By Robert A. Vella
Friday’s news roundup includes the latest on impeachment, more detail on Attorney General William Barr’s reticent defiance of his master’s wishes, scathing rebukes of President Trump by a federal judge and an anonymous White House insider while he suffered another court defeat in New York, an illuminating exposé on white supremacy in America, and more important stories.
In newly released testimony, George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said that not only did Trump want investigations of Burisma Holdings (the company that employed former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter) and potential Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election; he also specifically wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to link the latter to the word “Clinton.”
He says he learned it while hearing about European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s conversations with Trump.
WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. diplomat told Congress that he was briefed on conversations President Donald Trump had with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban in which the two foreign leaders talked Trump into a negative view about Ukraine and its new leader.
George Kent, a senior State Department official responsible for Europe, told House investigators that Putin and Orban, along with Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, had “shaped the president’s view of Ukraine and (President Volodymyr) Zelenskiy.” He said Trump’s conversations with the two leaders accounted for the change in Trump’s view of Zelenskiy from “very positive” after their first call on April 21 to “negative” just one month later when he met with advisers on Ukraine in the Oval Office.
In the interim, Trump spoke by phone with Putin on May 3, and hosted Orban at the White House on May 13.
Jennifer Williams, an aide in the vice president’s office and a long time State Department staffer, said the phone call did not have the normal tone of a diplomatic call. Williams did not raise concerns about the call with her superiors.
Williams testified that she had limited information about why military aid was being withheld from Ukraine. She was puzzled about it, but was kept in the dark about the decision-making process. She described herself as someone who stayed in her lane and wasn’t pushing to understand why the aide was withheld.
However, Williams suggested to lawmakers she believed it could be tied to what she heard on the call: Trump’s request that Ukraine open investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election, a third source familiar with the testimony told CNN.
More on Barr’s defiance
Rather than publicly join the fight against House Democrats pursuing the president, Mr. Barr has remained out of the fray, resisting requests by intermediaries from Mr. Trump to go before the cameras to say no crime had been committed. While Mr. Barr exonerated the president in the spring at the end of the Russia investigation, he has been more reticent in the current matter.
The reluctance hints at a new distance between the two men, according to people who have spoken with them. Mr. Trump, angry with his coverage, is aggravated with Mr. Barr for urging him to release a reconstructed transcript of the telephone call with Ukraine’s president at the center of the impeachment drive. For his part, Mr. Barr was bothered that Mr. Trump on that call lumped him together with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer, like interchangeable parts of his personal defense team.
But the impeachment debate seems to be testing those ties as House Democrats investigate whether Mr. Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors by using his office to pressure Ukraine to provide incriminating information about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats. The Justice Department concluded there was no campaign finance violation, but Mr. Barr has not gone beyond that.
“The easiest read of this is, yes, there’s a limit,” said Harry Litman, who served as a deputy assistant attorney general under President Bill Clinton. “Yes, he will push the envelope, but if it’s not plausible to say there’s no crime, he won’t do it.”
Trump is blasted
In an unusually critical speech that lamented the public’s flagging confidence in the independence of the judicial branch, a federal judge slammed President Trump for “feeding right into this destructive narrative” with repeated attacks and personal insults toward judges he dislikes.
U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman of the District of Columbia said Trump’s rhetoric “violates all recognized democratic norms” during a speech at the annual Judge Thomas A. Flannery Lecture in Washington on Wednesday.
“We are in unchartered territory,” said Friedman, 75, an appointee of President Bill Clinton. “We are witnessing a chief executive who criticizes virtually every judicial decision that doesn’t go his way and denigrates judges who rule against him, sometimes in very personal terms. He seems to view the courts and the justice system as obstacles to be attacked and undermined, not as a coequal branch to be respected even when he disagrees with its decisions.”
Senior Trump administration officials considered resigning en masse last year in a “midnight self-massacre” to sound a public alarm about President Trump’s conduct, but rejected the idea because they believed it would further destabilize an already teetering government, according to a new book by an unnamed author.
In “A Warning” by Anonymous, obtained by The Washington Post ahead of its release, a writer described only as “a senior official in the Trump administration” paints a chilling portrait of the president as cruel, inept and a danger to the nation he was elected to lead.
The author — who first captured attention in 2018 as the unidentified author of a New York Times opinion column — describes Trump careening from one self-inflicted crisis to the next, “like a twelve-year-old in an air traffic control tower, pushing the buttons of government indiscriminately, indifferent to the planes skidding across the runway and the flights frantically diverting away from the airport.”
President Donald Trump is blasting the ruling handed down by a New York judge that he must cough up $2 million to settle a case which alleged that the president used his charitable foundation to advance his 2016 campaign.
New York Supreme Court Justice Salliann Scarpulla ordered Trump to pay the settlement, saying, “Mr. Trump’s fiduciary duty breaches included allowing his campaign to orchestrate the Fundraiser, allowing his campaign, instead of the Foundation, to direct distribution of the Funds, and using the Fundraiser and distribution of the Funds to further Mr. Trump’s political campaign.”
An exposé on white supremacy
Patriot Front was formed in the aftermath of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. While many on America’s far-right cheered the rally, its violence struck others as a public-relations debacle for the white nationalist brand that was sure to attract greater oversight by law enforcement.
Patriot Front aspired to help chart a new way forward: spread propaganda espousing its version of a nascent American fascism; quietly recruit new members worried about a nation overrun by immigrants and a world controlled by Jews; avoid talking about guns or violence online, but engage in a mix of vandalism and intimidation to foster anxiety; wear masks in public and communicate secretly.
While the group is careful not to talk about guns online, two members in the last year have been arrested with arsenals of illegally owned high-powered rifles and other weapons. While many of the group’s propaganda “actions” are legal exercises of free speech, its members have been arrested in Boston and Denver in recent months for acts of vandalism. In Boston, three members engaged in a nighttime propaganda effort last winter were arrested on suspicion of weapons possession and assaulting a police officer. What the group touts as political protests have felt to those targeted like acts of menace, as was the case in San Antonio, Texas, last year when Patriot Front members filmed themselves trashing an encampment of immigration activists.