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Mnuchin says he’ll protect Trump privacy if taxes requested



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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested Thursday he will protect President Donald Trump’s privacy if he receives a request from House Democrats for Trump’s tax returns.

At a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, Mnuchin was asked whether he would meet a request for Trump’s past tax returns. Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., is expected to formally ask for those as Democrats seek to shed light on Trump’s financial dealings and potential conflicts of interest.

“We will examine the request and we will follow the law … and we will protect the president as we would protect any taxpayer” regarding their right to privacy, Mnuchin said.

Neal is one of only three congressional officials authorized under a rarely used 1924 law to make a written request for anyone’s tax returns to the Treasury secretary. The law says the Treasury chief “shall furnish” the requested material to members of the committee for them to examine behind closed doors. But Mnuchin did not specifically say he would turn them over.

The unprecedented move likely would set off a huge legal battle between Trump’s administration and Democrats controlling the House. The fight could take years to resolve, possibly stretching beyond the 2020 presidential election.

Neal could move in coming weeks to ask for the documents. “It’s happening and it’s coming, so be prepared,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., told Mnuchin at the hearing.

Democrats say that seeking Trump’s tax documents falls within their mandate of congressional oversight; Republicans accuse the Democrats of using powers in the tax law to mount a political witch hunt. Republican lawmakers have invoked privacy concerns and the confidentiality of all tax documents, suggesting that the Democrats would leak Trump’s returns so they would become public.

Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani has suggested the Democrats could have a hard time proving their demand was intended for pursuing legitimate congressional oversight and was not a political scavenger hunt.

Mnuchin was asked whether Trump had intervened in some way or asked him to ignore the expected request for the tax returns. “He has not,” Mnuchin responded. He said he hasn’t discussed the issue with anyone in the White House or with Trump’s attorneys.

Trump broke with decades of tradition for presidential candidates by refusing to release his income tax filings during his 2016 campaign. He has said he won’t release them because he is being audited, even though IRS officials have said taxpayers under audit are free to release their returns. Trump claimed at a news conference following the November elections that the filings are too complex for people to understand.

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, during his detailed testimony to a House committee last month, said he asked Trump for paperwork for the audit to prepare Trump’s response to reporters about the issue, but never received any documentation. Cohen said that led him to presume that Trump isn’t being audited.

Getting Trump’s returns has been high on the Democrats’ list of priorities since they won control of the House in November’s midterm elections. The Democrats tried and failed several times as the minority party in Congress to obtain Trump’s returns.

They want to explore numerous aspects of Trump’s complex financial dealings and corporate empire. Among them: whether there are conflicts of interest between Trump’s companies and his presidential actions, whether he’s properly paid taxes and whether he personally benefited from the sweeping Republican-written tax law enacted in late 2017.

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House Democrats propose $25 million fund for CO detectors and other health upgrades in public housing



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By Suzy Khimm

The House Appropriations Committee has proposed a $25 million grant program for installing carbon monoxide detectors and remediating other health hazards in public housing.

The proposal comes in the wake of news reports on dangerous public housing conditions, including a monthslong NBC News investigation into the lack of carbon monoxide protections in homes overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Carbon monoxide is a widespread hazard — perhaps more widespread than we had known,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., the committee’s head of housing and transportation. Every public housing authority “ought to be paying attention to this as a possible hazard, and now there is a federal program that encourages and helps them,” he added.

Under the newly proposed program, local public housing authorities will be able to apply for federal grants to install carbon monoxide detectors, combat mold and remove asbestos, among other environmental health hazards, according to a draft budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 released Wednesday by the committee’s Democratic leadership.

At least 13 residents of HUD properties have died of carbon monoxide poisoning since 2003, according to an NBC News investigation, but HUD does not currently require detectors in any of the properties where more than 4.6 million low-income families live. HUD says it plans to move forward with a new rule requiring detectors, but the agency has not released a proposal, and it could take months before one is enacted.

If approved by Congress, the new grant program would be in addition to the $5 million that HUD recently said it would dedicate to carbon monoxide detectors in public housing. Under both initiatives, only local housing authorities can apply for the new grants, not private owners or landlords.

The new $25 million program is part of the House committee’s broader proposal to increase spending on the Public Housing Capital Fund, which is dedicated to developing and modernizing public housing across the U.S. The draft bill would raise spending on the capital fund by $80 million above the $2.775 billion enacted in last year’s budget. The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the fund altogether.

Price’s subcommittee is formally considering the draft budget on Thursday, after which it must go through the full House Appropriations Committee, then the House.

The House Appropriations Committee is also proposing $11 million in additional funding for HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes. That office allows state and local governments, as well as nonprofit and for-profit firms, to receive grant money for combating health hazards in housing, including carbon monoxide, but HUD does not award them directly to individuals. Public housing authorities also cannot participate in the program.

Federal investment in public housing as a whole has declined drastically over the past two decades, raising concerns that newly proposed requirements like carbon monoxide detectors could squeeze housing authorities already struggling to repair and maintain crumbling facilities.

Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, welcomed the 2020 budget proposal from the House committee and said she was “particularly glad” to see the funds specifically dedicated to addressing residents’ health and safety needs.

Emily Benfer, a visiting associate clinical law professor at Columbia University, agreed.

“This is a critical step to ensuring that public housing will not be the source of asthma, lead poisoning, cancer or death,” Benfer said. “Especially in light of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and the recent and tragic loss of life in public housing, Congress’ investment in the health and well-being of residents is critical.”

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In letter, ‘American Taliban’ John Walker Lindh said ISIS ‘doing a spectacular job’



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By Ken Dilanian

John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting with the Afghan Taliban two months after the 9/11 attacks, is set to be released from prison Thursday amid concerns among U.S. authorities that he remains a potentially violent Islamic extremist, current and former officials told NBC News.

Underscoring those worries is Lindh’s 2015 handwritten letter from prison to NBC’s Los Angeles station KNBC —revealed for the first time Wednesday — in which he expressed support for ISIS, saying the terror group that beheaded Americans was “doing a spectacular job.”

“The Islamic State is clearly very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method,” Lindh wrote.

Lindh expressed that sentiment—in response to a question from the station about whether ISIS represents Islam—after ISIS had beheaded Americans in well-publicized videos, including journalist James Foley in August 2014. It was his third of four letters in a series of correspondence with KNBC.

He did not respond to a follow-up question asking him about ISIS violence, saying in his final letter that he would no longer respond to the reporter’s inquiries.

Lindh’s correspondence with journalists and other comments he made in prison formed part of the basis of a 2016 U.S. intelligence document, produced by the National Counter Terrorism Center, saying that he “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”

John Walker Lindh, obtained Jan. 22, 2002 from a record of religious schools where he studied for five months in Bannu, Pakistan.via AP file

A memo making a similar point was circulating among authorities last week, according to a U.S. official who read it.

After serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence, Lindh will be released for good behavior, as is standard in the federal system. Judge T.S. Ellis imposed unusually restrictive conditions on him, including mandatory monitoring of his internet usage, banning him from foreign travel and requiring mental health counseling. A U.S. official told NBC News he would live in Northern Virginia, something his lawyer affirmed to KNTV, the NBC station in the Bay Area.

“It is one of the most restrictive sets of conditions I’ve seen in a terrorism case, and it probably speaks to their concerns about him,” said Seamus Hughes, a former U.S. intelligence official who studies extremism at George Washington University.

Lindh’s lawyer and a representative of his family declined to comment to NBC News.

The conditions of his supervised release last three years, after which Lindh will be clear of formal supervision. U.S. officials told NBC News the FBI is likely to keep a close eye on him. It’s unclear whether authorities would have a legal predicate to obtain a national security warrant to intercept his communications.

Lindh expressed remorse during his 2002 sentencing hearing before Judge T.S. Ellis in Alexandria, Va., saying he did not support terrorism and he made a “mistake by joining the Taliban.”

In his letters to NBC 4 Los Angeles, he expressed markedly different sentiments, saying he was proud “to take part in the Afghan jihad.” In the letters, he signed his name as Yahya.

Concerns about Lindh’s extremist views were the subject of a 2017 article in Foreign Policy magazine, but they have not been widely publicized. Many people, including prominent figures, had urged that his sentence be commuted, portraying him as a misguided young man who was caught up in the heightened tensions of the post 9/11 period.

One expert said Lindh would be wise to clarify his views about ISIS.

“John Walker Lindh served his time. Given the support for ISIS expressed in this letter from four years ago, it would be important for Lindh to go on record declaring his intentions to live a peaceful and constructive life and to renounce terrorism and violence,” said Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham University’s Center on National Security. “Without that, allegations, confusion and anger will likely continue to surround him.”

The conditions of his supervised release don’t satisfy some who are watching the case. Two U.S. senators, Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., wrote a letter to the bureau of prisons questioning why Lindh was being released early, and pointing to a lack of government effort to deal with the many convicted terrorists who will be following Lindh to freedom.

“As many as 108 other federal terrorist offenders are scheduled to complete their sentences and be released from U.S. federal prisons over the next few years,” they wrote. “Little information has been made available to the public about who, when and where these offenders will be released, whether they pose an ongoing threat, and what federal agencies are doing to mitigate this threat while the offenders are in federal custody.”

Also disturbed by the release is Johnny Spann, whose son, CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, was killed during a prison riot in an Afghan holding facility where Lindh was detained. Judge Ellis said there was no evidence linking Lindh directly to the death.

Spann sent a letter to Ellis asking for an investigation into the intelligence reports about Lindh’s extremism. Spann could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

He told the New York Times: “We’ve got a traitor that was given 20 years and I can’t do anything about it. He was given a 20-year sentence when it should’ve been life in prison.”

Nick Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center and an NBC News contributor, said he could not discuss the intelligence about Lindh.

But, he said, “the looming release of John Walker Lindh highlights in the starkest possible way challenges that lie ahead of us in managing the reintegration into society of extremists who finish their prison sentences.”

The criminal justice system is well equipped to prosecute and convict terrorists, he said, “but we are much less well postured to carry out successful rehabilitation and de-radicalization programs. That means that convicted terrorism subjects who finish their sentences like John Walker Lindh could very well pose a security problem once they leave prison.”

Lindh converted from Catholicism to Islam as a teenager, leaving his home in California to study Arabic in Yemen. more than three years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He traveled Pakistan and later Afghanistan, where he spent time at a Qaeda training camp and briefly met Osama bin Laden, according to court testimony.

He was captured fighting with the Taliban even as the fires were still burning under the wreckage of what once was the World Trade Center. His situation provoked outrage in some quarters and sympathy in others.

His father, Frank Lindh, in 2006 called him “a decent and honorable young man embarked on a spiritual quest who became the focus of the grief and anger of an entire nation over an event in which he had no part.”

But U.S. officials say that in an era when ISIS is encouraging Americans to attack at home by driving trucks into crowds, his comments and writings in prison make him someone they continue to worry about.

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Democrats debate whether they need Fox News more than it needs them



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By Alex Seitz-Wald and Benjy Sarlin

WASHINGTON — Montana Sen. Jon Tester, one of the only Democrats to win re-election in a red state last year, thinks his party needs to work harder to reach rural voters — and that includes talking to Fox News.

“Look, I’m no big fan of Fox News, but I think you got to be on it,” Tester told NBC News. “Why? My neighbors don’t watch anything else.”

His comments came as some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have made a point of shunning Fox, while others, including Pete Buttigieg last week, have participated in prime time town halls on the conservative network.

Tester, a farmer who delivered a speech at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference on Wednesday on rural engagement, said Democrats can’t write off conservative areas and they don’t have many other options in how to reach them other than Fox.

“If you’re going to touch ’em, that’s how you have to do it,” he said.

Approaching the issue from a much bluer state, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also saw value in going on Fox News as long as the format allowed candidates to get their message out clearly.

“One reason I do a town hall in every county every year in Oregon is specifically to reach out to all segments in our state,” Merkley told reporters. “I hear from them as they stand up to ask their questions what they hear on Fox News.”

Whether or not to do interviews or hold town halls on the network is a longstanding conundrum for Democrats, going back to the early days of the Obama administration, when the then-president refused to appear on Fox for a time as its hosts pummeled his administration while taking some liberty with facts.

Leading the charge against appearing on the network, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has called Fox “a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.” On Twitter, she said she “won’t ask millions of Democratic primary voters to tune into an outlet that profits from racism and hate in order to see our candidates.”

On the other side of the argument, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have both appeared in primetime town halls.

Buttigieg used his appearance to criticize opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, even as he made the case for his appearance.

“There’s a reason anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem,” he said. “But I also believe that even though some of those hosts are not always there in good faith, I think a lot of people tune into this network who do it in good faith.”

Buttigieg won some plaudits from Fox News’ Brit Hume and an angry tweet from Trump, who complains the network is “moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems” by hosting the candidates.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is scheduled to appear on a Fox News town hall June 2, while former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke told reporters in Iowa this week that he would “absolutely” do one himself.

Democratic primary voters don’t seem likely to punish candidates for appearing on the network, with just 17 percent saying it’s not appropriate, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

But Angelo Carusone, the president of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters, has argued that Democratic candidates risk throwing Fox a critical business lifeline during the TV industry’s season when networks sell much of their advertising for the year.

“All the campaigns needed to do was wait a few more weeks,” Carusone said on Twitter. “Once the ad sales period ended, the point would have been made… All that’s to say, you can strongly think candidates should partner with Fox and also believe that they should have waited so as not to be used by Fox News to help them get out of trouble.”

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