What to Know in Washington: Will the Mueller Report Stay Secret?

Democratic leaders say they’ll subpoena the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the evidence underlying it, if Attorney General William Barr declines to hand it over to Congress. If Barr balks at the subpoena, the legislators say, they’ll sue to enforce it.

Executive privilege “is at its strongest when applied to information the president needs to guide his decision-making, and this is far, far from that,” David Super, a professor at Georgetown Law in Washington, said in an interview. “The privilege is weakest when the information is needed by Congress to perform specific, constitutionally assigned functions, and impeachment is one of those.”

Even if it never comes to impeachment, a fight between the Trump administration and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives over the report is all but certain, and it wouldn’t take an assertion of executive privilege to set it off. The Justice Department could withhold materials on grounds of privacy, sensitive continuing investigations, classified information and long-held DOJ regulations.

Whether by executive privilege or otherwise, the administration’s success at deflecting a subpoena would depend on the balance the courts strike between Congress’s investigative and oversight authority, the public’s interest in learning what Mueller discovered and the executive branch’s protection of internal communications. Erik Larson and Billy House have more on the legal outlook.

Photographer: Oliver Contreras/Pool via Bloomberg
Barr listens during a National Association of Attorneys General event with Trump, not pictured.

Barr Won’t Recuse: Attorney General Barr said he won’t recuse himself from being in charge of Mueller’s investigation, a major development affecting the fate of the politically charged probe into Trump. “Following General Barr’s confirmation, senior career ethics officials advised that General Barr should not recuse himself from the special counsel’s investigation. Consistent with that advice, General Barr has decided not to recuse,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.

Kupec confirmed that the office of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who intends to leave the department in the coming weeks, continues to be the primary liaison between the special counsel and Barr. Read more from Chris Strohm.

White House Responds to House Probe: Democrats yesterday escalated their investigations of Trump with sweeping demands for information from scores of people on topics including the administration’s activities, the president’s business and his potential ties to Russia.

In a statement last night, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) had “opened up a disgraceful and abusive investigation into tired, false allegations already investigated by the special counsel and committees in both chambers of Congress. Chairman Nadler and his fellow Democrats have embarked on this fishing expedition because they are terrified that their two-year false narrative of ‘Russia collusion’ is crumbling.” Billy House has the latest.

Happening on the Hill

Trump, Senate, Remake Judiciary: Allison Jones Rushing soon could become one of the nation’s youngest federal judges. The Senate voted 52 to 43 last night to end debate on the Williams & Connolly partner’s nomination to the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, clearing the way for a vote today on her likely confirmation.

Trump, with the help of the Republican-led Senate, aims to remake the federal judiciary with younger, conservative judges. With lifetime appointments, many will be on the bench for decades. For the most part, Trump picks for the nation’s appeals courts are in their 40s and 50s. But Rushing would be the youngest of the few selections in their mid-to-late 30s. The Senate has confirmed 31 of Trump’s circuit nominees so far with Rushing and a pair of Sixth Circuit nominees, Chad Readler and Eric Murphy, in the nearest-term pipeline. Readler and Murphy, who are facing resistance from Democrats, are queued up for confirmation later this week. Read more from Patrick L. Gregory.

Modifying Emergency Law: Senate Republicans are discussing options for modifying the National Emergencies Act to ensure Trump and his successors don’t circumvent the will of Congress in spending and other matters, Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “We had a meeting in our steering committee last Wednesday where two or three senators were putting forward some ideas,” Grassley said.

Republicans in recent closed-door session discussed options for amending the 1976 act that allows presidents to shift money, Grassley told reporters. Grassley also said he backs a proposal being pushed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who questioned Trump’s move to declare an emergency to boost border wall spending and said Congress has been ceding too much power to the executive branch for decades. Read more from Nancy Ognanovich.

Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also said he would support another Senate resolution that both backed border wall funding and amended the National Emergency Act to “reclaim the constitutional authority that past Congresses have given up.”

Senators Threaten Saudi Sanctions: A group of senators from both parties are threatening to sanction Saudi Arabia over the killing of a U.S.-based journalist after a briefing by Trump administration officials failed to quell their concerns. “The Senate is going to have to decide whether to impose its own sanctions,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said after a briefing yesterday for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Trump’s response to a request that he order a full investigation of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s death. Read more from Erik Wasson.

Health Care: The office Republicans derided as unconstitutional gives the Trump administration leverage to broadly alter how doctors and hospitals are paid under Medicare, sidestepping Congress. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation, which was created by Obamacare, has expansive authority to create new payment systems with little oversight by Congress. Now the Trump administration wants to kick it into overdrive, rankling Republicans who have so far held their tongues. Read more on the issue from Shira Stein.

Politics & Elections

Count Merkley Out: Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has been considered a Democratic contender for president in 2020, and last night teased an announcement on the topic. This morning, he declared his intent run for re-election in the Senate. “My best contribution is to run for re-election and do all I can to help the Senate be a full partner in addressing the challenges before us,” Merkley said in a campaign announcement video.

Clinton, Too: Hillary Clinton said she wouldn’t run for president in 2020 but vowed to keep speaking out as she lamented how polarized the country had become. “I’m not running, but I’m going to keep working and speaking and standing up for what I believe,” Clinton told News 12 Westchester in an interview. Clinton said she had met privately with many of the candidates in the already-crowded Democratic field. “I’ve told every one of them, don’t take anything for granted, even though we have a long list of real problems and broken promises from this administration that need to be highlighted,” Clinton said.

Campaign Spending: House Democrats say they will counter criticism of a costly new public campaign financing proposal by making changes that would require corporations, not individual taxpayers, to foot the bill. The House this week is scheduled to consider an election and ethics overhaul package that includes the campaign financing provision. House sponsors said that bill would be altered to earmark money from corporate criminal fines to match small-dollar campaign contributions to pay for campaigns. The measure originally called for the matching funds program to be financed through appropriations.

The public financing language would be part of a manager’s amendment that the Rules Committee is set to consider today ahead of floor consideration, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the bill. Read more from Kenneth P. Doyle.

What Else to Know Today

Special Debt Measures:Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin invoked special accounting measures through June 5 to continue paying the U.S. government’s bills without breaching the legal debt ceiling. The U.S. debt limit resumed March 1 after being suspended by Congress, but the Treasury Department can use so-called extraordinary measures to prevent a default on payments for months beyond that. Mnuchin notified Congress yesterday that he is using such measures to redirect money from the federal civil service’s retirement fund.

Mnuchin can extend the period during which the retirement funds are diverted beyond June 5 and has other special measures he can use to delay a U.S. default beyond that date. And Congress is in no hurry to raise the debt ceiling with lawmakers widely expecting to address it closer to the time when the Treasury is running out of options to avoid a default. Read more from Saleha Mohsin and Erik Wasson.

Pentagon Preps Budget: The Pentagon will request a research and development budget of $104 billion, the biggest in the department’s history, boosting spending in space and for hypersonic weapons, according to defense officials. The record request to be included in Trump’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget on Monday is about $9 billion more than Congress appropriated for R&D in the current fiscal year. “Look at things like” hypersonic weapons that can travel as fast as five times the speed of sound or “what we’re going to g o do in space,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in an interview last week with Bloomberg News. “I think you’ll see much bigger dollars in space.” Read more from Tony Capaccio.

China Trade Deal: The world’s two largest economies are nearing the finish line on a trade deal that could be signed by Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as early as this month. But that doesn’t mean the trade war ends. More work remains on a deal that will ensure that Beijing will follow through on its commitments, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told Congress last week. Days later, Trump warned he can still walk out on China like he did with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their summit over a nuclear deal in Vietnam. Jenny Leonard checks in on where the U.S.-China trade negotiations stand.

India and Turkey Trade Preferences: Trump announced he plans to end key trade preferences for India and Turkey, in the latest move by the U.S. to counter what it calls unfair trade practices. Trump notified Congress yesterday in letters of his “intent to terminate” trade benefits for both countries under the generalized system of preferences. The notification starts a 60-day countdown before the president can take the action on his own authority, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said in a statement. Read more from Jenny Leonard and Jennifer Jacobs.

Trump Teases Executive Order for Colleges: Colleges and professors reacted warily to a yet-to-be-detailed White House proposal to ban federal research funding to higher education institutions with policies conservatives say limit free speech. Trump said in a speech Saturday he would sign an executive order “very soon” requiring colleges and universities to “support free speech if they want federal research grants.” Organizations for colleges and professors said while free speech is critical to higher education, federal government involvement would make the issue worse. Nuances in how universities handle controversial incidents could leave administrators in a tight spot, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Private School Tax Break: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is riding to the rescue of a private-school tax break that was ensnared in a bitter fight between the Treasury Department and Democratic states that sought to circumvent caps on state and local deductions under the Trump tax overhaul. DeVos and two Republican lawmakers are pushing a plan to pump $10 billion in federal tax credits into private school scholarship funds — a longstanding GOP priority. These programs were accidentally hit as Treasury proposed to block Democratic states from creating their own charitable funds to circumvent a cap on tax breaks for state and local tax deductions, known as SALT. Read more from Laura Davison.

California Fights for Rail Funds: California’s high-speed rail authority said that the Trump administration’s intent to cancel more than $900 million in federal grants and claw back $2.5 billion in funds already allocated for the project is “unlawful” and would create a legacy of “travesty.” In letters to officials at the Federal Railroad Administration, authority CEO Brian Kelly said that the project is meeting requirements under the grant agreements, rebutting the assertion made by FRA Administrator Ronald Batory in a letter released on Feb. 19. Canceling the $928.6 million grant would be “unwarranted, unprecedented and harmful to the project” and to California and the nation, Kelly wrote. Read more from Romy Varghese.

AOC Open to Amazon in New York: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is not completely ruling out Amazon coming back to New York if the process is done with community input, a top aide said. “We welcome a process, we welcome having a community process, but I don’t know where the talks are at at this stage,” Saikat Chakrabarti, the New York congresswoman’s chief of staff, said. “What she was vocal about was the process by which it happened, the deal,” Chakrabarti said. “Amazon is the company that chose to step away from the negotiating table.” Read more from Emma Kinery.

Movers & Shakeups

OPM Chief: Trump plans to nominate Dale Cabaniss to serve as director of the Office of Personnel Management, the White House said yesterday in a statement. Cabaniss previously served as chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority and on the Senate Governmental Affairs Appropriations Committees, according to the statement. Former OPM Director Jeff Pon resigned in October, and was replaced with Margaret Weichert, who served as acting director. Read more from Louis C. LaBrecque.

Carson’s Time at HUD: Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson plans to leave his post at the end of Trump’s first term, the Washington Post reports, citing remarks Carson made on Newsmax TV. “I will certainly finish out this term,” Carson said during the Newsmax interview.

With assistance from Michaela Ross

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; Brandon Lee at blee@bgov.com

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