Washington, Apr 28 (AP/UNB) — Since George Washington's time, presidents have used executive privilege to resist congressional inquiries in the name of protecting the confidentiality of their decision-making.
President Donald Trump threatened this past week to broadly assert executive privilege to block a number of current and former aides from testifying, including some who have cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. It's a strategy that could lead to a messy, protracted legal fight, but even if the White House is eventually defeated in court, the president and his allies could have the chance to run out the clock to the 2020 election.
"This is all about delaying things. The strategy of every administration is to drag it out," said the University of Virginia's Saikrishna Prakash, an expert on presidential power.
Trump in recent days has complained about House Democrats stepping up their investigations in the aftermath of the special counsel's probe , which ended last month without concluding the president colluded with Russia or obstructed justice.
"With all of this transparency, we finished 'no collusion, no obstruction,'" Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday. "Then I get out, the first the day they're saying, 'Let's do it again.' And I said, 'That's enough.'"
"So, if I'm guilty of anything, it's that I've been a great president and the Democrats don't like it, which is a shame," he said.
Executive privilege is the president's power to keep information from the courts, Congress and the public to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.
The privilege to withhold documents and prohibit aides from testifying rests on the proposition that the president has an almost unparalleled need to protect the confidentiality of candid advice that goes into presidential judgments. There is no reference to executive privilege in the Constitution, but the Supreme Court has held that it derives from the president's ability to carry out the duties the commander in chief holds under the Constitution.
It has become a flashpoint after Trump's administration signaled it was considering invoking the privilege to block Congress' attempt to subpoena former White House counsel Don McGahn, an important figure in the Mueller investigation, to appear and provide documents.
That reflects a shift in legal tactics for Trump's lawyers. At first, they cooperated with Mueller's 22-month investigation, encouraging officials to testify and turning over more than a million documents. But starting last spring, the White House took a far more adversarial approach, publicly questioning the investigation's integrity and resisting some requests.
Advisers to the president, trying to depict the Democrats as guilty of partisan-fueled overreach, want to snarl the congressional investigations. They believe a drawn-out court fight could tire voters' patience and shift public opinion their way. While they are hopeful that the courts support them, a legal battle that ends in defeat could stretch close to the 2020 election and make it easier for Republicans to claim the other party was predominantly interested in playing politics.
The haste with which House Democrats have issued subpoenas and promise more is itself a reflection that time is on Trump's side, not Congress', Prakash said. "The speed with which we've come to an impasse is different" from past fights over documents and testimony that involved at least a semblance of negotiations, he said.
Courts have not had much to say about executive privilege. But in the 1974 case over President Richard Nixon's refusal to release Oval Office recordings as part of the Watergate investigation, the Supreme Court held that the privilege is not absolute. In other words, the case for turning over documents or allowing testimony may be more compelling than arguments for withholding them. In that context, the court ruled 8-0 that Nixon had to turn over the tapes.
When it came to the Watergate tapes, the Supreme Court said it had the final word, and lower courts have occasionally weighed in to resolve other disputes. But courts also have made clear they prefer that the White House and Congress resolve their disagreements without judicial intervention, when possible.
Court fights over documents and testimony can take years to resolve.
One potential roadblock for the White House: Trump already allowed McGahn to talk to Mueller's team, and Attorney General William Barr has said the president did not invoke executive privilege to prevent release of any part of Mueller's report.
"In view of that, the White House has waived a good portion of any privilege it might claim," said Steven Schwinn, a constitutional law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Trump seems to be arguing that the risk that McGahn might reveal the substance of high-level conversations he had with the president or other high-level advisers is sufficiently high to keep him out of the witness chair in a House hearing, Schwinn said.
"But that's not the way privileges work," he said. "You don't prevent someone from testifying entirely just because you think one of their answers may raise executive communications. You raise a privilege in response to a question."
Recent presidents have leaned on the approach. President George W. Bush used it to shield some sensitive information from Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Clinton administration used it to try to keep private Hillary Clinton's answers during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, backs the president's efforts not to engage in what the senator called "a complete partisan thing now."
Graham said he told the president when the two spoke earlier in the week that he wouldn't have let "half these people" testify earlier. Now, with Muller's work complete, the South Carolina senator said Democrats are acting like filmmaker Oliver Stone trying to get to the bottom of the Kennedy assassination. Stone's controversial 1991 film "JFK" dramatized allegations that several people conspired to kill the president.
"I think Congress is going crazy here," Graham told The Associated Press.
Over just the past few days, the Trump White House has thrown up a series of hurdles for congressional investigators:
—The Trump Organization sued the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to stop his efforts to obtain the company's financial records.
—Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blew past Tuesday's House deadline to turn over the president's tax returns, saying he will decide next month.
—The administration instructed its former personnel security director, Carl Kline, not to testify before Congress over how some West Wing aides, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, obtained security clearances. That led the House to hold Kline in contempt.
One potential problem Schwinn identified is a lack of clarity in the White House's claims that Trump aides, including Stephen Miller, Trump's top immigration policy adviser, should not cooperate with Congress.
"In a regular administration, we expect the White House to make aggressive constitutional arguments," Schwinn said. "But what President Trump is doing is something different. He's making these assertions that are both overly broad, even ridiculously broad, and in a slippery way so that we can't get our arms around what he is asserting."
New York, Apr 27 (AP/UNB) — At least 120 priests accused of sexually abusing a child or having child pornography have worked in the Archdiocese of New York, the archdiocese said Friday in releasing a list of names that includes bishops, high school teachers, a scouting chaplain and a notorious cardinal.
The release, from the nation's second-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, follows more than 120 such disclosures from other dioceses around the country as the church reckons with demands for transparency about sex abuse by clergy.
In a letter to church members, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he realizes "the shame that has come upon our church due to the sexual abuse of minors." He asked forgiveness "for the failings of those clergy" who betrayed the trust invested in them to protect young people.
"It is my heartfelt prayer that together we as a family of faith may be healed," Dolan added.
Church abuse watchdogs and lawyers for abuse accusers said the release of the list was a positive step, but some of them saw it as incomplete.
It doesn't include accused members of religious orders who worked in the archdiocese's churches and schools, though some orders have released their own lists. Nor does it list priests who were ordained elsewhere and later served in New York.
And there are no details on accused priests' past assignments or the allegations against them, although some have emerged in news accounts, lawsuits and criminal cases.
"It's certainly a good thing that they've come out with the list," said Terry McKiernan of Bishop Accountability, a watchdog group. But "do they still not see that this very, very reluctant way of offering information about the crisis is the wrong way for them?"
Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said that "the important thing is that we have released all of the names of priests that have a credible and substantiated charge brought against them," plus those awaiting a church determination on allegations, and those newly accused through an archdiocese-run compensation process.
The program has paid out $65 million to over 350 people in the past three years.
The list includes priests ordained between 1908 and 1988. Many have died, and the archdiocese said none is currently working in the ministry.
Most of the alleged abuse happened in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, but there have been two credible allegations of sex abuse by active clergy since 2002, according to the archdiocese. It said authorities were alerted about both those cases.
Some priests on the list were convicted of sex crimes, including the late Rev. Edward Pipala, who served seven years in federal prison after admitting in 1993 to taking at least 11 boys across state lines for illicit sex.
The list also includes once-high-ranking church officials.
Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was ordained in New York, became archbishop of Washington and one of the most visible church officials in the U.S.
Then, in February, he became the first cardinal defrocked in the sex abuse scandal of recent years. An internal church investigation had found him guilty. McCarrick's lawyer declined to comment Friday.
Bishop John Jenik was removed from his public duties in November after being accused of inappropriate behavior with a teenage boy in the 1980s — an accusation he denies. The Vatican is reviewing the matter.
Bishop James McCarthy resigned in 2002 after the archdiocese was alerted about his affairs with women, which he acknowledged. He mentioned starting a relationship with a woman when she was around 21 years old, but some questions were later raised about whether she'd been underage.
No charges were filed, and the church hasn't made a determination. A message was left Friday evening at a possible phone number for McCarthy.
Others were school leaders and teachers, deacons, parish priests, and clerics who worked with charities and youth groups.
One served as a Catholic Youth Organization director in New York and as national chaplain of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting in the 1970s, when he allegedly abused a boy at a summer camp, according to news accounts. The priest died in 1984, over two decades before the allegations became publicly known.
Based at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the New York Archdiocese includes parts of New York City and several counties north of the city. The only U.S. archdiocese with more Catholics is that of Los Angeles.
Washington, Apr 27 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. State Department has issued a heightened travel warning for Sri Lanka after last Sunday's suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people.
The department is urging Americans to "reconsider travel to Sri Lanka due to terrorism."
The U.S. has also ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees. And it has authorized the voluntary departure of nonemergency U.S. employees and family members.
Friday night's advisory warns, "Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka."
Sri Lankan authorities have blamed a local Muslim militant group for the Easter attacks on churches and hotels. The Islamic State group has also claimed responsibility, though officials are still investigating the extent of its involvement.
Indianapolis, Apr 26 (AP/UNB) — With pro-gun legislation largely stalled in Congress, President Donald Trump said Friday he is withdrawing the U.S. from an international agreement on the arms trade, telling the National Rifle Association the treaty is "badly misguided."
Trump made the announcement as he vowed to fight for gun rights and implored members of the nation's largest pro-gun group — struggling to maintain its influence — to rally behind his re-election bid.
"It's under assault," he said of the constitutional right to bear arms. "But not while we're here."
Trump said he would be revoking the United States' status as a signatory of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates international trade in conventional weapons, from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships. President Barack Obama signed the pact in 2013 but it has never been ratified by U.S. lawmakers.
It has long been opposed by the NRA.
"Under my administration, we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone," Trump said, before signing a document on stage asking the Senate to halt the ratification process. "We will never allow foreign diplomats to trample on your Second Amendment freedom."
"I hope you're happy," he told the group, to cheers.
His move against the treaty came as Trump sought to excite an organization that was pivotal to Trump's victory in 2016 but, three years later, is limping toward the next election divided and diminished.
"You better get out there and vote," he said, telling the crowd of thousands that the 2020 election "seems like it's a long ways away. It's not."
Gun activists denounced the treaty when it was under negotiation as an infringement of civilian firearm ownership, despite the well-enshrined legal principle that says no treaty can override the Constitution or U.S. laws. The treaty is aimed at cracking down on illicit trading in small arms, thereby curbing violence in some of the most troubled corners of the world.
Advocates of tighter gun restrictions denounced Trump's decision. Kris Brown, president of the Brady organization, said it was a "reckless move" that will "only embolden terrorists and other dangerous actors around the world."
In a speech full of grievance, Trump railed against the Russia investigation, which did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Russians and the Trump campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller outlined potential episodes of obstruction of justice by the president without concluding that he had committed any crime, leaving such questions for Congress to pursue as it saw fit.
"They tried for a coup," Trump said. "It didn't work out so well."
"And I didn't need a gun for that, did I?" he quipped, adding: "Spying. Surveillance. Trying for an overthrow? And we caught 'em."
And in a pre-emptive attack against his 2020 Democratic challengers, Trump claimed without evidence that the other party wants "to take away your guns."
An emboldened NRA had high hopes and ambitious plans for easing state and national gun regulations after pouring tens of millions of dollars into the 2016 presidential race, seeing its dark horse candidate win and Republicans in control of both branches of Congress.
But much of the legislation the group championed has stalled, due, in part, to a series of mass shootings, including the massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 dead and launched a youth movement against gun violence that has had a powerful impact. And Democrats won control of the House in the midterms.
At the same time, the group is grappling with infighting, bleeding money and facing a series of investigations into its operating practices, including allegations that covert Russian agents seeking to influence the 2016 election courted its officials and funneled money through the group.
As Trump landed in Indianapolis, a judge imposed an 18-month prison term on gun rights activist Maria Butina, an admitted Russian agent who tried to infiltrate American conservative groups.
The NRA's shaky fortunes have raised questions about the one-time kingmaker's clout heading into 2020.
"I've never seen the NRA this vulnerable," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control measures.
With Trump in office, gun owners no longer fear the Second Amendment is under attack to the extent it was perceived to be under Democrats.
"Good times are never good for interest groups because it's much better when Armageddon is at your doorstep," said Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor who has written extensively on gun politics. "Fear is a huge motivator in politics."
The NRA, said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and expert on gun policy, has also dramatically changed its messaging over the last two years, with its NRATV service advocating a panoply of far-right political views that have turned off some members.
At the same time, public sentiment has shifted. A March AP-NORC poll found that 67% of Americans overall think gun laws should be made stricter — up from 61% in October 2017.
And a June 2018 Gallup poll found overall favorable opinions of the NRA down slightly from October 2015, from 58% to 53%. Unfavorable views have grown, from 35% to 42%.
Against that backdrop, Democratic politicians have become more comfortable assailing — and even actively running against — the NRA and pledging action to curb gun violence. And gun control groups like Everytown, which is largely financed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a political action committee formed by Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman wounded in a shooting, have become better organized and more visible, especially at the state level.
That reversal was made clear during the 2018 midterm elections, when those groups vastly outspent the NRA.
During the midterms the NRA "committed almost a disappearing act," said Everytown's Feinblatt.
Winkler, the UCLA law professor, allowed that the group had scored some victories under Trump, including the appointment of two Supreme Court justices who may be open to striking down gun laws.
But overall, he said, "On the legislative front, the NRA has been frustrated," with priorities like national reciprocity for conceal carry laws and a repeal of the ban on silencers stalled.
Instead, Trump introduced a new federal regulation: a ban on bump stocks after a man using the device opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers on the Las Vegas strip, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds.
Albany, Apr 26(AP/UNB) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and fellow Democrats who control the Legislature have reached a deal to make New York the third state with a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags as they worked to finalize budget agreements, officials said Friday.
The ban would prohibit grocery stores from providing plastic bags for most purchases, something California has been doing since a statewide ban was approved in 2016. Hawaii has an effective statewide ban, with all its counties imposing their own restrictions.
Supporters of such bans say they keep plastic bags from entering the environment and causing damage to ecosystems and waterways.
"With this smart, multi-pronged action New York will be leading the way to protect our natural resources now and for future generations of New Yorkers," Cuomo, who proposed a ban in his $175 billion budget proposal, said in a statement Friday.
New York's ban wouldn't take effect until next March. The plan also calls for allowing local governments the option to impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags, with 3 cents going to the state's Environmental Protection Fund and 2 cents kept by local governments.
Environmental conservation advocates had also been pushing for a statewide fee for paper bags as a way to encourage wider consumer use of reusable bags.
Nonetheless, Patrick McClellan, state policy director for the New York League of Conservation Voters, said his group was "thrilled" that the bag ban appears headed for passage.
"Plastic bags pollute our waterways and streets, and both plastic and paper bags contribute to the solid waste crisis and cost taxpayers money," he said. "While the best policy would be a ban on plastic bags coupled with a statewide fee on other disposable bags, this agreement represents a tremendous step forward."
Lawmakers are facing a Monday deadline on a budget agreement. Negotiations on other aspects of Cuomo's proposed $175 billion spending plan are continuing Friday, with the Senate and Assembly expected to start passing budget bills Sunday ahead of the April 1 start of the state's 2019-2020 fiscal year.
Lawmakers have also agreed on a measure that would close up to three yet-to-be-determined state prisons. Cuomo announced last month he wanted to reduce the number of facilities because of the state's declining inmate population.
The budget will also contain a provision requiring employers to give workers three hours off to vote on election day.
Another provision set for the budget would impose congestion tolls to ease traffic in the busiest parts of Manhattan and fund transit improvements, but details are still being discussed.
Negotiations are also continuing on a proposal to tax luxury second homes in Manhattan worth more than $5 million. The option now being considered would impose a one-time tax paid when the properties are sold, Cuomo told reporters Friday.
Revenue from the tax would go to transit.
Other pending issues still being negotiated included criminal justice reform and public financing of political campaigns.
One of the other big issues of the year — the legalization of recreational marijuana — will not be included in the budget. Cuomo said Friday that lawmakers need more time to work out the details to regulation.