BuzzFeed subpoenas feds for Trump dossier info

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BuzzFeed’s subpoenas seek information about the existence and scope of the federal government’s investigation into the dossier.

Media outlet seeks to use Russian tech executive’s libel suit to seek records from spy agencies.

Add this surprising entry to the growing list of those issuing subpoenas for insight into the imbroglio involving President Donald Trump and the Russians: BuzzFeed.

The online media outlet sent formal demands Thursday to the CIA, the FBI and the Office of Director of National Intelligence, seeking details on the distribution of an unverified intelligence dossier about Trump said to have been in the possession of Russian intelligence during last year’s presidential campaign, POLITICO has learned.

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BuzzFeed is also seeking testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey, as well as former DNI James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, said a source familiar with the subpoenas.

BuzzFeed issued the demands for documents and testimony in connection with a libel suit the site is facing from Russian technology executive Aleksej Gubarev over BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the salacious intelligence dossier in its entirety in January.

Gubarev and two of his companies were mentioned in the document the website put online. Claiming that the references were inaccurate and defamatory, Gubarev and the firms filed suit in February in a county court in Florida. Buzzfeed had the case transferred to a federal court in Miami and wanted it transferred again to a federal court in Manhattan, but the judge handling the suit in Miami declined.

At about the same time the suit was filed, BuzzFeed blacked out from the document Gubarev’s name and the names of his firms. However, the dossier had already been posted for several weeks in unredacted form.

The subpoenas seek information about the existence and scope of the federal government’s investigation into the dossier, initially compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. The requests for documents say the information could bolster BuzzFeed’s claim that publication of the document was protected by the fair report privilege, which can immunize reports based on official government records.

A spokesman for BuzzFeed News, Matt Mittenthal, confirmed that the media outlet is seeking to use the court process to nail down details of when and to whom information on the dossier was distributed.

“As part of the discovery process, we have subpoenaed key federal agencies for evidence that the dossier was circulating at the highest levels of government, and therefore clearly in the public interest,” Mittenthal said.

BuzzFeed also subpoenaed several individuals, although the details of those requests were not immediately available.

Fired FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that he briefed President-elect Trump on the dossier during a Jan. 6 meeting at Trump Tower in New York.

“The IC [intelligence community] leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified,” Comey said in his written statement. “Among those reasons were: (1) we knew the media was about to publicly report the material and we believed the IC should not keep knowledge of the material and its imminent release from the President-Elect; and (2) to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming President, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing.”

Comey said he and then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper agreed Comey would handle that part of the briefing one-on-one with Trump “to minimize potential embarrassment to the President-Elect.” The ex-FBI chief declined to provide details about the content of the briefing, but a senior law enforcement official said it was about the Steele dossier.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the subpoenas.

BuzzFeed’s effort to use the subpoena process to get information about the dossier seems likely to be an uphill battle, although the move may give them some advantage over a slew of people and organizations seeking similar information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The website will now have to navigate something known as the Tuohy process, which takes its name from a 1951 Supreme Court case about demands for federal government information in suits or prosecutions where the United States is not a party.

Experts said it’s possible that process will yield more information than Freedom of Information Act lawsuits that are already pending. The process won’t force the government to declassify information, but could yield more detail on how the government circulated the dossier and why, lawyers said.

“In general, a subpoena going through the Tuohy process is more likely to be successful” than a FOIA request, said Daniel Taylor, an attorney with Denver law firm Bartlit Beck. He said some agencies treat such demands simply as FOIA requests, but may process them faster.

Former Justice Department attorney Robert Foster said it’s possible BuzzFeed may be able to get direct testimony from witnesses through the Tuohy process. That isn’t available under FOIA which is limited to records.

The real difference is access to a body,” said Foster, now in private practice in Estes Park, Colorado. “As a practical matter most of the time, if all you’re seeking are documents, there’s no that much difference between FOIA and a subpoena except you can get a judge involved more quickly… A subpoena doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

http://www.politico.com

5 things Trump did while you weren’t looking: Week 4

It was “Energy Week” in Washington—but you’d be forgiven for not noticing. The Supreme Court announced a series of major decisions on Monday, slightly easing the injunction on President Donald Trump’s travel ban and taking up a big gerrymandering case. Eyes then quickly turned to healthcare where Senate Republicans searched for a compromise between conservatives and moderates, an effort that is proving more challenging than expected. And then they just as quickly turned to Twitter, where Trump made life harder for his own party by launching crude personal attacks against Mika Brzezinski, a co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Beneath the chaos, though, the Trump administration continued to turn back Obama-era policies, especially at the Labor Department, which took aim at nearly every major Obama rule in just a few short days. The Agenda is back to document it all. Here are five big policy changes from last week:

The Labor Department was busy, Part 1
The Department of Labor issued some big regulations under Obama, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta isn’t wasting any time targeting those. Just this week, he took aim at three big ones: the overtime rule, the fiduciary standard and an electronic recordkeeping rule.

Under Obama, the department said it would require certain large employers to electronically submit data on injuries and illnesses, starting July 1. But on Tuesday, the Department of Labor officially proposed delaying the record-keeping rule to December 1. The rule isn’t final yet, so it will technically take effect Saturday but the Department previously said it won’t yet accept electronic submissions. Supporters of the rule hope that sunshine will act as a disinfectant, shaming companies into better labor practices; companies say it is onerous and unnecessary.

Then on Thursday, the Department asked for comments about delaying the January 1, 2018 compliance date of another major Obama rule—the “fiduciary standard,” which requires financial advisers selling investment products to act in the best interest of their clients. In May, Acosta announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he was going to allow the fiduciary rule to take effect as planned on June 9, prompting cheers from Democrats who thought the rule was doomed. Those cheers may have been premature: The department had previously announced that it wouldn’t actually enforce the rule until January 1—and Thursday’s news is a sign that Acosta is considering more substantive reforms.

Finally, this week the agency sent some signals against Obama’s overtime rule, which doubled the salary threshold under which almost all employees are entitled to time-and-half pay for working overtime. What actually happened was technical: the department defended its authority to set a salary threshold in determining whether an employee qualifies for overtime, filing a brief in federal court in a case challenging the rule. However, what didn’t happen was crucial: The agency didn’t defend the overtime rule itself. In fact, it gave a very strong indication this week that it doesn’t support the rule: On Tuesday, the Department sent a request for comments about the overtime rule to the White House for review, the first step towards significantly reforming the rule.

The Labor Department was busy, Part 2
The Department of Labor has two big policy tools at its disposal: rule-making and enforcement. Rules get most of the attention, but enforcement can have a larger impact on worker’s daily lives—and under Obama, the DOL used its enforcement powers broadly, earning praise from labor groups and criticism from businesses.

On Tuesday, the Labor Department gave a big hint that a new enforcement regime is beginning. The DOL’s Wage and Hour division announced that it would resume issuing opinion letters, which are documents requested by an employer or employee that provide case-by-case legal guidance over potential federal labor law violations.

Businesses like opinion letters: They give individual companies a clear idea if their labor practices are likely to violate the law. Many labor groups don’t: Critics say they suck up department resources that could be spent on investigations, and unfairly favor big employers, who have the resources and know-how to submit formal queries to the government, over employees, who don’t.

Under Bush, the Labor Department issued lots of opinion letters. but Obama discontinued the practice, instead issuing general guidance documents that explain broadly how the DOL interprets the law. Acosta rescinded those guidance documents three weeks ago. The resumption of opinion letters doesn’t signal a policy change in itself. But the shift is telling: Under the Acosta regime, business is finding the door open again.

Trump expands his trade fight with Canada
During his presidential campaign, Trump slammed China for its currency practices and sharply criticized Mexico over its cheap labor. But Canada largely avoided the crossfire—until Trump took office.

Since then, our Northern neighbor has become the chief target of Trump’s trade ire as the Commerce Department imposed preliminary tariffs of 7.7 percent on certain Canadian lumber companies. This is the second time Trump has imposed penalties on the Canadian lumber industry; in April, Commerce announced tariffs of 24 percent on certain Canadian lumber companies. It’s the latest moves in the long-simmering dispute that has turned hot in the last few months.

The lumber fight is the background battle as the two sides, along with Mexico, are preparing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. This week, the U.S. Trade Representative hosted a three-day public hearing on NAFTA with 140 witnesses giving five minute statements and then answering questions from government officials. All involved appear to agree that the renegotiation will be long and hard—and the escalating fight over Canadian lumber won’t engender any good will.

EPA targets a top Obama-era rule
In May, 2015, the Obama administration issued the Waters of the United States rule—colloquially known as WOTUS—a far-reaching and long-awaited plan to limit pollution in America’s wetlands. The culmination of years of work, WOTUS was hailed by environmentalists as a marquee moment in America’s commitment to cleaning up its polluted waters.

But two years later, WOTUS is on the verge of defeat. Twenty seven states sued the Obama administration over the rule, arguing that the EPA exceeded its authority to regulate small streams and tributaries. A judge blocked the rule last year, so it hasn’t taken effect, and on Tuesday, the EPA, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, took the first step towards killing it, issuing a 52-page proposed rule to repeal WOTUS. The agencies are accepting comments for 30 days. Soon after, they will issue a final rule.

Trump tightens the grip on China—and North Korea
When Trump took office, he quickly realized the threat posed by North Korea, even saying he was willing to go easier on trade if China helped Washington with Pyongyang. Those days appear to be waning.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a small Chinese bank, saying that it “acts as a conduit for illicit North Korean financial activity,” along with two individuals and another Chinese company. The moves are the clearest sign that the Trump administration has decided that Beijing is unlikely to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear program and that unilateral action is necessary. Apparently, Trump meant what he tweeted last week: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”

http://www.politico.com

More than half the states refusing to provide voter data to Trump election panel

At least 29 states are pushing back or outright refusing to comply with the Trump administration’s request for voter registration data.

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, formed by President Trump to investigate his widely debunked claim that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, sent letters this week to the 50 secretaries of state across the country requesting information about voters.

The letter, signed by commission vice chairman and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), asked for names, addresses, birth dates and party affiliations of registered voters in each state. It also sought felony convictions, military statuses, the last four digits of Social Security numbers and voting records dating back to 2006, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Hill.

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Many states immediately raised concerns and voiced their opposition to providing the information. 

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) said that she does not intend to release the data. 

“The president created his election commission based on the false notion that ‘voter fraud’ is a widespread issue — it is not,” Lundergan Grimes said. “I do not intend to release Kentuckians’ sensitive personal data to the federal government.” 

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, similarly said he won’t turn over any information to the panel, telling members of the voter fraud commission to, “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, took a similar line.

Trump has alleged that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote in November’s election, an assertion for which he has offered no evidence. Repeated academic and state studies of voter files show that only a handful of improper votes were cast in recent elections. 

Chief election officials from both sides of the aisle expressed skepticism about Trump’s claim of voter fraud. 

“In Ohio, we pride ourselves on being a state where it is easy to vote and hard to cheat,” said Jon Husted, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state. “Voter fraud happens, it’s rare and when it happens we hold people accountable. I believe that as the Commission does its work, it will find the same about our state.” 

“California’s participation would only serve to legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud,” Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement about the letter.  

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, both Democrats, said their states would not provide confidential information.

“New York refuses to perpetuate the myth voter fraud played a role in our election,” Cuomo said in a statement. “We will not be complying with this request.” 

Even a member of the Kobach commission said her state would not comply. Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R), the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, announced in a statement that her state wouldn’t release certain information requested by Kobach. 

“Indiana law doesn’t permit the Secretary of State to provide the personal information requested by Secretary Kobach,” Lawson said. “Under Indiana public records laws, certain voter info is available to the public, the media and any other person who requested the information for non-commercial purposes. The information publicly available is name, address and congressional district assignment.”

Officials in Wisconsin, Colorado and Texas said their states would release public information, but certain data, including full dates of birth and Social Security numbers, were confidential and would not be released. North Dakota’s director of elections, John Arnold, told The Hill that state law would not allow the presidential commission access to voter information. 

“Wisconsin statutes do not permit the state to release a voter’s date of birth, driver license number or Social Security number,” Michael Haas, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said in a release.

Oregon’s secretary of state said the state typically charges for voter information such as names, addresses and voting history and the commission was welcome to pay.

Even Kansas, where Kobach is secretary of state, will not share voters’ Social Security information with the commission.

“In Kansas, the Social Security number is not publicly available,” Kobach told the Kansas City Star. “Every state receives the same letter, but we’re not asking for it if it’s not publicly available.”

Officials in Connecticut, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington also expressed skepticism and said their states would withhold nonpublic information. North Carolina will provide all but the last four digits of Social Security numbers, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers.

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D) took her criticism further, saying Kobach was unfit to lead the commission, given his record of strict voting laws and a recent court fine for failing to produce documents related to a lawsuit over voting laws.  

“It is deeply troubling that he has been given oversight of this commission by the president,” Gorbea said.

Kobach is an advocate of strict voter identification laws, which he says are necessary to combat fraud. Opponents say those laws hinder access to the polls primarily for elderly and minority voters.

Officials have raised questions about the commission’s discretion obtaining the confidential documents. 

“State statutes permit the [Wisconsin commission] to share confidential information in limited circumstances with law enforcement agencies or agencies of other states,” Haas said. “The presidential commission does not appear to qualify under either of these categories.” 

Trump appointed another voter identification supporter, Heritage Foundation fellow Hans von Spakovsky, to the commission Thursday. Von Spakovsky, one of Kobach’s mentors, has long advocated for stricter voter access rules. 

The states are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

– This story was updated July 1 at 10:45 a.m.

http://thehill.com

White House threatened Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski with a National Enquirer story, the two allege

The most important legislative priority of President Trump’s administration so far is hanging by a thread in the Senate. The president of South Korea arrived in Washington on Thursday for talks as North Korea’s nuclear threat increases. White House officials had wanted to focus public discussion this week on energy policy.

But Trump found time over the last two days to conduct a Twitter war with two cable TV news hosts who claim that his White House tried to threaten them with an unflattering story in a supermarket tabloid.

“Donald Trump is not well,” declared the headline of a Washington Post op-ed column by MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezizinski, which they used as talking points during a lengthy segment on their show, “Morning Joe.”

In the column and on the program they said the White House used the threat of a National Enquirer story about their romantic relationship as leverage in an unsuccessful effort to extract an apology for on-air criticism of the president.

“At no time did we threaten either Joe or Mika or their children in connection with our reporting on the story. We have no knowledge of any discussions between the White House and Joe and Mika about our story, and absolutely no involvement in those discussions.”

Scarborough said on Twitter that he had evidence to back his claim.

“I have texts from your top aides and phone records. Also, those records show I haven’t spoken with you in many months,” he wrote in a tweet directed to Trump.

MSNBC declined to release the text messages. At Scarborough’s request, the network also did not confirm which White House aides discussed the Enquirer story with him.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders brushed aside a question about the controversy during a short, off-camera briefing with reporters. On Thursday, she defended Trump’s tweets, claiming that the president was fighting back against a steady barrage of on-air insults from Brzezinski and Scarborough.

In an April 13 interview with The Times, Brzezinski and Scarborough noted that their once-cordial relationship with Trump had deteriorated since the inauguration as they have expressed dismay at what they think has been a chaotic, undisciplined presidency.

Brzezinski said at the time that Trump is less tolerant of criticism coming from a woman.

“He just won’t even engage,” she said. “Joe will punch him in the face, and he’ll come back for more.”

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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UPDATES:

12:35 p.m.: This article was updated to include a statement from MSNBC, a comment by White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and additional details.

7:50 a.m.: This article was updated to include a statement from American Media chief content officer and Vice President Dylan Howard.

10:53 a.m.: This article was updated with a tweet from Scarborough.

This article was originally published at 6:05 a.m.

latimes.com