Email #334: “laughingstock”?

President Trump tweeted last Wednesday:

“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

But the President also said to reporters:

“Send him to Gitmo. I would certainly consider that.”

Although Press Secretary Sanders referred to Sayfullo Saipov as an “enemy combatant,” the legal term used to describe Guantanamo prisoners, the President tweeted on Thursday:

“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system . . . There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed. Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”

Ironically, defense lawyers may now be able to use the tweet to move the case to a different jurisdiction and to avoid the death penalty if jurors are prejudiced by the President’s widely publicized comments. Andrew McCarthy explained in the National Review on Saturday:

“The Justice Department has an exacting process before the death penalty may be charged. The process is meant to impress on the judiciary — much of which is philosophically predisposed against capital punishment — that the attorney general seeks the death sentence only after extremely careful deliberation, which includes hearing a presentation from the defense. Now, since the attorney general answers to the president, Saipov’s lawyers will argue that the DOJ process is, shall we say, a joke and a laughingstock, the president having already ordered his subordinate to seek the defendant’s execution.”

Although the Justice Department does not treat the President’s tweets as official statements, they appear to have affected prosecutors too. Government lawyers submitted a criminal complaint against Saipov on Wednesday after the Justice Department’s national security officials approved the complaint, but then those officials tried to rescind their approval but could not because the complaint had already been submitted to the court. As chair of the House Judiciary Committee whose primary responsibility is oversight of the Justice Department, will you be writing to Attorney General Sessions to request an explanation for the attempted change and the circumstances that caused it?

As McCarthy alluded, the President also said last Wednesday:

“We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now — because what we have right now is a joke, and it’s a laughingstock.”

Do you agree with that assessment? Press Secretary Sanders claimed afterwards:

“That’s not what he said. He said that process has people calling us a joke and a laughingstock.”

This is not true. Sanders altered the President’s statement. The only person calling us a joke and a laughingstock is the President himself.

This is also not the first time White House staff has altered the President’s words. On October 13, he said: “I went to Puerto Rico and I met with the President of the Virgin Islands… The Virgin Islands and the President of the Virgin Islands, these are people that are incredible people.” President Trump had met with Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp, and official White House transcripts changed the references to “the President of the Virgin Islands” to “the governor of the Virgin Islands.”

While I understand the wish to erase an embarrassing gaffe that makes the President look like a joke and a laughingstock, altering official statements is concerning. Although former Press Secretary Spicer said in June that the President’s tweets “are considered official statements by the President of the United States,” the Justice Department has argued in court that the President’s comments “may not accurately reflect the government’s position.” Based on revisions of the President’s words, it is unclear which of his statements even the White House accepts as official and reflecting government positions.

Since you oversee the Justice Department, could you please offer your own assessment of the U.S. justice system? Do you also consider it a “joke” and a “laughingstock”? If not, do you object to the President’s statement—or do you agree with his Press Secretary that he never said what he said? You wrote in August:

“Like the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984, when the government removes facts and history from the past, citizens of today and the future cannot learn the vital lessons they would have otherwise imparted.”

Do you still stand by those words, or will they be revised too?

Email #326: “smoking gun”?

You said last Tuesday: “It is not every day in congressional investigations that we find a smoking gun. Here, we have it.”

The “gun” was Justice Department emails from 2014 regarding the use of money that it obtains from corporate wrongdoers that settle lawsuits by paying fines. You said these “internal DOJ documents” show that “the donation provisions were structured to aid the Obama administration’s political friends and exclude conservative groups.” The emails specifically show that this structuring was accomplished by Associate Attorney General Tony West who was thanked by groups who received funds.

Attorney General Sessions ended the “slush fund” last June, saying:

“When the federal government settles a case against a corporate wrongdoer, any settlement funds should go first to the victims and then to the American people — not to bankroll third-party special interest groups or the political friends of whoever is in power. Unfortunately, in recent years the Department of Justice has sometimes required or encouraged defendants to make these payments to third parties as a condition of settlement. With this directive, we are ending this practice and ensuring that settlement funds are only used to compensate victims, redress harm, and punish and deter unlawful conduct.”

I agree with the Attorney General, and I thank you for leading the House Judiciary Committee in this worthwhile investigation that produced useful results.

However, I am confused by your statement about the rarity of “smoking guns.” It seems the Trump administration has provided several that the House Judiciary Committee is choosing to ignore.

According to official Oval Office documents, President Trump said to Russian foreign minister Lavrov and Russian ambassador Kislyak on May 10, 2017: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off. I’m not under investigation.” That was the day after the President fired Director Comey.

Like Associate Attorney General Tony West’s emails, the statement contradicts the administration’s official claims, specifically that the FBI Director was fired not because but despite his leading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.

The difference of course is that West is several tiers down the administration hierarchy. The equivalent would be if you had discovered White House emails from President Obama directing the Justice Department to give settlement funds to leftwing organizations. And even if such documents existed, the severity of the misbehavior would be significantly lower. It would not, for example, constitute obstruction of justice and possible grounds for impeachment.

But technically your statement is true. Your House Judiciary Committee did not find this “smoking gun” in its “congressional investigation” because your committee is not holding an investigation into the firing of Director Comey even though oversight of the Justice Department is your primary responsibility.

Instead you’re reading emails from 2014.

At this rate of oversight, will you begin investigating the current administration in 2020?

Email #310: “it’s not ideology”?

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, you have been vigilant about providing oversight of the executive branch’s investigations and prosecutions of crimes committed by immigrants. You have written multiple letters to the Justice Department and Homeland Security about the presence of MS-13 gang members in cities across the country. You argue that membership in MS-13 should be grounds for deportation regardless of whether an individual has been convicted of an actual crime. You say: “it is time to send the message that this behavior will simply not be tolerated.”

While I support your goal of protecting Americans against criminal violence, I am confused why you apply that goal so selectively.

A May 2017 Joint Intelligence Bulletin of the FBI and Homeland Security was titled: “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence.” The report is unclassified and now available online, but since you are chair of the House Judiciary Committee whose top responsibility is the oversight of the FBI and Homeland Security I assume you read it last spring. It warns that “small cells within the white supremacist extremist (WSE) movement likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.” It documents six attacks “that involved the opportunistic targeting of racial or religious minorities.” The crimes were committed by “members of racist skinhead groups” and “Klan members.” More alarmingly, “WSEs were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks” since 2000, “more than any other domestic extremist movement.”

New FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was confirmed with overwhelming bipartisan support in August, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that there are about 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations currently underway and that 176 domestic terror subjects have been arrested in the last year. He said: “Our focus is on violence and threats of violence against the people of this country. That’s our concern — it’s not ideology.”

Your focus on crimes committed by immigrants, however, does appear to be ideological. Last May, President Trump claimed that MS-13 has “literally taken over towns and cities of the United States.” But the White House, the Justice Department, Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement could not provide any evidence to support that claim. Instead, ICE reported in May that its annual anti-gang operation included the arrests of a total 104 MS-13 gang members nationwide. While I applaud those arrests and any other efforts to combat criminal organizations regardless of the immigrant-status of their members, 104 is a smaller number than 176. Yet your focus has been overwhelmingly on MS-13 with no attention on the WSE threats identified even the same month that the President lied about MS-13.

You responded to MS-13 by sponsoring the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, but what have you done in response to WSEs? Isn’t it time to send the message that this behavior will simply not be tolerated too? Or is your goal to fuel anti-immigrant fears within your voter base? If so, you must approve of the President’s tweet last week: “Ralph Northam,who is running for Governor of Virginia,is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!”

While the President’s lie about MS-13 “literally” taking over town and cities in the U.S. might be called a mere hyperbole, his claim that Northam “is fighting for” MS-13 exceeds even that low bar. Worse, the President is not emphasizing “killer gangs” generally but a tiny subsection specific to Latino immigrants. MS-13 membership is estimated at 10,000, but the FBI documents a total of 33,000 street gangs in the U.S. with a total membership of 1.4 million.  Of the 1,378 gang members arrested by ICE, less than 1/13th belonged to MS-13. And 933 were U.S. citizens–even though you and the President highlight MS-13 in order to argue that illegal immigrant criminals are threatening our nation because our border security has failed. It hasn’t.

Unlike the FBI, which sets aside ideology to focus on all threats, you exploit MS-13 while ignoring the proportionately greater threat of the white supremacist extremist movement–one with far deeper roots right here in Virginia. You have said that the “primary duty of the federal government is to keep Americans safe.” If so, you are hypocritically failing that duty by placing politics above all else.



Email #271: “allegations from the President himself”?

On March 8th, you and the other Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to former FBI Director Comey regarding “allegations from the President himself that he and his associates were placed under surveillance during the 2016 campaign.” These so-called allegations had appeared in a set of early morning tweets just four days earlier:

“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

“Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”

“I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Though you have since expressed in private meetings with constituents that you wish the President would stop using his Twitter account, it was impressive how quickly you responded to the President’s tweets. You also reminded Director Comey that the Judiciary Committee is the primary House committee of jurisdiction over the Wiretap Act and so requested a briefing “on the very serious allegations that the President and/or his associates were or are under surveillance.”

You never reported whether that briefing occurred, but on Friday, roughly six months after you made your request, the Justice Department filed a court brief stating that both its National Security Division and the FBI “confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets.” When asked about this, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered: “This is not news.”

Since you said your request to Director Comey was evidence that you and your fellow Republican Judiciary Committee members “will not waver in our commitment to ensuring that our nation’s most powerful intelligence tools and agencies operate with the trust and confidence of the American people,” are you satisfied in the “not news” confirmation that the President’s “very serious allegations” were fabrications?

If your concern is the trust and confidence of the American People in our nation’s most powerful agencies, do you acknowledge that your quick and credulous response to the President’s baseless tweets undermines that very trust and confidence?

Since you emphasized to Director Comey the importance of your Constitutional role to engage in “oversight of the functions of the Executive Branch,” will you now investigate the President’s role in making and disseminating these false allegations?

You told Director Comey that “Our fellow citizens must have confidence in the thoroughness and evenhandedness of our investigatory and prosecutorial agencies.” Looking back at your March 8th letter now, do you believe that it promotes or undermines thorough evenhandedness?

After the next six months have passed, do you imagine your current behavior will be evaluated as unwaveringly evenhanded by impartial judges?

When the Trump administration is a brief but astonishing chapter in our grandchildren’s history books, what supporting role do you think you and your fellow GOP Representatives will play? Principled watchmen? Savvy party loyalists? Credulous victims? Or just comic relief jesters?

Email #244: “dangerous drug traffickers”?

Marijuana is legal in the Netherlands and openly smoked in Amsterdam coffee shops. While I have no intention of smoking any pot while here with my family, I see the argument for the country not squandering its tax dollars prosecuting people who do. While I am indifferent to whether marijuana should be legalized generally in the U.S., I am pleased that medical marijuana has been.

The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to the 2015 appropriations bill specifies that:

“None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used … to prevent any [states] from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

This was common-sense, bipartisan legislation. The amendment was named after conservative Republican Rep. Rohrabacher, and it was brought to the floor of a Republican-controlled House where 49 Republicans joined with Democrats to pass it.

Sadly, I see you were not one of those Republicans. Worse, I see Attorney General Sessions hopes to see the amendment revoked. He wrote to Congress arguing that the amendment would inhibit the Justice Department’s ability to enforce the Controlled Substances Act:

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

While I am pleased the Attorney General is battling dangerous drug trafficking, medical marijuana is a separate issue. According to a Quinnipiac poll from April, 94% of Americans approve of medical marijuana. And the medical research community has reached a consensus about its unique benefits, especially the alleviation of chronic pain. Moreover, states with medical marijuana record fewer deaths due to opiate overdose.

And yet Attorney General Sessions seems unaware, stating:

“I see a line in The Washington Post today that I remember from the ’80s, ‘Marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse.’ Give me a break. This is the kind of argument that’s been made out there to just — almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that’s true. Maybe science will prove I’m wrong.”

Science has already proven him wrong. Our Attorney General should not be making 2017 Justice Department policy based on his 80s-era assumptions. I ask that the House Judiciary Committee please caution him accordingly.