The father of an Alabama woman who joined ISIS and is now seeking a return to the U.S. filed a lawsuit Thursday against President Donald Trump and other senior officials after the president said he had moved to bar her from reentry.
Ahmed Ali Muthana filed the lawsuit in Washington D.C. federal district court on behalf of Hoda Muthana, his daughter, who left Alabama in 2014 at the age of 19 and joined the terrorist group in Syria.
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Muthana has claimed she is a U.S. citizen, but the Trump administration says her status as the daughter of a Yemeni diplomat means she is not a naturalized citizen and thus not entitled to the Constitutional rights of an American citizen.
Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to deny Muthana’s reentry. Pompeo on Wednesday said in a statement that Muthana was not a U.S. citizen and had no “legal basis” to be brought back to the United States. Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr are also named in the suit.
The suit contests the State Department’s position that Muthana is not a legal citizen, saying she and her son, identified as John Doe in court documents, should be able to return without interference.
According to the suit, Muthana’s father was a diplomat for Yemen at the United Nations in New York, but he turned in his diplomatic card in June 1994. The family has produced documents that appear to show Hoda Muthana was born on October 28, 1994, in New Jersey, and at that time Ahmed Ali Muthana and his wife had applied for and been granted permanent resident status in the U.S. Therefore, the suit argues, Hoda Muthana would be a naturalized citizen.
The suit claims Hoda Muthana was passport in 2004, that was renewed a decade later, when the government questioned whether she was eligible for a passport given her father’s status, but after additional documents were produced, was granted one after all.
As a naturalized citizen, Hoda Muthana would be entitled to the Constitutional protections. While there are instances where the government could then still revoke her citizenship, the process would be far more complicated.
For the time being, according to the suit, Hoda Muthana and her child are being held in Syria by Kurdish forces. According to the suit, Ahmed Ali Muthana seeks a ruling whereby it would be legal for him to provide financial support for their return trip, that the federal government be told they cannot deprive his daughter or his grandson of their Constitutional rights, and the government be reminded that it has “an obligation to assist in the return of its citizens from armed areas of conflict.”
Hoda Muthana, the suit says, would also be willing to face any potential charges from the Justice Department related to her allegiance to ISIS. In her time overseas, she had married three ISIS fighters and used her Twitter account to spread their anti-American message.
The Justice Department has charged an IRS analyst with leaking confidential information about the banking transactions of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former longtime attorney, to the lawyer Michael Avenatti.
According to a federal complaint unsealed on Thursday, John C. Fry, who works in the IRS’ San Francisco office, downloaded multiple sensitive documents with Cohen’s private banking information on May 4, 2018, and quickly placed a call to a cellphone number associated with Avenatti. Fry was able to access those files, and additional ones he made after the call, because he assists IRS agents who review suspicious-activity reports — documents that banks and others are required by law to file when they are aware of a potentially suspicious financial transition. Cohen’s accounts had generated multiple such reports.
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Cohen was Trump’s personal attorney in 2016 during the presidential campaign when he paid the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels $250,000 to stay quiet about an earlier affair she said she had with Trump. It was later discovered that this payment potentially violated campaign finance law. Avenatti last year filed a lawsuit on behalf of Daniels in her attempt to void a nondisclosure agreement about the alleged affair.
Late last year, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to tax fraud and lying to Congress about work he did on a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. Multiple investigators, including special counsel Robert Mueller and his team, are looking into whether Trump campaign officials helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election. Cohen is set to begin serving his sentence in May.
The federal complaint that was unsealed on Thursday says that Fry verbally admitted to federal investigators that he leaked the documents to Avenatti, and also made a written statement to the same effect. He faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 if convicted of the unlawful disclosure of suspicious-activity reports.
Just four days after Fry accessed reports related to Cohen, the complaint alleges, Avenatti tweeted that Cohen had been paid $500,000 by a company linked to a Russian oligarch. The Russian-linked payment was routed through Essential Consultants, an LLC that Cohen also used to accept payments from companies like AT&T and Novartis in a bid to turn his status as Trump’s longtime fixer into cash as companies scrambled to understand the then-nascent administration. In a document posted on Twitter, Avenatti further outlined his claims, according to prosecutors.
Avenatti, according to the complaint, also gave information about the reports to The Washington Post for an article it published on May 8.
The information sparked a flurry of news reports, and AT&T, Novartis and other companies quickly confirmed their relationships with Cohen and issued conciliatory statements. But the source of the documents remained a mystery, a subject that received renewed interest after the New Yorker published a report by Ronan Farrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, that featured a “law enforcement official” who was going public with his motivation to leak the information.
The complaint, following traditional protocol, does not name Farrow, but describes a “Reporter-1” who published a piece for the New Yorker titled “Missing Files Motivated the Leak of Michael Cohen’s Financial Records” — leaving little doubt that Farrow is the journalist in question, since his is the sole byline on the article.
On Thursday evening, Avenatti, who was named in the indictment but who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, said he did nothing improper.
“Neither I nor R. Farrow did anything wrong or illegal with the financial info relating to Cohen’s crimes (the courts have found that the BSA does not apply — see below),“ Avenatti wrote on Twitter, referring to the Bank Secrecy Act. “And if we did (we didn’t), then every reporter in America would be jailed and unable to do their job.“
Fry was released on a $50,000 bond and is next scheduled to be in court on March 13.
With three speeches on foreign soil in the last two weeks, the vice president has turned heads delivering Trump’s ‘America First’ demands.
Vice President Mike Pence has slowly become of the president’s most visible overseas surrogates — sent to deliver Trump’s “America First” demands.
On Monday, Pence will make his third speech on foreign soil in the last two weeks when he travels to Bogota, Columbia, to call on Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to step aside, a high-profile address that will come as the world watches to see whether Maduro relents on a blockade that has kept humanitarian aid packages from Venezuelans facing food and medicine shortages.
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The request will come just days after Pence took a swing through Europe, where he broadsided allies with an unexpected demand that they pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, while chiding them for continuing to do business with the country. Pence pointedly reiterated the dictates in a second speech, even after being issued a flat denial the first time around.
On the foreign stage, White House officials say Pence has sometimes settled into a role as the administration’s bad cop, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the diplomat who sticks around to hash out particulars and the president is the showman who swoops in from time to time. And it’s a role Pence will likely continue to play in the next few months, as Trump’s schedule becomes increasingly campaign-focused.
It’s the latest example of the unique way the Trump administration conducts business — past vice presidents have been sent to overseas locales farther down the geopolitical priority list. But with Trump preferring domestic travel — and the ever-present potential for gaffes and protests when he does venture overseas — Pence has increasingly become the face of Trumpism abroad. To his supporters, Pence is seen as an powerful defender of the president’s agenda — someone who has not once veered from his script in a way that undermined Trump. But critics say Pence has done little more than exacerbate already tense relationships between the U.S. and allies by simply repeating Trump’s threats and grievances in a different tone.
“The vice president consults with the president before and during all of these major trips and he’s always delivering the message that the president wants him to deliver,” said former Pence press secretary Marc Lotter, who recently joined Trump’s 2020 operation.
Now, Pence is turning his focus to Venezuela, an issue where he has been at the front and center from the beginning for the Trump administration. Pence was the first senior Trump administration official to phone Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó the day before he declared himself interim president of the economically strapped country. In the weeks since, many Latin American countries and America’s EU allies have followed the U.S. government in recognizing Guaidó as the true Venezuelan leader.
And in his speech Monday, Pence plans to reaffirm “the United States’ unwavering support” for Guaidó just 48 hours after the opposition leader and more than 600,000 volunteers will attempt to bring humanitarian aid packages into the country that Maduro has been blocking at the border. Backed by a coalition of Latin American governments, Pence will declare that “the time has come for Nicolás Maduro to step aside,” the White House said Thursday.
It will be Pence’s fifth trip to Latin America since taking office.
“He wants to keep the drumbeat going,” a senior White House official told POLITICO, adding that both Pence and President Donald Trump believe the situation in Venezuela “could become the most significant foreign policy event of this administration.”
Venezuela is just one of myriad foreign policy issues Pence has folded into his portfolio.
Pence was the most senior official sent to a gathering on Middle East policy in Warsaw last week.
At the event, he diverged from his prepared remarks to call on the United States’ European partners “to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.” Trump announced last year that the U.S. would exit the agreement — in which Tehran pledged to curb its nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief — calling it a disaster for America.
In Warsaw, Pence accused European allies of undermining U.S. sanctions that were reimposed against Iran after Trump abandoned the accord, though he declined to namecheck Germany, France, or Britain for launching a mechanism last month that’s designed to allow for continued trade with Iran. He reiterated the same talking points during a speech days later at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of top leaders from around the world.
“It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the [European Union] and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” he said.
It was a moment that surprised foreign diplomats, who felt that Pence’s remarks might actually embolden Iran, giving its officials easy attack lines. Indeed, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referenced Pence’s Warsaw comments during his own speech in Munich.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also picked up on the remarks, accusing the Trump administration of strengthening adversaries like Iran and Russia with its demands. Germany, France and the European Union had all declined to send their top diplomats to the Warsaw gathering.
The senior White House official said Pence’s fiery comments were meant to signal the administration’s move “toward a tougher stance against Iran, which includes pushing allies to withdraw” from the 2015 nuclear deal.
“The vice president used bilateral meetings in Munich and Warsaw to highlight not just the security threat posed by Iran,” said the official, but to also challenge European allies on their business with a regime that has been known to “stifle free speech, kill gay people and persecute political dissenters.”
Pence has also occasionally popped up as a key player in the Trump administration’s ongoing denuclearization negotiations with North Korea. It was his comparison of North Korea to Libya that drew fierce backlash from Pyongyang last May, temporarily jeopardizing a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un — the showman aspect the president relishes. Trump will meet again with Kim next week in Vietnam for their second optics-heavy international summit.
Part of the reason Pence enjoys such autonomy on the foreign stage is due, in part, to his proficiency at weaving profuse Trump flattery into his appearances, according to a former White House official.
In Munich, for instance, Pence spoke Trump’s name 30 times, claiming at one point that “under President Donald Trump’s leadership, America is leading the free world once again.” In Warsaw, a transcript of Pence’s speech shows 16 mentions of Trump by name, with four additional references to “the president.” By comparison, then-Vice President Joe Biden mentioned President Barack Obama only once by name in his 2015 speech to the Munich Security Conference.
Behind the scenes, Pence has even worked with president on developing and messaging the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda.
Following months and months of meetings with Christian leaders and national security experts, Pence successfully pressured administration officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development to funnel millions of dollars to Christian and Yazidi religious communities in Iraq that the Islamic State has decimated. The United Nations would have otherwise distributed the funds.
“I called it to [Trump’s] attention that we could bypass U.N. programs and fund religious-based NGOs directly,” Pence told the Wall Street Journal in a recent interview, adding that Trump agreed “on the spot.”
Pence is expected to remain mostly in the foreign policy lane as the 2020 campaign draws more of Trump’s attention and the administration works to broker a trade agreement with China and win Congress’ approval of its renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
The vice president will help sell the U.S.-Canada-Mexico deal — which would update the NAFTA trade agreement — with Midwest swing in the coming weeks, according to two people familiar with his plans. The tour is expected to bring Pence to a host of farm towns and domestic manufacturing plants, where he will meet with small crowds and deliver remarks in an attempt to pressure Capitol Hill into swiftly passing the accord.
When Chicago police accused actor Jussie Smollett of fabricating a story about being attacked by MAGA-loving bigots, President Donald Trump was quick to weigh in. “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” he wrote on Twitter.
And when Catholic high school student Nick Sandmann sued The Washington Post this week over its coverage of last month’s confrontation between the teenager and a Native American elder, Trump couldn’t help himself. “Go get them Nick,” he declared. “Fake News!”
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But more than 24 hours after news broke that a Coast Guard officer — an avowed white nationalist — was allegedly plotting to kill Democratic politicians and journalists, Trump has, at least so far, not said a word.
Asked for comment, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The president and the entire administration have condemned violence in all forms as we have stated many times.” Sanders did not respond to questions about whether Trump planned to tone down his rhetoric.
Trump’s silence is notable for a president who never hesitates to spout off about issues large and small, from Venezuelan politics to Saturday Night Live. It reflects a deep sensitivity by the president and his aides to accusations that his verbal assault on the free press, personalized attacks on political targets and racially charged language could incite violence. But it also illustrates a tactic that those who know Trump say he has used for decades to shape coverage while tearing down his opponents — comment on the issues he wants to amplify and get covered, while ignoring on those that don’t fit his preferred narrative.
“Long before he arrived at the White House, President Trump learned to use media coverage to build a brand and shape positive narratives,” said a former White House official, who was granted anonymity to characterize the president’s approach to the media.
News of the alleged domestic terror plot comes the same week that the president has ramped up his criticism of the media, insisting that The New York Times is “a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,” despite warnings from the newspaper’s publisher that such rhetoric puts journalists in danger. He also went after The Washington Post’s fact checker, a section that tracks Trump’s misstatements.
People close to the president argue that Trump shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of a small group of disturbed individuals who happen to support him. And Trump’s allies don’t believe he has any intention of curbing his criticism of the press. They also note that some members of the Trump administration have been targeted by the president’s critics, including Sanders, who was asked to leave a restaurant, and senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who recently disclosed that she was assaulted at a restaurant last year.
The president regularly fumes in public and in private about negative coverage of him, and he also believes there’s a political utility to undercutting the reporters who cover him, according to people who know him. It’s a strategy he’s been turning to most of his adult life, dating back to his time in New York, where he would regularly engage with — and spar with — tabloid reporters.
“So to a large extent he does it naturally, but his use of the media is also a product of a deliberate strategy to advance his own ideas and undercut contrary narratives,” the former White House official said.
Trump has often avoided engaging in a fulsome debate about the impact of his rhetoric, including after Cesar Sayoc’s October 2018 arrest for mailing a series of bombs to some of Trump’s political opponents.
After the incident, Trump called for unity during a rally in Wisconsin, saying, “No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion, or control. We all know that. Such conduct must be fiercely opposed and firmly prosecuted.”
But the next day, he blamed the media. “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he tweeted. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
Watchdog groups continue to have deep concerns about the president’s attacks on the press. They warn his rhetoric is being repeated by dictators around the world.
“It’s irresponsible and dangerous,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “When we talk to journalists, they feel less safe than they used to.”
A January CPJ analysis found that Trump sent more than 1,300 tweets critical of the press since becoming a presidential candidate. Though Trump tweets less overall as president than he did as a candidate, CPJ found that Trump tweets critical of the press have nonetheless increased during the first two years of his presidency.
At the same time, the number of journalists imprisoned across the world on false news charges has risen to 28, compared to just nine two years ago, according to a December 2018 report from CPJ.
Even U.S. journalists have faced violence and intimidation in recent months. In June 2018, a gunman killed five employees at the Capital Gazette in Maryland when he opened fire in the newsroom. CNN evacuated its New York office due to a bomb threat in December 2018. And earlier this month a Trump supporter shoved a BBC cameraman at a rally.
Trump has occasionally made light of some of these violent incidents, joking last fall about a Republican congressman convicted of assault for body-slamming a reporter.
Still, most analysts are careful about directly blaming Trump for violence against journalists.
“I think it’s very difficult to draw a bright line between what comes out of the president’s mouth or his Twitter account and action from other individuals,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But that doesn’t mean we should accept a normalization of this rhetoric.”
Trump’s allies have pounced on journalists and others who were quick to connect Trump to the Smollett and Covington Catholic incidents, arguing that the president’s critics are so eager to cast the president and his supporters in a negative light that they don’t wait for all the facts to emerge.
But others haven’t exhibited the same caution when it comes to finger pointing. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who has publicly sparred with the president, didn’t hold back on Thursday morning.
“This is pretty simple,” Scarborough said. “It’s all on the president’s shoulders, it’s all the president’s fault and he sits there with his mouth shut for once in his life, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t tweet anything — which of course makes it even more on him.”
Scarborough was among the members of the media on the hit list of U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson, who was arrested earlier this month, according to authorities. Others included MSNBC hosts Chris Hayes and Ari Melber, and CNN’s Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo and Van Jones.
Scarborough and others have noted that news of the alleged plot to kill Democratic politicians and journalists broke just hours after New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger chatized Trump for calling the Times the “enemy of the American people” after it published an account of the president’s efforts to undercut the investigations encircling him.
“The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is not just false, it’s dangerous. It has an ugly history of being wielded by dictators and tyrants who sought to control public information. And it is particularly reckless coming from someone whose office gives him broad powers to fight or imprison the nation’s enemies,” Sulzberger wrote. “As I have repeatedly told President Trump face to face, there are mounting signs that this incendiary rhetoric is encouraging threats and violence against journalists at home and abroad.”