. “I helped make government work. I can do that again.”

But he also said he understands that there are times Democrats would have to fight on their own to advance their goals.

“I know how to go toe to toe with the GOP, but it does not have to be, and it cannot be on every single issue,” he said.

Saturday’s rally marked the end of a three-week campaign rollout for the former vice president in which he laid out the rationale for his candidacy and addressed voters in each of the four early-voting states, promising to work as hard as anyone to earn their support.

In the month ahead, though, Biden will turn toward readying himself for the next major test of his frontrunner status: the first primary debate. His public schedule is expected to be more limited, with several major policy speeches possible in addition to fundraising swings through New York, Texas and Florida.

On Saturday, Biden outlined policy priorities for his administration in broad strokes, calling for a clean energy revolution, a public option on health care, and protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. But achieving those goals started with one key step, he reminded the audience.

“The single most important thing we have to accomplish to get this done … is defeat Donald Trump,” he said.

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Republican Rep. Justin Amash says Trump committed ‘impeachable conduct’



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By Dennis Romero and Winston Wilde

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan on Saturday became the first congressional Republican to conclude that President Donald Trump has engaged in “impeachable conduct.”

His conclusion came after he read special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, he tweeted in a widely circulated thread.

“President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct,” he tweeted.

He also said Attorney General William Barr “deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report” with a four-page summary sent to Congress in March before the release of the full, redacted report.

Barr said the report showed no collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russians bent on impacting the election in his favor with hacked emails from the campaign of Hillary Clinton and with a disinformation attack that relied on social media.

Barr also declared that the report said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute the president for possible obstruction of justice.

The report did not say Trump was exonerated, just that there was insufficient evidence to initiate prosecution for possible conspiracy or what the president has called collusion.

On the matter of obstruction, Mueller looked at 10 possible instances of presidential meddling in the Russia investigation. “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the report stated.

Amash tweeted, “Contrary to Barr’s portrayal, Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment.”

“In fact,” he said, “Mueller’s report identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence.”

Some Democratic activists seized on the congressman’s conclusions as a breakthrough at a time of widespread Republican support for the president’s dismissal of the Mueller report as a “witch hunt.”

Actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “HUGE.”

“Thank you for your leadership, @justinamash,” she stated.

Amash isn’t exactly a staunch Trump supporter. He’s a libertarian who in February voted with Democrats in Congress in a failed attempt to overturn the president’s declaration of emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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