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Barr: Trump tweets on cases make it 'impossible' to do job

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr took a public swipe at President Donald Trump on Thursday, saying that the president’s tweets about Justice Department prosecutors and cases “make it impossible for me to do my job.”

Barr made the comment during an interview with ABC News just days after his Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors — who had recommended in a court filing that Trump’s longtime ally and confidant Roger Stone be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison — and took the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek. The department didn’t offer an amended number.

Barr himself has been under fire for the Justice Department action, and Thursday’s comment served as a defense of his own integrity. He is a Trump loyalist who shares the president’s views on expansive executive powers.

The remarks, made so quickly after the decision to back away from the sentencing, suggested that Barr was aware the reversal had chipped away at the department’s historic reputation for independence from political sway. But he stopped short of acknowledging wrongdoing by anyone.

Barr said that Trump’s tweets created perception problems for the department that called into question its independence, but he denied there was any order from Trump and said Trump’s tweets did not factor into the decision.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Thursday evening at the White House that Trump tweets to bypass the mainstream press and speak directly to the American people.

“It’s just a different method of communicating with the American people and the president has every right to weigh in,” O’Brien said. “He’s got First Amendment rights, even though he’s president. And he’s got a right to weigh in with his opinions on the big issues of the day and I think he’s going to continue to do that.”

Barr joined a roster of high level aides who have publicly criticized Trump, with the key difference that he is still in his job. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is to publish a book next month detailing his time in the White House including criticism of Trump actions such as his decision to withhold military assistance while seeking a political favor from Ukraine. Former Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has largely kept a low profile since leaving the White House, has grown more open about his unflattering assessments of the president.

Earlier this week, Trump applauded Barr on Twitter for the decision to reverse the sentencing recommendation, writing: “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”

The department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump blasted the recommendation on Twitter as “very horrible and unfair”— and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it. The about-face prompted the four attorneys who prosecuted Stone to quit the case. One left the Justice Department altogether.

“I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said in the ABC interview. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our 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 and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”

Stone was convicted in November of tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. He’s scheduled to be sentenced next week.

Barr said he was “of course” prepared to deal with any ramifications from the president for his comments.

“As I said during my confirmation, I came in to serve as attorney general. I am responsible for everything that happens in the department, but the thing I have most responsibility for are the issues that are brought to me for decision,” Barr said in the interview.

It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court. The actual sentencing is up to the judge.

“What they did to Roger Stone was a disgrace,” Trump said Thursday during an interview with Geraldo Rivera on Newsradio WTAM1100.

“I don’t think they quit the case. I think they felt they got caught,” the president said of the Stone prosecutors. “I don’t think they quit for moral reasons. I think they got caught in the act by me.”

”Now what am I going to do, sit back and let a man go to jail maybe for nine years when murderers aren’t going to jail. You have some of the most serious horrible rapists and everything else. They don’t go to jail for nine years,” Trump said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsay Graham tweeted his support for Barr, saying the president had done a “great service” for the people by selecting him. Earlier this week, Graham said, and Barr later confirmed, that Justice was accepting information that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is gathering in Ukraine about the president’s Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son.

In the ABC interview, Barr said of the president: “If he were to say go investigate somebody because — and you sense it’s because they’re a political opponent — then the attorney general shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out.”

Democrats decried the Justice Department’s reversal and called for immediate investigations. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for the Justice Department’s inspector general to step in. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that Barr had “stooped to such levels” and that “the American people deserve better.”

Barr has been a steady ally of the president’s since he returned to the top post at the Justice Department last year. He cleared the president of obstruction of justice even when special counsel Robert Mueller had pointedly declined to do so, and has declared that the FBI’s Russia investigation, which resulted in charges against Stone, had been based on a “bogus narrative.”

On Thursday, he said he would not be “bullied or influenced by anybody.”

“And I said, whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial board, or the president. I’m gonna do what I think is right. And, you know, the, I think the — I cannot do my job here at the Department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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Senate moves to limit Trump on military force against Iran

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a bipartisan measure Thursday aimed at limiting President Donald Trump’s authority to launch military operations against Iran, with eight Republicans joining Democrats in a post-impeachment bid to constrain the White House.

The rebuke was the Senate’s first major vote since acquitting Trump on impeachment charges last week. Trump is expected to veto the war powers resolution if it reaches his desk, warning that if his “hands were tied, Iran would have a field day.’”

The measure, authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., says Trump must win approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Kaine and other supporters said the resolution, which passed 55-45, was not about Trump or even the presidency, but instead was an important reassertion of congressional power to declare war.

While Trump and other presidents “must always have the ability to defend the United States from imminent attack, the executive power to initiate war stops there,’’ Kaine said. “An offensive war requires a congressional debate and vote.’’

The Senate vote continues a pattern in which Republican senators have shown a willingness to challenge Trump on foreign policy, a sharp departure from their strong support during impeachment and on domestic matters. Congress moved to impose restrictions on U.S. involvement with the Saudi-led war in Yemen last year after U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a gruesome murder at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey.

The bipartisan vote was a rare exertion of authority from Congress, and Trump promptly vetoed it.

The Democratic-controlled House passed a separate, nonbinding war powers resolution on Iran last month. The House could take up the Senate resolution later this month, House leaders said. Two-thirds votes in the House and GOP-run Senate would be needed to override an expected Trump veto of the war powers resolution.

Answering a claim by some of Trump’s supporters and Trump himself that the measure would send a signal of weakness to Iran and other potential adversaries, Kaine said the opposite was true.

“When we stand up for the rule of law ... and say ‘This decision is fundamental, and we have rules that we are going to follow so we can make a good decision,’ that’s a message of strength,’’ Kaine said. “If we’re to order our young men and women ... to risk their lives in war, it should be on the basis of careful deliberation by the people’s elected legislature and not on the say-so of any one person.’’

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, agreed. Lee supports Trump’s foreign policy, including toward Iran, but said Congress cannot escape its constitutional responsibility to act on matters of war and peace.

As the Senate debate made clear, “there is abundant support for the United States taking tough positions with regard to Iran,’’ Lee said. ”And as part of that we want to make sure that any military action that needs to be authorized is in fact properly authorized by Congress. That doesn’t show weakness. That shows strength.’ ”

Trump disputed that, arguing on Twitter that a vote against Kaine’s proposal was important to national security and pointed to the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.

“We are doing very well with Iran and this is not the time to show weakness. Americans overwhelmingly support our attack on terrorist Soleimani,’’ Trump said. “If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal. The Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party. Don’t let it happen!’’

Tehran responded to the U.S. attack on Soleimani by launching missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house American troops. The attack caused traumatic brain injuries in at least 64 U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon said.

Democrats and Republicans alike criticized a briefing by the Trump administration shortly after the drone strike, saying U.S. officials offered vague information about a possible attack being planned by Iran but no substantial details.

Kaine has long pushed for action reasserting congressional power to declare war. At Republicans’ request, he removed initial language that targeted Trump in favor of a generalized statement declaring that Congress has the sole power to declare war. The resolution also directs Trump to terminate use of military force against Iran or any part of its government without approval from Congress.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a co-sponsor, called the resolution “much needed and long overdue.’’ In recent decades, “Congress has too often abdicated its constitutional responsibility on authorizing the sustained use of military force,’’ she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and many other Republicans opposed the resolution, saying it would send the wrong message to U.S. allies. “Just as we have successfully sent Iran this strong signal of our strength and resolve (by killing that country’s top general), a blunt and clumsy war powers resolution would tie our own hands,” McConnell said.

The three senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president — Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — all returned to the Capitol from campaigning and backed the war powers resolution.

Besides Collins and Lee, Republicans joining Democrats were Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Todd Young of Indiana.


National
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Trump slams ex-adviser who defended key impeachment witness Vindman

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday lashed out against former White House chief of staff John Kelly for being disloyal after he came to the defense of a former national security aide who offered key testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

The president’s comments came after Kelly defended Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was among the administration officials who raised concerns about Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine’s president. That call spurred the president’s impeachment and the trial that ended in acquittal last week.

“Like so many X’s, he misses the action & just can’t keep his mouth shut, which he actually has a military and legal obligation to do,” Trump tweeted about Kelly.

Kelly, speaking at a public forum Wednesday in Morristown, New Jersey, said Vindman did exactly as he was trained in raising concerns to his superiors after hearing “questionable” comments from Trump, according to a report by The Atlantic magazine. Vindman was ousted last week from his position as a Ukraine specialist detailed to the White House National Security Council.

“He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave,” said Kelly, a retired Marine general who served as Trump’s chief of staff from the summer of 2017 until early last year. “He went and told his boss what he just heard.”

Vindman was a key witness in the impeachment inquiry.

The Army officer was ousted from his NSC job last Friday, just two days after the Senate acquitted Trump on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress charges. He is to be reassigned by the Pentagon. His twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who worked as an ethics lawyer at the NSC, also was ousted from his job and was re-assigned to the Army General Counsel’s Office.

Kelly came to Vindman’s defense after Trump suggested this week that the Pentagon should review Vindman’s conduct in the Ukraine episode and consider disciplinary action against him.

Trump has insisted that his call to Zelenskiy was “perfect.” During the conversation, Trump asked Zelenskiy to do him “a favor” and look into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s business dealings in Ukraine.

Vindman testified that he raised his concerns inside the White House after concluding that Trump was inappropriately conditioning nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine on getting Zelenskiy to announce an investigation of his political rival.

Kelly said at the forum that Vindman’s decision to raise concerns was valid.

“Through the Obama administration up until that phone call, the policy of the U.S. was militarily to support Ukraine in their defensive fight against … the Russians,” Kelly said. “And so, when the president said that continued support would be based on X, that essentially changed. And that’s what that guy (Vindman) was most interested in.”

Trump initially tapped Kelly after the 2016 election to serve as his secretary of homeland security, before asking him to become his chief of staff. Kelly suggested at the forum he had some hesitation about joining the administration but ultimately decided to at the urging of his wife.

“I frankly think he needs you and people like you,” Kelly recalled his wife telling him.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Thursday she was “disappointed” by Kelly’s comments. She compared him to former national security adviser John Bolton, another top aide who was critical of Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelenskiy.

“I thought it was a little disingenuous,” Grisham said in an interview on Fox New Channel’s “Fox & Friends” “It’s interesting that he’s starting to poke his head out a little bit more, just like John Bolton, as we’re getting close to an election.”

Bolton, according to excerpts of a manuscript leaked to the media during the Senate impeachment trial, says Trump told him he was conditioning the release of military aid to Ukraine on whether its government would help investigate the Bidens.

While they had vocal, sometimes heated, disagreements, Bolton defended Kelly in a tweet Thursday, calling him an “honorable man.”

“John and I have disagreed at times, as is commonplace at senior government levels, but he has always served his country faithfully,” Bolton said. “Conservatives especially have a responsibility to reject baseless attacks upon him.”

Kelly did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.