U.S. Supreme Court allows prosecutor but not Congress to get Trump’s financial records

By Lawrence Hurley and Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday firmly rejected President Donald Trump’s argument for sweeping presidential immunity and ruled that a New York prosecutor can obtain his financial records but prevented – at least for now – Democratic-led House of Representatives committees from getting similar documents.

Both 7-2 rulings were authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. The court made it clear that a sitting president cannot evade a criminal investigation, ruling that the subpoena issued to Trump’s long-term accounting firm, Mazars LLP, for various financial records to be turned over to a grand jury as part of a criminal investigation can be enforced.

But the court sidestepped a major ruling on whether three House committees could also obtain Trump financial documents under subpoena, giving Trump at least a short-term win. Litigation will now continue in lower courts in both cases.

In both rulings, Roberts was joined by the four liberal justices as well as Trump’s two conservative appointees to the court, Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both dissented.

“This is a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one – not even a president – is above the law,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat, in relation to the ruling in his case.

Vance and the House committees all issued subpoenas to third parties for the records, not the Republican president himself.

Trump turned to Twitter complained about the rulings, writing on Twitter: “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!” He added, “This is all a political prosecution … and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”

The New York case ruling does not mean the documents will be handed over immediately because of expected wrangling in lower courts. A final outcome could be delayed in both cases until after the Nov. 3 election in which Trump is seeking a second term in office.

“We will now proceed to raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts,” said Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would not stop investigating Trump and would press forward in seeking to enforce the subpoenas.

“Congress’s constitutional responsibility to uncover the truth continues, specifically related to the President’s Russia connection that he is hiding,” Pelosi said, in reference to the contention that Trump’s financial records could show such an entanglement.

NO ‘ABSOLUTE’ IMMUNITY

Roberts rejected both the broad arguments for presidential immunity made by Trump’s lawyers and the sweeping arguments made in favor of the House’s ability to investigate the president.

Trump’s argument that he was immune from any criminal process “runs up against the 200 years of precedent establishing that Presidents, and their official communications, are subject to judicial process,” Roberts wrote in the New York case.

“We affirm that principle today and hold that the president is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need,” Roberts added.

Roberts also rejected the suggestion that the decision would subject future presidents to harassment by local prosecutors, noting that the court in 1997 rejected a similar argument made by President Bill Clinton when he faced a civil lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, a woman who accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.

“Given these safeguards and the court’s precedents, we cannot conclude that absolute immunity is necessary or appropriate,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts’ analysis of the congressional subpoenas hinged on the competing political interests between different branches of government.

“Congressional subpoenas for the President’s personal information implicate weighty concerns regarding the separation of powers,” Roberts wrote. “Neither side, however, identifies an approach that accounts for these concerns.”

Unlike other recent presidents, Trump has refused to release his tax returns and other documents that could provide details on his wealth and the activities of his family real-estate company, the Trump Organization. The content of these records has remained a persistent mystery even as he seeks re-election.

House committees issued subpoenas seeking Trump’s financial records from his longtime accounting firm Mazars LLP and two banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One.

As part of a criminal investigation by Vance’s office, subpoenas were issued to Mazars for financial records including nearly a decade of Trump’s tax returns to be turned over to a grand jury in New York City.

The investigation launched by Vance’s office in 2018 into Trump and the Trump Organization was spurred by disclosures of hush payments to two women who said they had past sexual relationships with him, pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Trump and his aides have denied the relationships.

In the litigation over the House subpoenas, Trump argued that Congress lacked a valid purpose for seeking his records and that disclosure of the material would compromise his and his family’s privacy and distract him from his duties.

In the New York case, Trump’s lawyers argued that under the Constitution he is immune from any criminal proceeding while serving as president. In a lower court hearing, Trump’s lawyers went so far as to argue that law enforcement officials would not have the power to investigate Trump even if he shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

The House Oversight Committee in April 2019 issued a subpoena to Mazars seeking eight years of accounting and other financial information in response to the congressional testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer. Cohen said Trump had inflated and deflated certain assets on financial statements between 2011 and 2013 in part to reduce his real estate taxes.

The House Financial Services Committee has been examining possible money laundering in U.S. property deals involving Trump. In a separate investigation, the House Intelligence Committee is investigating whether Trump’s dealings left him vulnerable to the influence of foreign individuals or governments.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court spurns environmental challenge to Trump’s border wall

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge by four environmental groups to the authority of President Donald Trump’s administration to build his promised wall along the border with Mexico.

The justices turned away an appeal by the groups of a federal judge’s ruling that rejected their claims that the administration had unlawfully undertaken border wall projects in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas harmful to plant and animal life. The groups had argued that the 1996 law under which the administration is building the wall gave too much power to the executive branch in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The groups that sued are the Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the Southwest Environmental Center. They said the wall construction efforts would harm plants, wildlife habitats and endangered species including the jaguar, Mexican gray wolf and bighorn sheep.

The border wall is one of Trump’s signature 2016 campaign promises, part of his hard line policies toward illegal and legal immigration. The Republican president has vowed to build a wall along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-km) U.S.-Mexico border. He promised that Mexico would pay for it. Mexico has refused.

The 1996 law, aimed at combating illegal immigration, gave the U.S. government authority to build border barriers and preempt legal requirements such as environmental rules. It also limited the kinds of legal challenges that could be brought.

The environmental groups argued that the law was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to the executive branch – in this case the Department of Homeland Security – to get around laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act without congressional input.

Progress toward building the wall has been limited because Congress has not provided the funds Trump has sought, leading him to divert money – with the blessing of the Supreme Court – from the U.S. military and other parts of the federal government.

Trump on June 23 visited a newly built section of the wall along the frontier with Mexico in San Luis, Arizona, autographing a plaque commemorating the 200th mile (320 km) of the project.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

No final decision at White House talks on Israeli annexation moves, U.S. officials say

American and Israeli flags flutter in the wind atop the roof of the King David Hotel, in preparation for the upcoming visit of President Trump to Israel, in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Three days of White House meetings between aides to U.S. President Donald Trump on whether to give Israel a green light to annex parts of the occupied West Bank have ended without any final decision, senior U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The high-level discussions centered on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the territory, which has drawn condemnation from the Palestinians, U.S. Arab allies and other foreign governments.

With Netanyahu’s cabinet due to begin formal annexation deliberations on Wednesday, the still-unclear U.S. position suggested the Trump administration wants to move cautiously.

“There is as yet no final decision on the next steps for implementing the Trump plan,” one of the officials told Reuters, referring to the president’s Israeli-Palestinian peace blueprint that could provide a basis for Netanyahu’s annexation moves.

Trump, who has hewed to a heavily pro-Israel policy, participated in the discussions, the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Another U.S. official said further “fact-finding” would be needed before a U.S. determination.

Under Trump’s peace proposal unveiled in January and met with widespread skepticism, the United States would recognize the settlements – built on land the Palestinians seek for a state – as part of Israel.

The proposal would create a Palestinian state but impose strict conditions. Palestinian leaders have dismissed the initiative and it has gone nowhere.

Netanyahu hopes for U.S. approval for his project of extending sovereignty over settlements and the Jordan Valley. Most countries view Israel’s settlements as illegal.

This week’s meetings included Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other aides. On Wednesday, Pompeo said that any decision on annexation was “for Israelis to make.”

Among the main options under U.S. consideration is a gradual process in which Israel would initially declare sovereignty over several settlements close to Jerusalem instead of the 30% of the West Bank envisaged in Netanyahu’s original plan, according to a person close to the matter.

The Trump administration has not closed the door to a larger annexation. But Kushner is concerned that allowing Israel to move too fast could further alienate the Palestinians.

There are also worries about opposition from Jordan, one of only two countries that have a peace treaty with Israel, and from Gulf states that have quietly expanded engagement with Israel. Washington also wants Israel’s unity government, divided on the issue, to reach a consensus.

(Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Edmund Blair and Alistair Bell)

Trump to announce ‘guidelines’ on reopening U.S. economy Thursday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that data suggested the country had passed the peak on new coronavirus infections, and said he would announce “new guidelines” for reopening the economy at a news conference on Thursday.

“The battle continues but the data suggests that the nation has passed the peak on new cases,” Trump told his daily White House news briefing.

“While we must remain vigilant, it is clear that our aggressive strategy is working and very strongly working, I might add,” Trump said.

The U.S. coronavirus death toll – the highest in the world – surged past 30,000 on Wednesday after doubling in a week.

The coronavirus crisis has hammered the U.S. economy, overshadowing Trump’s efforts to win re-election in November.

The Republican president has been pushing to reopen U.S. businesses and end orders that Americans stay home to fight the spread of the disease. During the lockdown, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and thousands of businesses have been forced to close their doors.

Trump claimed on Monday had the authority to overrule state governors and order businesses across the country to reopen.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sandra Maler and Tom Brown)

Trump warns Americans of a tough two weeks ahead in coronavirus fight

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump warned Americans on Tuesday of a “painful” two weeks ahead in fighting the coronavirus, with a mounting U.S. death toll that could stretch into the hundreds of thousands even with strict social distancing measures.

In perhaps his most somber news conference to date about the pandemic, Trump urged the population to heed guidance to limit groups to no more than 10 people, work from home and not dine in restaurants or bars.

“It’s absolutely critical for the American people to follow the guidelines for the next 30 days. It’s a matter of life and death,” Trump said.

White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx displayed charts demonstrating data and modeling that showed an enormous jump in deaths to a range of 100,000 to 240,000 people from the virus in the coming months.

That figure was predicated on Americans following mitigation efforts. One of Birx’s charts showed as many as 2.2 million people were projected to die without such measures, a statistic that prompted Trump to ditch a plan he articulated last week to get the U.S. economy moving again by Easter on April 12.

The president said the next two weeks would be “very, very painful.” The modeling showed the number of deaths across the nation would escalate and peak roughly around mid-April.

“We want Americans to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” Trump said, predicting light at the end of the tunnel after that.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said previously that the pandemic could kill between 100,000 and 200,000 people in the United States, said all efforts were being made to make those numbers lower.

“We’re doing everything we can,” he said.

The federal guidelines, which now are in place through the end of April, include admonitions to avoid discretionary travel, not visit nursing homes, and practice good hygiene.

“There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors: Each of our behaviors translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days,” Birx said.

Vice President Mike Pence said the mitigation efforts were having an impact. “We have reason to believe that it’s working,” Pence said of the guidelines. “Do not be discouraged.”

Trump said he planned to remain at the White House for the most part over the next 30 days.

He added the White House was looking at a possible travel ban for Brazil.

After the White House earlier discouraged Americans from wearing masks if they were not sick, the president encouraged the practice on Tuesday, but said people should use scarves so as not to divert supplies from healthcare professionals.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham, Alexandra Alper, Eric Beech, Diane Bartz, Carl O’Donnell and Timothy Ahmann; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)

Mistakes, but no political bias in FBI probe of Trump campaign: watchdog

By Sarah N. Lynch, Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Monday that it found numerous errors but no evidence of political bias by the FBI when it opened an investigation into contacts between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia in 2016.

The report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz gave ammunition to both Trump’s supporters and his Democratic critics in the debate about the legitimacy of an investigation that clouded the first two years of his presidency.

It will not be the last word on the subject.

Federal prosecutor John Durham, who is running a separate criminal investigation on the origins of the Russia probe, said he did not agree with some of the report’s conclusions.

Horowitz found that the FBI had a legal “authorized purpose” to ask for court approval to begin surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

But he also found a total of 17 “basic and fundamental” errors and omissions in its applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) that made the case appear stronger than it was.

For example, the FBI continued to rely on information assembled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele in its warrant applications even after one of Steele’s sources told the agency that his statements had been mischaracterized or exaggerated.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said that effectively turned the investigation into a “criminal enterprise” to defraud the court and violate Page’s rights.

“I don’t fault anybody for looking into allegations like this. I do fault them for lying and misrepresenting to the court,” said Graham, who will hold a hearing on Wednesday examining the report’s findings.

The report also singled out an FBI lawyer for altering an email in a renewal of the warrant application to claim that Page was not a source for another U.S. government agency, when in fact he did work from 2008 to 2013 with another agency that was not identified in the report. The lawyer, identified by Republicans as Kevin Clinesmith, did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats said the report showed that there was no basis for Trump’s repeated charges that the FBI was trying to undermine his chances of winning the White House.

“This report conclusively debunks the baseless conspiracy that the investigations into Mr. Trump’s campaign and its ties to Russia originated with political bias,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said at a news conference.

Trump called the investigation a witch hunt and assailed FBI leaders and career staffers who worked on it.

“This was an attempted overthrow and a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

The FBI investigation was taken over in May 2017 by former FBI chief Robert Mueller after Trump fired James Comey as the agency’s director.

“Those who attacked the FBI for two years should admit they were wrong,” Comey said in a Washington Post op-ed.

Mueller’s 22-month special counsel investigation detailed a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States and help Trump defeat Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Mueller documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Moscow but found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy.

Attorney General William Barr, who ordered the Durham investigation, said the report showed that the FBI launched its investigation “on the thinnest of suspicions.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said he had ordered dozens of revisions to fix problems highlighted in the report, such as changes to warrant applications and methods for dealing with informants. The FBI would review the conduct of employees mentioned in the report, he said.

Horowitz said his office on Monday began a new review to further scrutinize the FBI’s compliance with its own fact-checking policies used to get applications to surveil U.S. persons in counterterrorism investigations, as well as counterintelligence probes.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Brad Heath and Andy Sullivan; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham, Jonathan Oatis, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)

Explainer: What extra U.S. farm products could China buy?

FILE PHOTO: Corn is loaded onto a truck as a silo is emptied at a farm in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Acker/File Photo

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has agreed to make unspecified new purchases of farm products from the United States, President Donald Trump said after meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Japan.

China was the top buyer on average of U.S. agriculture exports from 2010 to 2017, making purchases worth $21.6 billion a year, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed.

While investors await details of the agreement and confirmation from China, analysts and traders say there are limits to how much more China can buy from the country that is typically one of its top suppliers of soybeans, grains and meat.

Below are details of where future Chinese purchases could rise.

SOYBEANS

The United States is usually China’s No. 2 supplier of soybeans, a product likely to make the list of new purchases even though an African swine fever epidemic in China has dented demand from Chinese pig farmers.

Soybean imports in the 2019/20 crop year are forecast by USDA at 87 million tonnes.

The USDA reported a large soybean sale on Friday of 544,000 tonnes to China, an apparent goodwill gesture a day before Trump and Xi met for the first time in seven months.

There could be a few more similar purchases in coming months as tensions ease, said Darin Friedrichs, senior Asia commodity analyst at INTL FCStone.

But any large deals were expected to be conditional on progress in talks and would be made over a long timeframe, he added.

GRAINS

China has typically been the top buyer of U.S. sorghum and, despite a 25% U.S. trade tariff on the grain, it has still bought a few cargoes in recent months.

But sorghum prices are rising, making it less viable for Chinese buyers to import the grain when they already face such a high tariff.

Demand for sorghum and corn, whose prices have climbed due to adverse weather conditions, were both very weak because of the African swine fever epidemic, said a trader with a state-owned firm who was not allowed to be identified.

“I don’t think chances are high” for more purchases, he said.

Regarding Dried Distillers Grains with Solubles (DDGS), China has announced it would keep anti-dumping duties on the feed ingredient, which the trader said made it clear Beijing did not plan to boost its imports.

Purchases of U.S. wheat have historically been relatively small. Beijing has been pushing Chinese growers to plant more high-quality wheat and boosting imports would undermine this policy, said a Chinese trader, who was not allowed to be identified.

ETHANOL

U.S. ethanol imports could feature in upcoming purchases, said Friedrichs, helping Trump win support from ethanol producers, one of his voter bases which has been hit by waning Chinese demand and U.S. initiatives affecting the industry.

But Chinese trade tariffs are prohibitive and there are no government reserves for the biofuel, limiting the amount that could be purchased by state buyers under Beijing’s orders, said an industry source who was not allowed to be quoted.

PORK

China, which usually accounts for half the world’s pork production, is expected to need all the pork it can find abroad as African swine fever devastates domestic farms.

It has already made some large purchases from the United States, even with U.S. trade tariffs of 50% in place.

Still, much bigger exports of pork to China threaten to drive up prices in the United States, which would hurt U.S. consumers and runs the risk of backfiring on Trump as he seeks re-election, Friedrichs said.

(Reporting by Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Rouhani warns U.S. over preventing Iran from exporting oil: ISNA

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday cautioned the United States about pursuing hostile policies against Tehran, saying preventing Iran from exporting oil would be “very dangerous”, but he did not rule out talks between the two countries.

“Imposing sanctions on Iran to prevent us from selling our oil will be very dangerous … If (U.S. President Donald) Trump wants to talk to Iran, then he first should return to the (2015) nuclear deal first,” the ISNA news agency quoted Rouhani as saying in a meeting with senior editors of foreign media in New York.

Rouhani is in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly.

In May, Trump pulled out of the international nuclear deal with Iran and announced sanctions against the OPEC member. Washington is pushing allies to cut imports of Iranian oil to zero and will impose a new round of sanctions on Iranian oil sales in November.

Under the accord, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in 2016 in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Grant McCool)

Trump says to address trade, immigration in State of the Union speech

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while participating in the swearing-in ceremony for the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 29, 2018.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday he will address his proposed immigration overhaul in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday and will seek Democratic support for it.

Speaking to reporters after a swearing-in ceremony for new Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Trump said his immigration overhaul will have to be bipartisan “because the Republicans don’t really have the votes to get it done in any other way.”

Trump also said his speech will cover his efforts to lower trade barriers around the world for American exports. “We have to have reciprocal trade. It’s not a one-way deal anymore,” he said.

(Reporting By Steve HollandEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Attorney General Sessions sets up Hezbollah investigation team

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department has set up a team to investigate individuals and organizations providing support to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Islamist group in Lebanon that the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday.

Republicans have criticized former President Barack Obama following a December Politico report that the Obama administration hindered a Drug Enforcement Administration program targeting Hezbollah’s trafficking operations during its negotiation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Republican President Donald Trump says Obama gave away too much to Iran to secure the agreement, which gives Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Sessions said the Justice Department will assemble leading investigators and prosecutors for the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team to ensure all investigations under the DEA program, called Project Cassandra, will be completed.

“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” Sessions said.

(Reporting by Blake Brittain; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Bernadette Baum)