Month: January 2018

Trump World frustrated, angry over new book

Allies of President Trump are aghast at the damage caused by a new book that paints a picture of a chaotic, dysfunctional and incompetent early months of the Trump administration.Current and former Trump aides beli…

White House Lawyer Who Reportedly Cautioned Against Comey Firing Used To Work For Comey

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

The White House lawyer who reportedly advised President Trump that he had limited authority to fire former FBI director James Comey has an unexpected background: He once worked for Comey.

Uttam Dhillon, who the New York Times on Thursday night reported had taken “the extraordinary step” in early 2017 “of misleading” President Trump about the circumstances under which he could fire Comey, has served in several Republican-led offices.

Prior to joining the White House, he worked for Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling. More than a decade earlier, he had worked for then-Rep. Chris Cox. And, notably, in between those jobs, he served in the George W. Bush-era Justice Department, working for Comey, who was then deputy attorney general.

At the start of the Trump administration, however, Dhillon joined the White House Counsel’s Office, led by White House Counsel Donald McGahn.

In that role, Dhillon, the New York Times reported, had a junior lawyer examine what grounds Trump would need to fire Comey. The lawyer, per the Times, concluded that — like any executive branch employee — Trump could fire Comey at will.

“Mr. Dhillon, who had earlier told Mr. Trump that he needed cause to fire Mr. Comey, never corrected the record, withholding the conclusions of his research,” the Times reports.

The story asserts that Dhillon did so because he “was convinced that if Mr. Comey was fired, the Trump presidency could be imperiled” — because it could lead to the sort of investigation that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now overseeing.

White House spokespeople did not immediately return a request for comment late Thursday about Dhillon’s role in the White House Counsel’s Office.

Before joining the White House in early 2017, Dhillon was chief counsel for oversight for the House Financial Services Committee under Hensarling, the committee’s chair. Before that, he had worked for a law firm doing securities litigation in Dallas. Before that, he had been in DC, a part of the Bush administration.

In his time at the Justice Department, Dhillon, per his LinkedIn bio, was “®esponsible for advising and assisting the Deputy Attorney General in formulating and implementing Department of Justice policies and programs relating to explosives, firearms, capital punishment, violent crime, gangs, and civil liberties.”

The deputy attorney general for almost all of Dhillon’s time in that role was Comey.

Dhillon was one of a handful of associate deputy attorneys general who worked under Comey, according to a 2005 directory published by the Government Printing Office. While at the Justice Department, Dhillon worked on law enforcement and related matters.

Among the others in the office at the time were Chuck Rosenberg, who was Comey’s chief of staff when he was deputy attorney general but was the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration until his resignation in September 2017 — reportedly because of concerns about Trump’s respect for the rule of law — and Jim Rybicki, who later was Comey’s chief of staff when he was the FBI director.

The time period was a notable one for the Bush-era Justice Department: It was in March 2004 when Comey — later described in great detail before a Senate committee — rushed to the hospital, where then-attorney general John Ashcroft had been admitted for nearly a week, in an attempt to stop the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and chief of staff, Andrew Card, from attempting to, as Comey testified, “ask him [Ashcroft] to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that.” Comey was the acting attorney general due to Ashcroft’s hospitalization and had refused to reauthorize the domestic surveillance program in place at the time, but he was concerned that the White House was going to attempt to circumvent him by going directly to Ashcroft — which they did, but without success.

In November 2005, a few months after Comey left his role as deputy attorney general, President Bush nominated Dhillon to be the first head of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, where he served after Senate confirmation.

Rebekah Mercer Publicly Breaks With Steve Bannon

Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

Billionaires Bob and Rebekah Mercer say they’ve cut Steve Bannon off from the millions that have kept him a key player in right-wing politics and in the White House over the last year.

“I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,” Rebekah Mercer said in a statement Thursday, distancing herself from Bannon following the release of excerpts from a forthcoming book in which Bannon is critical of the president’s son.

“My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements.”

But the statement, a rare public one from Rebekah Mercer, leaves a lot to the imagination about when and where her family stopped being a benefactor to Bannon’s efforts.

It’s not clear when Mercer and Bannon last spoke, multiple people told BuzzFeed News. What happens next at Breitbart, where the Mercers are major investors, is also unclear.

Bannon allies have indicated for months that they were coordinating with the Mercers in selecting the candidates to take on Republican incumbents whom they did not consider to be supportive enough of the president’s priorities. Bob Mercer contributed fundraising to two of those candidates last summer: $300,000 to a super PAC boosting Kelli Ward in Arizona and $50,000 to a super PAC helping Chris McDaniel in Mississippi.

After leaving the White House, Bannon reportedly spent five days in Long Island meeting with the Mercers. Even after Bob Mercer stepped down from his hedge fund in part because of the media attention on his connections to Bannon, those close to the former Trump adviser insisted that Rebekah Mercer continued to stay engaged.

And Republican candidates had been wooing Bannon in hopes that his support would translate into financial support from the Mercers. But for most, the endorsement so far meant little more than name recognition and favorable coverage by the far-right, Bannon-led website Breitbart.

Bannon did create a nonprofit, Citizens of the American Republic, in November to serve as a vehicle for pushing his political agenda, but a source told BuzzFeed News that the group was largely dormant and discussions regarding a detailed website — crucial for fundraising and messaging — never really materialized.

Trump Just Disbanded His Contested Election Integrity Commission

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Trump has dissolved his election integrity commission, with the White House blaming states for refusing to turn over voter data as well as the lawsuits that have dogged the commission since Trump announced it in May.

The White House announced Trump’s decision late Wednesday and sent the text of the executive order revoking the May order that created the commission soon after.

In a statement, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated Trump’s oft-made claim of voter fraud, but said that “rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense,” Trump had ended the commission and asked the Department of Homeland Security to take up the review of US election systems.

On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted that the “system is rigged” and called for a move toward “voter ID.”

“Many mostly Democrat States refused to hand over data from the 2016 Election to the Commission On Voter Fraud. They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.,” he tweeted.

He followed that up with another tweet asking Americans to “push hard for voter identification.”

Democrats and civil rights groups criticized the commission from the start, accusing the administration of using it as a pretext for suppressing minority voters. The Trump administration faced a string of lawsuits challenging the legality of the commission itself as well as its efforts to collect voter data from states.

Most recently, the commission was sued by one of its own members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, who claimed he was blocked from getting information about the group’s activities. In the lawsuit, Dunlap’s lawyers said that the commission’s “superficial bipartisanship has been a facade.”

A judge on Dec. 22 had ordered the commission to provide Dunlap with some of the materials he had requested. Dunlap said in a statement on Wednesday evening that the president’s order dissolving the commission “came without warning.”

‘“The lack of transparency brought nothing but suspicion onto the work of the commission, which bankrupted it of any chance at public legitimacy. While this chapter is now closed, I am committed to remaining vigilant on the front of election integrity and the transparent, free, and fair conduct of elections,” Dunlap said.

In a phone interview with BuzzFeed News later in the evening, Dunlap said that although he didn’t get advance notice of the president’s decision, he wasn’t surprised by the announcement.

“I wondered if they might not go in this direction simply because of the court order and everything seemed to be working in a pretty dysfunctional way from the beginning,” he said.

Dunlap provided BuzzFeed News with a copy of an email time-stamped at 6:49 p.m. on Wednesday from the commission’s designated federal officer, Andrew Kossack, notifying the commission members about the president’s decision to dissolve the group. The White House sent out the public release around the same time. Kossack in the email advised the commission members that because there were still lawsuits pending, they should continue to preserve records concerning the commission. “Thank you for your service,” Kossack wrote. The email’s subject line was “Dissolution of the Commission.”

BuzzFeed News / Via Matthew Dunlap

American Oversight, a government transparency advocacy group representing Dunlap along with lawyers from the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, said in a statement that it would continue to fight in court for access to records about the commission’s activities.

“It’s no coincidence that the president dissolved the commission once it became clear it wouldn’t be permitted to operate in the shadows,” American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers said in the statement. “Secretary Dunlap deserves our gratitude for stepping into the breach to take on adversaries of democracy. We intend to continue to fight for his right to access to the commission’s secret communications. President Trump can dissolve the commission, but the law doesn’t allow him or the commission to slink away from view and avoid accountability.“

The commission was chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, but its driving force was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. It was Kobach who sent a letter to states in June seeking information from their voter rolls. The majority of states — including some led by Republican state officials — refused to fully comply with the request, although many did provide information that was already public, according to press reports.

Kobach told the Topeka Capital-Journal last week that although the commission’s work had been delayed because of the lawsuits, it would meet in January. The group’s last meeting was in September.

Dunlap’s case was one of eight pending lawsuits against the commission. Shortly after the White House announced that Trump had dissolved the commission on Wednesday, the Justice Department filed notices in each of the cases alerting judges to the development.

A spokeswoman for Kobach did not immediately return a request for comment.

Hans Von Spakovsky, a member of the commission and a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an email to BuzzFeed News that he was disappointed with the commission’s dissolution, but understood Trump’s reason for doing it, citing the refusal of states to provide data and the pending lawsuits. Von Spakovsky said he wasn’t consulted in advance about the president’s decision to dissolve the commission and found out about it from the same email that Dunlap and other commission members received.

“The obstacles and impediments used to hinder the work of the Commission is evidence that there are many politicians and activists who want to prevent the American people from finding out the truth,” Von Spakovsky wrote.

Here is the executive order that Trump signed on Jan. 3 revoking the executive order that created the commission:

BuzzFeed News / Via The White House

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Paul Manafort Is Suing The Justice Department To Get Rid Of Special Counsel Robert Mueller

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort filed a lawsuit on Tuesday asking a judge to declare the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller invalid and to stop the criminal case Mueller’s team is pursuing against Manafort.

Manafort — who is facing a slew of criminal charges in connection with his past work overseas — is arguing that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein went too far when he gave Mueller authority in May to investigate not only any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but also any other matters that “arose or may arise” from the investigation.

“The Appointment Order purports to grant authority to the Special Counsel to expand the scope of his investigation to new matters without the consent of — indeed, without even consulting — any politically accountable officer of the United States,” Manafort’s lawyers wrote.

Manafort wants a judge to declare Rosenstein’s original appointment order invalid, to block Mueller’s office from investigating issues outside of Russian collusion, and to set aside “all actions taken against Mr. Manafort pursuant to the Appointment Order.”

A spokesperson for the special counsel’s office declined to comment. A Justice Department spokesperson wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News: “The lawsuit is frivolous but the defendant is entitled to file whatever he wants.”

The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday in the US District Court for the District of Columbia by the same lawyers representing Manafort in the criminal case, Kevin Downing and Thomas Zehnle.

Manafort and his longtime associate Rick Gates were charged in late October with money laundering, failing to report overseas bank accounts, failing to register as lobbyists for foreign entities, and making false statements. They’ve pleaded not guilty.

The criminal case is still in its early stages — Manafort and Gates have been fighting in court most recently over the conditions of their release while the case is pending. Both are still under home confinement, although the judge has ruled on the pretrial release conditions for Manafort. The judge has yet to set a trial date. Gates is not part of Manafort’s civil lawsuit against the Justice Department.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 13, Rosenstein was asked if Mueller had ever asked to expand the scope of the special counsel’s investigation. Rosenstein said that he and Mueller talked early on about what the special counsel’s team would investigate, and that Mueller had acted within the bounds of that understanding.

To the extent there was any ambiguity in Mueller’s May appointment order, Rosenstein said, he had given Mueller permission to include those matters in the investigation. Rosenstein declined to discuss the specifics of what topics beyond Russian collusion he had given Mueller permission to explore.

“There are a lot of media stories speculating about what the special counsel may or may not be doing. I know what he’s doing,” Rosenstein said at the hearing. “I’m appropriately exercising my oversight responsibilities. So I can assure you that the special counsel is conducting himself consistently with our understanding about the scope of his investigation.”

In the new lawsuit, Manafort’s lawyers argue that under federal regulations, the attorney general — or, in this case, Rosenstein, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from the Russia probe — has to provide a “specific factual statement” about what a special counsel will investigate. In this case, Manafort’s lawyers said, Mueller was given clear jurisdiction to investigate Russian interference in the election.

For anything beyond the Russia probe, however, Manafort’s lawyers wrote that the regulations require the special counsel to consult with the DOJ official in charge to determine if the matter falls under the special counsel’s authority. Rosenstein couldn’t preemptively give Mueller that authority in the original appointment order, they argue.

The indictment against Manafort and Gates primarily concerns their work on behalf of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian officials from 2006 to 2015, before their involvement with Trump’s campaign. The indictment does accuse them of making false statements to the government in late 2016 and early 2017 about the nature of that work, after Manafort had left Trump’s campaign amid scrutiny over his ties to Ukraine.

Manafort’s lawyers wrote in the lawsuit that they sent a letter to Rosenstein on Sept. 12 asking if he gave Mueller authority to investigate Manafort for potential crimes going back to 2006. Rosenstein hasn’t responded, they said.