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By Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi portrayed herself Thursday as the protector of the Constitution, Congress and the country as House Democrats braced for war with President Donald Trump over his refusal to give them full access to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, related documents and witnesses.
“This is very methodical, it’s very Constitution-based, it’s very law-based, it’s very factually based,” Pelosi said about House plans to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for withholding documents. “It’s not about pressure. It’s about patriotism.”
Trump and his Republican allies say Democrats are simply dressing up a partisan witch hunt in the haberdashery of constitutional principle. They express confidence that recent polls showing a lack of support for impeachment, particularly among independents, are evidence that the public agrees with them and that Democrats will only hurt themselves — and help the president — if they continue on their current course.
“If we’re already seeing that before any of the investigations begin, then moving toward impeachment will more than likely result in a backlash for Democrats,” said one source close to the White House who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of Trump.
While the courts are likely to decide the scope of what Democrats can get their hands on, the fight over the terms of the public debate — partisan or constitutional — figure to have a significant impact on the political outcome, especially during a period in which the Trump’s assertion of executive privilege limits the House’s ability to produce any new evidence.
In any period in which one party controls the House and the other controls the White House, the impeachment process is inherently both a matter of solemn constitutional duty and partisan politics.
All of that helps explain why it’s Pelosi’s defense of another institution — the Democratic caucus — that is at the core of her approach to the investigations and possible impeachment of Trump. Though the cable talk shows and digital press have been full of speculation about what Pelosi wants — or believes — about impeachment, people who know her well say that she is driven in large measure by keeping solidarity in her ranks.
“She’s moving at a pace that all the spectrum of her caucus can tolerate right now,” said former Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards. “She is very protective of the institution and the prerogatives of the institution, and you can see that, that she wants to insulate this from the politics and the electoral politics, and that is in keeping with her protection of the unity of the caucus.”
In other words, when Trump’s liberal critics put the impeachment cart before the process horse, moderate Democrats are quick to jump out. But when the question is framed as one of pursuing legitimate oversight of the executive branch, following investigations where they lead and maintaining the Constitution’s balance of power, it is much easier for her to keep her troops in line.
In that way, Trump’s actions have helped Pelosi start to resolve the conflicts in her caucus.
“There’s a deep concern, particularly among institutionalists, about the balance of power,” said a senior aide to one moderate Democrat who noted that the administration’s refusal to comply with subpoenas has angered some lawmakers who had been reluctant to escalate the fight.
That is, the pace is speeding up even for most Democrats who have been reluctant to go down a path that could lead to impeachment.
Pelosi has said she believes Trump is “goading” Democrats into impeaching him, and many Republicans and Democrats in Washington believe that a House impeachment followed by a Senate acquittal would be a political gift to Trump and House Republicans.
There’s even some concern among House Democrats that the very act of impeaching Trump would hand over power by giving the savvy Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., control of the timetable and process for trying the case with the 2020 election approaching.
And yet Trump’s blanket defiance of Congress on the Mueller report and a range of other issues, from declining to provide his tax returns to declaring a national emergency so he could shift funds to build a border wall, has put Democrats in the position of acquiescing or escalating.
“The president and the attorney general have left the Congress, and the House in particular, not many choices,” Edwards said.
For the moment, Democrats may have been handed some ammunition by an unlikely source as they try to make their case that Trump is tampering with the Constitution’s checks and balances. It was reported Wednesday that The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, issued a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr. after the panel was unable to secure a second round of testimony from him in its Russia probe.
While Trump Jr. is not an administration official — and the subpoena was actually sent in mid-April —the off-pitch sound from the GOP’s previously harmonious message was discordant enough to trigger a response from Burr’s fellow Republicans.
“The Mueller report cleared @DonaldJTrumpJr and he’s already spent 27 hours testifying before Congress,” GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, Burr’s home-state colleague, wrote in a tweet. “Dems have made it clear this is all about politics. It’s time to move on & start focusing on issues that matter to Americans.”
To win, Pelosi has to convince Americans that the fight is more about checks and balances than partisan politics — and that they should side with House Democrats over the Republican in the White House.
A divided caucus undermines that message. A united one helps to sell it.
Trump scraps efforts to cut foreign aid
WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing bipartisan opposition, President Donald Trump has scrapped an effort to cut some $4 billion in foreign aid that lawmakers had already approved.
A senior administration official and a Democratic congressional aide confirmed the decision Thursday. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The potential cut to programs at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development had drawn criticism from Republicans and Democrats. The administration official said it was clear that many on Capitol Hill weren’t willing to join in “curbing wasteful spending.”
Since taking office, the Trump administration has sought each year to slash foreign affairs funding by as much as 30%. Those budget proposals have been soundly rejected by lawmakers from both parties.
The president told reporters Sunday that he backed the cuts saying, “in some cases, these are countries that we should not be giving to.” He also said that foreign aid cuts can lead to talks that improve relationships.
The top members of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees had sent a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget seeking to head off such a move. They said that cutting “crucial” programs would be detrimental to national security and undercut Congress’s intended use for the money.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that the proposed cuts would have been “harmful to our national security” and violated the good-faith negotiations that brought about the bipartisan budget deal.
The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for a strong international affairs budget, cheered the decision.
“Americans can be pleased that the administration recognized the importance of these vital foreign assistance programs for keeping America safe and on the global playing field,” said Liz Schrayer, the group’s president and chief executive officer.
Bernie Sanders unveils $16 trillion climate plan
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Thursday unveiled his presidential campaign’s ambitious take on the Green New Deal, declaring climate change a national emergency and vowing to end fossil fuel dependency.
The announcement came the day after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — whose campaign was focused on combating climate change — announced he was dropping out of the race in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Sanders’ plan, which aims to create 20 million jobs and will cost $16 trillion, is both more lofty and expensive than those of the other 2020 Democratic candidates. Sanders has long been an outspoken advocate for the Green New Deal, the landmark climate change legislation that has become a progressive litmus test.
“The climate crisis is not only the single greatest challenge facing our country; it is also our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future, but we must act immediately,” Sanders said.
His campaign said the 10-year plan would put the United States on the path to 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030 and complete decarbonization by 2050. It includes proposals to boost public transit systems and build a modern energy grid.
Comparing his proposal to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies, Sanders said the program would pay for itself over 15 years, in part by collecting tax revenue from the high-paying new jobs and also by “making the fossil fuel industry pay for their pollution” through new fees and penalties.
While Sanders’ campaign said he’ll work to “end the fossil fuel industry’s greed,” the plan will ensure “a just transition for communities and workers, including fossil fuel workers.”
Speaking later Thursday at climate-focused town hall in Chico, California, Sanders said that he believed society has a “moral responsibility” to prevent climate disasters from ravaging the planet.
Noting his seven grandchildren, he said that “there is nothing that I can think of that is more important than leaving this planet healthy and habitable for them and the generations to come after them.”
Sanders’ plan was released hours before the Democratic National Committee voted not to hold a presidential debate focused on climate change, disappointing activists — including Inslee — who had demanded one.
“This is a terribly frightening, existential crisis that demands a different course of action,” Muriel MacDonald, an organizer for the Sunrise Movement in the San Francisco Bay Area told The Associated Press. “If we play by the old rules, we are going to suffer terribly.”
Shaquille Brewster and Gary Grumbach contributed.
Giuliani says State Dept. aided his effort to press Ukraine on Trump opponents
President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani confirmed Thursday that the State Department assisted his efforts to press the Ukrainian government to probe two prominent Democratic opponents of the president: former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
Specifically, Giuliani has wanted Ukrainian officials to look into any impropriety related to the former vice president’s push to crack down on corruption in Ukraine and his son Hunter Biden’s involvement in a natural gas company there. Giuliani also sought to have Ukraine examine whether the Democratic National Committee worked in connection with Ukrainian officials to harm Trump’s 2016 campaign by releasing damaging information on the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Giuliani has spoken with Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak, a lawyer and close ally of recently elected President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the phone and in an in-person meeting in Madrid over the last few weeks to encourage him to ramp up probes into the matters, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Trump’s attorney confirmed to NBC News that the State Department helped put him in touch with Yermak.
“Times completely turned a story about astounding allegations of serious crimes of state concerning Dems into a piece trying to suggest I did something nefarious except they can’t say what it is,” Giuliani told NBC News in a text message Thursday. “Typical spin against Trump or anyone close to him.”
The State Department put Yermak “in contact with me,” Giuliani said. “Not other way around, and I told him they should not be cowered [out of] fully investigating serious possible crimes like bribery, extortion, fraud, money laundering and illegal interference in 2016 election.”
“That’s it,” the former New York City mayor and federal prosecutor said. “Reported all to State.”
Giuliani declined to say whether he spoke with Trump about any recent developments in his Ukrainian venture. He told the Times in May that his efforts in Ukraine had the president’s full support, adding, “He basically knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer.”
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The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News, but a spokesman later told the Times that Giuliani “is a private citizen and acts in a personal capacity as lawyer for President Trump. he does not speak on behalf of the U.S. government.” The former mayor has also said he is working in his personal capacity with regard to his Ukrainian efforts.
Giuliani has zeroed in on the-then vice president’s 2016 call — widely backed by the international community — for Ukraine to crack down on corruption, including removing a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was seen as ineffective and was later removed by the country’s parliament. One of the cases that Shokin was investigating, Giuliani noted, involved Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company whose board at the time included Biden’s son Hunter.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg News, citing documents and an interview with a former Ukrainian official, reported the Burisma investigation had been dormant for more than a year by the time Biden called for the crackdown on corruption. The current Ukrainian prosecutor general told the news agency that he found no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden and his son. PolitiFact, meanwhile, reported that it found no evidence to “support the idea that Joe Biden advocated with his son’s interests in mind.”
Biden’s campaign declined to comment for this story. Hunter Biden, who stepped down from Burisma’s board this year, previously told the Times, “At no time have I discussed with my father the company’s business, or my board service.”
Giuliani and other allies of the president have also sought to paint a picture of “collusion” between the DNC and Ukraine in 2016, particularly as it relates to the release of information about Manafort, who is now serving a seven and a half year sentence in federal prison for undisclosed lobbying work in Ukraine, as well as tax and bank fraud.
The DNC has repeatedly denied working with the Ukrainian government to obtain dirt on Manafort. The incriminating Ukrainian information about Manafort that emerged during the campaign — a ledger showing $12.7 million in unreported payments from a Russia-backed Ukrainian political party — was released by a Ukrainian law-enforcement agency.
Both the DNC and the Times did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NBC News.
The Times reported that Yermak was sent to Washington to build relationships with U.S. officials, discuss sanctions related to a Russian oil pipeline and lay the groundwork for a meeting between Trump and the Ukrainian president. The newspaper also reported that the State Department officials who helped arrange Giuliani’s communications with Yermak included Kurt Volker, the U.S. envoy to settlement talks in Ukraine’s yearslong war with Russia.
Yermak told the Times he asked Volker to arrange discussions with Giuliani, additionally saying it was unclear to him whether Giuliani was representing Trump in their discussions. A State Department spokesperson confirmed to the publication that Volker put Giuliani in touch with Yermak.
When Giuliani’s efforts were first reported, his plans were met with swift criticism from Democrats.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation into those efforts in May, saying they might be illegal and adding “the possibility that a personal representative of the President is engaging with foreign governments in order to obtain personal or political gain is a matter that must be thoroughly examined.” Murphy also expressed concern at the time that as far as he knew, “none of these meetings are being coordinated with the U.S. State Department or other government agencies.”
Following the revelations about his efforts, Giuliani canceled a planned May trip to Ukraine to further talks regarding the investigations he wants the country to pursue, saying it could be viewed as “improper.”
Giuliani told NBC News that month that his efforts were not to “take [Biden] out” of contention for the presidency. “I’m actually — he won’t appreciate it — but I’m doing him a favor by trying to get it investigated now,” he said. “Because it wasn’t going to live through November of next year.”
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