What to Know in Washington: Schiff Wants Mueller Unrestrained

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Ahead of Robert Mueller’s appearance before two House committees today, the chairman of one of the panels accused the Justice Department of attempting to “circumscribe” Mueller’s testimony.

Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), in a letter to the former special counsel last night, attacked the department for telling Mueller in a letter that he shouldn’t discuss ongoing cases or uncharged individuals and that some details of his work might be covered by executive privilege.

“The DOJ letter attempts unduly to circumscribe your testimony and represents yet another attempt by the Trump administration to obstruct the authorized oversight activity and legitimate investigations of the committee,” Schiff wrote in his letter.

The Justice Department letter had been a response to a request by Mueller for the department’s guidance on his appearance at the hearings before the Intelligence and Judiciary committees today.

Department policy “precludes any comment on the facts developed and legal conclusions by the Special Counsel’s Office with respect to uncharged individuals, other than information contained within the portions of your report that have already been made public,” Bradley Weinsheimer, an associate deputy attorney general, wrote to Mueller on Monday.

While Mueller has already indicated publicly that he has no intention of going beyond what’s in his 448-page report, the guidance may disappoint Democrats who want him to offer more details about multiple instances where he investigated Trump for possible obstruction of justice.

But House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a CNN interview yesterday that Mueller was no longer a Justice Department employee and the letter restricting his testimony “asks things that are beyond the power of the agency to ask even if he still worked for them.”

“I think it’s incredibly arrogant of the department to try to instruct him as to what to say,” Nadler said. “It’s part of the ongoing coverup by the administration to keep information away from the American people.”

At the hearings on Mueller’s investigation into President Donald Trump and the 2016 election, his former chief of staff will sit next to him and act as his counsel, according to a House Judiciary official.

Aaron Zebley served as Mueller’s chief of staff when he was FBI director and later followed him into private practice and the Trump probe.

House Republicans and Trump complained about the last-minute change to the hearing lineup, criticizing reports that Democrats wanted Zebley to be sworn in alongside Mueller as a witness. The House official stressed that Zebley will be serving as Mueller’s counsel. Read more from Billy House, Chris Strohm and Terrence Dopp.

Mueller_DOJ
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Mueller speaks at Department of Justice on May 29.

The former special counsel is scheduled to testify for a total of five hours before two Democratic-led House panels — the Judiciary Committee from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Washington time and the smaller Intelligence Committee from noon to 2 p.m.

Democrats argue that even a dry recital by Mueller of his key findings would bring fresh attention to a report so long and dense that few Americans have actually read it. There’s a chance, however, that most Americans have already made their judgments about Russian meddling and Trump and have moved on.

Chris Strohm and Billy House take a look at some of the potential risks that the nationally televised hearings pose for the main actors.

Burr Aiming to Release Part of Russia Probe: Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in an interview he hopes to start releasing the first part of his committee’s final report on his long-running Russia probe later this week. The panel’s top Democrat Mark Warner (D-Va.) said last week that the committee won’t be able to complete its final report without access to counterintelligence information gathered alongside Mueller’s criminal probe. Warner said portions of the report have been complete for some time and have been going through a declassification process and could be released soon. Read more from Steven T. Dennis.

Happening on the Hill

Mnuchin Defends Budget Deal: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faced skeptical Republicans on Capitol Hill as he sought to convince them his deal to raise the debt limit and increase spending is the best the GOP could do in negotiations with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “The president absolutely supports it,” Mnuchin told reporters. “I am sure it will pass.”

The top two Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), as well as Pelosi and second-ranking House Republican Steve Scalise (R-La.), sought to rally their members to back the plan. McConnell said it will head off “unnecessary drama” in funding the government. But Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) who chairs the Freedom Caucus, a House group that strongly supports Trump, said he won’t vote for the deal.

Still, Trump last night urged reticent Republicans to support the agreement. “Budget Deal gives great victories to our Military and Vets, keeps out Democrat poison pill riders. Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to act ASAP and support this deal,” Trump said in a tweet. Read more from Laura Litvan and Erik Wasson.

For more on what’s in the measure, read the BGOV Bill Summary by Michael Smallberg.

Robocall Bill Moves to House Floor: The House will consider legislation today aimed at increasing penalties for illegal robocalls, with passage setting up bipartisan discussions in August to work out differences with a similar Senate-passed measure. The bipartisan bill is heading to the floor under an expedited procedure that requires broad support. Approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a 48-0 vote last week, the bill would require AT&T, Verizon, and other phone carriers to use technology that authenticates whethe r a call is legitimate or fake, and give the Federal Communications Commission more time to fine spammers after an illegal call is made.

The Senate passed a similar bill in May. If the House passes the bill, House and Senate staff plan to meet in August to negotiate the two bills, but no formal conference committee is expected, a House Democratic aide said. Rebecca Kern has more.

Congress Approves Sept. 11 Compensation Bill: The Senate voted to replenish a fund that provides lifelong medical help for firefighters, police officers and other first responders affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sending the long-stalled legislation to Trump. The measure, which passed on a 97-2 vote, is designed to make the fund essentially permanent, extending the resources through at least fiscal 2092. The $4.6 billion Congress provided in 2017 proved insufficient, and dozens of first responders who suffered health effects from from working at “Ground Zero” in New York City came to Washington and lobbied for the fund’s renewal. Read more from Laura Litvan.

House Opposes BDS Movement Against Israel: The House yesterday adopted a non-binding resolution that opposes the “BDS” movement targeting Israel and reaffirmed its support for a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The vote on the resolution (H. Res. 246) was 398-17. BDS refers to boycott, divest and sanction as measures against Israel over the country’s treatment of Palestinians. Unlike the Senate, the House hasn’t passed a measure that would allow U.S. state and local governments to adopt and enforce measures against entities or contractors that engage in BDS activity, Catherine Dodge reports.

Warren Targets Bank Payments: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other Democrats are vying to keep Wall Street from dominating a potentially lucrative new line of business. At issue is the development of real-time payment systems that would allow consumers and businesses to instantly access money that’s sent to their bank accounts. Everyone agrees that creating such networks is necessary. But they’re at odds over whether it’s a good idea to let big banks, which already have one up and running, reign supreme.

Warren, along with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and two House Democrats, plans to introduce a bill today that would require the Federal Reserve to build a competing system. They want to make the U.S. payments infrastructure a public utility and prevent big banks from gaining a monopoly. Read more from Austin Weinstein.

House Democrats Unveil Climate Goal: House Democrats yesterday unveiled a target to stave off climate change, one that is a far cry from the controversial Green New Deal being championed by progressives. Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced they would pursue legislation this year that calls for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a less ambitious but politically, and technologically, achievable alternative to the sweeping Green New Deal that called for hitting that target by 2030. Read more from Ari Natter.

McDonald’s Anti-Harassment Measures: Several dozen lawmakers have sent a letter to McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook asking for a progress report on the company’s efforts to combat what workers say is sexual harassment. In a letter dated yesterday, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and about 50 other lawmakers want to know more about the company’s anti-harassment training program. McDonald’s announced new prevention measures in May and has encouraged franchisees to comply. Read more from Leslie Patton.

Lawmakers Seek VA Culture Change: Whistleblowers have been responsible for bringing some of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ biggest problems to light—secret wait time lists, supply shortages at medical facilities and improper billing. But lawmakers are concerned the agency isn’t doing enough to protect them. “It’s clear to me there still needs to be culture change at the VA,” House Veterans Affairs Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) said at a hearing yesterday.

But officials countered that the department is improving. “It’s going to take time and, with whistleblowers, they have to prove to them that it’s a place they feel comfortable coming forward and there will not be any adverse actions against them,” VA Inspector General Michael Missal said. The agency is headed in the “right direction,” he added. Read more from Megan Howard.

Movers & Shakeups

Amtrak Nominee Faces Skepticism: Amtrak board of directors nominee Todd Rokita may face a skeptical reception from senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee because of his votes to defund Amtrak when he was a member of the House. Rokita, the latest Trump administration nominee to the board, voted to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s National Network and to end federal grants for the railroad, among other votes deemed anti-Amtrak by the Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group. Shaun Courtney has more.

Interim IRS Advocate Pick’s Experience: Bridget Roberts is unlikely to rock the boat too much when she takes temporary charge of the Taxpayer Advocate Service Aug. 1. For about two years Roberts has been outgoing National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson’s deputy. She will begin working as the acting leader of the advocate service—an independent arm of the Internal Revenue Service where taxpayers can turn for help if they have a dispute with the agency—when Olson departs the role July 31 after 18 years. Allyson Versprille has more on the interim chief.

Flynn Partner Bijan Kian Convicted: Bijan Kian was convicted by a federal jury of secretly acting as an agent of the Turkish government while working with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, his onetime business partner. The case against Kian, 67, who co-founded Flynn Intelligence Group, was one of several to grow out of Mueller’s investigation. That probe cast a light on foreign agents operating in the U.S. without registering, an offense that had been prosecuted rarely. Kian faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in pri son, although sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum. He’s scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 18. Read more from David Kocieniewski and David Voreacos.

Ex-Trump Campaign Staffer Loses NDA Case: Trump’s presidential campaign was awarded $52,230 in a spat with a former campaign staffer over her breach of a non-disclosure agreement. Jessica Denson, a Los Angeles-based actress who worked on Trump’s campaign in August 2016, sued in federal court to void her NDA in order to pursue a separate state lawsuit in which she claims she was harassed and defamed by her superiors. Denson filed suit in state court in 2017 seeking $25 million in damages for the alleged harassment and defamation. The Tru mp campaign then made a $1.5 million arbitration claim, saying Denson had breached the NDA’s confidentiality and non-disparagement obligations, reports Bob Van Voris.

Elections & Politics

Warning Signs Abound for Biden’s Campaign: Joe Biden campaigns like time is the only thing standing between him and the Democratic nomination. But there are growing signs that his third bid for the presidency is anything but inevitable. The former vice president offers a message of inclusivity with a moderate policy agenda aimed squarely at Trump in the general election. But a wide range of vulnerabilities, already evident in polling, fundraising and field organization, could get in the way.

Perhaps most worrisome for Biden is that he doesn’t appear to excite passions among Democratic voters or insiders like the last two nominees. “Barack Obama was loved. Hillary Clinton was feared,” said Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo. “Joe Biden doesn’t bring out such strong passions.”

“There’s almost universal fondness for him with Democrats but the intensity isn’t there. Everybody in the party sees him as a really good man, he’s likable, he’s Uncle Joe,” said another operative, Brian Fallon, Clinton’s 2016 press secretary. “There are other candidates that can build an intense following that could prove his support to be soft. But it remains to be seen.” Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

Candidates Vie for Black Vote at NAACP Forum: The leading Democratic candidates will make their case to the NAACP National Convention today, as they compete for a voting bloc that accounts for 20% of the party’s voters and is crucial to winning the presidential nomination. The event in Detroit will feature 11 of the two dozen contenders, including the race’s top tier: Biden, Sens. Warren, Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Biden has recently lost some ground with black voters, though he retains a strong lead. The other candidates are likely to use the forum to try to further cut into that support. Read more from Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou.

Sanders Campaign Hit With Labor Complaint: Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign has been hit with an unfair labor practice complaint alleging illegal employee interrogation and retaliation against staffers. The complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, filed by an unnamed individual in Indiana, was posted to the agency’s website late Monday. Read more from Hassan A. Kanu and Andrew Wallender.

Sanders, Warren Join Striking Airport Workers: Meanwhile, Sanders and Warren joined 500 airline food workers picketing at Reagan National Airport in Washington for higher wages and health insurance yesterday. “United, American and Delta over the last five years have raked in over $50 billion in profit,” Warren said. “And yet, their workers, their food service workers, the people on the front lines are locked in poverty.” The two senators have positioned themselves as allies of unions and are vying for the influential endorsements of labor organizations, Emma Kinery reports.

Mitchell to Retire: Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) will not run for re-election in 2018, Politico reports. Mitchell is frustrated with Congress and has clashed with Trump, according the the report, which cites an interview.

What Else to Know

Trump Mulls Response to Turkey S-400: Trump is weighing how to respond to Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian missile-defense system, which has divided the two NATO allies and fueled outrage in Congress, according to senators who met with him yesterday. The president is “frustrated by what he sees as a lack of options” after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan begin receiving parts for the Russian-made S-400 system, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of more than 40 Republican senators who met with Trump at the White House. Laura Litvan has the latest.

U.S. Probes Online Platform Competition: The Justice Department said it’s investigating whether technology giants are harming competition, stepping up its scrutiny of the industry’s biggest companies. The department’s antitrust division will look at concerns that consumers, businesses and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and online retail, according to a statement yesterday. “Without the discipline of meaningful market-based competition, digital platforms may act in ways that are not responsive to consumer deman ds,” said Makan Delrahim, the head of the Antitrust Division. “The department’s antitrust review will explore these important issues.”

The announcement marks the latest sign of the heightening scrutiny facing tech companies in Washington by lawmakers and antitrust enforcers. The giants of the industry are under fire over massive collection of user data, failing to police content on their platforms, and claims they’re harming competition in their markets. Read more from David McLaughlin.

Envoy Signals No Palestine Capital in Jerusalem: The Trump administration is signaling it won’t prescribe a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem as part of its long-promised peace plan, leaving the issue to be resolved through direct negotiations. Only negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can “resolve the issue of Jerusalem, if it can be resolved,” U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt said at a United Nations Security Council debate yesterday. He said the issue can’t be resolved at the UN or in “any other capital around the world.” Read more from David Wainer.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

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

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