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Tierney Sneed

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wouldn’t say whether it would be appropriate for a President to preemptively pardon people who are of interest to a federal investigation.

That scenario is a hot topic in light of Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s Russia probe, as President Trump has reportedly asked advisers about his abilities to pardon himself and those close to him, and Mueller’s team has appeared to take measures to circumvent that possibility, by working with the New York state attorney general’s office. (Presidents can only pardon federal crimes, not state crimes.)

After bringing up that Sessions had previously refused to say whether he had discussed potential pardons for people implicated by the Russia investigation, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) posed the question to Sessions as a hypothetical.

“Broadly speaking, do you believe that it would be problematic for an ongoing investigation if a president were to preemptively issue a pardon for someone who we have reason to believe is of interest to that investigation before the special counsel had a chance to finish his work?” Klobuchar asked.

Well, the pardon power is quite broad. I’m not studied it. I do not know if that would be appropriate or not, frankly,” Sessions said. He later added that he would look into it and follow up with a written response to the committee.

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Updated at 1:36 p.m. ET

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that he had not been interviewed or contacted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The revelation came after some squirming by Sessions as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) grilled him during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about his interactions with the Mueller probe thus far.

“I’d be pleased to answer that. I am not sure I should without clearing with the special counsel. What do you think?” Sessions said.

Leahy repeated his question: whether Sessions had been interviewed by Mueller’s team, prompting Sessions to say “no.”

Leahy had also asked whether Mueller had requested an interview with Sessions. That question went unanswered until later in the day, when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) pressed Sessions further.

With questions that seemed to suggest Blumenthal knew something, he asked Sessions if he had been contacted by Mueller’s probe. Sessions said he didn’t know, but picked up on the implication of Blumenthal’s questions. “Do you have a source?” he asked Blumenthal at one point. Sessions promised to check with his staff.

A short time later, Sessions said his staff had subsequently assured him Mueller’s probe had not reached out for an interview.

“My staff handed me a note that I have not been asked for an interview at this point. My office certainly hasn’t been contacted with regard to that,” Sessions said.

“Maybe you better check your source.”

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to confirm or deny whether President Trump brought up the federal Russia investigation as a reason to fire FBI Director James Comey.

“That calls for a communication that I have had with the president, and I believe it remains confidential,” Sessions said, in response to questioning from top Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein (CA) at committee hearing Wednesday.

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Without calling out President Trump by name, Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai shut down the idea Trump put forward last week that NBC and other broadcasters could be punished for “Fake News” by blocking the renewal of their station licenses, a process the FCC oversees.

“I believe in the First Amendment,” Pai, who was selected by Trump to lead the independent commission, said at a Washington event Tuesday, according to Politico.

“The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment, and under the law the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on content of a particular newscast,” he continued.

Pai was not the only commissioner to throw cold water on Trump’s threat, which Trump tweeted after NBC published a report on remarks the President made at a private Pentagon meeting.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee to the commission, tweeted her own response to Trump’s tweet last week.

Beyond the First Amendment considerations, there would be practical issues facing the FCC if it tried to carry out Trump’s threats. Networks like NBC aren’t issued a blanket license through the FCC. Rather, the individual stations it owns and operates renew their licenses on a cyclical basis (on top of the dozens of NBC affiliates the corporation does not own).

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Gregory Katsas, a top White House lawyer who has been nominated by President Trump for a powerful appeals court seat, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that he had “given legal advice on a few discrete legal questions” arising out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but denied any involvement in some of the key moments leading to the probe, including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

“I have no knowledge of any underlying facts regarding Russian interference,” Katsas said at the hearing for his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

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Foreign Policy magazine Monday published an English translation of a memo Kremlin-linked attorney Natasha Veselnitskaya took to a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a group of Trump campaign associates, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The memo — which was provided to Foreign Policy by the Crimea-based Russian news organization News Front — focuses on attacking the claims of Bill Browder, a major foe of Vladimir Putin, and the Russian sanctions legislation that he advocated for, known as the Magnitsky Act.

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Lawyers representing the firm that put together the so-called Trump dossier wrote a scathing letter to House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA)  — who has recused himself from the committee’s Russia probe, but nonetheless issued subpoenas to the firm — accusing Nunes and his staff of operating with a “pattern of unprofessional conduct.”

“Now that you, and by extension, your staff, have proven to be unreliable partners in good faith negotiations, we cannot reasonably be expected to trust anything that you or your staff would represent to us,” the lawyers for Fusion GPS said Monday in the letter. “We cannot in good conscience do anything but advise our clients to stand on their constitutional privileges, the attorney work product doctrine and contractual obligations.”

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A researcher for President Trump’s voter fraud commission was arrested last week on allegations of child pornography, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

An unnamed administration senior official confirmed to the Post that Ronald Williams II, a 37-year-old from Maryland, was working for the commission, having been moved there from the Office of Special Counsel.

Williams was arrested Friday, according to court documents, and was charged with 11 counts of possession and distribution of child pornography.

He was arrested after the police searched his home, the Post reported. Authorities had been tipped off via a task force on Internet crimes against children, according to the report. Law enforcement said they found “multiple files of child pornography” on Williams’ cell phone, according to the Post.

 

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President Donald Trump ended the months-long speculation on whether he would end Obamacare insurer subsidies that are the subject of GOP lawsuit, with an announcement Thursday he was ending them immediately, including a payment due this week.

While the question of their legality was still being hashed out in court, Trump has made clear his convoluted political reasoning behind ending them: that it would put pressure on Democrats to cooperate with his attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.


But it’s still not clear how much bargaining power his blatant move to sabotage the ACA marketplaces really brings him. Democrats, after his announcement, remained stalwart that they believed Republicans now own the health care system, and all the chaos Trump causes in it. If anything, it’s Republicans who are split on how to respond to Trump’s move.

“In this, politically, he’s in much worse shape than we are,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on a conference call with reporters Friday. “The American people, even a large number of Republicans, are on our side in terms improving the system, not destroying it. So I don’t think he has much leverage to threaten or bully.”

The subsidies are known as cost-sharing reduction payments, and they subsidize insurers for keeping out-of-pocket costs downs for low income individuals. House Republicans sued the Obama administration in 2014, claiming the payments were illegal because they hadn’t been appropriated by Congress.

Regardless of how that case would have concluded, Trump, in his comments about ending the subsidies, didn’t give the sense that Congress’ power of the purse was his primary interest.

As far back as April, Trump has threatened that ending the subsidies would be tool for him to bring Democrats to the Obamacare repeal negotiating table. He repeated the argument on Friday, while alleging that insurance companies were already rich and they didn’t support his election.

Democrats argue that if Trump was so concerned about the constitutional arguments against the payments, he would have stopped them as soon as he took office, rather than after watching congressional repeal efforts collapse multiple times.

“This is just creating uncertainty and instability in the markets and it’s going to raise premiums and I think that everyone knows that Republicans are going to own this,” a Democratic staffer of the Senate HELP committee told TPM.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed back on that claim that Republicans now own what happens to Obamacare.

“[I]t’s amusing to me how desperate Democrats are to rid themselves of the failed law they worked so hard to force on the country. You’d think they’d be proud of it,” the spokesman, Don Stewart, told TPM via email.

The irony is that a bipartisan deal being worked on in the Senate to continue the subsidies — or even, perhaps, an affirmative statement from Trump that the payments would go on — would have had some political upsides for Republicans as they headed into the 2018 midterms. Since some insurers have already priced in a premium increase for 2018 assuming the payments would be withdrawn, continuing the subsidy payments would have set up the potential for premium rates to come back down the following year, which would have been announced before Americans headed to the polls.

Instead, there’s a solid chance that insurers who didn’t plan for termination of the subsidies will exit the marketplaces this year due to the shortfall, while Americans —particularly those whose premiums aren’t subsidized by Obamacare’s tax credits — will see their premiums spike. A Congressional Budget Office analysis on what would happen if the payments ended found that premiums would rise 20 percent next year, while 5 percent of Americans would live in areas without any ACA insurers.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Friday showed that 71 percent of Americans believe that the Trump administration should try to make Obamacare work rather than make it fail to replace it later, with even more Republicans supporting the former approach over the latter.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who took over leading the lawsuit against subsidies once Speaker John Boehner stepped down, praised Trump’s decision in a statement Thursday night.

Other GOP House members — albeit Republicans who are retiring next year — criticized the move, as did Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who voted against Senate GOP repeal efforts.

“I think the President is ill advised to take this course of action, because we at the end of the day will own this,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) said on CNN Friday.

Republican governors in states that have been receptive to Obamacare also bashed Trump’s move, with Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV) calling it “devastating” and Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) labelling it the “wrong decision.”

There’s still a chance that subsidies are revived by a bipartisan fix that HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) have been working on. A Democratic HELP staffer said the negotiations — which were interrupted by the most Senate repeal attempt — are ongoing. Alexander’s office did not return TPM’s inquiries.

The White House has sent mixed signals as to whether it would sign off on a compromise. Office of Management and Budget Secretary Mick Mulvaney shot down the idea that Trump would sign on to a Murray-Alexander bill unless he got other concessions, such as a border wall, while Trump himself told Alexander the week before last that he approved the senator’s approach, a GOP aide told Axios.

It’s worth noting that while Republicans were working on their repeal effort — and even after it failed —several prominent GOP lawmakers supported continuing the subsidies in some way shape or form.

“We’ve seen this story before,” another Senate Democratic staffer told TPM. “Republicans say it would be a bad idea if Trump does something. Trump does it, and then congressional Republicans tie themselves in knots to say it’s actually fine. They’re still afraid to be crosswise with the President, even if it means premiums in their state go up.”

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