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Top Diplomat Blocked From Testifying in Impeachment Inquiry

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  • U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland was barred from giving a scheduled testimony before Congress regarding President Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Zelensky and other matters involving the impeachment inquiry.
  • Sondland was revealed to be a key organizer of the call with Zelensky in a series of released text messages between U.S. diplomats, Rudy Giuliani, and a top Zelensky aide.
  • Democrats have accused Secretary of State Pompeo, who recently revealed he was on the July call, of obstructing the inquiry by preventing witnesses in the State Department from testifying before Congress.

Sondland Barred From Testimony

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a key figure in the impeachment inquiry, was blocked by the Trump administration from giving a planned testimony before Congress in a last-minute move Tuesday.

“Early this morning, the U.S. Department of State directed Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to appear today for his scheduled transcribed interview before the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee,” the law firm that represents Sondland said in a statement hours before his deposition.

“Ambassador Sondland had previously agreed to appear voluntarily today, without the need for a subpoena, in order to answer the Committee’s questions on an expedited basis,” the statement continued.

“As the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the Department’s direction.”

The administration’s efforts to bar Sondland’s testimony angered Democrats, who have sparred with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over his attempts to prevent State Department officials from testifying in the ongoing impeachment investigations into President Donald Trump.

The Democrats impeachment inquiry centers around a whistleblower complaint that claims Trump pressured Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his 2020 opponent Joe Biden during a July phone call.

Democrats also are looking into whether or not Trump decided to withhold nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine so he could have leverage over Zelensky.

Pompeo Blocks Testimonies

On Sept. 27, Congress sent Pompeo a letter informing him of the dates they had scheduled testimonies from State Department officials.

Pompeo responded by writing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee accusing Democrats of “an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly” State Department officials.

Several representatives chairing the committees leading the impeachment inquiry responded in a letter shortly after. In the letter, the members noted that there were reports that Pompeo had been on the Ukraine call, and as a result, had a conflict of interest.

“Any effort by the Secretary of the Department to intimidate or prevent witnesses from testifying or withhold documents from the Committees shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry,” the chairs wrote. Obstructing an impeachment inquiry is an impeachable offense.

A few days later Pompeo confirmed for the first time that he was on the July call with Zelensky.

On Oct. 6, Pompeo said that the Department of State will follow the law in the impeachment investigation. But Democrats seem skeptical.

Following the news that Sondland’s testimony had been blocked, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that House Democrats are seeking “additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress.”

On the other side, some Republicans defended the move.

“The way [Schiff] treated Volker last week, that treatment is the reason why the State Department and the White House said we’re not going to subject Ambassador Sondland to the same treatment,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters Tuesday, referring to the testimony of the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

Trump also appeared to justify his administration’s efforts on Twitter Tuesday morning. 

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public,” he wrote.

Volker Testimony and Text Messages

In addition to upsetting Democrats, the administration’s endeavor to bar Sondland’s testimony will likely have major repercussions, especially because of Sondland’s role in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and Zelensky.

Before serving as the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Sondland was a major donor to Trump and reportedly donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Sondland was appointed to his position back in March 2018, despite the fact that he appears to have no official political or diplomatic experience.

Sondland was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint alongside Volker.

In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that Volker and Sondland “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy.”

The complaint also notes that the two men, along with other State Department officials, “had spoken with Mr. Giuliani in an attempt to ‘contain the damage’ to U.S. national security”

Volker testified behind closed doors on Thursday. Later that night, the House released a set of text messages between Volker, Sondland, and other officials including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a top aide to Zelensky named Andrey Yermak, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.

In one of the exchanges between Sondland and Volker from July 19, a few days before Trump’s call with Zelensky, Volker texted Sondland about plans for the call. 

“Most [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation—and address any specific personnel issues—if there are any,” he wrote.

In another text preparing for the call two days after that, Taylor noted that Zelensky “is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”

To which Sondland responded, “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.” 

Then, on July 25, the morning of the call, Volker texted Yermak, “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck!”

Skipping ahead a month to Aug. 28, Yermak texted Volker a news story titled “Trump Holds Up Ukraine Military Aid Meant to Confront Russia” and said “we need to talk.”

A few days later on Sept. 1, Taylor pressed Sondland on the aid to Ukraine. 

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked. Sondland responded by asking Taylor to call him.

After that, the conversations started to shift heavily towards the decision to withhold aid. In a Sept. 9 text, Taylor expressed doubt about the plan in his messages to Sondland.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote. 

“I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland responded. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

House Democrats said Tuesday they plan on issuing a subpoena for Sondland’s testimony.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (Axios) (The Washington Post)

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Trump Cannot Keep Tax Records From Prosecutors, Supreme Court Rules

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  • The Supreme Court of the United States ruled Thursday that President Donald Trump cannot block criminal prosecutors from attempting to subpoena him.
  • The 7-2 ruling, where Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh sided with the majority, decided that a sitting president does not have “absolute immunityfrom criminal investigations.
  • The case in question involves a probe into Trump’s alleged hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had sex with him.
  • Still, the decision at hand only broadly refers to Trump’s inability to block subpoenas. As the Court noted, he can still issue legal challenges to specific subpoenas, which he will likely do.

SCOTUS Rules on Trump Tax Records

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a substantial blow to President Donald Trump Thursday in a 7-2 decision that now prevents him from blocking subpoenas targeted at him.

The ruling concerns two cases, both with different outcomes and both seeking to obtain Trump’s financial and business records. The first involves a subpoena for a grand jury into a criminal investigation by Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr. The second involves an array of subpoenas filed by three different committees in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thursday’s majority decision, which Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined, states that while Trump cannot avoid being subpoenaed as part of a criminal investigation solely because of his status as president, he can still challenge the specifics of the current subpoenas against him.

The ruling handed down from SCOTUS is also one of the most anticipated and detailed rulings on presidential privilege in decades.

“Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

“We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need,” Roberts added.

While the Court sided with Vance and his investigation, it did not make a ruling on the case involving those House subpoenas. Instead, justices said neither side presented a compelling case as to how to balance congressional subpoenas with the separation of powers. Thus, they sent the case back to lower courts for review.

“The House’s approach would leave essentially no limits on the congressional power to subpoena the President’s personal records,” Roberts wrote. “A limitless subpoena power could transform the established practice of the political branches and allow Congress to aggrandize itself at the President’s expense.”

Essentially, SCOTUS did not prohibit Congress from having the power to subpoena a sitting president, but it did say that the specific way in which the House issued its subpoenas in this case could lead to a power vacuum.

SCOTUS began hearing oral arguments for both cases in May. With each, justices expressed concern about the potential for presidents to face harassment from subpoenas; however, they were also skeptical of Trump’s defense that, while president, he has “absolute immunity” from being subpoenaed or from being the subject of any criminal investigation.

Takeaway: A Mixed Bag

While Thursday’s decision can definitely be seen as a loss for Trump, it is not a definitive win for either side. For example, those hoping to personally see Trump’s tax returns will likely also find themselves out of luck. 

To be clear, within the context of SCOTUS’ ruling, that information would only be for a single grand jury’s eyes. Since grand juries operate confidentially, documents like that rarely ever leak. 

It’s unknown when exactly those documents would have to be handed over to that grand jury, especially because as SCOTUS noted, Trump can still fight their release by raising defences other than “absolute immunity.” Such a move—which is all but certain to happen—will likely tie up those documents in legal limbo until well after the general elections.

Like the case with the House, that then means Vance’s case is also set to return to courts. This time, however, Trump’s lawyers will be unable to argue “absolute immunity” and will have to resort to arguments used for any client.

Because those specific cases can be reargued, even if Trump is still likely to lose against them, he’s been given valuable time to keep their contents a secret until after voters head to the polls. 

Trump Jeers, Democrats and Even White House Cheer

Just minutes after SCOTUS’ decision went public, social media erupted into a frenzy. Supreme Court, #TrumpTaxes, #TrumpTaxReturns, SCOTUS, and Kavanaugh were all top trending topics on Twitter Thursday morning. 

“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” Trump tweeted shortly after the announcement.

“POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” he followed up in another tweet he has repeated many times over.

“Courts in the past have given “broad deference,” he added in another tweet. “BUT NOT ME!”

“…the Supreme Court gives a delay ruling that they would never have given for another President. This is about PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT.” 

However, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany has spun SCOTUS’ decision as a “win” for Trump, particularly because he’s able to re-challenge both cases. 

On the other side, Vance called the ruling “a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one — not even a president — is above the law.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement, saying, “No matter how much he wishes it to be true, President Trump is not king.”

In a devastating blow to President Trump and his enablers in the Republican party, the Supreme Court today upheld a fundamental tenet of our democracy that no one is above the law,” Schumer said. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also responded to the House case being sent back to the lower courts, saying that Thursday’s ruling “is not good news for President Trump.” Pelosi added that Congress will continue to press its case in lower courts and provide further information to those courts.

Deutsche Bank, one of the banks holding some of Trump’s financial records, said it will abide by the U.S. legal process and the final decision of the courts.

Why Are Trump’s Tax Records Being Sought?

Vance is seeking 10 years of documents as part of an criminal investigation into potential state tax law violations by Trump prior to his presidency. 

Notably, that investigation includes looking into hush money paid to Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film star Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, during Trump’s campaign run. Vance is specifically investigating whether that hush money violated New York state law if it were filed as false business records.

The House’s case involves two different subpoenas. Those subpoenas include a sweeping array of Trump’s personal and business records also prior to his time in the White House, including: bank statements, engagement letters, personal checks, loan applications, and tax returns.

The committees have justified these subpoenas by arguing that the information in them is critical to drafting federal ethics and anti-corruption laws involving presidents. In fact, one major concern is whether Trump has business dealings with Russia, which could be a major conflict of interest. 

It’s important to note that Trump himself was never personally subpoenaed. Both Vance and the House committees actually sent those subpoenas to Trump’s personal accounting firm, as well as 3 financial institutions used by him and his business.

Nonetheless, Trump filed lawsuits against both sets of subpoenas in an attempt to block those institutions from having to comply. In both cases, Trump lost in every single level of federal court all the way up to the Supreme Court. 

Notably, he’s also the only president in modern history to not publicly release his tax returns or divest from major business interests while in office.

See what others are saying: (ABC News) (The LA Times) (Axios)

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Top Universities Move To Guard International Students From ICE’s Deportation Policy

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  • Following ICE’s announcement on Monday that it would revoke visas for international students at schools shifting to online-only formats, a number of colleges and universities have responded.
  • While schools like Columbia quickly announced that they would begin offering hybrid models, Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the policy.
  • At the same time, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she expects K-12 public schools to be “fully operational” in the fall, and President Donald Trump has threatened to pull funding if they don’t.

Schools Move to Protect International Students

Colleges and universities are scrambling to protect their international students following a controversial move from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement that threatens to deport those students taking only online classes in the fall.

For the Spring and Summer semesters, ICE temporarily eased existing rules that require international students to attend in-person classes and essentially limit them to only one online course each semester. On Monday, the agency announced that it would largely not be extending those flexibilities into fall, though it would still allow international students to take more online classes than normal. 

Many schools are afraid to offer in-person classes with the COVID-19 pandemic still sweeping across the country. Because of that, many international students fear they will be deported, and if they are, they could face added difficulty traveling home considering current international travel restrictions, some of which could bar them from their own countries.

In response, Harvard and MIT filed a joint lawsuit against the Trump administration Wednesday in an attempt to seek a temporary restraining order prohibiting the government from enforcing ICE’s policy.

“ICE’s action proceeded without any indication of having considered the health of students, faculty, university staff, or communities…or the absence of other options for universities to provide their curricula to many of their international students,” the suit reads.

In a personal statement alongside the lawsuit, Harvard President Larry Bacow said the university “will not stand by to see our international students’ dreams extinguished by a deeply misguided order.”

Other schools have worked to reassure their international students in different ways. New York University—which has the highest number of international students in the U.S—has stressed that its hybrid program would accommodate most of its international students.

 However, it added that the new guidance from ICE “will be disruptive to some who will now be forced to rethink their fall schedules to ensure they include live classes.”

“Additionally, requiring international students to maintain in person instruction or leave the country, irrespective of their own health issues or even a government mandated shutdown of New York City, is just plain wrong and needlessly rigid,” school administration said in its statement on Tuesday.

Also in New York, Columbia University announced that it now plans to organize hybrid classes with both in-person and remote learning opportunities. It will also offer pop-up learning centers for students who can’t return to Columbia.

On the West Coast, Stanford—which had previously announced that it would hold mostly online classes—now said it will support international students. As to what that might look like, it hasn’t yet said.

At the University of California, Berkeley, students are reportedly trying to create a course for international students solely to circumvent this ICE policy. That news came after a student said they had found a faculty member willing to sponsor a class that would be “only for students who are international and need a physical component to remain in the United States.”

Source: @trotskyplug, now deleted

However, nothing has been confirmed by the university. For now, such a class remains only speculation. A number of people have also questioned how such a class would be drafted and if it would conflict with immigration fraud laws.

Still, before, that post was ultimately deleted, it was shared over 24,000 times, highlighting the attempts international students are making to try to find some way to remain in the country. 

Many of those students are reportedly signing up for any in-person class they can find—even if it’s outside of their major or not a general education requirement. Others are reportedly trying to swap for in-person classes with American students as those classes fill up.

DHS Defends ICE Policy

Kenneth Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, defended ICE’s policy Tuesday on CNN, repeatedly stressing that the agency was allowing more flexibility than it ever had before. Anchor Brianna Keilar pushed back against those claims, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic in an exceptional situation that requires great flexibility.

“So you’re basically forcing universities to reopen even if they have personally determined that they shouldn’t be doing that for public health reasons?” Keilar asked. 

“Oh, we’re not forcing universities to reopen,” Cuccinelli responded, “however, if a university… if they don’t reopen this semester, there isn’t a reason for a person holding a student visa to be present in the country. They should go home, and then they should return when the school opens. That’s what student visas are for, and we want to accommodate that for schools, and we’re working hard to do that.” 

Keilar continued to hit back, saying that for some students, they will return home to countries with internet restrictions that might not allow them to appropriately conduct research or work for classes. 

In the interview, Cuccinelli also said that this policy was designed, in part, to “encourage schools to reopen.”

DeVos: Schools “Fully Operational” By Fall

In recent days, the Trump administration has become increasingly adamant that public K-12 schools should reopen for the upcoming academic year. 

“Corrupt Joe Biden and the Democrats don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons!” President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday. “They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!”

Trump continued to push for full reopenings in the fall on Tuesday, specifically criticizing Harvard for its plan to operate fully online.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I think it’s an easy way out. I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves if you want to know the truth.”

“We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools,” he added. 

That idea was further pushed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos the same day, with DeVos saying, “Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools need to open, it’s a matter of how.” 

“They must reopen, they must be fully operational,” she added. “And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.” 

DeVos appeared to push for that hardline reopening plan, disavowing hybrid models that suggest students only physically go to school a few times a week. 

“A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos told governors in a conference call.

“Students across the country have already fallen behind,” she added. “We need to make sure that they catch up. It’s expected that it will look different depending on where you are, but what’s clear is that students and their families need more options.”

DeVos also compared the coronavirus risk to “learning to ride a bike” and being “shot off in a rocket into space,” saying schools “already deal with risk on a daily basis.”

Vice President Mike Pence claimed on that call that if all schools remained closed into the upcoming academic year, the U.S. economy would take a $50 billion hit. 

Trump continued to push for reopening schools Wednesday morning, saying he may cut off funding if they don’t open. In a tweet, he compared the situation in the U.S. with that of Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden; however, those countries have all managed to suppress the virus one way or the other.

In a follow-up tweet, Trump went on to say he disagrees with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to reopen, calling them “very tough & expensive.”

Currently, if a school wishes to reopen, the CDC recommends that desks should be six-feet apart, that groups of students stay together, and that students shouldn’t share objects. It also recommends a hybrid schedule, such as the one DeVos has criticized. 

However, it also notes that wearing face masks will likely be challenging for students—especially younger ones—to wear all day.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “More and more data has been coming out around the severity of the illness, and the likelihood of infection for children, both of which are substantially lower than they are for adults.”

It now “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

The AAP lists several reasons for bringing children back to school, including potential negative impacts such as interruption of support services, as well as difficulty for schools to identify learning deficits, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and depression. 

While there is some evidence to suggest children are less susceptible to the virus, it’s not clear how strong that evidence is. Some hypothesize that schools closing in the early stages of the pandemic could have helped to contribute to lower infection rates.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (Forbes) (The Hill)

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Is It Too Late for Kanye West to Run for President in 2020?

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  • Kanye West announced Saturday that he will be running for president of the United States in 2020. 
  • However, reports say he has not yet formally registered his campaign with the Federal Election Commission and has missed the deadline to file as an independent in at least six states. 
  • He technically still has time to meet other states’ fast-approaching filing deadlines, but some believe his announcement is just a promotional stunt for a new project or new music. 
  • Others believe that West, a known Trump supporter, is hoping to pull votes, specifically Black votes, away from former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Kanye’s Announcement 

Kanye West announced that he is running for president in the 2020 U.S. election. 

In a tweet posted on the Fourth of July, he wrote: “We must now realize the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision and building our future. I am running for president of the United States 🇺🇸! #2020VISION”

That tweet was met with a ton of support, earning over 1 million likes by Monday morning and prompting responses from other notable figures. For instance, his wife Kim Kardashian retweeted the post with an American flag emoji, meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk commented “You have my full support,” beneath Kanye’s tweet. 

If you’re familiar with West, you know that running for president is actually an idea he’s thrown around for some time now. In fact, he actually made headlines in 2015 after first announcing plans to do so at the MTV Video Music Awards. 

However, he’s more recently suggested that he would actually run in 2024. 

Online Outrage 

So for some, the new announcement wasn’t totally surprising, but of course, there were a bunch of people who criticized the move because Kanye has been very public about his support for President Donald Trump.

Because of that allegiance, some think Kanye running is an attempt to pull votes, specifically Black votes, away from the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. 

Aside from that argument, there are people who generally dislike Kanye for offensive comments he’s made in the past, like the time he suggested slavery was a choice. Meanwhile, others worry that people will vote for West to be funny.

Others believe his whole announcement is just a publicity stunt for a new project or new music. That’s because it comes off the heels of his new single “Wash Us in the Blood,” and follows the announcement of his new album, “God’s County.” 

Can He Run? 

On top of that, many pointed out that West hasn’t taken the necessary step he needs to run. According to CNN, West still needs to register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), present a campaign platform, and collect enough signatures to get on the November ballot, among other things.

According to Ballotpedia, he’s already missed the deadline to file as an independent candidate in states like North Carolina, Texas, New York, Maine, New Mexico, and Indiana. He does still have time to file in several other states where deadlines are set for sometime in July and August if not later. 

In the places where he was too late, he could technically run as a write-in candidate, though rules for write-in-candidates vary from state to state. 

Ballotpedia states that, “33 states require a write-in presidential candidate to file some paperwork in advance of an election. In nine states, write-in voting for presidential candidates is not permitted. The remaining states do not require presidential write-in candidates to file special paperwork before the election.”

So, a real presidential run is not impossible at this point, but as of now, there aren’t any public filings that show that West is really moving to do so. Even if he does, people feel like he might not be fully aware of what he could be getting himself into

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee weighed in on Kanye’s announcement in a weekend appearance on Fox and Friends where he said, “Look, it’s a free country. He can certainly run. I think he’s going to be surprised to find out all of the incredible limitations upon his entertainment career the moment he becomes an official candidate for president.”

“All of the vast financial reporting that he’s going to be required to do and all of the disclosures, some of which are not going to be pleasant for someone in the entertainment industry, and all of the limitations on the money he can earn and how he can spend it. I think it’s going to be a rude awakening,” he continued.

As of now, West has not made any further statements regarding his plans to run for president. 

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (NBC News) (CNN)

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