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Key Takeaways From Mueller’s Congressional Testimonies

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  • Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress about the findings of his two-year-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential efforts by President Donald Trump to obstruct that investigation.
  • Mueller largely stuck to the language of his report, as he had promised he would do earlier if asked to testify.
  • Here are several key takeaways from Mueller’s testimonies.

Mueller Testifies Before Congress

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller gave his highly anticipated testimonies before two House committees Wednesday, speaking for nearly seven hours.

Mueller’s first testimony was before the Judiciary Committee, where the questions mostly focused obstruction of justice and the whether or not a sitting president can be indicted.

His second testimony was before the Intelligence Committee, where questions focused more on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The former special counsel, for his part, kept his responses short and fairly limited. He gave many yes or no answers, often referring the questioner back to the report, or saying he was not able to talk about the matter legally.

According to CNN, Mueller declined to answer a question or deferred a total of 206 times throughout both hearings.

Following the initial release of the report, Mueller had said before that he did not want to testify before Congress and if he did, he would stick to the report.

His ability to give answers was also further complicated by the Justice Department, which told him he could not answer a wide range of questions. 

Most notably, the Department informed Mueller that he was not allowed to answer questions about people who have not been charged with illegal activities, which made it complicated o talk about Trump and his family.

Now that we have Mueller’s testimonies regarding the findings of his investigation, let’s look at some of the key takeaways from the hearings.

Obstruction of Justice & Exoneration

Mueller started his day on Capitol Hill fielding questions from the House Judiciary Committee.

The Chairman of that Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) pressed Mueller on his conclusions as to whether or not President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice.

“The report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?” asked Nadler. Mueller responded saying Nadler was correct.

What about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler continued.

“No,” Mueller replied. 

“Your investigation actually found, quote, ‘multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations.’ Is that correct?” Nadler asked, to which Mueller responded that it was.

Another notable line of questioning about obstruction and indictments came from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). 

‘Sessions was being instructed to tell the special counsel to end the existing investigation into the president and his campaign,’” Lieu read from Mueller’s report. “That’s in the report, correct?” Mueller concurred.

“That would be evidence of an obstructive act because it would naturally obstruct their investigation, correct?” Lieu continued.

“Correct,” Mueller responded.

Questions of Indictment

Lieu later continued to discuss the Department of Justice rule that a sitting president cannot be indicted, which is based off a memo from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).

“I believe any reasonable person looking at these facts could conclude that all three elements of the crime of obstruction of justice have been met,” he said. “And I’d like to ask you the reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?”

“That is correct,” Mueller answered. He later walked that statement back during his opening statements in front of the Intelligence Committee.

“I wanted to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu,” he said in his opening statement. “It was said, and I quote, ‘you didn’t charge the president because of the OLC opinion.’ That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report and as I said in the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.” 

There was a lot of media focus on that exchange and Mueller’s clarification, but the question Lieu asked Mueller before is also fascinating. In answering Lieu’s question, Mueller confirmed that Trump asked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the investigation.

He also seemed to agree with Lieu’s analysis that that would be evidence of an obstructive act.

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) struck a similar tone in a question he posed to Mueller. “So it’s fair to say the president tried to protect himself by asking staff to falsify records relevant to an ongoing investigation?” he asked.

“I would say that is generally a summary,” the special counsel responded.

Regarding the question of whether or not a president could theoretically be indicted once they leave office.

Another one of the most notable moments during Mueller’s testimony in the Judiciary Committee came from this line of questioning from Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO).

Buck asked Mueller if he had found “sufficient evidence to convict President Trump or anyone else with obstruction of justice.” 

Mueller responded that his team “did not make that calculation,” because the OLC opinion “indicates that we cannot indict a sitting president. So one of the tools that a prosecutor would use is not there.” 

Later, Buck asked, “could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?”

“Yes,” Mueller responded.

Trump’s Answers to Mueller’s Questions

Mueller’s testimony at the Intelligence Committee hearing focused more on the portion of his report concerning Russian intervention in the 2016 election.

One of the most talked-about sound bites from that hearing came during questioning from Rep. Val Demings (D-FL). Demings asked a series of questions about Trump’s answers to Mueller’s questions during the investigation.

Mueller never interviewed Trump in person, but Trump gave written answers to Mueller’s questions.

“According to the report there were follow-up questions because of the president’s incomplete answers about the Moscow project,” Demings asked. “Did the president answer your follow up questions either in writing or orally?” 

“No,” Mueller said.

“He did not,” she continued. “In fact, there were many questions that you asked the president that he simply didn’t answer, isn’t that correct?” Mueller responded that it was true.

“And there were many answers that contradicted other evidence you had gathered during the investigation, isn’t that correct Director Mueller?” she asked. 

“Yes,” the special counsel answered.

“Director Mueller, isn’t it fair to say that the president’s written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete because he didn’t answer many of your questions, but where he did his answers show that he wasn’t always being truthful?” Demings asked shortly after, 

“There — I would say generally,” he responded.

WikiLeaks & Russia

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) asked the special counsel a series of questions about WikiLeaks.

He asked Mueller if he would agree with an assessment made by Mike Pompeo when he was the director of the CIA that WikiLeaks is a “hostile intelligence service,”  to which Mueller responded, “Absolutely.”

Quigley then read some statements Trump has made in the past about WikiLeaks.

“‘This just came out… WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks,’ Donald Trump, October 10, 2016, ‘This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable. It tells you the inner heart, you gotta read it,’ Donald Trump, October 12, 2016. ‘This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove,’ Donald Trump, October 31, 2016. ‘Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,’ Donald Trump, November 4, 2016. Do any of those quotes disturb you, Mr. Director?” he asked.

“Well, problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, in terms of some, I don’t know, hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller responded.

Finally, Mueller also had a now-viral sound-bite about Russian interference in the election during questioning from Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), who asked, “in your investigation, did you think this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election, or did you find evidence to suggest they’ll try to do this again?”

“It wasn’t a single attempt,” Mueller responded. “The doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Time) (Fox News)

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House Panel Approves Commission To Study Reparations

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  • In a 25 to 17 vote along party lines, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation Wednesday that would establish a commission to study slavery reparations for Black Americans.
  • Republicans objected to the plan, arguing that it will cost too much money and that it is unfair to make all American taxpayers responsible for the consequences of slavery.
  • Democrats pushed back, claiming the modern oppression of Black people still holds roots in slavery, and noting that the bill just creates a commission to study reparations, not implement them.
  • While the proposal faces steep odds in the Senate, Wednesday’s historic vote will move the measure to the House floor for a full vote for the first time since it was introduced over three decades ago. 

Reparation Commission Achieves First Approval

The House Judiciary Committee voted for the first time on Wednesday to advance a bill that will create a commission to consider paying slavery reparations for Black Americans.

The legislation was first proposed over 30 years ago, and if signed into law, it would create a 13-member commission that would study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination in the U.S. and then give Congress a recommendation for “appropriate remedies” to best compensate Black Americans.

The measure passed the committee 25 to 17 along party lines, as expected, with objections from Republicans, who claimed reparations will cost too much and that they are unfair to Americans who have no history of enslavers in their families.

Democrats pushed back against those assertions, arguing that the federal government does have enough money to take some kind of action. They also noted that the commission will not actually implement any reparations, but rather just look into the options and then make a non-binding recommendation.

There are a lot of different ideas for what reparations could look like. While some support direct cash payments of various sizes, others have argued there are different proposals that might be more realistic to put into law, like no-interest loans for Black homeowners or free college tuition.

“I ask my friends on the other side of the aisle, do not cancel us tonight. Do not ignore the pain, the history and the reasonableness of this commission,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said Wednesday.

Others also condemned the argument that some Americans, particularly those whose ancestors did not directly benefit from owning slaves, should not bear responsibility. They said that this line of thinking ignores both generational wealth, which vastly benefits white Americans over all others, as well as how Black Americans are hurt by modern-day discrimination and oppression that has roots in slavery.

“Slavery was indeed ended 150 years ago but racism never took a day off and is alive and well in America,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said in committee Wednesday. 

“You can ask the family members of Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. Black folks in this country cannot keep living and dying like this. But we’ll be forced to do so if White folks in America continue to refuse to look back at history.”

Uphill Battle

While many have described the legislation as a flexible first step, any further congressional action will almost certainly be an uphill battle. The committee vote is just the very first step: the proposal still has to go to a vote by the full House, where it is unclear if it will even garner enough support among the House Democrats’ slim majority. 

If it were to pass the lower chamber, the bill faces almost insurmountable odds in the 50-50 split Senate, where ten Republicans would have to join all Democrats to break the legislative filibuster.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said that he will start considering when to schedule the vote, though it is unlikely to be considered soon. Hoyer also urged President Joe Biden to use his executive power to create the commission if the legislation fails.

The White House has said that Biden supports the commission, but administration officials have not confirmed whether he would act unilaterally on the subject.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (USA Today) (Vox)

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Biden To Pull All U.S. Troops From Afghanistan by Sept. 11

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  • President Biden declared Wednesday that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, which also marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
  • The Afghanistan war is the longest war the U.S. has ever been in. It has resulted in the deaths of 2,400 American troops, injured and killed almost 100,000 civilians, and cost about $2 trillion.
  • Some praised the decision as a key step to address seemingly endless wars and promote diplomacy.
  • Many experts and defense officials, however, have warned the withdrawal could undermine American goals in the region and embolden the Taliban, which is currently the strongest it has been since the U.S. invasion removed the group from power in 2001.

Biden Announces Troop Removal Amid Growing Violence

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that drew the U.S. into its longest war in history.

“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” Biden said in an afternoon speech. “It’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for America’s troops to come home.’’

The decision comes as Biden nears the May 1 deadline set under a February 2020 peace deal by the administration of former President Donald Trump to bring the troops home from the war, which has killed nearly 2,400 troops, injured and killed nearly 100,000 civilians, and cost about $2 trillion.

Biden had previously said that it would be hard to meet the date after taking office, but even with the extended timeline, many experts and defense officials have warned against the move.

The U.S. first entered the war to oust the Taliban government, which was harboring al-Qaeda militants involved in planning the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban was removed within months, but the group still had support in parts of the country and steadily regained territory and strength.

Now, almost two decades later, the group is the strongest it has been since the 2001 invasion, and according to reports, controls or has influence over half the country. The situation has also escalated in the months after Trump, during his last week in office, reduced the official number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, which is the lowest level since 2001.

As the U.S. has scaled down its operations, the Taliban has taken control of major highways and tried to cut off cities and towns in surges that have exhausted Afghan security forces. Violence has also ramped up in recent months.

According to a U.N. report released Wednesday, nearly 1,800 civilians were killed or wounded in the first three months of the year, a nearly 30% increase from the same period last year.

Notably, U.S. intelligence agencies have said that they do not believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations present an immediate threat to strike the U.S. from Afghanistan, an assessment that reportedly played a big role in Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces.

However, many experts are more concerned about how the move will impact Afghanistan and its citizens. 

Concerns Over Withdrawal

The Pentagon has warned against removing American troops from the region until Afghan security forces can effectively fight back against the Taliban.

As a result, critics of the plan have argued that withdrawal will leave the forces  — which have limited capacities and until now have been funded and trained by the U.S. — entirely in the dust

Beyond that, many also worry that the move could undermine the entire goal of the 2001 invasion by empowering al-Qaeda operates that remains in the country and who could become emboldened once the U.S. troops left.

Some experts and Afghan politicians have said that withdrawing from the country without a solid peace deal in place could end in concentrating more power in the hands of the Taliban. After a long delay following the U.S. agreement in February of last year, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban finally started up in September.

But those talks have since stalled, partly due to Biden’s win and the anticipation of a possible change in policy under the new administration.

While other countries have recently made moves to restart the talks, and there are a number of possible options on the table, nothing is set in stone. American commanders, who have long said a peace deal with the Taliban is the best security measure for the U.S., have argued that the U.S. will need to use the promise of withdrawing their forces as a condition for a good deal.

Now, the U.S. has taken a major bargaining chip off the table, causing concerns that if a deal is struck, the already weakened Afghan government will make key concessions to the Taliban. Many Afghan citizens who oppose the Taliban worry that if the group secures a role in a power-sharing agreement, it could eventually take over the government and re-impose the harsh rule it imposed before the U.S. removed it in 2001. The leadership was particularly tough on women, who were largely barred from public life.

Politicians Respond

Biden’s decision has sparked a divided front from both political parities, though Republicans have largely remained united against the move.

“It is insane to withdraw at this time given the conditions that exist on the ground in Afghanistan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous. President Biden will have, in essence, canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11.”

Many Democrats, however, have argued that U.S. presence in the region is not helping the U.S. achieve its foreign policy goals, and that if withdrawal is based on conditional approaches, the troops will never be able to leave. 

Others have also applauded the plan as a careful solution and will still emphasize diplomatic efforts in the region while simultaneously removing the U.S. from a highly unpopular and expensive war.

“The President doesn’t want endless wars. I don’t want endless wars. And neither do the American people. ” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday. “It’s refreshing to have a thought-out plan with a set timetable instead of the President waking up one morning getting out of bed, saying what just pops into his head and then having the generals having walked it back.”

In a series of tweets Wednesday, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said had spoken to Biden, and emphasized that the two nations would continue to work together.

“’Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along,” he wrote.

The Taliban, for its part, has focused more on the fact that the initial timeline had been delayed.

“We are not agreeing with delay after May 1,” a spokesperson said on television Tuesday. “Any delay after May 1 is not acceptable for us.”

It is currently unclear how that stance might affect the situation, especially when it comes to peace deal negotiations.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (TIME)

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Matt Gaetz Reportedly Venmo’d Accused Sex Trafficker, Who Then Sent Money To Teen

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  • A report published by The Daily Beast Thursday alleges that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.) sent $900 through Venmo to accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, who then used the funds to pay three young women, including one teenager.
  • Gaetz is currently under federal investigation as part of a broader inquiry into Greenberg, a former politician who has been charged with 33 counts, including sex trafficking an underage girl.
  • Investigators are reportedly looking into the involvement of politicians with women who were recruited online for sex and paid in cash, as well as whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and violated sex trafficking laws by paying for her to travel with him.
  • Greenberg’s lawyer did not comment on the new allegations but said Thursday his client would soon enter a plea deal and implied that Greenberg would testify as a witness against Gaetz. Meanwhile, Gaetz has accused The Daily Beast of spreading “rumors, gossip and self-serving misstatements.”

Gaetz’s Alleged Venmo Payments 

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.) allegedly sent money via Venmo to accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, who then used the money to pay three young women, including at least one teenage girl, according to a new report from The Daily Beast.

Greenberg, a former local Flordia politician and an associate of Gaetz, was indicted last summer on 33 counts, including sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl. He initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, but his lawyers said in court Thursday that he would plead guilty as part of a plea deal.

Legal experts say the move almost certainly indicates that Greenberg plans to cooperate as a witness against Gaetz, who is currently under investigation by the Justice Department as part of a broader probe into Greenberg.

According to The New York Times, among other things, the DOJ inquiry is looking into their involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and paid cash, as well as whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him in violation of sex trafficking laws.

Investigators reportedly believe that Greenberg met the women through a website for people willing to go on dates in exchange for gifts and money, and then arranged for them to meet with himself and associates including Gaetz, The Times reported.

The new report from The Daily Beast, published Thursday, appears to support this narrative. According to the outlet, which viewed the transactions before they were made private this week, Gaetz sent Greenberg two late-night Venmo payments totaling $900 in May 2018. 

In the text field of the first payment, Gaetz wrote “Test.” In the second, he asked Greenberg to “hit up” a teenager who he allegedly referred to by her nickname. The Daily Beast did not publish the name of the girl “because the teenager had only turned 18 less than six months before.”

The next morning, Greenberg transferred a total of $900 to three different young women using the same app.

One of the transfers was titled “Tuition,” and the other two were both listed as “School.” The Daily Beast also said it was able to obtain “partial records” of Greenbergs Venmo, which is not publicly available.

Those records, the outlet reported, show that the two men are connected through Venmo to at least one other woman who Greenberg paid with a government-funded credit card, and at least two other women who received payments from Greenberg.

Ongoing Investigation

Gaetz, for his part, has not directly addressed the latest allegations. A representative from the Logan Circle Group, an outside PR firm, provided The Daily Beast with a statement from the congressman.

“The rumors, gossip and self-serving misstatements of others will be addressed in due course by my legal team,” the statement said, with the firm also informing the outlet that their lawyers would be “closely monitoring your coverage.”

Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, also declined requests to comment, but during a press conference Thursday, he implied that the plea deal his client is expected to accept spelled trouble for Gaetz.

“I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said.

The Daily Beast story also comes amid reports that that the FBI has widened its probe of Gaetz. According to The Times, sources familiar with the inquiry have said investigators are also looking into a trip he took to the Bahamas with other Florida Republicans and several women.

Sources said the trip took place shortly after Gaetz was elected to Congress in 2016, and that the FBI has already questioned witnesses about whether the women had sex with the men in exchange for money and free travel.

It is illegal to trade sex for something of value if prosecutors can provide the exchange involved force, fraud, or coercion.

The Times also reported that investigators are now additionally looking into Gaetz’s alleged involvement in discussions to run a third-party candidate in a State Senate race to make it easier for an associate of his who was running for the seat to win.

The act of recruiting so-called “ghost candidates” who run for office purely to divert votes from one candidate is not usually illegal. However, paying a ghost candidate is normally considered a violation of campaign finance laws.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (The New York Times) (The Hill)

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