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President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Monday denied being involved with a Ukrainian oligarch whose ethical issues have dovetailed with the ongoing impeachment inquiry into the president.

Giuliani also told NBC News he was not planning on visiting Dmitry Firtash, who is currently wanted on corruption charges in the U.S., during a trip to Vienna he planned last week. He said he could not speak for his two Soviet-born business associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were arrested last week on campaign-finance charges in Virginia as they were about to board one-way flights to Vienna. Giuliani has said their similarly timed Austrian trips were not in conjunction.

“I wasn’t planning to go see him,” Giuliani said. “That was the last thing from my mind on why I was going to Vienna. There was a very important reason I was going that I’m not at liberty to disclose right now that will make it quite clear [Parnas and Fruman] were not fleeing. And I don’t know, I can’t speak for them, they have their own businesses. I actually do two things with them. I represent their company, and they help me find people. But I’m pretty sure they were going just for the purpose I knew about.”

Giuliani insisted he has “nothing to do with Firtash,” whose legal team includes Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, the pro-Trump husband and wife attorneys who Fox News reported were “working off the books” with Giuliani as part of his Ukrainian venture.

“So, Firtash, I know nothing about,” Giuliani said. “I’m not going to answer any questions about because I’m probably going to get it wrong, and you can ask them.”

Giuliani also said he has “never” brought up Firtash’s extradition battle with Trump.

“I’m not even sure the president is aware of him,” Giuliani said. “I think if you asked the president ‘who is Dmitry Firtash?’ He would say ‘I don’t know.’ As far as I know, we’ve never discussed him.”

One of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessman, Firtash has battled extradition charges to the U.S. for the past two years as the Department of Justice seeks to prosecute him over allegations he bribed Indian officials to land a lucrative mining deal. Federal prosecutors labeled him as an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime.” Firtash has denied that label and the charge, fighting them from Vienna, where he has lived for the past five years.

Parnas has been working for Firtash’s legal team as a translator, a spokesman for DiGenova and Toensing told NBC News. The spokesman denied that Parnas’ Vienna trip involved Firtash.

As NBC News reported last week, Parnas and Fruman sought to change the leadership at Ukrainian state-run gas company Naftogaz at the same time they were working with Giuliani to uncover information related to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s Ukrainian business ties, an effort that is now the subject of the House impeachment inquiry. Naftogaz’s existing leadership was hostile toward Firtash’s past energy dealings. Giuliani last week denied any involvement with the efforts aimed at Naftogaz.

House Democrats subpoenaed Parnas and Fruman for documents and testimony as part of the impeachment inquiry, which began soon after it was revealed that Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart in July for “a favor” that included probing the Bidens and investigating a conspiracy involving the 2016 election

Giuliani has repeatedly highlighted an affidavit former Ukrainian Prosecutor Viktor Shokin filed in behalf of Firtash in which Shokin blamed his ouster on his investigation of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company affiliated with Hunter Biden. Backed by much of the international community, the former vice president pushed for Shokin’s ouster over his ineffectiveness at cracking down on corruption. The probe of Burisma had been dormant for more than a year by the time Shokin was fired and there has never been evidence that either Biden acted inappropriately.

Giuliani told NBC News he had “nothing to do with the preparing of the affidavit” and said he has more evidence to base his claims about Biden on than that document, including an interview with Shokin.

“This is a smear job. The Firtash thing is a smear job. I have nothing to do with him. The president has nothing to do with him,” Giuliani said. “The fact is, I know his case because it’s very famous. I know the contending positions on both sides of the case, but I have no involvement in it beyond hearing about it and obviously being given an affidavit.”

“And all I did was outline the parts of that affidavit that pertain to me,” he continued. “I have no idea if the rest of the affidavit is relevant, truthful. I do know the parts of the affidavit that I put out I can support with independent evidence, plenty of independent evidence.”

Tom Winter contributed.



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Israeli settlements don’t violate international law, U.S. says in major policy reversal

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The United States on Monday reversed its decadeslong position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, in the latest step by the Trump administration to solidify Israeli control over areas claimed by Palestinians for a future independent state.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press conference that declaring the settlements were in violation of international law had not worked in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace, calling the shift in position a recognition of “the reality on the ground.” He said from now on, the U.S. would take no position on the legality of any individual Israeli settlement, instead leaving that decision up to Israeli courts.

“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President [Ronald] Reagan: the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.

The historic shift is the latest blow to Palestinian aspirations for statehood under the Trump administration, which also shuttered the de facto Palestinian embassy in Washington and moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.

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The reversal comes as the Trump administration maintains that it still intends to release a long-delayed Mideast peace plan drafted by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner along with a few top aides. The Palestinians have rejected any potential proposal and said the Trump administration has disqualified itself as a broker for Mideast peace by granting countless concessions to Israel.

Still, Pompeo said the U.S. was “not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank,” arguing it was something Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate between themselves.

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis live in settlements constructed in the West Bank, which Israel seized along with east Jerusalem in 1967. Israel quickly annexed east Jerusalem, but not the West Bank. All serious peace proposals for decades have assumed that a future Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank, possibly with “land swaps” to allow some major settlements already built in the West Bank to remain under Israeli control.

The United Nations and most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish settlements as he struggles to salvage his hold on political power in Israel.

Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, who is currently tasked with trying to form a governing coalition in Israel, praised the decision in a statement saying the fate of West Bank settlements and their residents “should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace.”

“I applaud the U.S. government for its important statement, once again demonstrating its firm stance with Israel and its commitment to the security and future of the entire Middle East,” Gantz said.

But Martin Indyk, the former U.S. special envoy for Middle East Peace under the Obama administration, on Twitter denounced the decision as “totally gratuitous.”

The decision, first reported by The Associated Press, rejects a 1978 legal opinion by the State Department legal adviser at the time, Herbert J. Hansell. Since 1978 and until the Trump administration, the U.S. has been consistent in maintaining that settlement construction violated international law, although different presidents have been more or less vociferous in pushing back on continued Israeli construction in the West Bank.

U.S. policy under the Trump administration has been tacitly, if not explicitly, supportive of Israel’s expanded civilian settlements into the occupied West Bank, an about-face from the previous administration. In the final days of his administration, then-President Barack Obama infuriated Israel’s government by allowing the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution demanding Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem,” and declaring that Israeli settlements have “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

Paul Goldman contributed.



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Trump admin readies rule to send asylum-seekers back to dangerous countries they passed through

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to publish a rule that would send migrants who pass through Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras before seeking asylum in the United States back to those dangerous Central American countries to claim asylum there instead.

A copy of the rule, which was made visible online for “public inspection” Monday, would give asylum officers the authority to determine if one of the three agreements the U.S. has recently signed with those countries applies to the immigrants they vet.

If so, the asylum-seekers could be fast-tracked for deportation back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to claim asylum there. Previously, it was unclear how the agreements would be implemented.

Immigration advocates have sharply criticized the agreements with the three countries, claiming that they do not have the capabilities to process asylum-seekers and should not be deemed “safe third countries.”

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“The administration has bullied the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras into signing agreements that will be deadly for people seeking asylum and is now carrying out their fatal application,” said Charanya Krishnaswami, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA.

The new rule comes on the heels of two other tough asylum policies implemented over the past six months. One, known as “Remain in Mexico” or MPP, sends asylum-seekers back into Mexico until they are allowed to return for their court date before a U.S. immigration judge. The other makes immigrants ineligible for asylum— and on the fast track for deportation — if they failed to claim asylum in any of the countries they passed through on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

An official from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the part of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for providing benefits to those seeking asylum, said many inside the agency are quietly incredulous that the U.S. will be removing asylum-seekers to countries like Guatemala.

“Just as with MPP, there will be people who will die as a result of these policies,” the official said, due to the conditions vulnerable asylum-seekers will face in these countries. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the opinion contradicted the administration’s message.

The DHS and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

In the rule, the administration says processing asylum claims from Central America “consumes a tremendous amount of resources with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.” The DHS must detain many asylum-seekers until their cases are adjudicated and, for the Justice Department, more than 476,000 asylum cases remain pending in immigration court.

The agreements between the U.S. and Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were negotiated this summer by the former acting Homeland Security secretary, Kevin McAleenan. In return, the countries received assistance to increase law enforcement and regional security, according to DHS statements following McAleenan’s trips to the countries.

McAleenan also met with representatives in the region from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would play a critical part in helping asylum-seekers who have been deported to a country that is not their own and most likely does not have the infrastructure to review large numbers of asylum claims.

The new rule, which is expected to be officially published in the federal register Tuesday, can be found here. It is not clear when the rule will go into effect after publication.

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Democrats’ Southern victories could affect redistricting

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The re-election victory by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards over the weekend has assured Democrats of an all-important place at the table when political maps are redrawn after the 2020 census for future elections to Congress and the state Legislature.

Edwards’ narrow triumph on Saturday marked the third significant win in a Southern state in two weeks for Democrats, following their takeover of both legislative houses in Virginia and the defeat in Kentucky of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear.

The recent Southern state elections provided a preview of the battle over redistricting power that is to come next year in many states. Although about one-quarter of the states use independent commissions or nonpartisan staff in their redistricting procedures, state lawmakers, governors and other elected officials have key roles in redistricting in most other states.

If one party controls all pivotal state offices, that party can draw districts to the advantage of its candidates — a practice known as gerrymandering that can help lock in a party’s political power for the next decade to come.

In Louisiana, Republicans who already controlled the state House and Senate had hoped to consolidate power by defeating Edwards, or else obtain a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers that would allow them to override his vetoes. Neither occurred.

The “election was a huge victory for Louisiana Democrats,” Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “By protecting Governor John Bel Edwards’s veto power, Democrats can keep moving Louisiana forward, block extreme Republican policies, and fight for fair maps after the 2020 census.”

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In Kentucky, Beshear’s election also will give the veto pen to a Democrat when the state Legislature draws new districts. The Kentucky House and Senate currently are controlled by Republicans, who are expected to maintain their majorities in next year’s state legislative elections.

Beshear’s veto power is not as strong as Edwards’ is in Louisiana, because the Kentucky Constitution requires only a basic majority vote by each legislative chamber to override a veto. Any redistricting plan passed by Kentucky lawmakers would be defended in court by newly elected Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the first Republican to hold the office in 70 years.

As a result of those circumstances, “we still view Kentucky as full Republican control for redistricting purposes,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, which coordinates the party’s data and legal efforts for redistricting.

Yet Beshear still will have the gubernatorial bully pulpit during redistricting, just as Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will against a legislative body with Democratic supermajorities.

“If Governor-elect Beshear makes an issue of it, it could potentially force them to draw a fairer map than otherwise they might have,” said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Elections this month in another Southern state played out as expected in favor of Republicans, when they held on to the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in Mississippi.

Following the 2010 census, Republicans who had swept to power in many statehouses used their newfound majorities to draw districts that increased their odds of winning future elections. Democrats had done the same thing historically when they had power.

But a backlash has grown against such gerrymandering over the past decade. In 2018, voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah approved ballot measures designed to diminish legislative partisanship in redistricting — in some cases, by giving power to independent commissions.

Activists are backing a new batch of potential redistricting initiatives for the 2020 ballot in Arkansas, Nevada, Oklahoma and Oregon.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear speaks at his election night party in Lousiville on Nov. 5, 2019. Beshear defeated the Republican incumbent for in the gubernatorial race.Bryan Woolston / AP

In Virginia, congressional and state legislative districts have been drawn by lawmakers, subject to a gubernatorial veto.

But earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers overwhelmingly gave initial approval to a proposed constitutional amendment to create a redistricting commission with 16 members split equally between lawmakers and citizens, with no role for the governor. At the time that vote was taken, Republicans held a slim majority over Democrats in both legislative chambers.

A second vote on the amendment will be required in early 2020 to place it on the November 2020 ballot. This time, Democrats control both chambers.

Democrats could renege on the plan and try to keep the redistricting powers for themselves, but that would risk alienating voters and could backfire in the long run, said John McGlennon, a professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

“The Democrats need to keep one thing in mind, which is that the political alignment of the state changed very quickly, and it can reverse quickly,” McGlennon said.

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