U.S. House panel investigates DHS office over Portland, other protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House Intelligence Committee launched an investigation on Monday into the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence office, including its actions in Portland, Oregon, and its involvement in other anti-racism protests across the country.

“The reporting regarding the monitoring of peaceful protesters, creating and disseminating intelligence reports about journalists and protesters, and potential exploitation of electronic devices is deeply troubling,” Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to top DHS officials.

The United States has seen largely peaceful protests nationwide since the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody in May. Protests in cities, including Portland, have at times erupted into arson and violence, and federal officers sent into the Northwestern city have repeatedly clashed with crowds targeting the federal courthouse there.

The probe shows that Democrats will use congressional authority to investigate efforts by the Trump administration to demonize protesters and deploy federal personnel in law enforcement operations in several cities despite opposition from local mayors and governors.

In his letter to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and acting department intelligence chief Horace Jen, Schiff requested detailed intelligence reporting documents that informed a recommendation by the then-chief of the DHS intelligence operation on July 25 requesting that DHS reports on anarchist-related Portland protesters refer to them as “Violent Antifa Anarchists Inspired.”

The official who wrote the memo, acting DHS intelligence chief Brian Murphy, was subsequently transferred to a different job over the weekend.

In his letter to DHS, Schiff also requested that Jen, Murphy and several other DHS officials, including intelligence officials, give interviews to the committee this month.

Schiff said that if the department did not produce the witnesses and documents he requested, he would consider issuing subpoenas.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump impeachment trial opens; White House faulted on Ukraine aid freeze

By Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the Senate formally opened the impeachment trial on whether to remove Donald Trump from office, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog on Thursday dealt the Republican president a blow by concluding that the White House violated the law by withholding security aid approved for Ukraine by U.S. lawmakers.

Democrat Adam Schiff, who heads a team of seven House of Representatives members who will serve as prosecutors, appeared on the Senate floor to read the two charges passed by the House on Dec. 18 accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his dealings with Ukraine.

The trial’s opening formalities were to continue later in the day, with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts set to be sworn in to preside over the proceedings and then swear in all 100 senators to serve as jurors. Opening statements in the trial, only the third in U.S. history, are expected on Tuesday.

The abuse of power cited by the House included Trump’s withholding of $391 million in security aid for Ukraine, a move Democrats have said was aimed at pressuring Kiev into investigating political rival Joe Biden, the president’s possible opponent in the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded, referring to the fact that Congress had already voted to appropriate the funds.

An arm of Congress, the GAO is viewed as a top auditing agency for the federal government that advises lawmakers and various government entities on how taxpayer dollars are spent.

While the agency’s assessment was a setback to Trump, it was unclear how or even if it would figure in his trial in the Republican-led Senate given that key issues such as whether witnesses will appear or new evidence will be considered remain up in the air.

Democrats said the GAO report showed the importance of the Senate hearing from witnesses and considering new documents in the trial.

“This reinforces – again – the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a news conference.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said senators should consider only the evidence amassed by the House.

The House voted on Wednesday 228-193, largely along party lines, to give the Senate the task of putting Trump on trial. The Senate is expected to acquit him, keeping Trump in office, as none of its 53 Republicans has voiced support for removing him, a step that requires a two-thirds majority.

Trump has denied wrongdoing and has called the impeachment process a sham.

DEMOCRAT SOUGHT REPORT

The GAO issued its opinion after receiving a letter inquiring about the aid from Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen. The agency’s findings are not legally binding, but its reports are seen by lawmakers as objective, reliable and generally uncontested. The GAO has no prosecutorial power.

Its report noted that the U.S. Constitution grants a president no unilateral authority to withhold funds in the way that Trump did. Instead, a president has a “strictly circumscribed authority” to withhold spending only in limited circumstances expressly provided by law. Holding up money for a policy reason, which the Trump administration did in this case, is not permitted, the report said.

Asked about the GAO report, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy defended Trump’s withholding of aid, citing concerns about corruption in Ukraine’s new government.

“I think it was the rightful thing to do,” McCarthy told a news conference.

Congress approved the $391 million to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. The money ultimately was provided to Kiev in September after the controversy had spilled into public view.

A pivotal event leading to Trump’s impeachment was a July 25 call in which he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden over unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and to look into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

Schiff indicated that the House prosecutors were considering calling Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as a witness if the Senate permits testimony in the trial.

“We are continuing to review his (media) interviews and the materials he has provided to evaluate his potential testimony in the Senate trial,” Schiff said in a statement.

Giuliani has said Parnas, a Ukraine-born U.S. citizen, helped him in investigating the Bidens. Documents released this week indicate Parnas was also involved in monitoring the movements of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before Trump removed her in May after being urged to do so by Giuliani.

Democrats have said Trump abused his power by asking a foreign government to interfere in a U.S. election for his own benefit at the expense of American national security.

Republicans have argued that Trump’s actions did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. They have accused Democrats of using the Ukraine affair as a way to nullify Trump’s 2016 election victory.

The Senate will formally notify the White House of Trump’s impending trial later on Thursday.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump nemesis Schiff to lead Democratic team at impeachment trial

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday unveiled a seven-member team to prosecute President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial in the Senate, headed by a former prosecutor who has become a nemesis of the Republican president.

After weeks of delay, the House was poised on Wednesday afternoon to send the two impeachment charges – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – passed on Dec. 18 against Trump to the Senate, clearing the way for a trial that will determine whether he is removed from office to start in earnest next week.

The trial in the Senate – controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans – is expected to end in his acquittal after several weeks of a televised proceedings, leaving him in office. But it will focus attention on Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate domestic political rival Joe Biden, just as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up.

Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, 59, will lead the House “managers” who will present the case to senators that Trump should be ousted for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son and for obstructing the House investigation by refusing to provide requested testimony and documents.

Schiff spearheaded the House impeachment investigation launched in September into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and he is a frequent target of Trump attacks. Trump called Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, “a deranged human being” at a NATO meeting in Britain in December.

Other managers include Jerrold Nadler, 72, who crafted the two articles of impeachment against Trump, as House Judiciary Committee chairman. [L1N29K0R3]

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the prosecutors – a group of four men and three women including two African Americans and a Hispanic lawmaker – were selected for their ability to make an effective case.

“The emphasis is making the strongest possible case to protect and defend our Constitution, to seek the truth for the American people,” Pelosi told a news conference.

The White House greeted the announcement of the House team with scorn.

“The naming of these managers does not change a single thing,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “President Trump has done nothing wrong. He looks forward to having the due process rights in the Senate that Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats denied to him, and expects to be fully exonerated.”

The White House and congressional Republicans complained that Trump was treated unfairly in the impeachment inquiry. The investigation led by House Democrats included numerous public and private hearings, with testimony from numerous witnesses. Trump instructed current and former officials not to cooperate in the inquiry and rejected an invitation to have lawyers representing him play a role in public hearings.

Biden is one of 12 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election, and the trial might still be underway when Iowa and New Hampshire hold their first party nominating contests in early February.

Not one of the Senate’s 53 Republicans has voiced support for ousting Trump, a step that would require a two-thirds majority in the 100-member chamber.

Democrats are pressing to call Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton as a trial witness, which could prove damaging to Trump. Other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry said Bolton was a vocal critic of the effort to pressure Ukraine.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted the idea of calling witnesses at all, saying his chamber should consider only the evidence that has been amassed by the House. Other Republicans and Trump himself have said they would like to call witnesses of their own – including Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

“If McConnell makes this the first trial in history without witnesses, it will be exposed for what it is, and that is an effort to cover up for the president,” Schiff told the news conference.

House Democrats indicated on Wednesday they would expand their case against Trump by including phone records and other documents provided over the weekend by Florida businessman Lev Parnas, who worked with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine.

Schiff said material released on Tuesday showed Giuliani was acting at Trump’s direction.

“The president was the architect of this scheme,” Schiff said.

A pivotal event for the impeachment case against Trump was a July 25 telephone call in which he asked Ukraine’s president to open a corruption investigation into Biden and his son, as well as a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu and Richard Cowan; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Will Dunham)

Top House Intelligence lawmaker: 2020 election ‘enormously vulnerable’

FILE PHOTO: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks to reporters as he departs after hearing testimony from Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney of U.S. President Donald Trump, at a closed House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. presidential election in 2020 is “enormously vulnerable” to hacking and foreign influence, Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday.

Schiff, responding to a reporter’s question at The Christian Science Monitor breakfast, warned that “the potential for mischief now is extreme” and said he is concerned about efforts to undermine U.S. democracy.

Schiff’s committee has been actively investigating the 2016 presidential campaign and allegations that the Russian government actively sought to meddle in the election to help elect U.S. President Donald Trump. Both Trump and the Kremlin have denied any meddling or collusion.

Schiff said during the midterm congressional elections in 2018, there was only a handful of incidents of so-called “spearfishing,” a form of hacking that involves trying to get someone to unknowingly hand over their passwords.

But he now thinks the efforts could be more aggressive.

He also said that he thinks Russia and other countries are capable of using “deep fake” technology.

He said outside actors could use the technology “to forge audio tapes, to forge video tapes, to make a far more disruptive impact.”

Conversely, he said he is also concerned that the possible proliferation of fake video or audio could make the public unwilling to believe real images or sounds.

“Even if you can disprove a fake video. If you can show it’s a forgery. The negative impression watching it … you can never erase.”

He said the concern is compounded by what he called Trump’s willingness to deny facts.

“An electorate that is being acclimated to the idea that we’re all entitled to different truths, that makes our democracy very vulnerable,” Schiff said.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Susan Thomas)