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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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EU reacts after anti-Brexit campaigners march through London – 'VERY TELLING IMAGES'

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THE European Commission has described the images of a reported one million people marching through the streets of London against Brexit as “very telling” as the UK continues to stumble over its withdrawal from the European Union.

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As Dems grapple with Omar fallout, GOP plugs more measures on anti-Semitism

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By Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — As Democrats grapple with divisions over the best way to address rising anti-Semitism in the U.S., congressional Republicans have been pushing for a more aggressive approach — and angling for political dividends.

A fresh effort came from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who planned to introduce a measure Tuesday afternoon that would directly condemn “all forms of anti-Semitism,” a GOP aide told NBC News Monday, following the recent controversial remarks made by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., about Jewish lawmakers.

The resolution, obtained by NBC, alludes to the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and states that “anti-Semitism has for hundreds of years included attacks on the loyalty of Jews, including the fabrication and circulation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by the secret police of Russia.”

Critics have accused Omar of deploying the “dual loyalty” charge Jews have grappled with for centuries.

GOP leaders are planning to hold a floor vote on Cruz’s proposal, according to The New York Times. An aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to confirm the plan.

The latest Republican push comes shortly after the tumultuous week House Democrats spent earlier this month split over how to respond to Omar’s comments, the latest in a series of remarks from the freshman lawmaker to spark similar controversy.

Initially, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., aimed for a simple resolution condemning anti-Semitism without addressing Omar directly. But that strategy ignited pushback from some progressive members of the Democratic caucus, who pressed leadership for a measure that encompassed hatred against a number of minority groups. The House ultimately passed the resolution in a 407-23 vote.

At the time, Republicans criticized Democrats for the approach, arguing that a resolution lumped anti-Semitism in with other forms of hatred would deliver a weaker message.

Cruz’s measure was the most recent in a string of proposals from GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate this session geared to fighting anti-Semitism.

Rep. Gregory Steube, R-Fla., introduced a measure this month that would directly disapprove of “the anti-Semitic comments made by Representative Omar.” In January, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., who is Jewish, introduced a resolution with a group of other Republicans that would “reject anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred in the United States and the world” that specifically mentioned Omar.

Rep. Ron Wright, R-Texas, unveiled a resolution earlier this year that, in addition to condemning anti-Semitism, called on federal law enforcement to investigate all credible reports of hate crimes, incidents and threats against the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, the White House has used Omar’s comments as a cudgel to attack House Democrats, with Vice President Mike Pence slamming Democrats over the remarks in a speech at the American Israel Political Action Committee’s annual policy meeting on Monday.

“Anti-Semitism has no place in the Congress of the United States, and any member who slanders those who support the historic alliance between the United States and Israel with such rhetoric should not have a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Pence said of her spot on the panel.

“The [Democratic] party that has been the home of so many American Jews for so long today can no longer muster the votes to unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism,” he added.

President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly blasted Democrats for their reaction to Omar’s remarks and suggested that Jewish voters would soon flock to Republican candidates, recently tweeted a comment from a Fox News guest warning of political consequences for the opposing party over the issue.

“Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party. We saw a lot of anti Israel policies start under the Obama Administration, and it got worsts & worse. There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party. They don’t care about Israel or the Jewish people.” Elizabeth Pipko, Jexodus,” Trump tweeted.

According to the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University, 54 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats and 14 percent identify as Republicans. Thirty-two percent said that they don’t identify with either party. A 2018 survey conducted by the Jewish advocacy organization AJC found that 51 percent of American Jews consider themselves Democrats and 16 percent consider themselves Republicans.

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Latino group launches “Run, Joaquín, Run” to get other Castro twin on the ballot

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By Suzanne Gamboa

AUSTIN — Texas Democrats are waiting for the news from U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro on whether they’ll have another competitive Senate race this year.

There is anticipation that he’ll soon announce whether he’ll take on longtime incumbent Sen. John Cornyn, the state’s senior senator, and with that anticipation is the question whether changed demographics and a Latino Democrat on the ballot will help break the Republican dominance of Texas’ statewide elected offices.

While the wait is on for the expected word that Castro is running, Latino Victory Fund has launched a “Run Joaquín, Run”campaign to push along his decision and build support among Latino voters.

The digital campaign was created to generate grassroots interest among Latinos in a potential Castro candidacy.

“There is no doubt that Sen. Cornyn is vulnerable and we are ready to build a grassroots army to recruit and support Joaquin Castro to run and win in 2020,” Melissa Mark Viverito, Latino Victory Fund interim president, said in a statement last week.

The fund backs Latino Democratic candidates.

Castro has been dropping suggestions that he may be ready to do run, as has his twin brother, 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro.

A week ago, Castro sent a tweet to Cornyn with biting criticism for the senator. He asserted that Cornyn failed to call him back when he asked for him to support his bill.

The tweet was in response to comments by Cornyn to a San Antonio media outlet that had asked him about a possible challenge from Castro. Cornyn had said he didn’t know Castro very well.

Castro was elected to the U.S. House in 2012, moving from Texas’ Legislature to Congress while Barack Obama was still in the White House. But Republicans’ were in charge and Democrats could move forward little legislation as the minority party, a reality that frustrated Castro.

With Democrats newly in charge of the U.S. House Castro’s profile has risen. He heads the growing Congressional Hispanic Chamber as its chairman this year.

He has made himself better known recently by sponsoring the resolution to terminate the national emergency declared by President Donald Trump to bypass Congress and get the funding needed to build a wall on the southern border.

The House approved its resolution and the Senate approved a similar one but the measure is expected to be vetoed by Trump.

Several Republicans in the Senate joined Democrats in voting to end Trump’s emergency declaration.

But Cornyn and Texas’ other senator Ted Cruz, who narrowly defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke in 2018 to keep his Senate seat, were not among them.

Cornyn already has close to $6 million for his campaign. His campaign solicitations had been focused on O’Rourke. They warned against a “Beto Texas” and asked for contributions to a Stop Beto Fund.

Event though O’Rourke is now a declared 2020 Democratic candidate for president, Cornyn’s solicitations continue to use him for fundraising, urging contributors to “Stand With Trump” and against an O’Rourke candidate who has said he thinks he can win Texas.

Cornyn already has made key hires: John Jackson, who led Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign last year, is campaign manager and former Texas Republican Party chairman Steve Munisteri as a campaign adviser.

In Texas, about a third or to about 40 percent of Latinos who vote cast their ballot for Republicans, depending on the race. About 48 percent of Latinos who voted in Texas’ 2014 election backed Cornyn, according to exit polling, according to Cornyn’s campaign.

But in 2018, there were big increases in Latino turnout in heavily Latino counties, according to Latino Decisions, a firm that has done polling for Democrats. The increases are considered part of the reason the state saw Democrats win state and congressional seats and places on appeals courts.

Although he had almost 40 times as much money as his gubernatorial opponent Lupe Valdez, Abbott won 42 percent of the Latino vote – about what he has in past years, while 53 percent of Latinos in Texas voted for Valdez, according to Pew Research Center.

Still, Cornyn has been elected to three terms – which are six years for U.S. senators. Democrats are counting on his support for Trump to also help keep him from a fourth term.



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