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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.
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.
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.
ACLU sues U.S. border agencies over targeting of activists, lawyers at border
WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union has sued three government agencies on behalf of immigration activists who were allegedly surveilled and flagged for questioning when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border because of their work with immigrants, according to court documents filed in the Central District of California.
The complaint alleges that the three plaintiffs — activists Nora Elizabeth Phillips, Erika Da Cruz Pinheiro and Nathaniel Garrett Dennison — were targeted for “detention and interrogation” under a “secret investigative program designed to monitor these humanitarian workers … and impede their ability to travel.” The suit names Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI as defendants, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.
In March, NBC News and NBC 7 San Diego uncovered details of the program after obtaining a CBP list of names of journalists, activists and lawyers who were to be stopped by CBP agents when crossing the border. The ACLU cited the reporting as the impetus for the lawsuit.
“The disclosure of the secret program spurred outrage from civil society organizations, prompted members of Congress to call for an inquiry into the agencies’ actions, and led Customs and Border Protection’s Inspector General to initiate its own investigation into surveillance,” the lawsuit said.
The list obtained in March targeted only immigration workers in the San Diego area, but an NBC News report later found that activists and lawyers in other areas, such as El Paso, were also targeted.
Two immigration lawyers stopped in El Paso said they were held for hours and asked to hand their cell phones over to immigration agents so that they could obtain their contacts.
In the complaint, the ACLU said the “plaintiffs have been singled out and targeted solely because of their protected speech and association, including their provision of legal counsel to asylum seekers, their association with others providing humanitarian aid, and the assistance they provided to clients seeking to redress or to express themselves publicly.”
When the first report was published in March, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and ICE, said the individuals were targeted as part of an investigation into violence that erupted at the San Diego-Tijuana border in late 2018 when a so-called migrant caravan arrived. But many of those targeted have said they were nowhere near San Diego at the time and had no involvement with the caravan.
John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told NBC News in March that border agents should never target people at the border for inspection based on their profession, including their work with asylum seekers.
The ACLU is asking the court to issue an injunction that would declare the activity of the border agents unlawful under the First Amendment and award damages.
Plaintiff Nora Phillips is the co-founder of Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides legal and mental health services to migrants. Pinheiro is a co-founder of the same group and organizes legal clinics inside Mexico. Dennison is a documentary filmmaker and shelter volunteer.
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Boris Johnson's Brexit mission starts NOW – 99 days for new PM to prove doom-mongers wrong
Mueller makes last-minute request for aide to appear with him during his testimony
One of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s longtime aides will appear alongside him during his highly-anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, a spokesperson said Tuesday, but is not expected to be sworn in.
Mueller’s team made a last-minute request that Aaron Zebley be sworn in and testify with him during his scheduled hearings before Congress on Wednesday, a congressional source familiar with the request told NBC News.
Mueller is slated to testify on his report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the country’s influence on President Donald Trump for three hours before the House Judiciary Committee, take a break, then appear for at least two additional hours before the House Intelligence Committee.
For the first hearing, Zebley will sit alongside Mueller as his counsel, according to the Judiciary Committee spokesperson. The committee, however, is not updating its guidance to include Zebley as a witness. This means that Zebley will not be sworn in. Mueller can confer with him as he is questioned by the panel, according to committee rules, but cannot answer questions.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said Tuesday that GOP members had “not gotten assurances from the House Democrats on the committee that he [Zebley] will not speak.”
“He’s not supposed to speak in that role to anyone on the committee or asked questions. And we’re asking, and, frankly, that that be confirmed before the hearing. So we don’t have to waste time with it tomorrow,” Collins said.
Jim Popkin, Mueller’s spokesperson, disputed the idea that Zebley’s presence at the hearings amounted to an 11th-hour addition.
“Aaron Zebley was the Deputy Special Counsel and had day-to-day oversight of the investigations conducted by the Office,” Popkin said in a statement Tuesday. “He will accompany Special Counsel Mueller to the Wednesday hearings, as was discussed with the committees more than a week ago.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday during a conversation at the Center for American Progress that his panel was still working out what Zebley’s function might be.
Trump lashed out about Zebley’s role in Mueller’s testimony, tweeting Tuesday night that the decision “very unfair.”
“Just got back only to hear of a last minute change allowing a Never Trumper attorney to help Robert Mueller with his testimony before Congress tomorrow,” Trump said. “What a disgrace to our system. Never heard of this before.”
Zebley is especially close to Mueller, serving as his chief of staff at the FBI when Mueller was the director. Zebley is also an alumnus of the law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller worked after leaving the FBI.
Zebley followed Mueller to the Justice Department when he was tapped to be special counsel in 2017. Zebley is also a former FBI agent who was involved in an international hunt for al Qaeda terrorists before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In June, Mueller agreed to testify before Congress about his Russia investigation after he was subpoenaed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary, and Schiff.
Popkin said Monday that the former special counsel will make a brief opening statement when he testifies about his 22-month investigation, and will offer his 448-page report as his full statement for the record.
In May, Mueller stressed at a press conference that if he were called to testify he would stick closely to his written report. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made,” he said.
“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
In a letter on Monday, the Justice Department also issued stern guidance to Mueller, stating that “any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege.”
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