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Trump loses appeal over House subpoena for financial records

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A federal appeals court ruled Friday that President Donald Trump’s accounting firm must turn over financial records requested by a House committee, a legal blow to the administration’s efforts to block congressional investigations of his finances.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a subpoena to Mazars USA, in April asking for documents related to Trump’s accounts going back to January 2009. His lawyers sued to block the subpoena, arguing that Congress had no legitimate legislative purpose for getting the materials.

But in a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the committee “possesses authority under both the House rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply.”

The appeals court put a seven-day hold on the legal effect of its ruling, which will give Trump’s lawyers time to appeal. The president’s lawyers could fight the ruling before the full appeals court or by going directly to the Supreme Court.

“While we are reviewing the court’s lengthy decision, as well as Judge Rao’s dissent, we continue to believe that this subpoena is not a legitimate exercise of Congress’s legislative authority,” Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow told NBC News.

House Democrats said they needed the documents to investigate whether the president accurately filled out the required financial disclosure forms. Trump’s former longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, told Congress in February that Trump “inflated his assets when it served his purposes” and deflated his assets in others.

Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Cohen’s testimony and other documents “raise grave questions about whether the President has been accurate in his financial reporting.”

In a statement Friday, Cummings called the appeals court’s ruling “a fundamental and resounding victory for Congressional oversight, our Constitutional system of checks and balances, and the rule of law.”

“For far too long, the President has placed his personal interests over the interests of the American people,” Cummings said, adding that the committee must “fulfill our stated legislative and oversight objectives and permit the American people to obtain answers about some of the deeply troubling questions regarding the President’s adherence to Constitutional and statutory requirements to avoid conflicts of interest.”

Trump’s lawyers went to the appeals court after a federal judge in Washington ruled that the accounting firm must turn over the materials sought by subpoena.

“Having considered the weighty interests at stake in this case, we conclude that the subpoena issued by the Committee to Mazars is valid and enforceable,” the appeals court said Friday, adding, “Disputes between Congress and the president are a recurring plot in our national story.”

Judges David Tatel and Patricia Millett, who were appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, voted in favor of the committee. In her dissent, Judge Neomi Rao, who was appointed by Trump, said the House exceeded its authority in issuing the subpoena.

“The Constitution and our historical practice draw a consistent line between the legislative and judicial powers of Congress,” Rao wrote. “The majority crosses this boundary for the first time by upholding this subpoena investigating the illegal conduct of the President under the legislative power.”

“When the House chooses to investigate the President for alleged violations of the laws and the Constitution, it must proceed through impeachment, an exceptional and solemn exercise of judicial power established as a separate check on public officials,” she wrote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the court’s decision a “major victory” in a statement on Friday.

“The court rejected the administration’s defiance of Congress’s oversight authority,” she said, later adding, “The president’s actions threaten our national security, violate our constitution and undermine the integrity of our elections. No one is above the law. The President will be held accountable.”

New York case

Friday’s decision came in a case separate from other efforts by Congress and a prosecutor in New York to get access to the president’s tax returns. That legal battle is still working its way through the courts.

In the New York case, the president is seeking to block prosecutors from obtaining his financial records related to hush-money payments made ahead of the 2016 presidential election to two women who claim to have had extramarital affairs with Trump. Trump has denied the affairs.

Trump’s attorneys argued that he was immune from criminal investigations as president, but on Monday, Manhattan federal Judge Victor Marrero rejected that lawsuit, arguing that it was “unqualified and boundless.”

Trump swiftly appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued a stay on the subpoena until it considers all of the arguments.

Kristen Welker contributed.



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Trump’s surprise hospital visit was routine, White House doctor says

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It’s wasn’t any “urgent or acute issues” that sent President Donald Trump to the hospital over the weekend, the White House physician said Monday. It was for a routine interim checkup, he said, echoing comments from the president and his team.

The disclosure came amid speculation surrounding Trump’s visit Sunday to Walter Reed Medical Center, which was not announced ahead of time.

Unlike the president’s previous two physicals, which came with advance notice and were included on his public schedule, Sunday’s visit was announced only in a tweet. Trump said he’d begun “phase one” of his yearly physical — though his last physical was in February.

On Monday, the physician, Sean Conley, said in a memo that “scheduling uncertainties” had kept the visit off the record.

Trump’s visit with Conley lasted an hour, the doctor said. Then the president toured the hospital and spoke with the family of a soldier undergoing surgery, Conley said.

“Despite some of the speculation, the president has not had any chest pain,” Conley said, adding that Trump did not undergo cardiac or neurologic evaluations.

Conley shared the results of Trump’s cholesterol test and said he would include the president’s other labs and exams in next year’s report.



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Russian web trolls boo Biden, often boost Gabbard, report finds

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WASHINGTON — Among Democrats running for president, Tulsi Gabbard is popular with Russian propagandists, while Joe Biden draws the most criticism, according to a new analysis.

Mentions of Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, by English-language Russian propaganda outlets were 46 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable, a research team from the Foreign Policy Research Institute found after analyzing more than 1,700 news stories put out by Sputnik and RT. She was the only Democratic candidate with more favorable than unfavorable mentions.

References to Biden, by contrast, were 3 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable. The rest were neutral.

For Russia thus far, Biden is to 2020 what Hilary Clinton was to 2016, the researchers found.

“When I watched Russian state-sponsored content and social media trolling headed into election 2016, it was overwhelmingly negative toward Hillary Clinton. The same could be said today of former Vice President Biden,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and NBC News contributor who led the effort.

U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard greets supporters after filing her declaration of candidacy papers to appear on the 2020 New Hampshire primary election ballot at the State House in Concord, N.H. on Nov. 5, 2019.Mike Segar / Reuters

“RT and Sputnik content in total volume is exceptionally higher for Vice President Biden, more so than normal U.S. election coverage. …Russia often amplifies President Trump’s disparagement of Biden, and this adds to the negative coverage overall.”

For its report, the non-partisan Foreign Policy Research Institute’s (FPRI) Foreign Influence Election 2020 Project assembled a research team to analyze what Kremlin state-sponsored news outlets say about the 2020 U.S. election and the presidential candidates.

The team analyzed 1,711 Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News articles from January 1 to November 10, 2019 that pertained to the 2020 presidential election, including 705 RT stories and 1,006 Sputnik News stories.

Those 1,711 stories hosted 2,772 mentions of either the president, Republican candidates or Democratic candidates for president in 2020.

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More than half of those mentions referenced President Donald Trump, which the team said will be analyzed in a separate upcoming release. Mentions were evaluated as “neutral,” “favorable” of the candidate or “unfavorable” of the candidate.

The team also logged an additional 319 mentions of former presidents and presidential candidates, which will be analyzed later, they said.

Why Gabbard?

There are a number of reasons many Russian propagandists express support for Gabbard, Watts said.

“Gabbard is saying everything Russia wants Americans to hear,” he said. “She’s a U.S. Army officer, and combat veteran claiming — incorrectly — that the U.S. backs al Qaeda. She calls the U.S. an imperialist power that should withdraw from the world. Her anti-war stance as a military member and shaming of U.S. establishment leaders is a wonderful vehicle for the Kremlin to divide the political left and pit populists against the establishment.”

Gabbard spokesman Mark Bergman responded in a statement to NBC News: “The warmongering foreign policy establishment in the media has been using this same smear since the day Congresswoman Gabbard announced her candidacy. This is nothing new. As the first female combat veteran ever to run for the presidency, the American people know that Tulsi has always and will always fight for the interests of the American people.”

NBC News reported in February that Gabbard was a favorite among English language Russian propaganda sites. On Twitter, Gabbard accused NBC of seeking to “to smear any adversary of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party — whether on the left or the right — as a stooge or asset of the Kremlin.'”

In another tweet, Gabbard added, “As commander-in-chief, I will work to end the new cold war, nuclear arms race and slide into nuclear war. That is why the neocon/neolib warmongers will do anything to stop me.”

Mike Carpenter, a former Pentagon official and Russia expert who advises the Biden campaign informally, told NBC News the Russians “clearly see Biden as a voice that has stood up to Russian aggression. Clearly they want to take Biden down. I think their preferred candidate is Donald Trump but they are willing to support especially candidates on the far left.”

Carpenter said Russian propagandists have helped fuel two of the conspiracy theories behind the current impeachment investigation, namely that Ukraine had a role in hacking the Democrats in 2016 and that Biden acted improperly when he carried out U.S. policy in helping secure the removal of a prosecutor the State Department believed was corrupt.

“I see Russia as at a minimum playing an important role to propagate these conspiracies,” he said.

Russian propaganda mentions of the other Democratic candidates have been mostly neutral, the study found, although the sites have begun to criticize Elizabeth Warren as she has risen in the polls.

After the breadth of Russian influence operations during the 2016 election became clear, researchers began to try to track Russian bots and trolls on Twitter and other social media platforms.

In response, experts say, Russian and other foreign actors have taken steps to further obscure and disguise their activity, making it extremely difficult to track foreign bots and trolls. One measurement tool, a web site known as Hamilton 68 hosted by the German Marshall Fund, changed its focus to monitor overt Russian state-funded media, just as the Foreign Policy Research Institute is doing.

“Much of the bot and troll activity out there is unattributed,” Watts said. “We don’t know what is Russian or not Russian, and when researchers mistakenly attribute the free speech of Americans as a secret Russian bot, it degrades electorate confidence in researchers’ ability to detect Russian influence or that it even exists. Improper attribution also makes Russia seem more powerful than they really are.”

Therefore, Watts said, it makes sense to pay close attention to what the Russians and other foreign governments are saying in the open, in state-funded media.

“If you read Russia, Iran and China’s propaganda, they’ll tell you where to start digging,” he said.



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Trump’s impeachment ire turns on Pompeo amid diplomats’ starring roles

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WASHINGTON — The impeachment inquiry has created the first rift between President Donald Trump and the Cabinet member who has been his closest ally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to four current and former senior administration officials.

Trump has fumed for weeks that Pompeo is responsible for hiring State Department officials whose congressional testimony threatens to bring down his presidency, the officials said. The president confronted Pompeo about the officials — and what he believed was a lackluster effort by the secretary of state to block their testimony — during lunch at the White House on Oct. 29, those familiar with the matter said.

Inside the White House, the view was that Trump “just felt like, ‘rein your people in,’” a senior administration official said.

Trump particularly blames Pompeo for tapping Ambassador Bill Taylor in June to be the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, the current and former senior administration officials said.

Taylor has provided the House Intelligence Committee with some of the most damaging details on the White House’s effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating one of the president’s potential rivals in the 2020 election, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden.

A crack in the seemingly unbreakable bond between Trump and Pompeo is striking because Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, is viewed as the “Trump whisperer” who has survived — and thrived — working for a president who has routinely tired of and discarded senior members of his team.

But the impeachment inquiry has put Pompeo in what one senior administration official described as an untenable position: trying to manage a bureaucracy of 75,000 people that has soured on his leadership and also please a boss with outsized expectations of loyalty.

“He feels like he’s getting a bunch of blame from the president and the White House for having hired all these people who are turning against Trump,” an official familiar with the dynamic said of Pompeo, “and that it’s the State Department that is going to bring him down, so it’s all Pompeo’s fault.”

Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to requests for comment.

Four current State Department officials have testified before the House Intelligence Committee.

Three of them — Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary at the State Department in charge of Europe — appeared before the committee last week to deliver the first public testimony in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. All three of them currently remain employed by the State Department, though Yovanovitch has been sidelined to a teaching post at Georgetown University.

Taylor was dining in the State Department cafeteria the day after he testified, over the administration’s objections, and was surrounded by employees expressing support for him, according to two people who saw him there.

Kurt Volker, who was the State Department’s envoy on Ukraine until last month, was the first official to testify. He resigned about a week before his Oct. 3 deposition, during which he turned over reams of text messages detailing the White House’s Ukraine pressure campaign.

Trump has hinted publicly at tensions with Pompeo, and while the comments might go unnoticed by the untrained ear they’ve been heard loudly by people close to the president.

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The first was on Oct. 23, officials said, when Trump wrote on Twitter: “It would be really great if the people within the Trump Administration, all well-meaning and good (I hope!), could stop hiring Never Trumpers, who are worse than the Do Nothing Democrats. Nothing good will ever come from them!”

Trump followed up with another tweet specifically calling Taylor, and his lawyer, “Never Trumpers.”

Two days later, Trump said Pompeo “made a mistake” in hiring Taylor.

“Here’s the problem: He’s a never Trumper, and his lawyer is,” the president told reporters about Taylor. “The other problem is — hey, everyone makes mistakes — Mike Pompeo. Everybody makes mistakes.”

The next day, Oct. 26, Pompeo was notably absent as the president sat with his national security team during the U.S. military raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pompeo was not informed about the raid until late Friday after he was home in Kansas for his son’s friend’s wedding, officials said.

Throughout the impeachment inquiry, Pompeo and Trump have maintained their weekly lunches at the White House, according to the president’s public schedule.

But the president was angry when he arrived in his private dining room on Oct. 29, two officials said. Pompeo defended himself, officials said, by telling Trump he doesn’t know who half of these State Department officials are, officials said. He also noted that there are thousands of employees at the agency, explaining that he can’t control them, those familiar with the matter said.

One official said Trump and Pompeo patched things up during the lunch. Another person familiar with the meeting said Pompeo continues to be “iced out” by the president, a shift that often entails still being included in his meetings but listened to less.

“Pompeo feels under siege,” this person said.

He was at the White House last Wednesday for Trump’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The tension with Trump comes as Pompeo weighs whether to leave the administration to run for Kansas’ open Senate seat.

Pompeo has served in the administration since its start. Trump tapped him as CIA director, then moved him to secretary of state after he fired Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson. For almost three years, Pompeo seamlessly navigated a finicky president. He’s remained, and became more influential, as Trump churned through two chiefs of staff, three national security advisers, an attorney general, and secretaries of defense, state, labor, homeland security, interior, veterans affairs and health and human services.

But in recent weeks Pompeo has been under steady fire over his role in the Ukraine scandal, as well as his handling of it.

Initially when the Ukraine controversy became public, Trump wanted Pompeo to publicly defend him against the State Department bureaucracy, officials said. But the White House thought Pompeo appeared unprepared in his television interviews, and his performance only fueled the president’s frustrations, they said.

Pompeo has faced criticism for saying, during an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” that he didn’t know anything about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the center of the controversy. Pompeo didn’t disclose until more than a week later that he had listened in on that call.

Like the White House, he has attempted to block State Department officials from testifying. And he has refused to turn over State Department documents related to Ukraine.

His decision last week, however, to allow the State Department to help pay for the legal fees that officials ensnared in the impeachment inquiry are accruing could further strain his relationship with the president.

That decision underscores the balance Pompeo is trying to strike between the president and the department he leads.

State Department officials had thought Pompeo’s move to the agency in April 2018 would be a welcome antidote to what they viewed as the bureaucratic fecklessness of Tillerson, given Pompeo’s unfettered access to Trump and their close relationship.

But morale at the State Department has sagged for months, and it plummeted further as the Ukraine scandal unfolded, according to multiple officials.

State Department officials are critical of Pompeo for buckling to pressure from the president and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and abruptly recalling Yovanovitch while she was serving as U.S. ambassador in Ukraine. Yovanovitch had been vilified by Giuliani, who convinced the president she was working against his interests.

Criticism of Pompeo inside the State Department escalated when he refused to publicly defend Yovanovitch after a reconstructed transcript of the July 25 call revealed Trump disparaged Yovanovitch to Zelenskiy, administration officials have said. Pompeo’s closest aide, Ambassador Mike McKinley, resigned over the secretary’s refusal to defend Yovanovitch.

Testimony from Taylor and others show Pompeo was keenly aware of the concerns his top officials had about Giuliani’s efforts and his handling of Yovanovitch.

In public testimony on Friday, Yovanovitch appeared to excoriate Pompeo for “the failure of State Department leadership to push back as foreign and corrupt interests apparently hijacked our Ukraine policy.”

“It is the responsibility of the department’s leaders to stand up for the institution and the individuals who make that institution the most effective diplomatic force in the world,” she said.

According to administration officials, Pompeo’s refusal to publicly defend Yovanovitch cemented a wider view within the State Department that he has enabled some of Trump’s impulsive foreign policy decisions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from Syria after a phone call with Turkey’s Erdgoan.

“Pompeo is hated by his building,” a person close to the secretary said, adding that he “feels the heat a great deal and feels it’s personal at state.”

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