Senate’s McConnell: ‘Case closed’ on Mueller probe, but top Democrat sees ‘cover-up

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question from reporters next to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as he arrives for a closed Senate Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday sought to slam the door on further investigations of President Donald Trump by declaring “case closed” after a two-year probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, even as House Democrats’ war with the White House intensified.

McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Congress, delivered a stinging rebuke of Democrats seeking additional information on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that found no evidence Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.

(Graphic: https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-TRUMP-RUSSIA/010091HX27V/report.pdf)

“The special counsel’s finding is clear. Case closed,” McConnell declared.

Meanwhile, battles between the White House and congressional Democrats over documents and testimony related to the Mueller investigation deepened on Tuesday.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone informed the House Judiciary Committee in a letter that ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn does not have the legal right to comply with a House of Representatives subpoena and disclose documents related to Mueller’s investigation.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, when asked by ABC News whether McGahn would comply with the subpoena, said, “I don’t anticipate that that takes place.”

McConnell accused Democrats of being in an “absolute meltdown” and refusing “to accept the bottom line conclusion” that Mueller’s “exhaustive” report found no collusion with Russia.

Since the public release of the report last month, House and Senate Republicans have defended the president and called for an end to congressional investigations.

Mueller detailed extensive contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. His 448-page report also outlined 11 instances in which the president tried to impede the special counsel’s investigation, but avoided a conclusion on whether or not Trump obstructed justice.

Speaking on the Senate floor after McConnell, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer fired back, calling Trump a “lawless president” and accusing the Senate Republican leader of wanting to bury any congressional investigations.

“Of course he wants to move on. He wants to cover up,” Schumer said of McConnell.

Schumer likened McConnell’s move to President Richard Nixon, who was under investigation by Congress before resigning from office in 1974 in the face of impeachment and likely conviction.

“It’s sort of like Richard Nixon saying let’s move on at the height of the investigation of his wrongdoing,” Schumer said.

While McConnell urged an end to the fight over the Mueller report, he acknowledged that was unlikely. Democrats hold a majority in the House, while Republicans control the Senate.

“Would we finally be able to move on from partisan paralysis and breathless conspiracy theorizing? Or would we remain consumed by unhinged partisanship,” McConnell said, adding, “Regrettably, the answer is pretty obvious.”

House Democrats prepared to meet with Justice Department officials on Tuesday over Attorney General William Barr’s failure to release the full unredacted Mueller report as they prepared to cite him for contempt.

The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Wednesday vote on a contempt citation for Barr, who missed a second deadline to give lawmakers the full report and failed to appear at a hearing before the panel last week.

The full House would then vote on the rebuke.

A contempt citation against McGahn or other administration officials could lead to a civil case, raising the possibility of fines and even imprisonment for failure to comply.

The Judiciary Committee is among several House panels investigating Trump and his administration on various matters, including the Russia probe and Trump’s personal and business tax returns.

The administration is stonewalling congressional investigators while the president, who has denied any wrongdoing, vowed to fight all congressional subpoenas.

On Monday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin turned down the House Ways and Means Committee’s request for Trump’s tax returns, teeing up a likely legal battle.

Democratic lawmakers want Mueller to testify before Congress, something Trump has balked at although Barr has said he would not object.

If lawmakers decide that Trump obstructed justice by seeking to impede Mueller, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler could move to impeachment proceedings against the president.

If the House goes down the impeachment route, at least some Republican support would be needed for a Senate conviction.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Tim Ahmann and Steve Holland; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Factbox: New revelations from the Mueller report

(Reuters) – There are several aspects of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election campaign that were not previously known until the release of his report on Thursday.

TRUMP’S REACTION TO APPOINTMENT OF SPECIAL COUNSEL

U.S. President Donald Trump believed the appointment of a special counsel to take over an active federal investigation would spell the end of his presidency, according to Mueller’s report.

When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump of Mueller’s appointment on May 17, 2017, the report said, Trump slumped back in his chair and said: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”

Trump asked Sessions, whom he had berated for months for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the election: “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” and told Sessions he had let him down.

Trump told Sessions he should resign, and Sessions agreed to do so. When Sessions delivered his resignation letter to Trump the following day, Trump put the letter in his pocket but said he wanted Sessions to stay on the job.

That alarmed chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior advisor Steve Bannon, who worried Trump would use the letter to control the Department of Justice, and they tried to return it to Sessions.

Trump took the letter with him on a trip to the Middle East, where he showed it to several senior advisers and asked them what he should do about it. On May 30, he finally returned the letter to Sessions with a note saying: “Not accepted.”

THE PRESIDENTIAL INTERVIEW THAT WASN’T

Mueller tried for more than a year to interview Trump, but in the end, Trump refused. Trump provided written answers on some Russia-related topics but did not agree to answer questions about possible obstruction of justice or events that took place during the presidential transition.

Mueller said he thought he had the legal authority to order Trump to testify before a grand jury, but he decided not to take that course because of the “substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation.”

TRUMP’S EFFORTS TO FIRE MUELLER

Trump tried to get Mueller fired in June 2017, shortly after he was appointed, according to the 448-page report. Trump called then-White House counsel Don McGahn twice and directed him to order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller on the grounds that he had conflicts of interest.

McGahn felt “trapped,” but did not carry out the order, deciding that he would rather resign, Mueller said.

Other White House advisers later talked McGahn out of resigning, and Trump did not follow up to ask whether McGahn had fulfilled his directive.

Trump pressured McGahn to deny that these events took place when they surfaced in news accounts in January 2018, but McGahn refused, according to Mueller’s report, some of which was blacked out to protect some sensitive information.

TRUMP’S EFFORTS TO LIMIT THE INVESTIGATION

Trump also enlisted his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowksi, to try to narrow the investigation’s scope. The report said Trump asked Lewandowski in June 2017 to tell Sessions that he should publicly announce that the Russia probe was “very unfair” to the president, say Trump had done nothing wrong, and limit Mueller’s probe into interference in future elections, not the one that had put him in the White House.

A month later, Trump asked Lewandowski about the status of his request and Lewandowski assured Trump he would deliver the message soon. Trump then publicly criticized Sessions in a New York Times interview and a series of Twitter messages.

Mueller says Lewandowski did not want to deliver the message to Sessions, so he asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to speak to him. Dearborn also did not want to carry out the task. Ultimately, the message never reached Sessions.

MANAFORT’S EFFORTS TO MONETIZE THE CAMPAIGN

Mueller found that campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s efforts to work with his former business partners in Ukraine were greater than previously known, as he tried to use his insider status on the campaign to collect on debts owed for his past work by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Shortly after he joined the campaign in the spring of 2016, Manafort directed his deputy Rick Gates to share internal polling data and other campaign materials with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Ukrainian business partner, with the understanding that it would get passed on to Deripaska, the report said.

During an August 2016 meeting in New York, Manafort told Kilimnik about the campaign’s efforts to win the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the report said. Trump ended up winning three of those states in the November election.

Manafort worked with his Ukrainian allies until the spring of 2018, after he had been indicted by Mueller, to promote a peace plan that would have split the country in two. These efforts did not constitute coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts to disrupt the election, Mueller found.

Manafort urged Gates not to plead guilty after they were both indicted by Mueller, apparently believing that they would be pardoned by the president if they did not cooperate with investigators. Trump’s numerous sympathetic statements before and during Manafort’s criminal trial could be interpreted as an effort to sway the outcome, but they also could be interpreted as a sign that he genuinely felt sorry for Manafort, Mueller said.

PLAN FOR U.S.-RUSSIA RECONCILIATION

Relations between Washington and Moscow had deteriorated under two previous administrations and the United States had imposed sanctions on Russia. Following Trump’s election victory, Russian financier Kirill Dmitriev worked on a proposal to improve ties with Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager who is friends with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Dmitriev runs Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and reports directly to Putin.

Gerson gave the plan to Kushner before Trump was sworn in, Mueller’s report said, and Kushner gave copies to Bannon and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

After Trump took office in January 2017, Dmitriev told Gerson that his “boss” – an apparent reference to Putin – wanted to know if there was a reaction to the proposal, which called for cooperation on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and economic matters. When Putin and Trump spoke by phone, Dmitriev told Gerson that their plan had “played an important role.”

Gerson told Mueller’s team that he acted as an intermediary between Trump and Russia on his own initiative, not at the request of Trump’s aides.

(Compiled by Andy Sullivan; editing by Grant McCool)

Illinois Church abuse survivors demand perpetrators’ names

Cindy Yesko is presented as a survivor of clergy sex abuse by a legal team of attorneys Jeff Anderson and Marc Pearlman, during a news conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

By Suzannah Gonzales

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Survivors and lawyers demanded on Thursday the Catholic Church make public the names of 500 priests or clergy members in Illinois accused of child sexual abuse, in the latest outcry of a global crisis.

They spoke out two weeks after Illinois state Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a blistering report stating alleged abusers had not been publicly identified by the Church and many had not been properly investigated.

“We’re here to fight for the 500 that have been identified as the number of clergy offenders who the Catholic bishops … in Illinois know about who have not disclosed,” attorney Jeff Anderson said at a news conference standing alongside survivors.

Anderson said he and his colleagues will issue a report by next month that identifies every clergy offender accused of child sexual abuse who was brought to their attention.

Children cannot be protected unless the names are provided to police and the general public, Anderson said.

Knowing the names of the accused priests would also help victims who have not come forward, survivor Ken Kaczmarz said.

“If the priest that molested them is on a published list, those people that are currently suffering in silence will, I guarantee you, have the courage to seek help,” he said.

The Illinois dioceses of Rockford, Joliet and Belleville on Thursday stood by lists published on their websites of priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor and of clergy removed from ministry.

Representatives of the other three dioceses in Illinois did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Madigan, who opened her investigation in August and leaves office later this month, said the 500 priests and clergy members her office had identified were in addition to 185 publicly named by the six dioceses.

Facing accusations of sexual abuse and coverups by priests around the world, Pope Francis on Thursday accused U.S. bishops of failing to show unity in the face of the crisis.

Survivors gathered in downtown Chicago on Thursday as U.S. bishops met near the city for seven days of prayer and spiritual reflection ahead of a gathering at the Vatican in February to confront the global abuse crisis.

“There has to be more than 500. That’s just the start. We need a comprehensive list in order for the Church to feel safe again,” Cynthia Yesko, a survivor and plaintiff of a lawsuit seeking the disclosure of the names of clergy offenders in Illinois, said.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis)

U.S., Russia clash at U.N. over chemical weapons attacks in Syria

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Michelle Nichols and Ellen Francis

UNITED NATIONS/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Russia and the United States tangled on Tuesday at the United Nations over the use of chemical weapons in Syria as Washington and its allies considered whether to strike at President Bashar al-Assad’s forces over a suspected poison gas attack last weekend.

Moscow and Washington halted attempts by each other in the U.N. Security Council to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in Syria, which is in the throes of a seven-year-old civil war.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Western allies are discussing possible military action to punish Assad for a suspected poison gas attack on Saturday on a rebel-held town that long had held out against government forces.

Trump on Tuesday canceled a planned trip to Latin America later this week to focus instead on responding to the Syria incident, the White House said. Trump had on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility for the Syria attack was established.

On the diplomatic front, Russia vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution at the United Nations to create a new inquiry to ascertain blame for such attacks. The United States and other countries then blocked a rival Russian bid to set up a separate probe that would require the Security Council to attribute responsibility.

Moscow opposes any Western strike on its close ally Assad and has vetoed Security Council action on Syria 12 times since the conflict started.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that adopting the U.S.-drafted resolution was the least that member nations could do.

“History will record that, on this day, Russia chose protecting a monster over the lives of the Syrian people,” Haley said, referring to Assad.

At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Saturday’s suspected chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma, according to a Syrian relief group.

Doctors and witnesses have said victims showed symptoms of poisoning, possibly by a nerve agent, and reported the smell of chlorine gas.

RUSSIA ACCUSES

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Washington’s decision to put forward its resolution could be a prelude to a Western strike on Syria.

“The United States is again trying to mislead the international community and is taking yet one more step toward confrontation,” Nebenzia told the 15-member council. “It is clear that the provocation step has nothing to do with a desire to investigate what happened.”

Twelve council members voted in favor of the U.S.-drafted resolution, while Bolivia joined Russia in voting no and China abstained. A Security Council resolution needs nine votes in favor but no vetoes by permanent members Russia, China, France, Britain or the United States to pass.

International chemical weapons experts are expected to go to Douma to investigate the suspected poison gas attack.

France and Britain discussed with the Trump administration how to respond to the Douma attack. Both stressed that the culprit still needed to be confirmed.

The Douma incident has thrust Syria’s conflict back to the forefront of the international stage, pitting Washington and Moscow against each other once again.

Trump told a meeting with military leaders and national security advisers on Monday that he would make a decision about how to respond within a few days, adding that the United States had “a lot of options militarily” on Syria.

Assad’s government and Russia have said there was no evidence a gas attack had taken place and that the claim was bogus.

Any U.S. strike is likely to involve naval assets, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defense systems. A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

Last year, the United States launched strikes from two Navy destroyers against a Syrian air base.

U.S. military action similar to last year’s would likely not cause a shift in the direction of the war that has gone Assad’s way since 2015 with massive aid from Iran and Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that any strikes would not target the Syrian government’s allies or anybody in particular, but would be aimed at the Syrian government’s chemical facilities.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS PROBE

The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syria had been asked to make the necessary arrangements for the deployment of an investigation team.

“The team is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly,” it said in a statement.

The mission will aim to determine whether banned munitions were used, but will not assign blame.

The Assad government and Russia both urged the OPCW to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma, a move by the two countries that was apparently aimed at averting any U.S.-led action.

“Syria is keen on cooperating with the OPCW to uncover the truth behind the allegations that some Western sides have been advertising to justify their aggressive intentions,” Syria’s state news agency SANA said.

A European source said European governments were waiting for the OPCW to carry out its investigation and for more solid forensic evidence from the attack to emerge. Any plan by Washington and its allies to take military action was likely to be on hold until then, the source said.

In Syria, thousands of militants and their families arrived in rebel-held parts of the country’s northwest after surrendering Douma to government forces.

Their evacuation restored Assad’s control over eastern Ghouta, formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus, and gave him his biggest battlefield victory since 2016, when he took back Aleppo.

Aggravating the volatile situation in the region, Iran – Assad’s other main ally – threatened to respond to an air strike on a Syrian military base on Monday that Tehran, Damascus and Moscow have blamed on Israel.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, meanwhile, said there was no threat of the situation in Syria resulting in a military clash between Russia and the United States. TASS news agency quoted him as saying he believed common sense would prevail.

A Russian warplane flew over a French warship at low altitude in the eastern Mediterranean this weekend, a deliberate breach of international regulations, a French naval source said on Tuesday.

The weekly magazine Le Point said the Russian plane had flown over the frigate Aquitaine and was fully armed. The Aquitaine is equipped with 16 cruise missiles and 16 surface-to-air missiles. It is currently operating off Lebanon alongside U.S. ships as part of France’s military contingent fighting Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

Despite the international revulsion over chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents in Syria only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since the war began in 2011.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Ellen Francis and Tom Perry in Beirut, Jack Stubbs and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Beirut and Steve Holland in Washington; writing by Alistair Bell; editing by Will Dunham and G Crosse)