Trump’s AG nominee: ‘Vitally important’ Mueller finish work
By ERIC TUCKER
Monday, January 14
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general will tell senators at his confirmation hearing “it is vitally important” that special counsel Robert Mueller be allowed to complete his Russia investigation, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.
“I believe it is in the best interest of everyone — the President, Congress, and, most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the Special Counsel to complete his work,” Barr will say.
He will also address concerns that the results of Mueller’s investigation into potential coordination between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russia might never be disclosed, saying it is “very important” that Congress and the public be informed of the prosecution team’s findings.
“For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” Barr said. “I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decisions.”
The remarks are an acknowledgment that Barr’s handling of Mueller’s investigation will take center stage at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They’re intended to reassure Democratic senators troubled by Barr’s past comments on the special counsel’s probe, including an unsolicited memo he sent the Justice Department last year criticizing the inquiry into whether the president had obstructed justice.
He also previously said the president’s firing of FBI director James Comey was appropriate and that the Mueller team, criticized by Trump for including prosecutors who have contributed to Democrats, should have had more “balance.”
Those stances raised alarms that Barr could stifle the investigation as it reaches its final stages or make decisions that protect the president. Among the questions that might confront a new attorney general would be whether to approve a subpoena for the president if he refuses to answer additional questions, and whether to disclose to Congress whatever report or conclusions Mueller turns in.
But Barr, who also moved to quell concerns during private meetings last week with lawmakers, will insist that Trump had “sought no assurances, promises, or commitments from me of any kind, either express or implied.”
“As Attorney General, my allegiance will be to the rule of law, the Constitution, and the American people,” Barr will say. “That is how it should be. That is how it must be. And, if you confirm me, that is how it will be.”
Barr’s supervisory role may be especially important since Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in May 2017 and has overseen his day-to-day work, expects to leave the Justice Department soon after Barr is confirmed. It is not clear how much of the investigation will be left by that point.
Barr would replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who declined to recuse himself from the investigation over past critical comments on it — despite calls from Democrats and the advice of a Justice Department ethics official.
In his memo, sent in June to Rosenstein and to the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Barr criticized as “fatally misconceived” the theory of obstruction that Mueller appeared to be pursuing. He said presidents cannot be criminally investigated for actions they are permitted to take under the Constitution, such as firing officials who work for them, just because of a subjective determination that they may have had a corrupt state of mind.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec has said Barr wrote the memo on his own initiative and relying only on publicly available information. She said senior ethics officials were consulted about the memo and have advised that it presents no conflict of interest to Barr’s work as attorney general.
In his remarks Tuesday, Barr will say that the memo was narrowly focused on a single theory of obstruction that media reports suggested Mueller might be considering.
“The memo did not address — or in any way question — the Special Counsel’s core investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Barr will say.
Trump denies ever working for Russia, blasts investigators
By DARLENE SUPERVILLE and JONATHAN LEMIRE
Monday, January 14
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump denied Monday he ever worked for Russia, answering a question he declined to directly address over the weekend.
Speaking from the South Lawn before departing the White House for New Orleans, Trump called former FBI and Justice Department officials “known scoundrels” and “dirty cops.” He was reacting to a New York Times report that law enforcement officials began investigating, in 2017, whether Trump had been working on behalf of Russia against U.S. interests.
“I never worked for Russia,” he told reporters. Trump didn’t directly answer the question in a Saturday Fox News interview.
“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump told Jeanine Pirro, a personal friend. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written, and if you read the article you’ll see that they found absolutely nothing.”
Trump went on to assert that no president has taken a harder stance against Russia than he has.
“If you ask the folks in Russia, I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other … probably any other president, period, but certainly the last three or four presidents,” he said.
White House aides expressed regret over the weekend that the president did not more clearly and forcefully deny being a Russian agent when asked by the usually friendly Fox News host, according to three White House aides and Republicans close to the White House. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Trump Monday defended his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, a move that has drawn the scrutiny of special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump called the Russia probe “a whole big fat hoax.”
AP writers Zeke Miller and Catherine Lucey contributed to the story.
Trump dodges question on whether he has worked for Russia
By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
Sunday, January 13
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump avoided directly answering when asked whether he currently is or has ever worked for Russia after a published report said law enforcement officials, concerned about his behavior after he fired FBI Director James Comey in 2017, had begun investigating that possibility.
Trump said it was the “most insulting” question he’d ever been asked.
The New York Times report Friday cited unnamed former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.
Trump responded to the story Saturday during a telephone interview broadcast on Fox News Channel after host Jeanine Pirro, a personal friend, asked the Russia question.
“I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump said. “I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written, and if you read the article you’ll see that they found absolutely nothing.”
Trump never answered Pirro directly, but went on to assert that no president has taken a harder stance against Russia than he has.
“If you ask the folks in Russia, I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other … probably any other president, period, but certainly the last three or four presidents.”
Trump’s claim was disputed by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said almost all the sanctions on Russia arose not in the White House but in Congress, due to concerns by members of both parties about Moscow’s actions. Warner accused the White House of being very slow to put in place the penalties.
The Times reported that FBI agents and some top officials became suspicious of Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign but didn’t open an investigation at that time because they weren’t sure how to approach such a sensitive probe.
Trump’s behavior in the days around Comey’s May 2017 firing helped trigger the counterintelligence part of the probe, according to the newspaper.
In the inquiry, counterintelligence investigators sought to evaluate whether Trump was a potential threat to national security. They also sought to determine whether Trump was deliberately working for Russia or had unintentionally been influenced by Moscow.
Trump tweeted early Saturday that the report showed that the FBI leadership “opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof” after he had fired Comey.
Robert Mueller took over the investigation when he was appointed special counsel soon after Comey’s firing. The overall investigation is looking into Russian election interference and whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with the Russians, as well as possible obstruction of justice by Trump. The Times says it’s unclear whether Mueller is still pursuing the counterintelligence angle.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the report “may well suggest what it was that helped start this investigation in the first place.” He and other Democratic senators said this report and others within the past week questioning Trump’s behavior toward Russia give new urgency to the need for the Mueller investigation to be allowed to run its course.
A new report in The Washington Post said Trump went to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin even from high-ranking officials in his own administration. The report cited unnamed current and former U.S. officials.
In the Fox News interview, Trump questioned why the newspaper made such a “big deal” out of his discussions with Putin in Helsinki last summer. “Anybody could have listened to that meeting, that meeting is up for grabs.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., defended the president, who he said was “burned earlier by leaks of other private conversations.”
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the Times he had no knowledge of the counterintelligence inquiry but said that since it was opened a year and a half ago and they hadn’t heard anything, apparently “they found nothing.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump and chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he intends to ask the FBI director if there was a counterintelligence investigation into the president. “If this really did happen, Congress needs to know about it and what I want to do is make sure how could the FBI do that?”
Trump has repeatedly and vociferously denied collusion with the Russians.
Also Sunday, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he will force a vote in the coming days on the Treasury Department’s decision to ease sanctions on three companies connected to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week defended the decision, saying the companies are undergoing a major restructuring to “sever Deripaska’s control and significantly diminish his ownership.” He saids Deripaska himself and any companies he controls remain under sanctions.
Schumer, however, contends the Russian oligarch maintains significant influence on these companies, including the aluminum manufacturing giant Rusal, and said it’s important the sanctions remain in place while Mueller’s investigation proceeds. Deripaska has figured into the investigation due to his ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Warner predicted some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate would join Democrats in voting to override the removal of these sanctions.
Warner and Johnson spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” while Coons and Graham appeared on “Fox News Sunday.”
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.
Trump tweets into the void as shutdown sets record
By JONATHAN LEMIRE, LISA MASCARO, JILL COLVIN and DARLENE SUPERVILLE
WASHINGTON (AP) — As the partial government shutdown slipped into the record books Saturday, members of Congress had left town, no negotiations were scheduled and President Donald Trump tweeted into the void.
He did not tip his hand on whether he will move ahead with an emergency declaration that could break the impasse, free up money for his wall without congressional approval and kick off legal challenges and a political storm over the use of that extraordinary step. A day earlier, he said he was not ready to do it “right now.”
Lawmakers are due back in Washington from their states and congressional districts in the new week.
Trump fired off a series of tweets pushing back against the notion that he doesn’t have a strategy to end what became the longest government shutdown in U.S. history when it entered its 22nd day Saturday. “Elections have consequences!” he declared, meaning the 2016 election in which “I promised safety and security” and, as part of that, a border wall.
But there was another election, in November, and the consequence of that is that Democrats now control the House and they refuse to give Trump money for a wall.
Trump threatened anew that the shutdown could continue indefinitely. Later Saturday, he supplemented a day’s worth of tweets by telephoning in to Fox News Channel’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine” Pirro from the White House to continue his public relations blitz for the wall. Pirro pressed Trump on why he had yet to declare a national emergency. He said he’s giving Congress a chance to “act responsibly.”
Trump also said he has “no idea” whether he can get a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who opposes spending money on an “ineffective, wasteful wall.”
The president is expected in the new week to sign legislation passed by Congress to provide back pay for some 800,000 federal workers who aren’t being paid during the shutdown. Paychecks were due Friday, but many workers received stubs with zeroes.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, traveling Saturday in Abu Dhabi, claimed that morale is good among U.S. diplomats even as many work without pay. “We’re doing our best to make sure it doesn’t impact our diplomacy,” he said.
Almost half of the State Department employees in the U.S. and about one-quarter abroad have been furloughed during the shutdown. With the exception of certain local employees overseas, the rest are working without pay, like those tasked with supporting Pompeo’s trip, which has thus far taken him to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Bahrain, with additional stops to come.
An emergency declaration by Trump could break the stalemate by letting him use existing, unspent money to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall, without needing congressional approval. Democrats oppose that step but may be unable to stop it. Many Republicans are wary, too.
Nevertheless the administration has accelerated planning for it. Officials explored diverting money from a range of accounts, including $13.9 billion given to the Army Corps of Engineers after last year’s deadly hurricanes and floods. That option appeared to lose steam following an outcry.
Other possibilities included tapping asset forfeiture funds, such as money seized from drug kingpins, according to a congressional Republican not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations. The White House also was eyeing military construction money, another politically difficult choice because it would take away from a backlog of hundreds of projects.
Trump has been counseled by outside advisers to move toward declaring a national emergency for the “crisis” that he says exists at the southern border. This, as polls suggest Trump is getting most of the blame for the shutdown.
But some in the White House are trying to apply the brakes. Jared Kushner was among those opposed to the declaration, arguing to his father-in-law that pursuing a broader immigration deal was a better option. A person familiar with White House thinking said that in meetings this past week, the message was that the administration is in no rush and wants to consider various options. The person was unauthorized to discuss private sessions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pelosi argued that Trump is merely trying to steer attention away from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and other White House problems. “This is a big diversion, and he’s a master of diversion,” she told reporters.
Trump has told advisers he believes the fight for the wall, even if he never gets money for it, is a political win for him.
Some of the outside advisers who want him to declare a national emergency say it could have two benefits.
First, it would allow him to claim that he was the one to act to reopen the government. Second, inevitable legal challenges would send the matter to court, allowing Trump to continue the fight for the wall — and continue to excite his supporters — while not actually closing the government or immediately requiring him to start construction.
But while that might end the standoff and allow Congress to move to other priorities, some Republicans believe such a declaration would usurp congressional power and could lead future Democratic presidents to make similar moves to advance liberal priorities.
“Most conservatives want it to be the last resort he would use,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who speaks to Trump frequently. “But those same conservatives, I’m sure if it’s deployed, would embrace him as having done all he could do to negotiate with Democrats.”
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Colleen Long, Alan Fram, Lolita Baldor, Zeke Miller and Laurie Kellman in Washington and Matthew Lee in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. government shutdown: https://apnews.com/GovernmentShutdown
Fresh-faced Venezuelan lawmaker emerges as Maduro’s rival
By FABIOLA SANCHEZ and SCOTT SMITH
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — When Venezuelans rang in the new year, few in the crisis-wracked nation had even heard of Juan Guaido.
Two weeks later, the young backbench lawmaker has emerged as a key power broker as he leads the opposition-controlled congress in a high-stakes standoff with socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who is increasingly seen as a dictator both at home and abroad.
“Guaido for president!” people shouted Friday at the largest street rally in over a year to take on Maduro, eagerly waiting for the fresh-faced 35-year-old to speak. “Out with Maduro!”
As Venezuela’s economic crisis deepens, with masses fleeing the country to escape runaway inflation on pace to surpass 23 million percent, many are desperate for a new leader to rescue the once-wealthy oil nation from two decades of socialist rule.
Dozens of countries, including the United States, denounced Maduro as illegitimate as he took the oath Thursday for a second, six-year term.
Into that void stepped Guaido.
An industrial engineer who cut his political teeth in a student protest movement a decade ago, he was elected to the National Assembly in 2015, and in its first session this year was named its leader.
Maduro in a Friday night TV address from the presidential palace made light of Guaido’s newcomer status, feigning confusion over whether his name was “Guaido” or “Guaire,” a notoriously polluted river that runs through Caracas.
“A lot of people in Venezuela are going to ask what is this ‘Guaido’?” Maduro joked.
However, the perils of tangling with Maduro are no laughing matter. Shortly after he was elected head of the National Assembly, the rival constitutional assembly controlled by Maduro’s allies threatened Guaido and others with an investigation for treason.
That’s the same charge that landed in jail another up-and-coming opponent, Juan Requenses, following a drone attack on Maduro in August. Requenses has yet to have a public hearing, nor have prosecutors presented any evidence in the case.
Venezuela’s feared SEBIN intelligence police pulled Guaido from his vehicle Sunday as he headed to a town hall meeting and briefly detained him.
The challenge for Guaido is to find a way to avoid being permanently arrested while keeping together a fractious opposition coalition, some of whose leaders are urging him to invoke an article of the constitution to declare himself interim president in direct defiance of the “illegitimate” Maduro.
Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis, said such a radical approach is popular among the restive grassroots, exiles and their conservative foreign backers. But it won’t necessarily loosen Maduro’s powerful grip on Venezuela’s institutions, oil wealth and especially the military — the traditional arbiter of political disputes.
“If he decides to do it, part of the opposition will say he’s crazy, and if he doesn’t, part will say he’s a coward,” Leon said. “Meanwhile, Maduro is waiting on the side to take advantage of the situation.”
The architect of Guaido’s meteoric rise is Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela’s most popular opposition leader, who is muzzled under house arrest and considered by government opponents to be a political prisoner.
At a time when many had written off the National Assembly, which was stripped of its last bit of power after the government set up the rival constitutional assembly in 2017, Lopez maneuvered behind the scenes for his Popular Will party to assume the presidency of the gutted legislature.
He then tapped Guaido, serving his first full term as a lawmaker, who rose to the helm of their party in Venezuela after eight more senior politicians sitting on Popular Will’s national board were exiled since 2014.
Guaido has been a loyal acolyte of Lopez for years, standing beside him at a 2014 news conference when the activist announced a strategy of anti-Maduro unrest. What was called “The Exit” bitterly divided the opposition because it came less than a year into Maduro’s presidency, when support for his rule was still strong.
The two talk a half dozen times each day, and not a single speech or move isn’t coordinated with Lopez first, said one ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the internal proceedings.
Because Guaido was unknown, Leon said that he hadn’t even measured Guaido’s approval ratings, like he does numerous other politicians. But he plans to start doing so this week.
Critics say Guaido lacks a political vision, pointing to his rambling debut speech as the legislature’s president, which was full of rhetorical barbs aimed at the “usurper” Maduro but short on specifics on how to get out of the malaise.
Still, others see his youth and relative inexperience as breathing life into the beaten-down opposition, making Maduro’s frequent diatribes that it is dominated by elitist relics from Venezuela’s pre-revolutionary past harder to stick.
Guaido told The Associated Press in a recent interview he doesn’t fear running into the same fate as his political allies. He pointed to scars on his neck caused by rubber bullets fired during 2017 street demonstrations against Maduro.
“I still have projectiles lodged here,” he said.
Guaido has endured hardships for much of his life. At age 15, shortly after Maduro’s mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, assumed the presidency and ushered in a socialist overhaul, Guaido and his family survived a torrential mudslide that killed thousands and left many more homeless in the port city of La Guaira, a short distance from Caracas and home to the capital’s airport.
“We are survivors,” he said. “If they take Juan Guaido prisoner, someone else will emerge, because our generation won’t give up.”
Like Lopez, the wiry Guaido prides himself an athlete and is a devotee of his hometown’s Sharks — a perennial loser in the Venezuelan baseball league. He and his wife, a fellow activist, have a daughter named for Francisco Miranda, a precursor to Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar.
While in congress, Guaido earned a reputation as a hard worker and consensus-builder while serving as the head of the comptroller commission that investigates allegations of government corruption.
Now he is drawing attention on the international stage. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the presidents of Colombia and Chile have each called him in recent days to offer support.
Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, went even further, recognizing him as Venezuela’s interim president — a title Guaido himself has been careful to avoid embracing. “You have our support,” Almagro tweeted.
And on Saturday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement explicitly calling for a new government in Venezuela.
But for the frontal assault on Maduro’s authority to succeed, Venezuelans fearful of taking to the streets again after past uprisings ended in violent crackdowns and bitter divisions must be prepared to risk it all again.
To that end, Guaido urged during Friday’s rally for Venezuelans to join him in a nationwide demonstration on the historically fraught date of Jan. 23 — the anniversary of a 1958 popular uprising that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.
“The constitution gives me the legitimacy to carry out the charge of the presidency over the country to call elections,” Guaido said. “But I need backing from the citizens to make it a reality.”
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn
Scott Smith on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottSmithAP