Senate Intelligence Committee interview with Trump lawyer abruptly canceled

The Washington Post reports: The Senate Intelligence Committee has unexpectedly canceled a Tuesday session to interview Michael Cohen, a former lawyer for President Trump’s business and a close associate of the president.

The meeting was scheduled as part of the committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Cohen arrived for the interview with his attorney Tuesday morning, but left the closed door session after about an hour, informing reporters waiting outside that committee staff had suddenly informed him they did not wish the interview to go forward.

“We will come back for a voluntary interview whenever we can to meet with them, and we look forward to voluntarily cooperating with the House committee and with anyone else who has an inquiry in this area,” Cohen’s lawyer, Steve Ryan, told reporters after the aborted meeting.

In a joint statement, committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking Democrat Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.) said the session was canceled because of public statements by Cohen before the interviews.

“We were disappointed that Mr. Cohen decided to pre-empt today’s interview by releasing a public statement prior to his engagement with Committee staff, in spite of the Committee’s requests that he refrain from public comment,” they said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump signals he will choose approach on Iran that preserves nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: President Trump kept the Iran nuclear deal alive on Thursday as a critical deadline lapsed, a sign that he is stepping back from his threat to abandon an agreement he repeatedly disparaged. He is moving instead to push back on Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East in other ways.

Thursday’s congressionally imposed deadline, to renew an exemption to sanctions on Iran suspended under the 2015 deal, was significant because had the president reimposed economic punishments on Iran, he would have effectively violated the accord, allowing Tehran to walk away and ending the agreement. But Mr. Trump was convinced by top Cabinet members and aides that he would also blow up alliances and free Iran to produce nuclear weapons material.

The move was more consequential than the decision the president faces in October about whether to recertify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the deal, which has no effect on the nuclear agreement itself.

Though Mr. Trump insisted that he has not settled on an overall Iran strategy and that he would announce one next month, administration officials said they were already trying to refocus on using military and economic leverage to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.

The approach, which aides said Mr. Trump came to reluctantly in a series of National Security Council meetings, is part of a pattern that has emerged in the president’s attempts to keep his campaign promises. Falling short in some cases, including on his hard line on immigration, Mr. Trump has portrayed the outcome as consistent with his stated objectives. [Continue reading…]

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After Charlottesville, black Republican gives Trump a history lesson on racism

The New York Times reports: Tim Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, delivered a pointed history lesson on America’s 300-year legacy of racism to President Trump on Wednesday in response to what he called Mr. Trump’s “sterile” response to the riots in Charlottesville, Va., last month.

The president invited Mr. Scott, a conservative from South Carolina who had expressed disgust with Mr. Trump’s equivocal reaction to the white supremacist protests that left one woman dead, to the Oval Office for what Mr. Trump’s staff described as a demonstration of the president’s commitment to “positive race relations.” Both men described the interaction as positive and constructive, but Mr. Scott clearly had a point to make.

When a reporter asked the senator after the meeting if the president had expressed regret, a pained look flashed on Mr. Scott’s face. He paused for a few seconds and replied, “He certainly tried to explain what he was trying to convey.”

White House officials emailed reporters a photograph of Mr. Trump listening intently as Mr. Scott made a point, with both sitting in chairs often used for bilateral meetings with foreign leaders. The White House misidentified him as Tom Scott.

In his remarks to reporters, Mr. Scott made it clear he did not go to the White House for a photo op, but to decisively rebut Mr. Trump’s claim — to the president’s face — that “both sides,” racists and anti-racist protesters, were responsible for the violence that followed a torchlight protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

“My response was that, while that’s true, I mean I think if you look at it from a sterile perspective, there was an antagonist on the other side,” Mr. Scott said.

“However, the real picture has nothing to do with who is on the other side,” he said.

“It has to do with the affirmation of hate groups who over three centuries of this country’s history have made it their mission to create upheaval in minority communities as their reason for existence,” he continued. “I shared my thoughts of the last three centuries of challenges from white supremacists, white nationalists, KKK, Nazis. So there’s no way to find an equilibrium when you have three centuries of history versus the situation that is occurring today.”

Mr. Trump responded by repeatedly saying, “That makes sense,” and concluded the meeting by telling the senator, “Let’s keep talking.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump doubled down on blaming both sides for violence in Charlottesville — again

BuzzFeed reports: President Donald Trump again blamed the violence in Charlottesville on both sides on Thursday, when discussing a conversation with Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, the day prior.

On Thursday, on board Air Force One while returning from touring Hurricane Irma damage in Florida, Trump reinforced his previous controversial comments defending white supremacists by pointing to a sometimes violent group that opposes them, Antifa.

Trump told reporters he and Scott “had a great talk yesterday. I think especially in light of the advent of Antifa, if you look at what’s going on there. You have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also and essentially that’s what I said. Now because of what’s happened since then with Antifa. When you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville, a lot of people are saying and people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump may have a point.’”

Trump added, “I said there’s some very bad people on the other side also. But we had a great conversation. And he has legislation, which I actually like very much, the concept of which I support, to get people into certain areas and building and constructing and putting people to work. I told him yesterday that’s a concept I can support very easily.”

When told of Trump’s comments, Scott, of South Carolina, told BuzzFeed News that it’s unrealistic to think President Trump would have an immediate “epiphany” regarding race after their meeting. [Continue reading…]

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Rice told House investigators why she unmasked senior Trump officials

CNN reports: Former national security adviser Susan Rice privately told House investigators that she unmasked the identities of senior Trump officials to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York late last year, multiple sources told CNN.

The New York meeting preceded a separate effort by the UAE to facilitate a back-channel communication between Russia and the incoming Trump White House.

The crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, arrived in New York last December in the transition period before Trump was sworn into office for a meeting with several top Trump officials, including Michael Flynn, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his top strategist Steve Bannon, sources said.

The Obama administration felt misled by the United Arab Emirates, which had failed to mention that Zayed was coming to the United States even though it’s customary for foreign dignitaries to notify the US government about their travels, according to several sources familiar with the matter. Rice, who served as then-President Obama’s national security adviser in his second term, told the House Intelligence Committee last week that she requested the names of the Americans mentioned in the classified report be revealed internally, a practice officials in both parties say is common.

Rice’s previously undisclosed revelation in a classified setting shines new light on a practice that had come under sharp criticism from the committee chairman, California Rep. Devin Nunes, and President Donald Trump, who previously accused Rice of committing a crime.

But her explanation appears to have satisfied some influential Republicans on the committee, undercutting both Nunes and Trump and raising new questions about whether any Trump associates tried to arrange back-channel discussions with the Russians. [Continue reading…]

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Treasury Secretary Mnuchin requested $25,000 per hour government jet for European honeymoon

ABC News reports: Secretary Steven Mnuchin requested use of a government jet to take him and his wife on their honeymoon in Scotland, France and Italy earlier this summer, sparking an “inquiry” by the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General, sources tell ABC News.

Officials familiar with the matter say the highly unusual ask for a U.S. Air Force jet, which according to an Air Force spokesman could cost roughly $25,000 per hour to operate, was put in writing by the secretary’s office but eventually deemed unnecessary after further consideration of by Treasury Department officials.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview with ABC News that Mnuchin’s request for a government jet on his honeymoon defies common sense. [Continue reading…]

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Justice Department declines Senate request to interview FBI officials over Comey firing

CNN reports: The Justice Department is preventing Senate investigators from interviewing two top FBI officials who could provide first-hand testimony over the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, the latest sign that Special Counsel Robert Mueller could be investigating the circumstances around the firing, officials tell CNN.

The previously undisclosed turf war comes as the Senate judiciary committee has not yet given assurances to the special counsel’s office that it could have unfettered access to the transcript of the interview it conducted last week with the President’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., saying that the full Senate must first authorize the release of the information to Mueller’s team.

What appears to have irked the panel in particular is the refusal of the Justice Department to cooperate with a key part of its investigation. The leaders of the panel, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and the ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein, have repeatedly asked two senior FBI officials — Carl Ghattas and James Rybicki — to sit down for a transcribed interview to discuss the Comey firing as part of its inquiry into any improper interference with the FBI.

But the Justice Department has declined, citing “the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III to serve” as special counsel about Russian interference in the 2016 elections and “related matters.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration may make the Iran deal the Senate’s problem

J. Dana Stuster writes: The Trump administration continued laying the groundwork for decertifying Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last week. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on the nuclear agreement and broader U.S. policy toward Iran. Though she stressed that she was “not making the case for decertifying”—instead she said she was arguing that “should [Trump] decide to decertify, he has grounds to stand on”—it was hard to read Haley’s comments as any anything else.

Haley’s speech was mostly a rehash of criticisms leveled against the JCPOA at the time of its proposal in 2015. Like previous critics, Haley expressed frustration that the agreement deals with Iran’s nuclear weapons program in isolation from Iran’s other aggressive actions in the Middle East, raised concerns about inspectors’ ability to detect potential clandestine enrichment sites, and cited Iran’s record of sponsoring terrorism as a check against its credibility. None of this is new, and the counterarguments have been made well for years. But as President Barack Obama pointed out at the time, “You don’t make deals like this with your friends.” The agreement addressed the foremost U.S. security interest with regard to Iran: the rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Haley’s speech didn’t articulate an alternative for containing Iran’s nuclear program.

The JCPOA was an international agreement only made possible by the participation of a coalition that included Russia and China; that Washington, Moscow, and Beijing could all agree to the terms is still an incredible diplomatic achievement by itself. But those international partners to the agreement got short shrift in Haley’s speech, only coming up in the question and answer portion. “This is about U.S. national security. This is not about European security. This is not about anyone else,” she said, which the New York Times reports left “several European diplomats in the audience fuming.” [Continue reading…]

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Feinstein’s anti-Catholic questions are an outrage

Noah Feldman writes: Senator Dianne Feinstein owes a public apology to judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett — and an explanation to all Americans who condemn religious bias. During Barrett’s confirmation hearings last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feinstein, the California Democrat, insinuated an anti-Catholic stereotype that goes back at least 150 years in the U.S. — that Catholics are unable to separate church and state because they place their religious allegiances before their oath to the Constitution.

If a Catholic senator had asked a Jewish nominee whether she would put Israel before the U.S., or if a white senator had asked a black nominee if she could be an objective judge given her background, liberals would be screaming bloody murder. Feinstein’s line of questioning, which was taken up by other committee Democrats, is no less an expression of prejudice.

The thrust of Feinstein’s questioning was that, as a believing Catholic, Barrett couldn’t be trusted to apply the Constitution and laws objectively should she be confirmed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Feinstein repeatedly used a term with a long history as a dog whistle for anti-Catholicism in America: dogma. “The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein asserted. She went on: “Dogma and law are two different things. I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different.”

And the senator topped it off with a classic form of bias: the irrefutable imputation. “Why is it that so many of us on this side have this very uncomfortable feeling?” she asked.

The word “dogma” that Feinstein deployed is specifically connected to the Protestant critique of Catholicism, and to its particularly nasty American version. A dogma is an article of faith laid down by an authority. One of the classic Protestant polemical attacks on Catholicism was the allegation that Catholics are obligated to believe what the church teaches them is incontrovertibly true, whereas Protestants are called on to form their own beliefs on the basis of individual faith and judgment. [Continue reading…]

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Bannon declares war with Republican leadership in Congress

 

The Washington Post reports: Stephen K. Bannon — President Trump’s former chief strategist who left the White House in August — declared war Sunday against the Republican congressional leadership, called on Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, to resign, and outlined his views on issues ranging from immigration to trade.

Bannon, in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) of “trying to nullify the 2016 election.” It was Bannon’s first television interview since leaving the White House and returning as executive chairman to Breitbart News, the conservative website he previously led.

He blamed them for failing to repeal and replace former president Barack Obama’s signature health-care law and made clear that he would use his Breitbart perch to hold Republicans accountable for not helping Trump push through his agenda. [Continue reading…]

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Trump review leans toward proposing mini-nuke

Politico reports: The Trump administration is considering proposing smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons that would cause less damage than traditional thermonuclear bombs — a move that would give military commanders more options but could also make the use of atomic arms more likely.

A high-level panel created by President Donald Trump to evaluate the nuclear arsenal is reviewing various options for adding a more modern “low-yield” bomb, according to sources involved in the review, to further deter Russia, North Korea or other potential nuclear adversaries.

Approval of such weapons — whether designed to be delivered by missile, aircraft or special forces — would mark a major reversal from the Obama administration, which sought to limit reliance on nuclear arms and prohibited any new weapons or military capabilities. And critics say it would only make the actual use of atomic arms more likely.

“This capability is very warranted,” said one government official familiar with the deliberations who was not authorized to speak publicly about the yearlong Nuclear Posture Review, which Trump established by executive order his first week in office.

“The [nuclear review] has to credibly ask the military what they need to deter enemies,” added another official who supports such a proposal, particularly to confront Russia, which has raised the prominence of tactical nuclear weapons in its battle plans in recent years, including as a first-strike weapon. “Are [current weapons] going to be useful in all the scenarios we see?”

The idea of introducing a smaller-scale warhead to serve a more limited purpose than an all-out nuclear Armageddon is not new — and the U.S. government still retains some Cold War-era weapons that fit the category, including several that that can be “dialed down” to a smaller blast.

Yet new support for adding a more modern version is likely to set off a fierce debate in Congress, which would ultimately have to fund it, and raises questions about whether it would require a resumption of explosive nuclear tests after a 25-year moratorium and how other nuclear powers might respond. The Senate is expected to debate the issue of new nuclear options next week when it takes up the National Defense Authorization Act. [Continue reading…]

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Bound to no party, Trump upends 150 years of two-party rule

The New York Times reports: When Donald J. Trump set his sights on the presidency in the 2000 election, he pursued the nomination of the Reform Party, a home for disenchanted independents. “The Republican Party has just moved too far to the extreme right,” he explained. “The Democrats are too far to the left.”

In the end, he dropped the campaign and the Reform Party, the leftover construct from Ross Perot’s two independent presidential candidacies during the 1990s. It was one of at least five times that Mr. Trump would switch party affiliations over the years. “I’m the Lone Ranger,” he once said in another context.

Now in the White House, President Trump demonstrated this past week that he still imagines himself a solitary cowboy as he abandoned Republican congressional leaders to forge a short-term fiscal deal with Democrats. Although elected as a Republican last year, Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War. [Continue reading…]

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Congress shouldn’t silence human rights advocates

Roger Waters writes: Members of Congress are currently considering a bill that threatens to silence the growing support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian freedom and human rights, known as B.D.S. This draconian bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, threatens individuals and businesses who actively participate in boycott campaigns in support of Palestinian rights conducted by international governmental organizations with up to 20 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine.

By endorsing this McCarthyite bill, senators would take away Americans’ First Amendment rights in order to protect Israel from nonviolent pressure to end its 50-year-old occupation of Palestinian territory and other abuses of Palestinian rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union has condemned the bill, which the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is lobbying for, as a threat to the constitutional right to free speech.

All Americans — regardless of their views on Israel-Palestine — should understand that potentially targeting and blacklisting fellow citizens who support Palestinian rights could turn out to be the thin end of a thick authoritarian wedge. [Continue reading…]

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The military looked to ‘dreamers’ to use their vital skills. Now the U.S. might deport them

The Washington Post reports: Zion Dirgantara can easily recall his first day of school in the United States. It was a bright, sunny Tuesday, and terrorists hijacked four commercial planes.

Class for Indonesian-born Dirgantara, then 12, was canceled as parents scrambled to pick up fellow students in Philadelphia. The city was bracketed midway between the ash cloud choking Manhattan and a flaming hole punched through the Pentagon. To the west of Philadelphia, United 93 disintegrated into a Pennsylvania field.

“I realized there was evil in this world, and you have to fight for what is right,” Dirgantara, now 28, told The Washington Post.

Fluent in Indonesian and English, he enlisted in the Army in March 2016 and swore an oath to defend the United States. He has drilled as a reservist cargo specialist since last September.

But Dirgantara’s future in the military and the country now hinges on the ability of Congress to find a way to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. [Continue reading…]

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Koch Brothers will push Congress to protect DREAMers

The Daily Beast reports: The political network of libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch is poised to back a bill protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Spokespeople for the Koch network confirmed to The Daily Beast that it will press Congress for a legislative fix to the recently rescinded Obama-era program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that shielded undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.

The Kochs’ backing could provide a crucial boost to efforts to preserve DACA, which Trump announced this week he will phase out over the course of six months. Congress has scrambled to find a replacement for those legal protections that are set to be removed. And Trump himself signaled early support for the DREAM Act, which would, essentially, codify the DACA protections that Obama had imposed via executive action. [Continue reading…]

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Trump Jr. says he wanted Russian dirt to determine Clinton’s ‘fitness’ for office

The New York Times reports: Donald Trump Jr. told Senate investigators on Thursday that he set up a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer because he was intrigued that she might have damaging information about Hillary Clinton, saying it was important to learn about Mrs. Clinton’s “fitness” to be president.

But nothing came of the Trump Tower meeting, he said, and he was adamant that he never colluded with the Russian government’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.

In a prepared statement during an interview with Senate Judiciary Committee investigators, the younger Mr. Trump said he was initially conflicted when he heard that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, might have damaging information about Mrs. Clinton. Despite his interest, he said, he always intended to consult with his own lawyers about the propriety of using any information that Ms. Veselnitskaya, who has ties to the Kremlin, gave him at the meeting. [Continue reading…]

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House Intelligence Committee subpoenas DOJ, FBI for dossier documents

The Washington Post reports: The House Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed records from the Justice Department and the FBI pertaining to a salacious but unverified dossier over objections from the committee’s minority members, the panel’s ranking Democrat said Tuesday.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) confirmed the details of the subpoenas, initially reported in the Washington Examiner, during an appearance Tuesday evening on MSNBC. But he also complained that the subpoenas were “uncalled for,” accusing Republicans of attempting to “discredit” the author of the dossier “rather than looking into how many of the allegations he wrote about were true.”

“What we should be most concerned about is whether those sources of the information in the report are true, not in discrediting the author of that report,” Schiff said. [Continue reading…]

John Sipher, former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, writes: I spent almost thirty years producing what CIA calls “raw reporting” from human agents. At heart, this is what Orbis did [when compiling what has come to be known as the Steele dossier]. They were not producing finished analysis, but were passing on to a client distilled reporting that they had obtained in response to specific questions. The difference is crucial, for it is the one that American journalists routinely fail to understand. When disseminating a raw intelligence report, an intelligence agency is not vouching for the accuracy of the information provided by the report’s sources and/or subsources. Rather it is claiming that it has made strenuous efforts to validate that it is reporting accurately what the sources/subsources claim has happened. The onus for sorting out the veracity and for putting the reporting in context against other reporting – which may confirm or deny the new report – rests with the intelligence community’s professional analytic cadre. In the case of the dossier, Orbis was not saying that everything that it reported was accurate, but that it had made a good-faith effort to pass along faithfully what its identified insiders said was accurate. This is routine in the intelligence business. And this form of reporting is often a critical product in putting together more final intelligence assessments.

In this sense, the so-called Steele dossier is not a dossier at all. A dossier suggests a summary or case history. Mr. Steele’s product is not a report delivered with a bow at the end of an investigation. Instead, it is a series of contemporaneous raw reports that do not have the benefit of hindsight. Among the unnamed sources are “a senior Russian foreign ministry official,” “a former top-level intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin,” and “a close associate of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump.” Thus, the reports are not an attempt to connect the dots, but instead an effort to uncover new and potentially relevant dots in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t let Trump hide behind the Constitution in ending DACA

Adam Cox and Cristina Rodríguez write: On Tuesday, the Trump administration formally announced its decision to end one of President Obama’s signature immigration accomplishments—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA). Designed to protect Dreamers, that policy has insulated from deportation as many as 800,000 young people who were brought to the United States as children. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claims that the Obama Administration violated the Constitution when it decided, as a matter of prosecutorial discretion, not to deport Dreamers and instead to invest enforcement resources elsewhere. But Sessions’ position is both wrong and disingenuous. The Constitution’s Take Care Clause has never barred under-enforcement of the law. And Sessions knows that. Since assuming office he has spearheaded the under-enforcement of several laws. Dreamers simply don’t count in his and Trump’s books the way others do. That’s a policy choice. Not a constitutionally required one.

Jeff Sessions knows all too well that, when fulfilling the constitutional duty to enforce the law, administrations from both parties have historically had broad discretion to decide when and how the law should be enforced. This is true not just for immigration, but also with respect to criminal prosecutions, civil rights laws, and regulatory enforcement actions on matters as diverse as the environment, antitrust, and labor law. And it is not at all uncommon for the Department of Justice or other agencies to decide that enforcing the law against a particular group of people is neither just nor worth their limited time and resources.

In fact, Sessions himself has already announced radical shifts in enforcement priorities, particularly in the domain of civil rights. He no longer intends for the Justice Department to exercise supervisory authority over state and local police departments to ensure that they comply with basic civil rights laws. The Department appears to be looking for ways of abandoning consent decrees in school desegregation cases. And it almost certainly has no intention of enforcing the voting rights act in a rigorous fashion. [Continue reading…]

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