Email #193: “historic policies”?

I am relieved that Attorney General Sessions’ testimony before the Senate last week clarified what had appeared to be potential perjury during his confirmation hearings in January when he incorrectly stated that he had not had contact with Russian officials during the campaign. He said during his new testimony:

“I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”

He also clarified why he recused himself from the Russian collusion investigation, citing a specific Justice Department regulation, “28 cfr 45. 2,” which he read aloud:

“‘Unless authorized, no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he had a personal or political relationship with any person involved in the conduct of an investigation’ that goes on to say for political campaign and it says if you have a close identification with an elected official or candidate arising from service as a principal adviser, you should not participate in an investigation of that campaign… This is the reason I recused myself: I felt I was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice and as a leader of the Department of Justice, I should comply with the rules obviously.”

While both of these clarifications are essential, the Attorney General refused to provide other critical information. When asked to report conversations he had with the President regarding Director Comey and his firing, Sessions answered:

“I’m not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of a private conversation that I may have had with the president on this subject or others.”

He repeated his refusal, citing Justice Department policy as he did for his recusal:

“I’m not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of a private conversation that I may have had with the president on this subject or others. I know this will be discussed, but that’s the rules that have been adhered to by the Department of Justice as you know.”

However, unlike his citing of “28 cfr 45. 2,” when asked which regulation he meant, he could not answer but only insisted: “I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.” What “historic policies”? Senator Harris pressed the point before being interrupted:

“Did you not ask your staff to show you the policy that would be the basis for you refusing to answer the majority–”

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and so as the individual most directly responsible for oversight of the Justice Department generally and the Attorney General specifically, could you please explain what “rules that have been adhered to by the Department of Justice” he could have meant? If no such regulations exist, could you please write to the Attorney General informing him so and request him to correct his misstatement?

I understand that you may personally agree with his refusal, but the question is on what grounds he refused. Also, in your legal opinion, if the Attorney General cited a non-existent policy as preventing him from answering a set of questions under oath, is that false testimony?

When he was a Senator during the 1999 impeachment trial, Sessions voted to convict President Clinton for making false statements under oath. A majority of the Senate did not agree, concluding that Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” while intentionally misleading, was not technically false.

During his hearing in January, Attorney General Sessions was asked:

“if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

He answered:

“I’m not aware of any of those activities… I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

While his original statement is explicitly false—he had communications with the Russians twice—he explained last week what he actually meant. The American public now needs to know what Attorney General Sessions actually meant when he invented a Justice Department regulation in order to conceal information regarding the President’s potential obstruction of justice.

Email #190: “Russian fatigue”?

Yesterday the Senate passed a bill imposing sanctions on Russia for its interference in the election. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 97-2. The bill also requires Congress to review any steps the President might take to alter those sanctions. You voted for similar legislation in 2015, requiring the same of President Obama regarding Iran sanctions. For that reason I assume you will be supporting the Russia sanctions bill when it comes before the House soon.

I am concerned though that the House has not been responding adequately to Russia. Last June, Speaker Paul Ryan, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Steve Scalise, and at least one other unidentified House Republican were recorded having a conversation about Russia. At the end of the conversation, McCarthy made a joke that Donald Trump was working for Putin. Some news sources have suggested that the comment was not a joke, but I have read the transcript and don’t believe it was said seriously.

But the conversation still concerns me, especially the content leading up to the unfortunate joke. Ryan had just left a meeting with the Ukrainian prime minister, who he called “a good guy,” “the anti-corruption guy” working on “amendments to the constitution” and “passing all these anticorruption laws” in order “to clean up their government.”

After Rodgers praised Ukraine for “fighting for their freedom, their independence,” Ryan repeated the prime minister’s opinion about Russia:

“people have said that they have Ukraine fatigue, and it’s really Russian fatigue because what Russia is doing to us, financing our populists, financing people in our governments to undo our governments, messing with our oil and gas energy, all the things Russia does to basically blow up our country, they’re just going to roll right through us and go to the Baltics and everyone else … So we should not have Ukraine fatigue, we should have Russian fatigue.”

Rodgers emphatically agreed, as she and Ryan described Russia’s “very sophisticated” and “maniacal” “propaganda war”:

“Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.  Not just in Ukraine. They were once funding the NGOs in Europe. They attacked fracking … they’re doing this throughout Europe … this isn’t just about Ukraine.”

But when Ryan tried to say that “we” were the “only one taking a strong stand up against it,” Rodgers disagreed: “We’re not, we’re not, but, we’re not.” McCarthy then told Ryan the latest news: “The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.” Ryan seemed surprised, asking: “and delivered it to, to who?”

McCarthy answered: “There’s two people, I think, Putin pays. Rohrabacher and Trump.” The group laughed and he added, “Swear to God.” Ryan interjected into the continuing laughter four times: “This is an off the record. NO LEAKS! Alright?! This is how we know we’re a real family here. What’s said in the family stays in the family.”

It wasn’t until I read the transcript for myself that I realized that the conversation was explicitly about Russia interfering internally with democratic countries by supporting populist candidates as well as government insiders. The conversation also wasn’t based on conjecture but on specific concerns communicated by the prime minister of Ukraine, a country actively fighting Russia’s attempts to undo its government through corruption.

McCarthy joked about Rep. Dana Rohrabacher because of his support for Russia in Congress, but the FBI actually warned Rohrabacher in 2012 that Russian spies were attempting to recruit him. This is precisely what the prime minister said about Russia “financing people in our governments to undo our governments.”

McCarthy joked about Donald Trump because of his support for Russia on the campaign trail. Trump said in his first foreign policy address in April: “I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia, from a position of strength only, is possible, absolutely possible.” We also now know that the Trump campaign had undisclosed phone and email contacts with Russia beginning in April, two months before McCarthy’s joke.

The conversation reveals that the GOP leadership was fully aware that Russian recruitment of western politicians was an immediate threat. Although Speaker Ryan’s attempt to keep the conversation “in the family” is excusable because there were no allegations of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia at that time, when those allegations rose in early January, the GOP leaders would have understood them in a radically different light than those of us in the general public. Knowing that Russia was actively financing populist candidates increases the need for a thorough investigation. But despite having this insider knowledge, the GOP leaders did not support an investigation and instead kept their knowledge “in the family.” They put politics first.

Since the Washington Post did not identify everyone present in the June conversation, could you please confirm that you were not present?

Would you also please detail when and to what degree you became aware that Russia was engaged in a strategy of recruiting and aiding western politicians, especially populist ones?

Do you agree that such knowledge should have stayed “in the family” of GOP leadership?

Where do you draw the line between political family and the larger family of our shared nation?

Email #185: “erode the American people’s trust”?

You wrote to me in April regarding Russian interference in the November election:

“I want to emphasize that the intelligence community has found no evidence that there was any interference in the voting or balloting process in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

This is no longer true. Last week, the online news source The Intercept published a May 5th NSA memo supplied by an anonymous source. It reveals a cyberattack on a U.S.  voting software supplier and over 100 local elected officials by a Russian agency:

“Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”

This contradicts President Putin’s recent statements that the Russian government was not involved in any cyberattacks. It also contradicts President Trump’s May 27th tweets:

“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.”

“Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names…it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!”

In this case the anonymous source has been identified and the document authenticated. Although the NSA declined to comment on their leaked memo, The Intercept still agreed to their redaction requests before publishing the document. Reality Leigh Winner, an employee of the government contractor Pluribus International Corporation, admitted to removing the classified document and mailing it to The Intercept. She faces up to ten years in jail.

You have spoken out strongly against such actions. You said in your April form letter that you “requested a briefing on efforts made by the intelligence agencies to weed out any leakers of classified information and bring them to justice.” You also said that: “All leaks of classified information have the potential to erode the American people’s trust in their government’s ability to protect both the security of our country and privacy of U.S. persons.”

While I agree that the leaking of classified information is a serious crime, I also ask that you note the erosion of the American people’s trust in their government when their government does not disclose important information or directly contradicts facts. The President has repeatedly cast doubts about the role Russia played in the election. He stated in late November: “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” He said in May that “this Russia thing” is “an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”

Ms. Winner’s illegally leaked information shows that the President was misleading the American people. Her leak also reverse your claim that there was no Russian “interference in the voting or balloting process in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” While we mutually believed this was the case when you made that statement, we now know the Russian attack included our voting process too. We know this only because of Ms. Winner.

I personally am unsure how to weigh her crime against the public good of whistle-blowing, but regardless of how she is prosecuted, you are now obligated to retract your false claim.

Email #173: “I simply don’t think he did”?

The Washington Post reported last week that President Trump asked Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, and Michael Roger, Director of the National Security Agency, to make false public statements denying the existence of evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election. Neither Coats nor Roger complied.

Although the President’s requests could be construed as evidence of obstruction, the White House responded that it “does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals.” But, like former FBI Director Comey, Roger documented the President’s request in an internal memo, which, along with eventual sworn testimonies, will likely be part of Congressional and FBI investigations.

My concern is whether some members of Congress are impartial enough to accept such evidence. Republican Rep. Trent Franks, a member of your House Judiciary Committee, publicly stated his bias last week:

“I don’t think the president told James Comey to end any investigation … I don’t think any memo would convince me. I don’t think any of us are going to be able to know that for sure. But I simply don’t think he did that.”

How can Rep. Franks serve on your committee if he allows his unsubstantiated opinions to outweigh documented evidence? If the Comey memo does not “convince” him, will he also disregard Comey’s testimony? Will he disregard the testimony of other FBI employees if they corroborate that the President asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation?

Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, another member of your House Judiciary Committee and the former chair of the House Oversight Committee, asked you to hold hearings on the President’s firing of Director Comey and “make sure that Mr. Mueller has the assets, the independence, and an understandable breadth of the initial investigation and a timeline that he anticipates based on his decades of experience.”

I agree with Rep. Issa:

“We need the facts. So let’s get the facts. This is the Judiciary Committee, this is a Justice Department issue. We’re talking about the guy who headed the FBI. And we’ve had concerns, frankly. As the Judiciary Committee, this is a Justice Department issue. I think we should obviously be involved.”

So why did you reject his request? Do you instead agree with Rep. Franks that personal opinions are more important than substantiated facts? Rep. Hakeem Jeffries told Real Clear Politics that he and other Democratic members of your Committee were “mocked” for suggesting that you investigate the President. Your official response at least appears civil: “I do not believe that it is the appropriate role of this committee to do [anything] other than to conduct oversight of the Department of Justice to be assured that they are doing their job.”

But why has your scope suddenly shrunk to the oversight of only the Justice Department when in November you assured voters it included “checking executive overreach”?

Do you feel that a president should be allowed to ask directors of national intelligence to issue false statements?

Do you feel a president should be allowed to tell Russian officials: “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”?

Do you sincerely believe you would not be openly condemning these behaviors if they had been committed by President Obama?

Do you sincerely believe you would not be using the House Judiciary Committee to investigate them if they occurred in a Democratic administration?

Although President Trump is at fault for placing you in an unreasonable position, it is your responsibility to rise above the politics of both parties and place the integrity of the House Judiciary Committee above all else.

You are currently failing to do so.

Email #172: “travesty of justice”?

When President Kennedy appointed his brother Attorney General in 1961, the New York Times called it “irresponsible,” Newsweek called it a “travesty of justice,” and The Nation called it “the greatest example of nepotism this land has ever seen.” Six years later Congress passed the Federal Anti-Nepotism Statue—though its Democratic sponsor was more worried about the 50 wives on Congressmen’s payrolls.

The law is clear:

“A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official.”

The statute states explicitly that “public official” includes “the President” and “relative” includes “son-in-law.” I am confused then why as chair of the House Judiciary Committee you did not respond to the President’s appointment of Jared Kushner as senior advisor on January 9.

President Bush’s former top ethics lawyer, Richard Painter, said “the statute prohibits the appointment.” This seems self-evident, but Painter also said he would “err on the side of caution,” suggesting there’s some ambiguity. I presume that’s because that statue includes the sentence:

“An individual appointed, employed, promoted, or advanced in violation of this section is not entitled to pay.”

I understand that Kushner is not being paid, but given his $740 million net worth, not taking a paycheck is hardly a punishment.  More importantly, President Trump is still violating the law by appointing him. The President said:

“Jared has been a tremendous asset and trusted adviser throughout the campaign and transition and I am proud to have him in a key leadership role in my administration… He will be an invaluable member of my team…”

A “member” of the White House “team,” especially a “key leadership role,” is “a civilian position in the agency in which” President Trump “is serving” and “exercises jurisdiction.” Why are you ignoring this violation of federal law? Your inaction violates what you wrote last October:

“We are a nation of laws. That principle was important to our Founders, and it is rightfully at the very core of our government. In fact, as I travel the Sixth Congressional District, folks continually tell me about the importance of following the rule of law as the best way to govern our country. Too often they have seen laws ignored with little or no consequences for those who break them, and want this to change.”

Kushner may have also violated laws far more consequential than anti-nepotism. Multiple news sources reported yesterday that Kushner attempted to establish a secret communication line with the Kremlin to circumnavigate the U.S. government. Kushner and Michael Flynn met with Russian Ambassador Kyslak in Trump Tower in early December and asked for use of the Russian embassy’s communication equipment. Kyslak was apparently startled but relayed the request to the Kremlin, where it was declined.

While the private meeting, which the White House said in March was a brief courtesy meeting, and the request would not be crimes, they significantly widen the appearance of collusion. It also makes Secretary Clinton’s use of an insufficiently secure private email system seem benign in contrast since Kushner and Flynn were attempting to use a system entirely outside U.S. security.

You felt that Secretary Clinton’s negligence deserved criminal prosecution and punishment. What is your opinion of Kushner’s request?

Since you are ignoring the administration’s violation of the federal anti-nepotism law, do you no longer think “following the rule of law” is “the best way to govern our country”?

How many other laws do you feel the administration should be allowed to violate with “no consequences”?

If we are a “nation of laws,” why do you apply that “principle” at “the very core of our government” so inconsistently?

If you can’t exercise oversight of the executive branch regarding something as relatively low stakes as nepotism, how can the nation trust you with the Russian crisis?

Email #166: “this important step”?

Thank you for your form letter regarding the President’s firing of Director Comey and the investigations into Russia’s interference in the election.

Like you, I also “support Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel to lead an impartial investigation.” I am confused though why your May 17 press release, which is dated two days before your letter to me and uses some of the same language, includes the sentence: “I applaud the Trump Administration for taking this important step ….” As you stated above, the decision to appoint a special counsel was the Deputy Attorney General’s, not the President’s. According to news reports, Rosenstein did not even inform the White House prior to the announcement. The President also sharply criticized Rosenstein decision, telling reporters:

“I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country.”

He also tweeted:

“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!”

“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Your letter also states that “the House Judiciary Committee will continue to exercise oversight over this investigation as necessary.” Since you previously stated that calls for oversight by the Democratic members of your Committee were “unnecessary,” I’m not sure what you now mean. The only action regarding the investigation that you have taken as chair was to co-write a letter to the Justice Department about leaks of Michael Flynn lying. You were not concerned with the investigation itself but with the disclosure of details to news agencies. Is this what you mean when you say you “will continue to exercise oversight”?

It is also difficult to take seriously your ending promise: “Rest assured I will work to ensure this investigation is conducted in an impartial and appropriate manner.” While I am hopeful that Robert Mueller will behave as impartially and appropriately as he did as FBI Director under Presidents Bush and Obama, I do not understand how you will “work to ensure” that. Your May 17 press release shows the opposite. After falsely applauding the Trump Administration, you characterize the appointment of a special counsel as a step that “the previous Administration repeatedly declined to do in other matters.” Using the investigation of the Trump administration as an opportunity to criticize President Obama months after he has left office is hardly “impartial.”

We do, however, appear to agree that “Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and alleged ties with Trump campaign personnel” need “a fair and independent investigation in order to root out the facts.” But it is in part because of your failure to meet the constitutional responsibilities of your office that such an investigation is only now underway.

Email #165: “deals in Russia”?

Earlier this month, the President’s lawyers at the firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius released a statement declaring that the President has had no significant business ties to Russia over the last decade and that his latest tax forms include no income from Russia at all. Unfortunately, their statement wasn’t accompanied by any documentation. Ironically, the statement itself suggests a Russian business tie. The firm was named “Russia Law Firm of the Year” in 2016 by the London legal publication Chambers & Partners. According to their own website, its lawyers are “well known in the Russian market, and have a deep familiarity with the local legislation, practices, and key players” and are “particularly adept” on “sanction matters.”

According to the 104-page financial disclosure form that President Trump submitted to the Federal Election Commission while he was a candidate, he has at least $315 million in liabilities, most of which are mortgages and loans for six properties: Trump Tower, 40 Wall Street, Trump National Doral, Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago, and Trump Old Post Office. The financial disclosure form indicates that each property has a debt of at least $50 million, but it does not reveal what banks or other institutions provided the money. Since the President has broken his promise to release his tax records, Congress does not know which if any of these business ties constitute a conflict of interest. How can you fulfill your constitutional duty to oversee the executive branch without this information?

Fortunately news agencies have been doing some of your work for you. The New York Times reported in April 2016 “a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians ‘in favor with’ President Vladimir V. Putin.”  They also found a history of business ties dating to the 90s: “Trump has sought and received funding from Russian investors for his business ventures, especially after most American banks stopped lending to him following his multiple bankruptcies.”

Reuters reported in March “that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida, according to public documents, interviews and corporate records. The buyers include politically connected businessmen, such as a former executive in a Moscow-based state-run construction firm that works on military and intelligence facilities, the founder of a St. Petersburg investment bank and the co-founder of a conglomerate with interests in banking, property and electronics.”

This would seem to contradict the claim the President made in February: “I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia.” The Reuters report also contradicts statements made from Trump family members. The President’s son Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Golf writer James Dodson reported to Vanity Fair that the President’s other son Eric Trump said over a game of golf that his family had access to $100 million from Russia to construct their North Carolina golf course. According to Dodson, Eric said: “we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia… We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.”

Eric Trump has since denied this, and I personally don’t consider Vanity Fair a very credible news source. But the story reveals how little verifiable information we have about the President’s business ties to Russia or anywhere else. This is why members of your Judiciary Committee presented a resolution of inquiry requesting additional financial information from the White House. You and all of the Republican members of your Committee voted against. You called it “premature.” That was in February.

Would you still call the resolution of inquiry “premature” now? Do you still insist that Congress does not need to see the President’s tax records?