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By Josh Lederman
CHICAGO — Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg on Friday accused Vice President Mike Pence of advancing “homophobic policies,” saying that while he doesn’t know whether Pence is truly homophobic, his policies are “hurting other people” just the same.
“I don’t know what’s in his heart,” Buttigieg told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview airing Friday. But, he added, “if you’re in public office and you advance homophobic policies, on some level it doesn’t matter whether you do that out of political calculation or whether you do it out of sincere belief.”
“The problem is, it’s hurting other people,” said Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor.
Buttigieg’s comments may add further fuel to an emotional dispute that’s played out between him and Pence, the former Indiana governor, over LGBT issues. Buttigieg, who is openly gay and married to a man, has invoked Pence’s name on the campaign trail to say that if Pence has a problem with his sexuality, his problem “is with my creator.” That led Pence to accuse Buttigieg of leveling “attacks on my Christian faith.”
The vice president’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday about Buttigieg’s remarks. But in a Fox News interview earlier in the week, Pence said it was “disappointing” to see both Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden criticizing him on the campaign trail despite having what Pence described as a positive relationship with the Democrats in the past.
“If he wins their party’s nomination, we’ll have a lot more to say about him,” Pence said of Buttigieg.
Those comments came the same week that President Donald Trump, asked about Buttigieg’s same-sex marriage, said it was “absolutely fine” and that he had no objection to Buttigieg appearing with his husband on stage at his campaign kickoff.
“I think that’s something that perhaps some people will have a problem with. I have no problem with it whatsoever,” Trump said.
The dispute between Buttigieg and Pence, who worked together when Pence was Indiana governor, has emerged in the 2020 race as a flashpoint in the broader societal debate about whether support for LGBT rights such as same-sex marriage are compatible with firmly held religious beliefs and support for religious freedom.
Pence has pointed out that he’s always treated Buttigieg with respect and has argued that the South Bend mayor is cynically picking a fight with him to raise his political profile.
But Buttigieg has said that what’s important is not whether Pence is cordial to gay people but whether the policies he’s advocated are harming them. In Indiana, Pence spearheaded a religious freedom law seen as one of the most intolerant toward LGBT people in the nation.
“He’s always been polite to me in person,” Buttigieg said. “But you look at the fact that he, to this day, cannot bring himself to say that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against people who are gay.”
He added that Pence has also not raised objections to Trump’s ban on transgender people serving openly in the military nor reversed his earlier opposition to same-sex marriage or gay people serving openly in the military.
As he works to position himself as a viable primary candidate for president, Buttigieg has faced repeated doubts about his ability to appeal to minorities, amid signs in early voting states such as South Carolina that he has yet to attract support from African Americans in large numbers. Polling has showed that among religious groups, black Protestants are less supportive of same-sex marriage than any other, with only 44 percent of black Protestants and 51 percent of African Americans overall approve of gay marriage, according to the Pew Research Center.
Asked whether Buttigieg believes that African Americans “resent the rather quick assimilation of LGBTQ into the mainstream,” Buttigieg demurred.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You look at the trajectory of equality for LGBT people, and you compare it to the struggle that is going on for black America to this day, and you’ve got to ask the question how come one moved so quickly, and the other is plodding along generationally at such a slow pace. And as somebody who’s part of, you know, a group of people that’s been pushed to the side in one way, I think I have that much more responsibility to be there to stand up for people who are on the wrong side of racism.”
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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