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Trump news: Mueller testimony says president could face criminal charges as Trump rails against 'disaster' hearing

Follow the latest updates from Washington, as it happened

Clark Mindock
New York
Wednesday 24 July 2019 18:29 BST
Mueller says he 'generally' agrees with sentiment that Trump officials lies inhibited his investigation

Robert Mueller, the former US special counsel who investigated the Russian interference into the 2016 presidential campaign and Donald Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, has testified on Capital Hill, where he was asked to explain the conclusions he reached in his report released earlier this year.

The whole world was watching, and Democrats skilfully laid out the various ways in which Mr Mueller's report shows the president obstructed justice by trying to end the Mueller report.

They said they had 10 to list, in all.

Mr Trump had repeatedly attempted to downplay or dismiss Mr Mueller’s reluctant appearance on Capitol Hill — which was forced through a subpoena — to discuss his 448-page report into the 2016 election and its aftermath, but has attacked Mr Mueller's testimony anyhow, and has claimed Mr Mueller may have been conflicted because he had interviewed for a job as FBI director just before getting his job as special counsel (Mr Mueller had done that job before, had been praised for his work in that job, and denied he had interviewed for that job as the president says).

During the first half of his testimony, Mr Mueller indicated that a major reason the president was not charged was that Justice Department rules prohibit it. Mr Mueller did note that he believes a president could be charged with a crime after leaving office.

In the end, Democrats appeared to be laying the groundwork for further investigations into Mr Trump's political world, with top leaders pledging to follow the money trail to determine if the president had acted unlawfully.

And, with the future in mind, Democrats repeatedly asked Mr Mueller if the president could be charged with a crime once he leaves office. They said he could.

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Hello and welcome to The Independent's rolling coverage of the Donald Trump administration.

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 09:10

Robert Mueller, the former FBI special counsel who investigated the Donald Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, will testify before two congressional committees on Wednesday to explain the conclusions he reached with the whole world watching and Democrats poised to renew their calls for the president’s impeachment.

Republicans, for their part, are ready to defend Trump and turn their fire on Mueller and his team instead. 

The back-to-back appearances before the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee, Mueller's first since wrapping his two-year Russia probe this spring, carry the extraordinary spectacle of a prosecutor discussing in public a criminal investigation he conducted into a sitting US president. 

Mr Trump has repeatedly attempted to downplay or dismiss Mr Mueller’s reluctant appearance on Capitol Hill to discuss his 448-page report into the 2016 election and its aftermath but hit out on Tuesday night against the witness's request that a top aide, Aaron Zebley, be present at his side. Zebley is not expected to be sworn in for questioning by the judiciary panel but he will be able to answer questions before the intelligence committee, where, a committee aide told the AP, he will be sworn in. 

“What a disgrace to our system. Never heard of this before. VERY UNFAIR, SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED. A rigged Witch Hunt!” the president tweeted.

Mueller's approach to testifying may well deny Democrats the made-for-TV moments they want to rally their base. But Republicans, too, are likely to be left without their sought-after confirmation that the Russia investigation was a politically tainted waste of time. 

Trump this week feigned indifference to Mueller's testimony, telling reporters in the Oval Office on Monday, "I'm not going to be watching - probably - maybe I'll see a little bit of it." 

The president has a light schedule when Mueller begins speaking on Wednesday morning, then heads to West Virginia for evening fundraisers. The TVs aboard Air Force One are likely to be tuned to coverage of the hearings and the president is expected to watch or be briefed on most of the proceedings, according to four administration officials and Republicans close to the White House.

Yet the former special counsel need not say much to have his own quiet impact: his mere appearance will give voice to the 448-page legal thicket known as the Mueller report. His testimony - however sparse - will convert from dense paragraphs into plain English a document many in America have yet to wade through. 

Mueller may create a powerful impression simply by confirming without hesitation some damning details from his report. A former FBI director who spent 12 years parrying questions from lawmakers at oversight hearings - and decades before that as a prosecutor who asked questions of his own - Mueller is unlikely to be goaded into saying anything he doesn't want to say. In fact, he had to be subpoenaed to show up in the first place. 

Wednesday's first hearing before the Judiciary Committee will focus on whether the president illegally obstructed justice by attempting to seize control of Mueller's investigation. 

The special counsel examined nearly a dozen episodes, including Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey and his efforts to have Mueller himself removed. Mueller in his report ultimately declined to state whether the president broke the law, saying such a judgment would be unfair in light of Justice Department legal opinions that bar the indictment of a sitting president. 

The afternoon hearing before the House intelligence committee will dive into ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. 

On that question, Mueller's report documented a trail of contacts between Russians and Trump associates - including a Trump Tower meeting at which the president's eldest son expected to receive dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton - but the special counsel found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy aiming to tip the 2016 election. 

Like most Russia-related hearings before Congress, this one is likely to divide sharply along partisan lines. Democrats are angling to draw Mueller out on some of the most incendiary findings of the report, including Trump's repeated attempts to choke off the investigation. 

Even if the testimony won't inspire impeachment demands - House speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear she will not pursue impeachment, for now - Democrats hope Mueller can unambiguously spell out questionable, norm-shattering actions by the president. Republicans, by contrast, are likely to confront Mueller on the origins of the FBI's Russia probe and whether opposition to the Trump campaign drove the early days of the investigation.

They'll ask about a dossier of opposition research compiled by a former British spy that was funded by Democrats and cited by the Justice Department in its application for a secret surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign associate. 

They'll also press Mueller on Peter Strzok, the former FBI counterintelligence agent who badmouthed Trump over text message even as he was helping lead an investigation into the campaign. Mueller fired him once the texts were discovered two years ago, but Strzok has remained a talking point for Trump in trying to discredit Mueller's work. 

Mueller is also likely to be asked about his own tensions with attorney general William Barr over how the report was handled and how its findings were communicated to the public. 

Mueller complained privately to Barr in March that the attorney general's four-page letter summarizing the main findings of his report "did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office's work and conclusions." Barr, in turn, has called Mueller's note "a bit snitty." 

Mueller has made clear he didn't think it was appropriate to make a determination one way or the other about whether the president had committed a crime. He has rejected Barr's assessment that the evidence couldn't satisfy an obstruction of justice allegation, noting both in his report - and, again, in a public statement from the Justice Department podium - that if he had confidence the president had not committed a crime, he would have said so. 

Barr had no such hesitation and has said Mueller shouldn't have started investigating the president if he wasn't prepared to reach a conclusion. 

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 09:20

With all of this high drama set to play out, Trump has picked a strange moment to kick out at his most important media ally, Fox News, taking exception to it giving a “softball” interview to Democratic congressman and former presidential candidate Eric Swalwell

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 09:35

As always, the president finds himself fighting fires of his own making on several fronts.

On Tuesday, his legal team filed a lawsuit to try to stop the House Ways and Means Committee obtaining his New York state tax returns - the latest twist in Trump's battle to stop his financial records being made public.

Presidents dating back to Gerald Ford have released all or part of their tax returns as an attempt to display transparency to voters about their sources of income. Yet Trump has long declined to do so, claiming – contrary to what many independent experts say – that he cannot because he is under audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

Here's Andrew Buncombe with the latest.

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 09:50

On Tuesday, Trump addressed conservative youth organisation Turning Point USA at their Teen Action Summit at the Marriott Marquis in DC and said some typically eccentric things.

His audience of Republican students jeered obliging when he railed at the "Fake News Media", yelled "Lock her up!" when Hillary Clinton was mentioned and threw their MAGA hats in the air for joy as the crowd called for Trump to stay "president for life".

His speech was peppered with the usual unfounded claims, perhaps the most noteworthy being that under Article II of the US Constitution, he has "the right to do whatever I want as president" (he doesn't) and that elections in blue states like California are "rigged" because undocumented migrants are encouraged to vote multiple times (without offering any evidence whatsoever).

He also praised new British prime minister Boris Johnson as "Britain Trump".

As a Londoner, I can assure our international readers that that phrase has never once been uttered in the British Isles. The two men do of course have many superficial similarities, both being unorthodox right-wing political disruptors with baffling hair. This Twitter user perhaps nails the resemblance most acutely.

Anyway, here's Lily Puckett's report on an old man trying to impress a room full of teenagers.

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 10:05

Having already called one member of the progressive Democratic "Squad" - Rashida Tlaib - "a crazed lunatic"...

...there was also this troubling moment at the Turning Point gathering in which Trump appeared - perhaps unintentionally - to make a white power symbol while discussing another, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Here's more from Lowenna Waters for Indy100.

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 10:20

Trump also used his platform on Tuesday to threaten retribution against Guatemala over immigration after the country's high court blocked its government from signing an asylum deal with the United States. 

"They were all set to sign a safe third agreement and then today or yesterday, they announced they can't do it because they got a Supreme Court ruling. Their Supreme Court, right?" Trump said in a dismissive tone.

Trump had tweeted earlier in the day that Guatemala has decided against signing a "safe-third agreement" requiring Central American migrants seeking asylum in the US to instead apply for those protections in Guatemala, even though the country's government never said it had agreed to the arrangement. 

Guatemala "has decided to break the deal they had with us on signing a necessary Safe Third Agreement. We were ready to go," Trump complained. "Now we are looking at the 'BAN,"' he wrote, along with tariffs, fees on remittance money Guatemalans working in the US send back to their country, "or all of the above." 

Trump later painted the court ruling as a convenient excuse for the country, saying, "In other words, they didn't want to sign it." 

Trump has been trying to get countries including Guatemala to do more to stop the flood of Central American migrants who have been overwhelming the US southern border, jeopardising his campaign promise to end illegal immigration. Negotiations over a potential deal ended when Guatemala's Constitutional Court granted three injunctions preventing president Jimmy Morales from entering into a deal. 

A 15 July meeting between Trump and Guatemala's president was also called off because the high court had yet to issue its ruling.  Morales responded to the tweets with a statement posted on Facebook blaming Guatemala's Constitutional Court justices for upsetting Trump. 

"The repercussions of the Government of the United States of America toward Guatemala derive from a series of counterproductive actions by the Constitutional Court, which on repeated occasions has ruled against the content and spirit of our Constitution," Morales said, adding that "most of its judges, identified as having personal political interests, have used their investment to meddle in the foreign policy of the Guatemalan state." 

Later on Tuesday, Morales asked the Constitutional Court to revoke its decision. The government said in a statement that the Foreign Ministry had been directed "to exhaust all diplomatic resources available to avoid possible sanctions that could have negative repercussions for the nation's economy." 

The United States is Guatemala's most important trade partner, with the countries swapping $10.9bn (£8.7bn)  worth of goods last year. The top US exports to Guatemala include fuel minerals such as coal, petroleum and natural gas; machinery and corn. Top imports from Guatemala include bananas and plantains, clothing and coffee. 

Still, Guatemala's economy is small and its people poor, making for a lopsided relationship. Guatemala ranks just 46th among US partners in the trade of goods, and any sanctions would likely first impact Guatemala's financial and industrial elite, said political analyst Roberto Santiago. Trump could also hurt the country by trying to tax remittances, which are equal to 12.1 per cent of the Guatemalan economy, according to the World Bank. 

Trump also accused the country by tweet of "forming Caravans and sending large numbers of people, some with criminal records, to the United States," even though there is no evidence that the Guatemalan government had anything to do with organising the migrant caravans or "sending" anyone to the US. The caravans, a phenomenon that died out months ago after Mexico cracked down, originated in neighbouring Honduras and were joined by people from Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere as they moved through Guatemala and then Mexico. 

Trump's comments came a day after the two countries issued a friendly joint statement that made no mention of the "safe-third" idea. Instead, it said the two governments "continue to make important progress on a comprehensive regional approach to addressing irregular migration patterns," citing joint efforts "to reduce the flow of irregular migration and ensure the safety and protection of vulnerable populations, especially children." 

US Department of Homeland Security officials were set to meet with officials from the Northern Triangle countries on Wednesday. 

A "safe-third agreement" would mean that Salvadorans, Hondurans and people from elsewhere who cross into Guatemala would have to apply for asylum there instead of doing so at the US border - potentially easing the crush of migrants overwhelming the US immigration system and handing Trump a concession he could herald as a win. 

Like its Central American neighbors, Guatemala suffers from poverty and violence, making it an unlikely refuge for those fleeing El Salvador and Honduras. And critics have said the Guatemalan government lacks the resources to help migrants and asylum-seekers trying to make it to the US when tens of thousands of its own citizens have fled just this year. 

Additional reporting by AP

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 10:35

An immigration enforcement operation that Trump said was part of an effort to deport "millions" of people from the United States resulted in just 35 arrests, officials said on Tuesday.

Trump billed the operation targeting families as a major show of force as the number of Central American families crossing the southern border has skyrocketed. There are about 1 million people in the US with final deportation orders; the operation targeted 2,100. 

Of those arrested, 18 were members of families and 17 were collateral apprehensions of people in the country illegally who were encountered by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. None of those arrested resulted in the separation of family, officials said. 

The effort was demonised by Democrats as a full-force drive to deport families and trumpeted by Republicans as a necessary show of force to prove there are consequences for people coming here illegally. But career ICE officers described it as a routine operation, one expected to net an average of about 10 per cent to 20 per cent of targets. 

A separate nationwide enforcement operation targeting immigrants here illegally who had criminal convictions or charges netted 899 arrests. And officers handed out 3,282 notices of inspection to businesses that may be employing people here illegally. 

Acting ICE director Matthew Albence said the operations would be ongoing, stressing the importance of enforcement. "Part of the way you stop people from coming is having a consequence to the illegal activity when you do come," he said. 

The operation targeted families centered on those who had been ordered deported by an immigration judge in 10 cities around the country who were subjected to fast-track proceedings. It was canceled once after media reports telegraphing when and where it would begin, though Trump announced it would be postponed following a phone call with House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who urged him to do so. 

The second effort began on 14 July and again was met with media attention noting where and when it was to start, including from Trump, who announced the date. 

Albence conceded the number was lower than that of other operations. A similar operation in August 2017 netted 650 arrests over four days, including 73 family members and 120 who entered illegally as children. There were 457 others encountered during this operation also arrested. 

Albence said Trump's comments didn't hurt the effort because it had already been the subject of media reports for weeks. But the overall publicity caused problems for an operation that relies largely on secrecy and surprise. Albence said the publicity made some officers targets and they had to be pulled off. 

Part of the reason other, similar operations, were more successful is because they were "done without a lot of fanfare and media attention," Albence said. "That certainly, from an operational perspective, is beneficial." Another factor was weather; operations were suspended in New Orleans because of the hurricane there. And immigrant rights activists nationwide had the rare advantage of knowing when to expect increased immigration enforcement and they pushed "know-your-rights" campaigns hard. 

Any hint of ICE activity, including false alarms, brought out dozens of activists to investigate in several cities, including Houston, New York and Chicago. To inform the public, they used hotlines, text networks, workshops and social media and promoted a smartphone app that notifies family members in case of an arrest. 

In Chicago, even city officials got involved. Two city aldermen started "bike brigades," patrolling immigrant-heavy neighborhoods to look for ICE agents and warn others. Another, Alderman Andre Vasquez, sought volunteers on Facebook to serve as "ICEbreakers." Over the weekend, it was standing-room only at his ward office as volunteers walked the neighborhood handing out know-your-rights cards and recruited businesses to be on the lookout. 

"We were seeing concern and people starting to panic," Vasquez said. "We want to live in the kind of environment where we never have to worry about ICE and raids." 

Activists reported one clear success story in Nashville, Tennessee, on Monday. Neighbours noticed ICE surveillance in the area and helped a 12-year-old boy and man avoid arrest by calling others and then linking arms around their van. ICE officers eventually called off the operation to avoid escalation. 

Advocates also said many immigrants simply stayed home. 

During the first weekend the raids were supposed to start, some immigrant-heavy churches had noticeably lower attendance and attributed the fear of stepped-up enforcement. Businesses in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, including in Chicago, Atlanta and Miami, also reported very light traffic. 

Those arrested were awaiting deportation. During the budget year 2018, about 256,086 people were deported, an increase of 13%. The Obama administration deported 409,849 people in 2012's budget year. 

On Monday, the administration announced it would vastly extend the authority of immigration officers to deport migrants without allowing them to appear before judges. Fast-track deportations can apply to anyone in the country illegally for less than two years. Previously, those deportations were largely limited to people arrested almost immediately after crossing the Mexican border. Advocates said they would sue. 

It was the second major immigration shift in eight days. Last Monday, the administration effectively banned asylum at the southern border by making anyone coming to the US from a third country ineligible, with a few exceptions. Lawsuits are pending. 


Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 10:57

Also on the thorny subject of illegal immigration, a new Trump administration detention centre for migrant youth in Texas is set to close less than one month after it opened in response to the squalid conditions in which children were being detained by the Border Patrol, according to the non-profit operating the facility. 

The last children at the camp at Carrizo Springs, Texas, are on track to leave by Thursday, said Kevin Dinnin, the CEO of BCFS, which was slated to run the facility. 

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) only opened the facility in late June but Dinnin, whose nonprofit was contracted by HHS to operate Carrizo Springs, said his staff was to leave by the end of the week. It's still unclear whether some of the trailers and supplies brought to the camp will remain on site so that it can be quickly re-opened if it's needed in the future. 

Roughly 400 children were detained at Carrizo Springs in total, Dinnin said. BCFS had a contract that could have run through January and paid $300m (£240m), according to US government public notices. But Dinnin said it made little sense for staff and resources to be tied to a site where they were not needed. Holding children at emergency facilities like Carrizo Springs comes at a huge cost - an estimated $750 (£601) to $800 (£641) a day. 

Making Carrizo Springs ready for children required clearing mould and repairing air conditioning systems at the camp, which formerly housed oilfield workers. BCFS also brought in an infirmary built in a tent and its own ambulances. 

Reports earlier this year of the squalid conditions in which children were held in some Border Patrol cells - with no beds, inadequate food, and teens caring for younger children among themselves - sparked wide outrage. But by the time HHS opened Carrizo Springs, the huge numbers of children crossing the US-Mexico border had fallen as they normally do during the summer due to heat. 

HHS is also processing children more quickly after rolling back guidelines on fingerprinting and background checks. 

Border crossings tend to rise in the fall. Dinnin said he hadn't been told yet what HHS wanted to do with the site, which the agency leased for three years. 

"I do think it's prudent that they have a plan they can pull off the shelf and effectively and timely execute," Dinnin said. "That's just logical for what we've seen the last six or seven years." 


Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 11:15

How are your Mueller excitement levels this morning?

Republican senator Lindsey Graham isn't bothered...

...But these hard-working members of the Fourth Estate have been queuing all night as though Spice Girls reunion tickets were at stake.

Joe Sommerlad24 July 2019 11:30

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