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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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What are the Iowa caucuses?

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By Audrey Holmes and Farnoush Amiri

What is a caucus?

A caucus is a meeting of voters held to pick the state’s delegates to the party’s national presidential convention. Currently, 13 states and two U.S. territories use some form of the caucus system.

What are the Iowa caucuses?

The Iowa caucuses, which are set to take place in February 2020, kick off the presidential primary season, and are therefore often the most notable. Caucuses will be held in each of Iowa’s 1,681 precincts.

Leading up to the caucuses, aspiring candidates typically spend months in the state, making dozens of visits — if not more — to win over voters with up-close-and-personal campaigning.

In 1972, the Democratic Party held its first Iowa caucus as a way to make the election process more inclusive for voters. The first Republican Iowa caucus followed in 1976.

Caucuses take place at any easily accessible public location, including schools, fire stations, city halls and churches. Some have occurred in places as unique as nature centers, bars and even a gun shop.

How do caucuses work for Democrats?

Supporters make an argument for their candidate. After listening to each case, caucus attendees go to different parts of the room depending on which candidate they are supporting — for example, Bernie Sanders voters go to one corner and Hillary Clinton supporters go to another.

After the groups are formed, the caucus chair adds up how many supporters are in each candidate’s group. To be viable, a candidate typically needs to earn the support of at least 15 percent of all the followers in the room (although some viability levels are higher in more rural precincts.) If a candidate is not viable, their supporters must “re-caucus” and fall in with another candidate.

Once all the remaining candidates are deemed to be viable, the number of supporters of each candidate is tallied. Delegates and alternates are selected to attend the county convention, during which the delegates for the district convention are chosen, and then finally, the state convention. The number of delegates given to each viable candidate is proportional to the support that the candidate received, and the number of delegates each precinct receives depends on how many votes were cast in that precinct in the previous caucus.

This is how Democratic caucuses have worked in the past, but new rules are being put in place that could change the process somewhat.

How do caucuses work for Republicans?

Representatives for each presidential candidate state their cases. After this point, the GOP caucuses are distinct from the Democratic ones. Caucusgoers vote for their candidate on a paper ballot, or by a show of hands if the caucus is small enough. Republican caucuses do not have a 15 percent minimum threshold, unlike Democratic caucuses. The votes are tallied and recorded, and delegates are awarded based on the results.

Why are the Iowa caucuses so important?

The main reason Iowa is vital to the national election process is because it is the first test of presidential hopefuls’ strength and viability. Those who don’t perform well in Iowa are unlikely to make it to the White House.

“Everybody wants to be the one who gets all the attention first,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa and author of “Riding the Caucus Rollercoaster: The Ups and Downs in the Republican Race to Win the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.”

Only one person has lost the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in the last 40 years and went on to become president — Bill Clinton, in 1992.

Have the Iowa caucuses faced criticism?

Yes. Critics tend to point toward the largely white demographics of the state, arguing that voters in Iowa are not representative of the rest of the country.

“Basically, we’re too rural, too white, too old,” Hagle said.

Notable Iowa caucus results

1976

One of the most renowned candidates in Iowa caucus history is Jimmy Carter. During the 1976 Democratic caucuses, Carter was a relatively unknown Georgia governor running for president. The night ended in a surprise with Carter receiving more votes than any other candidate. He used that energy to solidify an unlikely victory in New Hampshire shortly after that, ultimately paving his road to the White House. Carter’s win created the perception that a win in Iowa is a big step toward the Oval Office.

Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, saw Carter as the key factor that elevated the Iowa caucuses’ national importance. “It didn’t really become important until an unknown governor by the name of Jimmy Carter from Georgia saw what was happening,” he said. “Then, the Iowa caucuses began to really take off.”

1988 and 1996

Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., is the only candidate other than an incumbent president to win the Iowa caucuses twice, in 1988 and 1996. Dole went on to win the GOP presidential nomination in 1996 but lost the general election to then-incumbent Clinton.

2008

The caucuses that ultimately led to the election of the first African-American president in U.S. history, Barack Obama, also saw a record-breaking turnout for the Democrats, with almost 240,000 Iowans showing up to vote. This included younger voters as well as independents, which led to crowd control issues in schools and firehouses across the state. Obama’s victory also helped solidify the narrative that it pays to win in Iowa.

2012

Preliminary results showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the winner of the Iowa Republican caucuses as of Jan. 3, 2012. But more than two weeks later, the tally was changed to show former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was actually the victor, edging Romney by 34 votes. The win didn’t help Santorum secure the GOP nomination, but the hiccup showed that the important process had a history of problems with tabulating results.

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Trump’s shutdown proposal would drastically toughen asylum, DACA, TPS rules

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By Suzanne Gamboa

AUSTIN, Texas — Central American children who crossed the border illegally could not ask for asylum. Application fees for protection for deportation would increase. More than $5.7 billion for available for the border wall.

President Donald Trump has described his proposal for ending the government shutdown as a trade of a three-year extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, for the $5.7 billion he’s been demanding for the border wall he wants to build.

But details in the bill that the Senate will vote on Thursday have immigration advocates and Democrats calling the offer partisan, malevolent and “feigned” attempt at compromise.

“It’s a sham,” Ur Jaddou, director of America’s Voice DHS Watch program, told NBC News Wednesday. “It’s shocking to see they would call this a serious compromise. They didn’t even try.”

The proposal got the White House’s endorsement Wednesday morning. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the proposal is was not intended to end the shutdown.

“The president’s proposal is one-sided, harshly partisan and was made in bad faith,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Drastic changes to asylum, DACA and TPS

In a statement, the administration touted the millions the bill provides for immigration enforcement and border security, including medical support and housing, anti-drug canines, 2,750 more border agents and money for new immigration judges.

But it did not address other parts of the legislation that are drawing loud criticism, including provisions that could drastically change the U.S. asylum system.

Children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who arrive at the border and request asylum would be sent back home without exception.

U.S. law and international treaties require border officials to grant interviews with asylum officers when people who arrive at the border request asylum or claim a credible fear of being returned to their home country. If they pass the interview, they are allowed to remain while their claim goes through the asylum process.

According to Department of Homeland Security data, 38,189 children ages 17 and under from those countries arrived at the border or were apprehended in fiscal year 2018, up from 31,754 in fiscal year 2017.

But just as troublesome to advocates and Democrats are the wholesale changes the administration wants to make to DACA and TPS, under the guise of extending those programs that shield immigrants from deportation and allow them to work.

An analysis by the Cato Institute found that the proposed legislation would require immigrants who have DACA and are in good standing to reapply rather than simply renew their status. The DACA program allows young immigrant adults and teens who were brought to the U.S. as children to study and work without fear of deportation; currently recipients renew their status every two years.

Under the plan, when they reapply, they would have to meet a higher burden to prove their eligibility.

The proposal would exclude from eligibility for DACA anyone not in the program now and require those who are not students to have an income that is at least 125 percent of poverty level.



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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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