- 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.
Highlights From the Nevada Democratic Debate
- Six 2020 presidential candidates took the stage at the Democratic Debate in Nevada ahead of the state’s highly anticipated caucus this Saturday.
- Here are some highlights from Wednesday’s debate.
Candidates Target Bloomberg
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made his first debate appearance, and the other candidates used it as an opportunity to target the controversial political figure right out of the gate.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) all went after Bloomberg in their opening statements.
Sanders and Biden criticized the mayor for expanding New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which gave police the authority to stop and search anyone they suspected of committing a crime and disproportionately targeted people of color.
Warren, for her part, had some of the sharpest rebukes of the former mayor.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” she said.
“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk,” she continued. “Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is. But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Bloomberg’s Nondisclosure Agreements
Warren also questioned Bloomberg’s record with sexual harassment after a moderator asked him about “sexually suggestive remarks” he had made when confronted about the fact that several former employees of his company had described the workplace as hostile for women.
“The mayor has to stand on his record. And what we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace,” she said.
“So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?” she asked.
“We have a very few nondisclosure agreements,” he responded.
“None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he continued. “There’s agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet and that’s up to them. They signed those agreements, and we’ll live with it.”
Warren continued to push Bloomberg to release the individuals from their nondisclosures, a demand that was eventually echoed by Biden.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg Spar
Warren was not the only person who sparred with the other candidates.
Another notable moment from the night came from a tense interaction between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, after one of the moderators asked Klobuchar about an interview from last week where she was unable to remember the name of the president of Mexico and had trouble discussing his policies.
Klobuchar said that a moment of forgetfulness did not reflect what she knows about Mexico.
“I said that I made an error,” she added. “I think having a president that maybe is humble and is able to admit that here and there maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Buttigieg, however, saw it as an opportunity to pounce.
“But you’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience. You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade,” he said. “You’re literally in part of the committee that’s overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”
“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” Klobuchar responded.
“I have passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat since being in the U.S. Senate. I am the one, not you, that has won statewide in congressional district after congressional district,” she continued. “And I will say, when you tried in Indiana, Pete, to run, what happened to you? You lost by over 20 points.”
Buttigieg Goes After Sanders’ Supporters
Buttigieg, who is competing with Sanders for the title of frontrunner after the elections New Hampshire, also used his time on stage to attack Sanders and his supporters.
Sanders supporters, also known as “Bernie Bros,” have come under fire recently for their response to a flyer made by Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union that said Sanders would “end Culinary Healthcare” under his Medicare-for-all policy.
After posting the flyer on Twitter, the union accused Sanders’ supporters of “viciously” attacking members of the group, and the organization’s top leaders told reporters they received threatening phone calls, emails, and tweets and that their personal information was doxxed.
“We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion, and love,” Sander’s said of his supporters. “And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.”
“Senator, when you say that you disown these attacks and you didn’t personally direct them, I believe you,” Buttigieg said. “But at a certain point, you got to ask yourself, why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters that this happens?”
“I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others,” he continued.
Court Rules Florida Can’t Bar Felons From Voting Over Unpaid Fines and Fees
- On Wednesday, a federal appeals court in Florida upheld an injunction on a law that bans felons from voting if they haven’t paid their legal fees.
- In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence.
- Then, in 2019, Florida’s legislature and Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law mandating former felons to pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.
- With the help of voting rights groups, 17 felons sued DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn this law.
- The latest ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, but it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons who wish to vote.
A federal appeals court in Florida said on Wednesday that for now, felons can no longer be barred from voting if they haven’t paid fines or fees from their cases.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction of a state law that requires convicted felons to settle all legal fines and fees before they are able to get reinstated to vote. The panel agreed to suspend the law until there’s a final ruling on it.
The decision of the appeals court only applies to the 17 felons who sued Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn the law. The plaintiffs and the voting rights groups that represent them argued that the legislation equates to an unfair poll tax.
The appeals court judges agreed, and said that the legal financial obligations (LFOs) law “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”
While Wednesday’s ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons. A trial for the plaintiffs is still pending but slated to begin in April, and that’s when the overall constitutionality of the LFO law will be decided.
“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy,” Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, told NBC.
Background on Felon Voting Restrictions
Until recently, Florida automatically prohibited all felons from the right to vote ever again. This changed in late 2018 when an overwhelming majority of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. Those with murder or felony sex convictions were exempt from this change.
The passing of Amendment 4 restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people.
Last year, the Republican-led legislature and Gov. DeSantis passed the law that mandated that former felons pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.
Supporters of the LFO law argued that Amendment 4 was not meant to restore voting rights for all felons, but only those who have “paid their debt to society,” including monetary fees.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Communications Director for DeSantis, responded to the Wednesday decision in a tweet.
“We disagree and will appeal en banc,” Ferré said.
Looking Ahead to 2020 Election
The recent ruling is especially significant as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Wednesday’s decision means that the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are eligible to vote in Florida’s presidential primary next month, though other felons with outstanding legal fines or fees are still not.
However, it is possible that by the end of the upcoming April trial, the legal financial requirement law will be deemed unconstitutional, which will allow all Florida felons to vote whether or not they’ve paid the fines and fees from their cases. But if that’s the case, DeSantis and the defendants are still likely to appeal that ruling as well to a higher court.
It is unclear how this is all going to end. Some believe that the courts will move quickly to get it settled before the 2020 election, but the timeline is not fully set. Many expect that this particular case could be taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately be decided on there.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NBC) (Wall Street Journal)
Attorney General Barr’s Credibility Questioned Over Roger Stone Case
- Attorney General William Barr is facing backlash over his decision to overrule the sentence recommendation for Roger Stone, a close ally of President Trump, after Trump tweeted that the suggested sentence was “unfair.”
- Both Barr and Trump have said the decision was made independently and before Trump’s tweet, but accusations that Barr intervened in Trump’s favor have continued.
- A group of 2,000 DOJ officials signed a letter condemning Barr and calling for him to resign.
- Barr defended his decision in an interview with ABC, but he said Trump’s tweets made it “impossible” for him to do his job.
Barr Overrules Prosecutors in Stone Case
Challenges to Attorney General William Barr’s credibility have escalated over the last week following his decision to overrule a sentence recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime advisor and friend of President Donald Trump.
The sentence recommendation, announced by Justice Department prosecutors Wednesday, suggested that Stone serve seven to nine years in jail for the seven charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress that he was found guilty of in November.
The indictments stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Following the announcement, Trump responded to the charges in a tweet, calling them “horrible and very unfair” before adding, “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
Shortly after that, the Justice Department announced that it was changing the sentence recommendation. An anonymous DOJ official told the Washington Post that the recommendation was “not what had been briefed to the department.”
“The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses,” the official added.
Following the announcement, four prosecutors withdrew from the Stone case. One of the four prosecutors quit his job at the DOJ altogether.
The department’s highly unusual decision to overrule career lawyers was criticized by many, including former DOJ officials under both Democrat and Republican administrations, who accused Barr of intervening in Trump’s favor to lighten the sentence recommendation for an ally of the president.
The Justice Department, for its part, defended the move.
A spokeswoman for the department told reporters that DOJ officials did not discuss the stone case with the White House and that the decision to overrule the recommendation was made before Trump’s tweet.
Trump also denied the claims that he directed the DOJ to change its recommendation, though he later congratulated Barr on Twitter, prompting more allegations of political interference.
Barr’s ABC Interview
Barr defended his actions regarding the Stone case in an interview with ABC on Thursday. The Attorney General reiterated that his staff made the decision before Trump’s tweets and denied that Trump played a role in it.
However, in an unusual rebuke of the president, Barr also said that Trump’s tweet complicated the situation and that the incident “illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be.”
“The president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job.”
“I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” he added.
Trump, however, did not seem to be deterred by the attorney general’s remarks.
“The President wasn’t bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
Trump, for his part, has continued to tweet about the case, going on the offensive Tuesday morning and threatening to sue “everyone” involved in the special counsel’s inquiry.
“Everything having to do with this fraudulent investigation is badly tainted and, in my opinion, should be thrown out,” he said. “The whole deal was a total SCAM. If I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place… BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!”
Trump also tweeted comments made by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano, who said that Stone’s defense team asked for a second trial because a member of the jury was biased against Trump. Because of that, Napolitano said, “almost any judge in the country would order a new trial.”
Letter From Former DOJ Officials.
Barr has still continued to face mounting criticisms and incredulity regarding his credibility.
Since Sunday, a bipartisan group of more than 2,000 former DOJ officials have signed a letter condemning both Trump and Barr and calling on Barr to resign.
“Mr. Barr’s actions in doing the President’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words,” the letter states. “Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign.”
“Such behavior is a grave threat to the fair administration of justice,” the officials continue. “In this nation, we are all equal before the law. A person should not be given special treatment in a criminal prosecution because they are a close political ally of the President.”
“Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies.”