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White House defies probers' demands as a constitutional firestorm nears

President Donald Trump at his campaign rally Tuesday

President Donald Trump at his campaign rally Tuesday in Sunrise, Fla. Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

Build that stonewall?

Get ready for Congress to switch next week between inquiry mode and debate mode as demands for testimony and documents remain blocked by the White House. 

The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled an impeachment hearing for Dec. 4. Members are expected to hear constitutional experts advise them on whether President Donald Trump's actions provide cause to remove him.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), the committee chairman, said Tuesday his panel’s hearing will “explore the framework put in place to respond to serious allegations of impeachable misconduct.” Trump's lawyers have been offered a chance to question witnesses.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to temporarily stay her order that former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn testify, saying it needs the delay to appeal her Monday ruling. In that decision, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson noted: "Presidents are not kings. This means they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control."

Former national security adviser John Bolton's lawyer said Jackson's opinion doesn't mean Bolton needs to testify. He's been quoted in other ex-officials' testimony as fiercely opposing other Trump aides' efforts to press Ukraine for a political favor he deemed to be as out of line as a "drug deal."

Alienated from the administration, Bolton tweeted somewhat cryptically on Tuesday: "It probably goes without saying, that our country’s commitment to our national security priorities is under attack from within. America is distracted. Our enemies are not."

On Twitter, Trump blended an argument into his usual barrage of petulance. He claimed "I would love to have" McGahn, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney testify, but "I am fighting for future Presidents and the Office of the President." Observers recalled Trump also said he would "love to" be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller — then refused.

More internal chaos bared

Democrats released a transcript of private testimony from Mark Sandy, an Office of Management and Budget wonk who appears to have no ax to grind in the impeachment drive. 

Sandy said a decision over the summer to freeze nearly $391 million in congressionally approved Ukraine military aid was highly irregular and that top OMB appointees didn't explain it. For some reason, he was removed from that task.

The transcript shows Sandy told congressional investigators that two other OMB employees quit while voicing concern over the Ukraine aid holdup. One of them cited the Impoundment Control Act, which keeps the executive branch from defying the Congress on spending items.

It was also revealed Tuesday that Trump already knew of a whistleblower's complaint when he decided to release the aid to Ukraine in September, according to The New York Times.

Rudy's jumbled roles

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been serving foreign clients with issues before the U.S. government while also representing the president. This blatant appearance of a conflict has become one of the unique features of the growing Ukraine scandal.

While in Madrid in August for his Ukraine skulduggery, Giuliani stayed with Venezuelan energy executive Alejandro Betancourt Lopez. Betancourt hired Giuliani to help him in a Justice Department probe of alleged money laundering and bribery, The Washington Post reports. Giuliani was among the Betancourt lawyers who met with the DOJ's criminal division chief.

Now the ex-mayor might face legal troubles of his own from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan. Giuliani told reporters at an airport in Nashville, Tennessee: "I think the way they're conducting this investigation, if they are, is outrageous. They're conducting it by leak. I have read leaks. If the prosecutors want to investigate, they know how to contact me."

Meanwhile Trump denied to former Fox host Bill O'Reilly in an online interview that he sent Giuliani to Ukraine to dig up dirt, but added, "he is a warrior." 

The Kerik factor

Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared that Trump ordered him to stop a disciplinary review of a Navy SEAL accused of battlefield misconduct. Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher was convicted by a military jury of posing for photos with the corpse of an ISIS fighter he allegedly stabbed while in Iraq in 2017.

As noted by The Associated Press, Bernard Kerik, the convicted former NYPD commissioner and onetime close Giuliani aide, was instrumental by making Gallagher into a celebrity cause on TV, embraced by Trump. Kerik's own prison term for corruption while in office followed the collapse in 2004 of his nomination for Homeland Security secretary, an embarrassment that shook both Giuliani and the Bush administration.

The SEAL also changed his defense team to include Marc Mukasey, a lawyer for the Trump real estate company who is close to Giuliani. Now Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, a critic of the White House move, has been forced out. On Monday, Spencer defended himself, saying he doesn't think Trump "really understands the full definition of a warfighter."

Dereliction of discipline?

A judge’s ruling reveals three Navy SEALs said they saw Gallagher fatally stab the noncombative, wounded ISIS fighter brought to him for medical treatment during a 2017 deployment, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports. That evening, one witness said he heard Gallagher threaten to kill anyone who spoke out about it, the judge’s ruling states.

Trump also issued a pardon for 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2013 for ordering soldiers under his command to repeatedly harass and shoot at civilians in Afghanistan. Another was Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, an Army Special Forces officer who'd been facing murder charges for killing an unarmed Afghan.

Local Trump resistance

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James said New York is pushing ahead with litigation against federal changes that have watered down deductions of state and local taxes on taxpayers' federal forms.

The state, along with Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey, is appealing an adverse ruling Sept. 30 in Manhattan federal court, Newsday's John Valenti reports.

On the 2020 campaign front, Rep. Kathleen Rice has endorsed Pete Buttigieg for president, saying the South Bend, Indiana, mayor has wide appeal and brings a new voice to Washington from the next generation of leadership, Newsday's Tom Brune reports.

"And he has what it takes to beat Donald Trump,” Rice said in her endorsement.

What else is happening:

  • High school and middle-school students booed first lady Melania Trump as she appeared in Baltimore to talk about opioid abuse.
  • Trump broke new foul ground by wailing bitterly that the impeachment proceedings are "bullshit" and having his Florida rally flock chant the word over and over.
  • Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) backed off his false claim that Ukraine hacked Democratic emails.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) shows a drop in a new national primary poll. Quinnipiac has Joe Biden at 24%, Buttigieg, 16%, Warren, 14% and Sen. Bernie Sanders, 13%.
  • Trade ministers from the U.S., Canada and Mexico are slated to meet Wednesday to discuss the status of the NAFTA replacement deal.
  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) filed a lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to enforce subpoenas regarding the failed bid for a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

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