- After repeatedly denying that he spoke about former Vice President Joe Biden in a call to the President of Ukraine, Trump backtracked Sunday and said that he had in fact discussed Biden, among other things.
- The call became the center of controversy after the news broke about a whistleblower complaint involving Trump and inappropriate communications with a foreign leader.
- A number of Democrats brought back the discussion of impeachment following the revelations, an idea that Republicans have generally pushed back against.
President Donald Trump is facing renewed calls for impeachment after he admitted Sunday to discussing corruption accusations against former Vice President Joe Biden in a phone call with Ukraine’s president.
The phone call in question is at the center of a whistleblower complaint that has created a whirlwind in Washington and beyond.
Here’s what you need to know.
Origins of Complaint
It all started on Aug. 12, when a whistleblower in the intelligence community filed a complaint.
At the time, it was unclear where the whistleblower worked, but The Washington Post has since reported that the person “once worked on the staff of the White House National Security Council.” It is still unclear who that person is specifically.
What we do know is that the complaint was filed with the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG). The ICIG is basically what it sounds like: a watchdog who investigates allegations and complaints of misconduct in the intelligence community.
Right now, the ICIG is Michael Atkinson, a former Justice Department official who was confirmed to the post in 2018 after being nominated by Trump.
The whistleblower filed the complaint with the ICIG under a law called the Intelligence Community Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. That law says that once a misconduct complaint is filed, the ICIG has 14 days to decide if the complaint is both credible and of “urgent concern.” Atkinson determined that it was both.
After that, the law says that the complaint must be sent to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which Atkinson did. That complaint was then received by the current acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, who notably has only held the position since Aug. 8.
Maguire then had seven days, until Sept. 2, to send the full complaint to the House and Senate intelligence committees. But he did not send the report.
On Sept. 9, a week after Maguire was supposed to send Congress the complaint, Atkinson sent a letter to the House Intelligence Committee to tell them that the complaint existed.
The next day, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of that committee, sent a letter to Maguire demanding he send the complaint and accusing him of breaking the law by not doing so.
Notably, Schiff also indicated in the letter that the committee thought the White House could be interfering in preventing the complaint from being sent to Congress.
The legal counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded to Schiff in another letter a few days later on Sept. 13.
There, they argued that they did not have to turn over the complaint to Congress because they had decided it was not actually an “urgent concern” and because it involved someone outside of the intelligence community.
A second letter from the IC IG to Schiff, dated September 17th. pic.twitter.com/DetBeesIey— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) September 19, 2019
Schiff responded in yet another letter the same day, where he said the Director of National Intelligence did not have the legal authority to overrule an ICIG decision or withhold it from the congressional intelligence committees.
He noted that this was the first known time a Director of Intelligence overruled the ICIG to withhold a whistleblower complaint.
Also of massive significance in that letter was this excerpt:
“The Committee can only conclude, based on this remarkable confluence of factors, that the series misconduct at issue involves the President of the United States and/or other senior White House or Administration officials.”
That excerpt continued:
“This raises grave concerns that your office, together with the Department of Justice and possibly the White House, are engaged in an unlawful effort to protect the President and conceal from the Committee information related to his possible ‘serious or flagrant’ misconduct, abuse of power, or violation of law.”
Media Discovers Nature of Complaint
That brings us to this past Wednesday when The Washington Post reported that the complaint in question involved Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two foreign intelligence officials who were familiar with the situation.
“Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a ‘promise’ that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community,” the Post stated.
Then on Thursday, it was reported that the people familiar with the complaint said it had to do, at least in part, with Ukraine. The next day, sources said that the complaint had to do with a call between Trump and the newly elected President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in July.
According to those reports, during that call, Trump had told the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who had served on a board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was U.S. vice president.
Hunter Biden joined that board back in 2014. Two years later, Ukraine’s prosecutor general was removed from his position after receiving pressure from then-VP Biden and others.
That reportedly prompted the Ukrainian prosecutor general to claim he was ousted because he was investigating the gas company’s payments to Hunter Biden. Ukranian officials reported earlier this year they found no evidence of wrongdoing.
The revelation that the whistleblower complaint involved Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden led many to speculate that Trump was using the $250 million of military and intelligence aid the U.S. had promised to give to Ukraine as leverage to get them to do political favors.
Some also noted that the U.S. had withheld that aid until Sept. 12, when the congressional battle over the whistleblower complaint began to heat up. Those theories have not been confirmed.
On Friday afternoon, the Wall Street Journal reported that on the July phone call, Trump “repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.”
Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, who had previously denied asking Ukraine to investigate Biden before admitting he had in fact done so, defended his efforts in a tweet.
Trump Denies Claims
Trump for his part has been very vocal throughout the whole process, often taking to Twitter to deny the allegations and call them fake news.
“Another Fake News story out there – It never ends!” the president tweeted Thursday. “Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.”
The media was able to get a bit more information during a press briefing on Friday.
“It’s a partisan whistler blower. It shouldn’t even have information,” he said. “I’ve had conversations with many leaders they’re always appropriate.”
He also said he did not know what conversation the whistleblower was referring to specifically.
“I had a great conversation with numerous people, I don’t even know exactly who you’re talking about,” he told reporters.
But a little later, he did seem to indicate there was one specific conversation, though he would not answer questions about whether or not he talked about Biden in that conversation.
“I don’t know the identity of the whistleblower, I just hear it’s a partisan person,” he reiterated. “Meaning it comes out from another party, but I don’t have any idea. But I can say that it was a totally appropriate conversation. It was actually a beautiful conversation.”
In that same briefing, a reporter also asked Trump if he had read the complaint.
“No I haven’t,” he responded, before adding, “Everybody’s read it they laugh at it.”
Over the weekend Trump continued to tweet about the situation, notably referring to it as a “Witch Hunt” and continuing to attack the media.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s foreign minister was reportedly quoted telling a Ukrainian news outlet that Ukraine did not feel pressured by the phone call.
“I know what the conversation was about and I think there was no pressure,” he said. “This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on many questions, sometimes requiring serious answers.”
That statement prompted some tweets from Trump on Sunday. He also added that the whistleblower did not have “a first hand account of what was said.”
On Monday, Fox News reported that a person familiar with the complaint told them that the whistleblower did not have “firsthand knowledge.”
Trump continued to defend himself Monday. According to CNN, the president said that “Joe Biden and his son are corrupt.” He also directly denied that he put pressure on Ukraine.
“I did not make a statement that ‘you have to do this or I’m not going to give you aid. I wouldn’t do that,” Trump said. “There was no pressure put on them whatsoever. I put no pressure on them whatsoever. I could have. I think it probably, possibly would have been OK if I did.”
Trump Admits He Spoke to Ukraine About Biden
However, later on Sunday, Trump directly said that he did speak about Biden in his phone call with Zelensky.
“We had a great conversation. The conservation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son creating to corruption already in the Ukraine,” the president told reporters.
Trump again addressed the situation later in the day, where he said he would have a right to ask Zelensky to investigate Biden.
The events of the last week have prompted a discussion about impeachment.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has continually resisted impeachment calls in the past, released a statement on Sunday. The statement did not mention impeachment, but still condemned Trump’s actions and hinted at investigations.
“If the Administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation,” the statement said.
That followed comments the speaker made last week while talking to NPR. In an interview, Pelosi did not call to impeach but instead said that laws should be changed to allow a sitting president to be indicted.
Biden for his part has called for the transcript of the call to be released. Trump told reporters on Sunday that he would “love to” release the transcript, but that others in the administration are “a little shy” about it.
“Let’s be clear, Donald Trump pressured a foreign government to interfere in our elections,” the former vice president wrote on Twitter. “It goes against everything the United States stands for. We must make him a one-term president.”
Other Democrats have taken more firm stances.
“At this point, the bigger national scandal isn’t the president’s lawbreaking behavior – it is the Democratic Party’s refusal to impeach him for it,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in a tweet on Saturday.
Similarly, Schiff, who has generally held back from calling for impeachment, said Sunday he now might see it as an option.
“If the President is essentially withholding military aid at the same time that he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit that is providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is coequal to the evil that conduct represents,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper when asked if he thought impeachment could be a solution.
However, Republicans remain largely opposed to the idea of impeachment.
“Only 37% of Americans support impeachment,” Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) said on Twitter. “But Democrats continue to waste taxpayer time on impeachment efforts. It’s past time they stop the political games.”
House Republican Whip Steve Scalise said in a tweet that there is “no reason” to impeach.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also ridiculed the idea of impeachment on Twitter.
However, not all Republicans think the situation is so cut and dry.
“If the President asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) wrote on Twitter.
Wisconsin Recount, Requested by Trump, Gives Biden Another 87 Votes
- The recount of votes in Wisconsin’s two largest counties ended Sunday, solidifying Joe Biden’s lead in the state by around 20,600 votes and also giving him an additional 87 votes.
- The recount, which cost around $3 million, was both requested and paid for by Donald Trump’s campaign.
- Before the final totals were even announced, Trump said he would be taking legal action in the state, though that is yet to be seen.
- The news comes amid a series of sweeping legal losses for Trump, who continued to push unproven and debunked claims about voter fraud over the holiday weekend.
Wisconsin Recount Ends
A recanvass of ballots in Wisconsin’s two largest counties concluded Sunday, firmly solidifying former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead in the state.
In fact, the new tally even gave Biden another 87 votes in the $3 million recount requested and paid for by President Donald Trump.
The Trump campaign asked for ballots to be re-tallied in the two Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee and Dane Counties, which are home to Milwaukee and Madison respectively. The request came after the Wisconsin Election Commission estimated it would cost nearly $8 million to recanvass the whole state.
The two recounts changed very little from the initial count, maintaining Biden’s statewide lead of around 20,600 votes. In Milwaukee County, both Biden and Trump’s totals increased very slightly from the original count, though Biden still won by a hefty majority of 317,527 votes to Trump’s 134,482.
Meanwhile, in Dane County, both candidates actually saw minor decreases in their totals, with Biden losing 91 votes and Trump losing 46. While that is a net gain of 45 votes for Trump, he still ended up losing the county pretty handily with just 78,754 votes to Biden’s 260,094.
Those numbers are by no means surprising. Instead, they solidify some important elements of recounts: that they usually only change the final tally by just a few dozen votes, and that they almost never change the original outcome of an election.
These facts remain true despite the president’s repeated insinuations that recanvassing ballots will change the outcome of the election in his favor.
The finalization of the recounted ballots also marks another big loss for Trump, who has seen a series of sweeping upsets in the multitude of legal cases his campaign and allies have filed. In fact, according to Democratic voting-rights lawyer Marc Elias, as of Saturday, Trump’s legal strategy had given him a 1-39 loss record in various state and federal courts across the country.
Notably, the vast majority of those lawsuits do not even make any kind of allegations that voter fraud or other irregularities occurred as the president continues to claim.
On top of that, as more states continue to certify their results, Trump’s legal opportunities continue to dwindle.
Once a state has certified its election, it makes it much harder for any new legal challenges to be brought, and with the Wisconsin Elections Commission scheduled to meet Tuesday, the state is expected to fully certify its election for Biden very soon.
Despite that, Trump said on Saturday, before the recount totals were even announced, that he would continue to fight the results in Wisconsin.
“The Wisconsin recount is not about finding mistakes in the count, it is about finding people who have voted illegally, and that case will be brought after the recount is over, on Monday or Tuesday,” he wrote. “We have found many illegal votes. Stay tuned!”
Fox News Business Interview
No such lawsuit has materialized, and with the clock ticking, it is unclear what such a challenge would even look like. Trump has not provided any evidence of voter fraud or illegal votes being counted in either Wisconsin’s first tally or the recount, which were live-streamed in both counties and where officials reported zero irregularities.
Regardless, Trump still has continued to spout endless conspiracies and baseless claims about fraud all over the country, claiming in numerous tweets over the weekend that were flagged by Twitter as misinformation that the election was rigged.
On Sunday, in the first interview he has given since the election was called for Biden, the president went on Fox News Business where he repeated his unproven allegations, and even accused the FBI and the Department of Justice of rigging the election.
The president did, however, appear to acknowledge that his own legal team and other experts have said many of his lawsuits will not stand, and that it is unlikely any of his cases will go to the Supreme Court, though he faulted the legal system for these factors.
“You mean as president of the United States, I don’t have standing?” he asked. “What kind of court system is this? And the judges stay away from it.”
Notably, Trump did not answer questions as to when he would end his legal challenges, but during a press conference Thursday, he did say he would leave the White House if Biden won the Electoral College.
His comments marked the closest the president has come to saying he will accept the results of the election, at least in practice. Still, he added that “a lot of things” would happen between now and the Electoral College on Dec. 14 that could change the results of the election.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (Business Insider)
SCOTUS Hears Case on Whether or Not the Census Must Include Undocumented Immigrants
- On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing a case over whether a sitting president is allowed to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census.
- The arguments in favor, brought by President Donald Trump, have already lost in three lower courts.
- If SCOTUS were to side with Trump, it would break 230 years of precedent. It could also affect the makeup of the House of Representatives, the electoral college, and billions of federal dollars sent each year to states.
- Census officials have indicated that they may not be able to submit a final tally before Trump leaves office, potentially leaving the situation largely moot under President-elect Joe Biden, who would almost certainly include figures for undocumented immigrants.
SCOTUS Begins Hearing Census Case
The United States Supreme Court has begun hearing a case that could affect billions in federal funding as well as the makeup of the House of Representatives for the next 10 years.
The case in question concerns whether or not President Donald Trump is allowed to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census. In lower courts, the Trump administration has argued that it should be up to presidents to decide whether undocumented immigrants should be counted.
Notably, three lower courts have all rejected the administration’s argument. A fourth said the time wasn’t right to answer the question. Ultimately, the decision will now be up to the Court.
If it decides in favor of the Trump administration, which is seeking to remove undocumented immigrants from the final tally of the 2020 Census, that would be unprecedented. In U.S. history, noncitizens have been counted in every Census since the first one in 1790. Each census is conducted once every 10 years.
This also won’t even be the first time SCOTUS has considered a question around the Census. Last year, President Trump tried to add a question that would ask whether a person was a U.S. citizen.
Immigrants rights’ advocates worried that if the Court ruled in Trump’s favor, it could discourage undocumented immigrants from filling out the Census. Ultimately, SCOTUS ruled the opposite way, siding 5-4 with lawyers who argued that just the news of Trump trying to add the question was enough to discourage immigrants from filling out the form.
Chief Justice John Roberts was the deciding vote in that ruling, as he broke from the Court’s conservative justices to side with the liberal bloc. At the time, that included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Amy Coney Barrett Could Be the Deciding Vote
After failing to have the citizenship question implemented, Trump issued a July memo that directed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to submit two counts to him: one with the full Census count and another with that same count minus undocumented immigrants. The goal? To use the second count as the official Census count.
From there, a group of 22 states and local officials, along with organizations represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the Trump administration.
“Nothing in the text or history of the Constitution or the Census Act suggests that [the Trump administration] may treat millions of people who undisputedly live here as if they were not here, solely because of their immigration status,” lawyers for the state argued.
In fact, they’ve even argued that Trump’s policy is directly in violation of the Constitution because it requires “the whole number of persons in each state” to be counted for apportionment of the House of Representatives.
As for whether SCOTUS will side with Trump or immigrant rights’ advocates, there is a major difference between the Court this year and the Court last year: Ginsburg is gone.
In her place, there is now Justice Amy Coney Barret, a conservative Trump appointee who was the deciding vote in a 5-4 case last week that now bars New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on gatherings for religious services. Roberts was the lone conservative to dissent.
That means that even if Roberts were to dissent from the Court’s other conservatives again for the Census vote, they would still hold a majority of the voting power.
If those conservative justices do side with Trump, that could have lasting effects for the next 10 years. The Census determines how many Representatives each state sends to Congress. That number is also used to determine how many votes each state has in the electoral college during presidential elections.
That could mean states with large immigrant populations — such as California, Texas, and Florida — could lose seats, while states with smaller populations and low immigrant populations might gain them. For example, Alabama could gain seats even though it is currently projected to lose a seat in the near future.
The Census also determines how much states receive from Congress’ annual $1.5 trillion budget. That could mean a lot of money lost for states with large immigrant populations.
Can Biden Change This?
It’s possible that Trump’s goals could be rendered moot — in part or in full.
For one, it is unclear how SCOTUS will decide. Conservative justices like Barrett could be swayed by arguments that there is no room for interpretation of the Constitution’s words. In fact, Barrett herself has championed her belief that the Constitution should be interpreted as it was written. On Monday, she even seemed to suggest that the founding fathers intended all residents should be counted.
On top of that, judges also risk breaking 230 years of precedent and the decision of dozens of judges in lower courts.
Also on Monday, Roberts suggested that the case may be too premature to rule on, as the Trump administration has yet to go through with its plan.
If it does eventually side with Trump, that could impede Biden’s ability to challenge Trump’s numbers.
SCOTUS aside, Census officials have said that they’re having difficulties processing responses, meaning that a final count could be delayed past Trump’s term. According to The Washington Post, Census employees are frustrated and exhausted, some reportedly working up to 15 hour days.
“We are not currently on pace to send the report to the president by the year-end statutory deadline,” acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall said Monday.
While a final count is currently required to be submitted by Dec. 31, in the event that the final count does come after Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Trump’s efforts for this Census will almost certainly be in vain.
Even if Trump did submit the numbers on time, it’s possible that Congress could reject them. That could then leave Biden with a chance to submit a final count that includes uncodumented immigrants once he becomes president.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Bloomberg) (Reuters)
Mnuchin To Cut Off $455 Billion In Stimulus Money and Move It Out of the Biden Administration’s Reach
- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has asked the Federal Reserve to return $455 billion in stimulus funding for key emergency lending programs when they expire at the end of the year.
- Previously, the Treasury Department was expected to extend those programs as the pandemic is still raging. Because it’s now pursuing the opposite, the Fed has rebuked Mnuchin’s decision, a rare move to see from the agency.
- Other critics have called Mnuchin’s move political, saying it appears to be a blatant attempt to hamper Biden’s transition into the White House in January.
- Still, the Fed has agreed to return the funding, and it’s now being reported that the money will be placed into an account that Mnuchin’s likely successor, Janet Yellen, will need Congressional approval to access.
Mnuchin To End Emergency Funding Without Extension
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday that he doesn’t plan to extend $455 billion in key emergency lending programs past the end of the year. Instead, he’s planning on stashing that money in a fund that his successor can’t reach without Congressional approval.
Mnuchin has asked Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to return the $455 billion in unused funding. Notably, that money is meant to fund programs stemming from the $2 trillion CARES Act — the only stimulus package Congress has agreed upon thus far. Those programs are meant to prop up the economy by providing financial assistance and loans for struggling businesses and local governments.
In his letter to Powell, Mnuchin said the Fed programs “have clearly achieved their objective” because “Markets responded positively, spreads tightened, and banks continued lending.”
While he also said that Congress will later be able to use that $455 billion for other purposes, such as PPP and grants, his decision has been so controversial that even the Fed criticized it. That’s highly unusual because the Fed isn’t usually keen on inserting itself within sensitive political issues.
The Fed has said that the programs are necessary while the pandemic rages on. In fact, it even noted the “important role” of these programs “as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy.”
The Treasury Department cannot simply reallocate that money on its own. Instead, it needs agreement from the Fed. Despite the Fed’s criticism, it ultimately gave that agreement on Friday.
Critics Blast Mnuchin’s Plan as an Attack on Biden
Top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Patrick Toomey have backed Mnuchin’s decision. Last week, McConnell described it as “fully aligned with the letter of the law and the intent of the Congress.”
Among some Republicans, there is a concern that leaving the programs operational for too long could distort markets.
On top of that, only about $20 billion of that $455 billion has actually been used, likely because the program’s loan terms for small- and medium-sized businesses are very restrictive. Still, that’s not to say this money hasn’t been useful. As The New York Times pointed out, “Some programs calmed market conditions merely by reassuring investors.”
Connected to that and similar to the Fed’s arguments, economists are concerned that Mnuchin is pulling the plug on these programs too soon, arguing that they should not be ended before the markets have fully recovered.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the largest lobbying group in the country — said that Mnuchin’s decision to end these programs “closes the door on important liquidity options for businesses at a time when they need them most.”
The chamber also added that it “unnecessarily ties the hands of the incoming administration.”
“This appears to be a political move by Team Trump to limit what President-elect Joe Biden can do next year to boost the economy, especially if Congress fails to pass a big stimulus,” Jaret Seiberg, an analyst at Cowen Inc., added.
“It’s not just closing the store down for Biden,” policy economist Ernie Tedeschi said. “It’s burning the store down.”
Mnuchin has said that this decision isn’t political. He also argued that in the “unlikely event” that these programs need to be re-established, the Fed can still request approval from other emergency funds.
Yellen Would Need Congressional Approval to Access Funds
Still, as The New York Times noted last week, this move could prevent President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming Treasury secretary from quickly restarting the efforts at scale in 2021.
That incoming secretary is expected to be Janet Yellen, who Biden chose for the role on Monday. Notably, if confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first female Treasury secretary.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Mnuchin is planning on moving that $455 billion into the Treasury’s General Fund, which means that Yellen would need Congressional approval to access any of that money.
That would then leave Yellen with only $80 billion at her discretion. While that might sound like a lot of money for the average person, it’s much less than the nearly half a trillion dollars currently set to be removed from play.
It also comes at a time where coronavirus cases are spiking, local and state governments are once again employing more restrictive lockdowns, and millions of people are set to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of the year.
Bharat Ramamurti, a Democratic member of the congressional watchdog panel overseeing the $455 billion, said on Twitter that Mnuchin’s move is illegal and that it can be reversed next year.
A spokesperson for the Treasury has asserted that Mnuchin’s move is legal under the CARES Act.
In the summer, Mnuchin initially extended the fund’s expiration date, which is why it now expires at the end of the year.