What to Know in Washington: AG Whitaker Set for Dems’ Security

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker travels to Capitol Hill to face off with Democrats today, after defusing a charged partisan debate over threats to subpoena him.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a tweet last night that Whitaker “will appear tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m.” The tweet was the culmination of a day that began when the House panel voted to authorize a subpoena of Whitaker because its Democratic members want to ask him about his conversations with President Donald Trump and his oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Whitaker responded that he wouldn’t show up unless the committee removed its subpoena threat. By evening, Nadler took a conciliatory tone, saying, “To the extent that you believe you are unable to fully respond to any specific question, we are prepared to handle your concerns on a case-by-case basis, both during and after tomorrow’s hearing.”

In a statement last night, Kerri Kupec, a Whitaker spokeswoman, said that the acting attorney general had been assured that Nadler would not issue a subpoena “on or before Feb. 8.”

The truce between Nadler and Whitaker may prove temporary.

In a letter to Nadler yesterday, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote that Whitaker is prepared to testify that “at no time did the White House ask for, or did the acting attorney general provide, any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation.”

But Boyd said the Justice Department doesn’t believe that the committee may “legitimately expect the acting attorney general to discuss his communications with the president.” He stopped short of asserting executive privilege, the contention that a president needs to be able to rely on confidential counsel from his advisers.

Last year, Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee said they would seek to hold former Trump adviser Steve Bannon in contempt for his refusal to answer questions in closed-door testimony for its probe into Russian election interference. They never pursued that action.

The dispute over Whitaker comes as Democrats leading other House panels also stepped up investigations of Trump and those around him, despite the president’s warning in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that the nation’s “economic miracle” could be stopped by “ridiculous partisan investigations.” He’s also called it “presidential harassment.” Read more from Billy House and Chris Strohm.

Border Talks Continue Through Weekend: The top Democrat and Republican working on a border-security deal said they’re nearing an accord but that negotiations may go into the weekend, with a week left to pass a spending bill to avert another government shutdown.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) went to the White House yesterday to discuss border security with Trump.The Republican senator said he updated the president on the negotiations of a House-Senate committee leading the talks. Shelby said he thinks a deal can be reached by Monday. “The president urged me to get to yes,” Shelby said afterward. “He would like us to conclude our bill in a positive way for the American people.”

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) who with Shelby is leading the talks, said yesterday that negotiators are acting in “good faith” but may not be able to finish work by Friday as she’d hoped.

The discussions are focusing on increased funds for border barriers, technology and agents, lawmakers have said. While Trump is seeking $5.7 billion for a wall, lawmakers are discussing the use of existing styles of fencing, and Democrats are seeking money to upgrade ports of entry and to hire more immigration judges. Read more from Erik Wasson, Laura Litvan and Jack Fitzpatrick.

Trump Tax Return Standoff: The U.S. government would be in “uncharted territory” if Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were to block a House request to release Trump’s tax returns, a law professor told a congressional panel yesterday. The Democrats who now control the House Ways and Means Committee are eager to get their hands on the returns and are easing their way into an almost-certain legal battle. Read more from Laura Davison.

Green New Deal Goes Nuclear: As Democrats unveiled their ambitious Green New Deal to fight climate change yesterday, a controversy erupted over the role of nuclear power that threatened to undermine the whole effort. A fact sheet distributed by the office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said there was no room in the nation’s all renewable-energy future for nuclear plants. But the reference caught many off guard and back-peddling ensued.

Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is the Green New Deal’s lead Senate backer, disowned the fact sheet and said Markey’s office wasn’t consulted before it was sent out. “We did not draft that fact sheet,” she said. Markey sought to do damage control at a midday press conference, emphasizing the proposed resolution doesn’t address specific energy technologies. Language on nuclear power “is not part of this legislation,” he said. Read more from Ari Natter and Jennifer A. Dlouhy .

Anti-OPEC Bill Advances: Legislation that would allow the U.S. to sue OPEC for inflating oil prices cleared a key hurdle in Congress as the House Judiciary Committee advanced the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act” yesterday. That sets the bipartisan “NOPEC” bill, which would subject the cartel to possible antitrust action by the Department of Justice, up for a possible House vote. A similar bill targeting OPEC was introduced in the Senate yesterday. Read more from Stephen Cunningham.

Crypto Lobbying Boost: Crypto and blockchain-related congressional lobbying took off in 2018 as some of the industry’s top players realized they should go to Washington before Washington comes for them. Crypto exchange Coinbase, for example, increased its spending for lobbyists at Franklin Square Group to $50,000 in each of the last two quarters of 2018, a 66 percent increase from the last two quarters of 2017. At least 53 companies or trade groups reported lobbying on crypto- and blockchain-related issues at the end of 2018, compared to just 25 at the end of 2017, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of lobbying disclosures. Read more from Lydia Beyoud.

Intellectual Property Panel: The Senate Judiciary Committee has reinstated its subcommittee dedicated to addressing intellectual property issues facing U.S. innovators. Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) will sit atop the Senate Judiciary Intellectual Property Subcommittee as chairman and ranking member, respectively, Tillis said in a statement. The subcommittee could bring a renewed focus on intellectual property issues to the Senate. Its jurisdiction includes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the U.S. Copyright Office, and federal government functions related to patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. Read more from Malathi Nayak.

Hill Intern Pay: A lack of guidance from the House Administration Committee has some congressional offices unable to offer the paid internships established in legislation signed into law last year, according to the Pay Our Interns group. The group said in a statement that they’ve been alerted via emails and social media about Hill unpaid internship postings, adding that “what many are not aware of, is that without proper House Administration guidelines, House offices do not have access to the newly created fund .” Read more from Tyrone Richardson.

Sanders Sheds Progressives: Sen. Bernie Sanders’ army of fervent progressives will be up for grabs in 2020 even if the Vermont independent makes another bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders may find himself a victim of his own success in driving the party to the left with his 2016 run. The field of Democratic presidential hopefuls includes at least a half-dozen candidates who’ve adopted in whole or in part the platform that helped Sanders build a loyal following of young voters and liberals: Medicare for all, a $15 an hour minimum wage and debt-free college education.

Sanders consistently polls well ahead of the other Democrats who’ve announced plans to run in the 2020 primaries and behind former Vice President Joe Biden, who also is considering entering the race and would be a moderate alternative. But polls also show that Democrats are more focused on nominating a candidate who can beat Trump than they are with policy positions Sanders used to drive his surprisingly competitive challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Read more from Arit John.

Remembering John Dingell: John Dingell, the Michigan representative whose 59-year tenure in Congress was the longest in history, earning him clout he used to champion U.S. carmakers, has died. He was 92. His wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who succeeded him and to whom he always referred as “the Lovely Deborah,” said in a statement from her office that he died at his home in Dearborn.

As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1995, and again in 2007-08, Dingell shaped policy on a variety of topics, including two particularly important to him and his suburban Detroit district: health care and the auto industry. He pressed for national health insurance and battled fellow Democrats over their efforts to crack down on air pollution. He said his proudest vote was for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which “solved some hideous, hideous racial and domestic peace problems.”

On June 7, 2013, his 20,997th day as a member of the House, Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress. In retirement, Dingell remained engaged on Twitter, where he was a prolific critic of Trump. Read more from Laurence Arnold.

Bezos Blackmail Charge: A long-simmering feud between Trump and Jeff Bezos took a bizarre turn after the multibillionaire accused allies of the president of brazenly trying to extort him. In a surprising move that lit up social media feeds worldwide, the Amazon founder and CEO published a blog post yesterday, alleging that the publisher of the National Enquirer tried to blackmail him with embarrassing photos of Bezos and a woman who wasn’t his wife — including sexually charged selfies.

The usually media-shy executive also published explicit email exchanges and descriptions of the photos, saying he would rather be embarrassed than extorted. He pointed to reports that the Enquirer’s publisher — American Media Inc. CEO David Pecker — has worked before on behalf of the president. Pecker, Bezos said in his post, “recently entered into an immunity deal with the Department of Justice related to their role in the so-called ‘Catch and Kill’ process on behalf of President Trump and his election campaign.” Read more from Nick Turner and Olga Kharif.

What Else to To Know Today

Presidential Physical: Trump travels to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda this afternoon where he’ll undergo his annual physical examination. Trump weighed in borderline obese at his first presidential physical in January 2018 and his doctor, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, advised him to eat less fat and carbohydrates and to exercise regularly, Jennifer Jacobs and Shannon Pettypiece reported last year. At 239 pounds and 6 feet, 3 inches tall, Trump measured just one pound below obese under guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hungary Touts Pompeo Visit: Hungary is touting a scheduled visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo next week as proof of its Western commitments and a show of support by the Trump administration, pushing back against scrutiny of the ex-communist country’s allegiance to NATO and the European Union. Pompeo’s visit to Budapest on Monday, the first by an American secretary of State since Hillary Clinton in 2011, marks a new era of engagement after years of criticism that bordered on diplomatic isolation for Prime Minister Vik tor Orban. U.S. officials had voiced concerns about his dismantlement of democratic institutions and his overtures to Russia, including in the form of a $12 billion nuclear deal. Read more from Zoltan Simon and Nick Wadhams .

High Court Blocks Louisiana Abortion Restriction: A divided U.S. Supreme Court blocked Louisiana from requiring abortion doctors to get admitting privileges at a local hospital, giving a reprieve to clinics as the justices consider whether to take up an appeal. Over four dissents, the justices yesterday put on hold a federal appeals court decision that upheld the Louisiana law, which is virtually identical to a Texas measure the Supreme Court struck down in 2016. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals in the majority, giving no explanation.

The court has become more conservative since the 2016 ruling, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh replacing the retired Anthony Kennedy. Kavanaugh joined Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch in saying they would have let the law take effect. Read more from Greg Stohr.

Court Allows Alabama Execution: A split Supreme Court also reinstated Alabama’s planned execution yesterday of a Muslim man who sought to have his imam in the death chamber with him. The high court lifted a day-old federal appeals court order that had blocked the execution. The lower court said Alabama appeared to be violating Domineque Ray’s religious rights. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan voted to halt the execution while the legal fight went forward. Read more from Greg Stohr.

Shutdown Damages Government’s Brand: NASA scientists don’t grow on trees, and the partial shutdown that ended Jan. 25 could make it harder to recruit them in the future. A second shutdown in 2019, which could happen as early as Feb. 16, might lead to more damage to NASA and other federal agencies.

“Our ability to attract, recruit, and retain quality people is tangibly diminished” by the just-ended 35-day shutdown, Paul Greenberg, a scientist at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, told Bloomberg Law. Greenberg is also vice president of Local 28 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, an AFL-CIO affiliate that represents NASA employees and other professionals in the private and public sectors. Some employees and contractors at NASA are retiring or finding other jobs because of the shutdown, Greenberg said. There are also “the recruits that you never get” because they aren’t as interested in working for the agency, he said. Read more from Louis C. LaBrecque.

U.S. Warns EU Tariff Threat Will Return: The U.S.-European trade truce struck last summer that’s helped keep punitive tariffs at bay is at risk of unraveling, with America’s top diplomat to the European Union citing a lack of good will and progress in negotiations. “The good faith and understanding that existed on July 25 has not been followed through on,” U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland said in an interview in Brussels, referring to the day Trump met with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to discuss trade.

The meeting was supposed to launch a “phase of close friendship” and “strong trade relations,” according to a joint statement at the time. And while official trade talks haven’t yet started, a disagreement over how to proceed and what was even agreed upon at the encounter has left the two sides at an impasse. Read more from Richard Bravo and Nikos Chrysoloras.

Ross Gets Ethics Disclosure Complaints: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross faces a new ethics complaint over an asset he promised to sell within three months of his 2017 Senate confirmation, but didn’t divest until well over a year later. The Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that favors greater regulation of money in politics, filed a complaint on Thursday asking the Commerce Department’s Inspector General to investigate whether Ross made false statements when he disclosed a sale of stock in BankUnited Inc. in May 2017. Read more from Bill Allison.

Border Separations Unknown: U.S. officials told a House panel yesterday they still don’t know how many migrant children were separated from their parents between late 2017 and early 2018 when the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” border policy. While a court order in June 2018 required the Department of Health and Human Services to reunite more than 2,700 children in its custody with their parents, that number is only a “subset” of the overall separations, said Ann Maxwell, an inspector at the HHS inspector general’s office.

“Exactly how many more children were separated is unknown,” Maxwell said at a hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Maxwell said there is no system that reliably tracks children who are separated by the Department of Homeland Security and then referred to HHS. Read more from Arit John and Jennifer Epstein.

Muller Probe Updates

Manafort Meeting Examined: Special Counsel Mueller is focusing on a meeting that Paul Manafort held as chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign with a translator suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence, according to a court transcript unsealed yesterday. The meeting in August 2016 involved Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, the translator whom the FBI believes had a “relationship” with Russian spies, a prosecutor told a judge at a Feb. 4 hearing in a sealed courtroom.

“This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating,” prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, according to the transcript. “That meeting and what happened at that meeting is of significance to the special counsel.” Read more from David Voreacos and Andrew Harris.

Gates Told Mueller About Sharing Polling Data: Meanwhile, Manafort partner Rick Gates told prosecutors about someone sharing internal polling data from Trump’s presidential campaign with Kilimnik, who worked with Manafort and Gates on political campaigns in Ukraine, according to a transcript unsealed yesterday. Read more from David Voreacos and Andrew Harris.

Corsi Sues Stone: Roger Stone, the long-time Trump confidant indicted last month for lying to Congress about communications to WikiLeaks, was sued for defamation by conspiracy theorist and author Jerome Corsi, who plays a central role in the criminal case. Corsi claims Stone began waging a public-relations campaign to “smear, defame, intimate and threaten” him after Stone concluded he was going to be charged by Mueller. The author seeks more than $25 million in damages in a complaint filed late yesterday in Washington federal court. Read more from Andrew Harris.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com