IRS nomination vote delayed by Senate Finance amid Wyden protest

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday postponed a vote on President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the IRS over a campaign finance-connected protest by Democrats.

Not enough lawmakers showed up to vote on tax lawyer Chuck Rettig’s nomination to be IRS commissioner. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he would convene the panel to vote off the Senate floor later Thursday.

The committee’s Democrats joined hands in objecting to an administration decision to end donor disclosure requirements for most nonprofits – which includes a wide variety of political groups – and called for access to Trump’s tax returns.

The new donor policy has severe campaign finance implications, according to ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). He said he would remain opposed to the nominee unless Rettig commits to restoring a longstanding rule on tax-exempt organizations to report their big-money contributors’ names and addresses.

“The Trump administration has taken a qualified nominee and dumped him right in the middle of a dark-money political firestorm of their own creation,” Wyden said.

He said he would request a meeting with Rettig to quiz the nominee over reversing the reporting requirement.

But it’s not clear how far Wyden and the other Democrats are willing to carry their opposition. They can formally hold his nomination from getting a Senate floor vote that would follow the committee vote, but they haven’t made that threat.

Wyden demanded to see Trump’s tax returns, which the president has withheld despite decades of precedent. Wyden also called for a hearing on the new disclosure policy, which he said was changed without advance notice to him.

Hatch called the reporting requirement change “commendable.”

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Russia Got Me Fired From the U.N.

When my phone buzzed at 1:11 p.m. on a Friday afternoon this past March, I knew there was a problem. I had been expecting an email from New York, not a WhatsApp message asking if I had “a minute” to talk.

For the past two years I had been what the U.N. Security Council calls an “expert on mission,” a lofty title for an often invisible position. In my case, I was a member of a five-person “panel of experts” charged with monitoring the targeted sanctions program in Yemen. We were responsible for briefing the Security Council on developments in Yemen, which is in the midst of a brutal and bloody war. I spent my days writing reports on everything from al Qaeda and ISIS to the marital relations of the former president’s daughters and, most importantly, proposing names for the sanctions list.

When it comes to the war in Yemen, which has killed at least 10,000 and displaced many thousands more since its inception in 2014, the U.N. has taken a carrot-and-stick approach. The special envoy, of which there have been three in the past four years, is the carrot. He travels back-and-forth, enticing, cajoling, and doing whatever it takes to get the different sides to sit down and negotiate a settlement. The panel of experts is what passes for a stick. We represent the threat of sanctions—which in Yemen means an asset freeze and a travel ban—and we report to the Security Council on violations of international law, of which there have been many by all sides in this war.

But for all that, U.N. expert panels tend to be kept at arm’s length by the Security Council. Panels are independent, which means members of the Security Council don’t get a say on what makes it into the various reports, although that doesn’t stop many from trying. Independent also means that the Security Council can distance itself from the reports whenever it is politically expedient. And it means that U.N. experts are not actually U.N. employees, we’re individual contractors—hired, as one colleague liked to say, with the same form the U.N. uses to procure printer paper—so we’re not entitled to benefits like health insurance and our position has to be renewed each year.

Typically, this means we’re nominated by the under-secretary-general for political affairs and then appointed by the secretary general. But in between those two steps comes a third. Each name is sent to all 15 members of the Security Council—the five permanent members and the 10 rotating ones—for approval. Most of the time the process goes smoothly: A slate of names is put forward, countries say nothing, the 7-day “no-contest” period expires, and the panel is appointed. But sometimes there’s a problem. Any member of the Security Council can place a hold or block any candidate for any reason. No questions asked.

I was pretty sure that’s what the WhatsApp message was about. The “no-contest” period for our panel had expired 11 minutes earlier, at 3 p.m. EST, and it looked like a country had challenged my nomination at the last minute. And I was pretty sure I knew who: Russia.

A few months earlier, in December 2017, our panel had met in New York to finish drafting our final report, which we were scheduled to present to the Security Council in January 2018. We knew our report was going to be controversial—particularly the section where we laid out in detail how Iranian ballistic missiles had been smuggled to Houthi rebels in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

The evidence, which was incontrovertible, meant that our panel had to find Iran in non-compliance with a U.N. Security Council resolution. This was a damning and inconvenient charge to present to the Security Council, which as a body often looks for reasons not to act. We knew our evidence and conclusions would be scrutinized by experts in capitals from Moscow to Tehran and Beijing to Paris, so we spent days going back and forth, arguing with one another, testing and re-testing our claims. I was the last holdout, mostly because, as an American, I was worried about what the current administration would do with our findings that Iran was in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. But, in the end, the evidence was overwhelming. We were paid to do a job, and to do it honestly. Iran was in non-compliance and so, like my four colleagues, I signed the report.

As part of our time in New York we also held bilateral meetings with members of the Security Council, some of whom urged us to weaken our findings with qualifications and equivocations and some of whom encouraged us to go further than our evidence allowed. It doesn’t take much imagination or understanding of geopolitics to guess which countries urged what.

Russia, not surprisingly, wanted us to weaken our report. And when we returned to New York in January 2018 to brief the Security Council, we met with their team again. The Russians reiterated their strong doubts about our conclusions, saying they didn’t think we had made the case that Iran was smuggling missiles into Yemen. But, perhaps as a way to soften their criticism of the rest of the report, they also said that they had found the “armed groups” section of the report, which I had written, “very useful.”

I nodded my thanks—direct compliments are rare in the bureaucratic world—but inside my heart relaxed. I wanted to keep my job. I’d just found out my wife was pregnant with our second child and didn’t like the idea of uprooting my family twice in as many years.

During the drafting of our report, we’d been warned by the U.N. Secretariat, the staff members who recruit us and oversee us, that if we insisted on sticking to our guns on the Iranian missiles there might be political retribution. Some us might be blocked when it came time to be re-nominated. The most obvious target was the arms expert, a British national who led the investigation of the smuggled missiles. But he was term-limited. U.N. experts can only serve for five consecutive years, and his time was up. As an American I was the next obvious target and, unlike my British colleague, I was seeking re-nomination. If there was a price to pay, the consensus on our team was that I would pay it.

So when the Russians said they found my section of the report “very useful,” I was relieved: I took it to mean they appreciated my work and wouldn’t be looking to block my nomination in March.

The WhatsApp message that Friday suggested I had been wrong. I took a deep breath and dialed the committee secretary in New York. She made it clear that the Russians had placed a hold on my nomination, but not for the reasons I thought.

Twelve days earlier the U.S. had placed the nomination of a new Russian expert to the Sudan panel on hold, citing his lack of experience and asking for more information about his qualifications. Russia retaliated, as it often does these days, with a tit-for-tat response. They decided to place a hold on the next American nomination: me.

Russia used the exact same language as the U.S., citing my lack of experience and asking for more information about my qualifications, even though they had already confirmed me twice. (For the record, I have been traveling to and studying Yemen for 15 years. I had a Fulbright Fellowship to Yemen, did my Ph.D. on the country, wrote a separate book on Yemen and terrorism, have testified before the U.S. Senate and in federal court, written dozens of articles and given hundreds of interviews all about this one country on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula.)

“It’s ridiculous,” one U.N. staffer told me. “We think that if the U.S. lifts its hold, the Russians will lift their hold on you. But,” she hesitated, “you’d probably have to wait an extra 12 days.”

“Wait,” I said, “so if the U.S. lifts their hold I would have to wait another 12 days for the Russians to lift their hold on me, just so the responses are reciprocal?”

“Yes.”

Over the next few weeks I watched as U.S.-Russian relations continued to deteriorate. The U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed a consulate over Russia’s poisoning of a former spy in the UK, so Russia expelled 60 U.S. diplomats and closed a U.S. consulate. Tit-for-tat. When the UK ambassador to the U.N. referenced Sherlock Holmes, comparing the Russians to Arthur Conan Doyle’s arch-villain Professor Moriarty, the Russian ambassador read from Alice in Wonderland about the Queen demanding the sentence first and the verdict later.

What was farce for diplomats was real for me. Because I was a consultant and not a U.N. employee, my contract expired and the U.N. stopped paying me. One month without a check slipped by, and then another.
Eventually, after being told the hold could last for as long as six months and that the U.N. had never re-nominated individuals who had been blocked by a member of the Security Council, I withdrew my name from consideration and re-entered the job market. (A few weeks after I withdrew my name, the hold was lifted.)

The Russian diplomat, the one who had complimented my work, sent me a message through an intermediary, apologizing for the mess, but saying it was out of his hands. “It was great power politics,” he said.
So it was. Russia has returned to an age of blocking the U.S. where it can and frustrating it everywhere else. This is true in Europe, the Middle East and, as my case shows, at the U.N. Security Council. The weaker the U.S. becomes, the stronger Russia looks.

Trump teases second meeting with Putin

President Donald Trump wrote online Thursday that he is looking forward to a second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisting that his much-criticized bilateral meeting with him on Monday was in fact a “great success” that the media has unfairly covered negatively.

“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more,” the president wrote on Twitter. “There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems…but they can ALL be solved!”

White House spokespeople did not immediately return a request for comment as to whether a second meeting with Putin is being planned or has been scheduled.

The president has faced a tidal wave of criticism this week after his Monday meeting with Putin in Finland, where he told reporters at a bilateral news conference that he saw no reason why Russia would be to blame for a 2016 campaign of cyberattacks intended to impact the outcome of that year’s U.S. presidential election. That Trump would accept Putin’s denial that Russia was involved over the word of his own intelligence agencies prompted a bipartisan backlash that has yet to ebb.

Outrage over Trump’s comment was so strong that the president took the rare step Tuesday of admitting a mistake, telling reporters that he had meant to say he saw no reason why Russia “wouldn’t” have been to blame for the 2016 election meddling, the exact opposite of what he had said a day earlier.

But Trump has since returned to his defiant stance, insisting that the media has unfairly painted his Finland meeting with Putin as something less than a total success. Earlier Monday, he wrote online that the media wants to see a “major confrontation” with Russia, even one “that could lead to war.”

“They are pushing so recklessly hard and hate the fact that I’ll probably have a good relationship with Putin. We are doing MUCH better than any other country!” he wrote.

House Republicans defeat attempt to subpoena Trump interpreter

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday defeated an attempt by panel Democrats to subpoena the interpreter who worked for President Donald Trump during his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This is an extraordinary remedy, I realize, but then it’s extraordinary for the president of the United States to ask all of his senior staff essentials to leave the room and have a conversation with an adversary,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, who called for the vote to compel the interpreter to testify behind closed doors. “And then in a public conversation disavow his own intelligence agencies and in many respects disavow his own country.”

Trump has come under increasing scrutiny from Democrats as well as his fellow Republicans for appearing to side with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on Russian meddling allegations, even as the president has attempted to walk back his comments in recent days.

Democrats Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Joe Kennedy have also called for the translator’s testimony.

Schiff noted Democrats had requested a business meeting for next week but that the request had been declined, arguing “this may be our last opportunity before we go into an extended recess” to make such an effort.

Chairman Devin Nunes initially declined to recognize Schiff’s motion before recessing the panel for about 20 minutes. When it reconvened, the committee voted along party lines, 11-6, to table Schiff’s attempt to bring the interpreter before the committee.

Trump: ‘I dream about Biden’ running in 2020

President Donald Trump “dreams” about running against former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, he said in a “CBS Evening News” interview Wednesday.

“Well, I dream, I dream about Biden. That’s a dream,” Trump told anchor Jeff Glor when asked who he thought would be his Democratic opponent. “I’d love to have it be Biden.”

Biden “by himself could never do anything,” Trump said, pointing out that the former senator ran for president twice unsuccessfully. “President Obama took him out of the garbage heap … made him vice president, and he was fine.”

Although Biden has copped to considering a run, he has yet to commit to anything. “I know I have to make up my mind and I have to do it by January,” he said earlier this week.

In a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll last month, Biden led the pack of potential party nominees, with 32 percent of support from Democrats polled. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were in second and third.

McFaul calls it ‘lamentable’ that Trump might let Russia question him

The White House’s refusal to categorically reject a Russian government request to interrogate Americans in relation to charges that the State Department has called “absurd” is “lamentable,” former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said.

McFaul, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow under former President Barack Obama, is among the 11 Americans who the Kremlin has said it would like to interrogate in relation to financial crimes it says were committed by associates of Bill Browder, an American-born financier who has lobbied heavily against the Russian government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a news conference with President Donald Trump on Monday, suggested that his government would allow the investigators from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller to interrogate the 12 Russian military intelligence officials it indicted last week if the U.S. would reciprocate by allowing the Russian government to interrogate certain Americans with ties to Browder.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that the president would “meet with his team” on the Russian proposal.

“Most shocking, and just lamentable, I think is my real reaction, when the White House was given the opportunity to categorically reject this moral equivalency between a legitimate indictment with lots of data and evidence to support it from Mr. Mueller with a crazy, cockamamie scheme with no relationship to facts and reality whatsoever, the white house refused to do that,” McFaul told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.

“I hope somebody asks them another question today and they’ll get it right today. We’ve seen a lot of that lately, that they want to have a take two and take three to get the message right,” the former ambassador continued, referencing the two notable reversals of Russia-related remarks from Trump the White House has made this week. “But this is not just about me. This is about American national interest. We cannot allow this kind of moral equivalency when dealing with Vladimir Putin.”

McFaul said Russia’s interest in interrogating him amounted to “classic whatabout-ism” from the Kremlin — matching Mueller’s indictment with allegations of its own — and an “act of intimidation” against him personally. The former ambassador, now a professor at Stanford University, predicted he could face harassment from Interpol when he travels internationally and said Russia’s interest in interrogating him will “create problems for me in the long run.”

He took particular issue with the president’s remark on Wednesday — that the White House later sought to walk back — that the U.S. was no longer the target of Russian activities. “When he just said last night, America is no longer under attack, I’m sorry, I’m an American and I’m under attack by Vladimir Putin right now,” McFaul said.

More broadly, the former ambassador said the president’s approach to Russia has weakened the U.S. in the eyes of the Kremlin and stoked concern within the diplomatic corps that their government might not protect them.

“It’s scary. Diplomats are supposed to have diplomatic immunity. And to now have to worry about this,” he said. “It’s the image of America. We look weak. We look like we won’t push back on outrageous, crazy ideas. That is not even good for President Trump. I hope if you guys are listening, you look weak in the eyes of Vladimir Putin.”

Trump attacks EU for Google antitrust fine

President Donald Trump on Thursday pointed to the European Union’s $5 billion antitrust fine against Google as proof that EU leaders “have taken advantage” of the United States.

“I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google,” Trump tweeted. “They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!”