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By Heidi Przybyla

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has agreed to deliver a classified briefing to U.S. House lawmakers on Thursday on his recent decision to lift sanctions on companies linked to a Russian oligarch and Vladimir Putin ally, marking the start of an aggressive new focus on Mnuchin by newly empowered House Democrats, according to two top Democratic aides.

Mnuchin, who served as the Trump campaign’s national finance chairman in 2016 before being confirmed to President Donald Trump’s cabinet, has largely escaped investigative scrutiny.

But because of his role in the campaign — and, most recently, the Dec. 19 announcement easing sanctions on companies aligned with Oleg Deripaska, the Putin ally with ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — House Democrats believe Mnuchin should be a focus of and source of information for several planned investigations both related and unrelated to the Russia probe, according to the aides. These include examinations of Trump’s finances and the business practices of the Trump Organization.

The Thursday briefing comes in response to a letter sent Tuesday to Mnuchin by the new chairpersons of the seven major House investigative committees, asking him to provide answers on the Treasury Department’s decision to lift the sanctions, which was announced as lawmakers left town for the holidays.

The Treasury Department said it would lift sanctions on companies linked to Deripaska — triggering a statue that gives Congress just 30 days to try to reverse the decision by passing a joint resolution of disapproval. On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., filed such a motion, but it’s unlikely to succeed in the Republican-run Senate.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks with Oleg Deripaska at an investment forum in Sochi in 2008.Ilia Pitalev / AFP-Getty Images file

In their letter, the investigative committee heads asked Mnuchin to meet with lawmakers “in an appropriate setting.” It was one of the first coordinated requests from the committees since the Democrats took control of the House last week.

Among the questions Democrats are likely to ask Mnuchin at the briefing, according to aides: How much influence did the White House, and Trump personally, exert in Mnuchin’s decision to lift sanctions?

Deripaska, one of Russia’s wealthiest men, is a close ally of Russian President Putin and was a business associate of former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort has been convicted of several felony charges related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and faces sentencing this spring. Deripaska is not implicated in any of those charges.

Deripaska and his companies, including Rusal, the world’s second-largest aluminum company, were among dozens of Russian entities hit with Treasury Department sanctions in April as punishment for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The sanctions roiled global aluminum markets, and critics say companies in the U.S. and elsewhere were hurt.

The Treasury Department has said the decision to lift the sanctions on the companies is in exchange for Deripaska agreeing to significantly reduce his stake in them. While Deripaska will remain sanctioned, “these companies have committed to significantly diminish Deripaska’s ownership and sever his control,” Mnuchin said in a Dec. 19 statement. “The companies will be subject to ongoing compliance and will face severe consequences if they fail to comply,” he said.

Signers of the letter, including House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., and Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., asked that the sanctions relief be postponed “until members’ questions are resolved.”

In fact, Democrats want answers from Mnuchin that go far beyond the sanctions decisions.

Since early 2017, when House Democrats were in the minority, Waters has asked Treasury to provide records detailing Trump’s possible financial ties to Russia, as well as those of the president’s family members and associates.

President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin looks on during a tour of the Boeing Company on March 14, 2018 in St. Louis, Missouri.Mandel Ngan / AFP – Getty Images

Later that year, Democrats on the committee wrote to Mnuchin requesting his help in determining “the extent of any undue influence on the president and his administration from Russian government officials, oligarchs and organized crime leaders.”

Among other things, Mnuchin oversees the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Unit, which maintains a database for law enforcement officials to combat money laundering and financial crimes. Yet he hasn’t responded to inquiries from Financial Services Committee Democrats over the past two years about what they say are potentially suspicious financial dealings of the president, his family and his campaign associates, Democratic aides said.

Waters has been active in scrutinizing Deutsche Bank, which has a history of violating anti-money laundering laws and has also lent hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump and his family members. Deutsche Bank is the subject of a Department of Justice investigation related to this “mirror trading” scandal, in which more than $10 billion was secretly transferred out of Russia by a group of corrupt traders.

In a May 2017 letter to Mnuchin, Waters also raised questions about comments from Trump’s son Eric, during a 2008 conference in New York, that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” Democratic committee chairs say they haven’t gotten answers from Mnuchin on their many inquiries.

Democrats have also expressed concern that Mnuchin faces a serious conflict in his current role, given his leadership of the Trump campaign’s fundraising operation, and have called for his recusal from law enforcement and regulatory issues involving the president.

As the gatekeeper for information like the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, Democrats told Mnuchin they believe his position is untenable.

“It appears that your own involvement with the Trump campaign has resulted in an unavoidable conflict of interest which you are also attempting to ignore,” top committee Democrats including Waters wrote in January 2018.

While Thursday’s meeting with Mnuchin is focused on Russian sanctions relief, some Democrats are expected to press for answers about his knowledge of any financial links Trump or his businesses may have to Russia, according to a Democratic aide close to the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Democratic committee chairs, as part of their overall investigative plan are expected to seek Trump’s tax returns, in part to determine whether there were any financial ties or money laundering activities involving Trump and Russia during or prior to the campaign. Trump, breaking with tradition of recent past presidents, has refused to disclose his tax returns publicly.

While much of the House Democratic agenda to conduct broad oversight of the Trump administration is off to a slow start due to the government shutdown, House Democrats say they must address the lifting of sanctions on the Deripaska-linked companies now, given the 30-day deadline they face.

The Treasury Department, which would ordinarily be in a position to address NBC News’ questions, is one of the agencies affected by the partial government shutdown. The department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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Democratic mayor Pete Buttigieg running for president; would be first openly gay nominee

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By Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Democrat Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is forming an exploratory committee for a 2020 presidential bid, according to a video and email announcement.

“The reality is there’s no going back, and there’s no such thing as ‘again’ in the real world. We can’t look for greatness in the past,” Buttigieg says in a video that includes before-and-after footage of South Bend, a Rust Belt city once described as “dying.”

“Right now our country needs a fresh start,” he says.

If he were to win the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay presidential nominee from a major political party.

Buttigieg has touted his work to improve his city of 100,000 residents as he’s prepared for an improbable jump from local politics to a presidential campaign. He’s also said Democrats could benefit from a new generation of leaders as they try to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.

He’s expected to travel to Iowa next week to meet with voters in the nation’s first caucus state, followed by stops in New Hampshire.

Buttigieg is a Rhodes scholar who was first elected mayor of his hometown in 2011 at age 29 — making him the youngest mayor of a U.S. city with at least 100,000 residents. A lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, he served a tour in Afghanistan in 2014.

Buttigieg raised his national profile with an unsuccessful 2017 run for Democratic National Committee chairman, saying the party needed a new start. He withdrew from the race before a vote when it became clear he didn’t have the support to win.

Buttigieg has spent time in Iowa and other battleground states in recent years as he tried to build financial support and name recognition. He cracks that those who do know his name still aren’t sure how to pronounce it. Most of the time he goes by “Mayor Pete.”

Amid his campaign for a second term, Buttigieg came out as gay in a column in the local newspaper. He went on to win re-election with 80 percent of the vote. In 2018 — three years to the day after the column ran — he married his husband, middle school teacher Chasten Glezman.

Buttigieg announced in December that he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor, stoking speculation he would join a field of roughly two dozen candidates who may seek the Democratic nomination for president — most of them better-known and with experience in higher office, and all of them older.

“I belong to a generation that is stepping forward right now,” he says in the video released Wednesday. “We’re the generation that lived through school shootings, that served in the wars after 9/11, and we’re the generation that stands to be the first to make less than our parents unless we do something different. We can’t just polish off a system so broken. It is a season for boldness and a focus on the future.”

Buttigieg is releasing a book in February about his life and his tenure leading South Bend.

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Shutdown could further endanger whales

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By Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to the federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Outside of the federal government, work to protect whales is still going on. The developer of an offshore wind energy project off Massachusetts announced Wednesday it is partnering with environmental groups on a plan to try to protect the right whales.

And not all the news about the whales is gloomy. A Florida research team has located the third right whale calf of the season. None were spotted last season.

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said that a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and that he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.”

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Trump says he will not give State of the Union until government shutdown is over

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By Phil Helsel

President Donald Trump late Wednesday announced he would not hold a State of the Union address until after the partial government shutdown, now in its fifth week, is over.

The announcement made shortly after 11 p.m. seemingly puts to rest a dispute between the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over whether the address would be held.

Pelosi said in a letter earlier Wednesday that the Democratic-controlled House “will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the president’s State of the Union address in the House chamber until the government has opened.”

Trump said on Twitter: “As the Shutdown was going on, Nancy Pelosi asked me to give the State of the Union Address. I agreed. She then changed her mind because of the Shutdown, suggesting a later date. This is her prerogative – I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over.”

The president is not allowed to speak in the chamber, the traditional spot for the State of the Union address, unless the House and Senate pass a resolution allowing him to do so.

Pelosi had initially invited Trump to give the speech later this month, but she sent him a letter last week asking him to delay his remarks or submit them in writing. She cited concerns over security because of the partial government shutdown, which affects the Department of Homeland Security.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump said, “The State of the Union speech has been canceled by Nancy Pelosi because she doesn’t want to hear the truth. She doesn’t want the American public to hear what’s going on.”

“Great blotch on the incredible country we that all love. Great, great horrible mark,” Trump said.

Asked if he’d be giving a speech Tuesday night, the president responded that an announcement would be forthcoming soon.

The government has been partially shut down since Dec. 22, in a dispute over Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.



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