Live Updates: Schumer, Durbin Demand That Barr and Others Testify About Seizure of Lawmakers’ Data

Credit…Pool photo by Joshua Roberts

Top Senate Democrats on Friday demanded that former Attorney General William P. Barr and other Justice Department officials testify before the Judiciary Committee about their extraordinary decision to secretly seize data from the accounts of House Democrats and their aides as they hunted for leaks of classified information.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chairman of the judiciary panel, said they were willing to subpoena for testimony Mr. Barr, former Attorney General Jeff Session and others if necessary. They also announced they would “vigorously investigate” the department’s actions and called on Republicans to join them in the inquiry.

“This issue should not be partisan; under the Constitution, Congress is a coequal branch of government and must be protected from an overreaching executive, and we expect that our Republican colleagues will join us in getting to the bottom of this serious matter,” Mr. Schumer and Mr. Durbin said in a statement.

Their demands came as Democrats in both chambers decried the seizures and aggressive investigative tactics, first reported by The New York Times on Thursday, as a gross abuse of power to target another branch of government. They said the pursuit of information on some of President Donald J. Trump’s most visible political adversaries in Congress smacked of dangerous politicization.

So far, no prominent Republicans have joined Democrats in calling for investigations, which could make fact-finding more difficult. The attempt by Mr. Schumer and Mr. Durbin to put pressure on them to stand up for Congress’s prerogatives reflected the fact that to issue subpoenas or compel testimony in an evenly divided Senate, Democrats would need at least some Republican support.

The Times reported that as it hunted for the source of leaks about Trump associates and Russia, the Justice Department had used grand jury subpoenas to compel Apple and one other service provider to hand over data tied to at least a dozen people associated with the House Intelligence Committee beginning in 2017 and 2018. The department then secured a gag order to keep it secret.

Though leak investigations are routine, current and former officials at the Justice Department and in Congress said seizing data on lawmakers is nearly unheard-of outside of corruption investigations. The Times also reported that after an initial round of scrutiny did not turn up evidence tying the intelligence committee to the leaks, Mr. Barr objected to closing out the inquiry and helped revive it.

Investigators gained access to the records of Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee and now its chairman; Representative Eric Swalwell of California; committee staff; and family members, including one who was a minor.

“I hope every prosecutor who was involved in this is thrown out of the department,” Mr. Swalwell said in an interview on Friday. “It crosses the line of what we do in this country.”

“We have to figure out what and how it happened to determine the extent to which D.O.J. misused its powers under Trump for political purposes,” he continued. “I think it was absolutely a frontal assault on the independence of a coequal branch of government.”

Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a member of the Intelligence Committee who has been a leading critic of government surveillance, said he planned to introduce legislation trying to crack down on the use of gag orders like the one used on Apple and news organizations, which were also scrutinized in the leak investigation.

“Revelations about the Trump Justice Department’s targeting of journalists and political rivals proves again how surveillance powers can be abused and the need to put strict limits on gag orders that prevent the targets of this spying from learning about it for years,” Mr. Wyden said in a statement.

A proposal by Senator Cory Booker, Democrat from New Jersey, on police reform seems to be hindering efforts toward a bi-partisan compromise.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Efforts to strike a bipartisan compromise on a national policing overhaul are teetering on the edge of a collapse in Congress, as yearlong negotiations threaten to break down under the weight of fraught ideological differences and a rapidly closing window for action.

After a Minneapolis jury in April found the white police officer who killed George Floyd guilty of murder, lawmakers in both parties were cautiously optimistic that the verdict would provide fresh momentum to break the impasse that had bedeviled negotiators since Mr. Floyd’s death. President Biden gave his support, too, calling on Congress to act by the first anniversary of the murder, in late May.

But that deadline has come and gone, and weeks after the verdict, negotiators are still at odds over the same roster of divisive issues, most notably whether to change criminal and civil penalties to make it easier to punish police officers for misconduct. Now, lawmakers working to break the stalemate and police lobbying groups involved in the talks are squabbling over a new proposal, and there remains no clear path to bridging their divides before a self-imposed deadline at the end of June.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do still,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Republicans’ lead emissary on the issue who had been taking a more upbeat tone as recently as last week. “The devil’s in the details, and we’re now meeting the devil.”

Mr. Scott and his Democratic counterparts — Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative Karen Bass of California — had hoped to be stitching up the final details of a rare bipartisan agreement right about now. The two sides repeatedly expressed optimism that they could merge competing proposals introduced last summer into a single bill to improve officer training, create a national database to track police misconduct, and make it easier for victims of misconduct to sue officers or their departments in court.

Instead, on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans found themselves trading veiled barbs over a written proposal circulated this week by Mr. Booker that appears to have only driven the two parties further apart and pitted powerful law enforcement groups against one another.

Democrats told their Republican counterparts that at least one such group, the Fraternal Order of Police, had lent its support to key provisions of the document, according to congressional aides familiar with the talks. The New York Times obtained a copy of the text.

The proposed measure would lower the threshold for the federal government to prosecute officers who commit egregious misconduct and violate an individual’s constitutional rights. It would also alter the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity to make it easier for victims or their families to sue police departments and municipalities, but not individual officers.

But rather than yielding a major breakthrough, Mr. Booker’s idea appeared to backfire. Republicans charged him with acting alone in an attempt to sway key policing interests in favor of an overly liberal bill. The more conservative National Sheriffs’ Association blasted its contents and began lobbying hard against it on Capitol Hill, and the Fraternal Order of Police quickly fired back.

“There ain’t no way in hell that’s going anywhere,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “The conversations we had about police reform were completely different than the document that was produced.”

Fog envelops the hills around Thomas Bay in Tongass National Forest in Petersburg, Alaska.
Credit…Stuart Isett for The New York Times

The Biden administration plans to restore environmental protections to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest that had been stripped away at the end of the Trump administration.

According to a White House agenda of forthcoming regulatory actions published on Friday, the administration intends to “repeal or replace” a Trump-era rule which opened about nine million acres of Tongass, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rain forests, to logging and road construction.

President Donald J. Trump exempted the Tongass from a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which banned logging and road construction in much of the national forest system.

Alaskan lawmakers have long said that lifting the roadless rule protections in their state would provide a sorely needed economic boost. Among those is Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican and a player in efforts to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on a sweeping infrastructure bill.

Environmentalists say that allowing road construction — a first step toward logging — could devastate the vast wilderness of snowy peaks, rushing rivers and virgin old-growth forest that is widely viewed as one of America’s treasures.

Climate scientists also point out that the Tongass offers an important service to the billions of people across the planet who are unlikely to ever set foot there: It is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing the equivalent of about 8 percent of the carbon stored in all the forests of the lower 48 states combined.

It is not clear if the Biden administration would return protections to the entire 9 million acres of the forest, or to only part of it. The White House agenda document says that the federal government will formally issue a notice of proposed rule-making by August, with environmental analyses and a final decision to follow in the coming years.

In a 2019 draft environmental study of possible changes to protections of the Tongass, the United States Forest Service said it would consider six possible changes to the rule. One option would have maintained restrictions in 80 percent of the area currently protected by the rule; another would have opened up about 2.3 million acres to logging and construction.

The bipartisan group of senators hashing out an infrastructure deal includes, from left, Senators Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah; Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire; Susan Collins, Republican of Maine; and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat from Arizona.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

A bipartisan group of centrist senators announced on Thursday that they had reached a tentative agreement on a framework for an infrastructure plan, as they mount a precarious bid to secure the blessing of the Biden administration, congressional leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers.

The statement, released by five Democrats and five Republicans, offered few details about the substance of the agreement, beyond that it was “a realistic, compromise framework to modernize our nation’s infrastructure and energy technologies” that would be fully paid for without tax increases.

But the preliminary framework is expected to include about $579 billion in new spending, as part of an overall package that would cost about $974 billion over five years and about $1.2 trillion over eight years, according to two people familiar with the details, who disclosed them on condition of anonymity. The Biden administration had previously signaled support for a package that spent at least $1 trillion in new funds over eight years, on top of the expected maintenance of existing programs.

The announcement came after a dizzying day on Capitol Hill, where senators involved in the discussions offered conflicting assessments of their progress. It was unclear how soon the group would unveil specific details or release legislative text, though members of the group said they were discussing the proposal with their colleagues and the White House.

The preliminary agreement, which sketches out funding for traditional physical infrastructure projects, faces steep headwinds, despite direct encouragement and personal outreach from President Biden. Lawmakers and aides in both parties remain skeptical that the group can muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, given deep divisions over funding levels and how to pay for such a package.

Shoaib Walizada, who interpreted for the U.S. Army for four years until 2013, had his preliminary approval for a visa revoked.
Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans who have served as interpreters for American forces are racing to secure visas before the U.S. withdrawal this fall, warning they could face death at the hands of the Taliban if snags in their paperwork stop them from getting out of the country in time.

More than 18,000 Afghans are awaiting decisions on their application for a Special Immigrant Visa, or S.I.V., according to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Many say they are seized by dread, fearing they will be denied, or approved only after they have been hunted down and killed.

The visa program, first approved by Congress in 2006 for interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq, has long been slowed by chronic delays and logjams. Most recently, a 2020 report by the State Department Inspector General identified six serious shortcomings in the Afghan S.I.V. process, including staff shortages and lack of a centralized database.

Many interpreters complain that they wait for months, and in some cases years, for a decision. Nearly 21,000 visas were issued to Afghans from 2009 to March 2021, according to State Department figures. Just under 11,000 visas are still available.

The visa program has rejected some applicants for seemingly minor infractions and others for no stated reason. In the last three months of 2020 alone, State Department statistics show, 1,646 Afghans were denied one of the special visas, which are issued to applicants satisfying demanding requirements and rigorous background checks even though interpreters would already have passed security screenings.

Among reasons cited for denial were the failure to prove the required length of service, insufficient documentation, failure to establish “faithful and valuable service” and “derogatory information.”

One of them is Shoaib Walizada, who is finding that an offhand comment, blurted out in frustration, may have destroyed his chances of earning the right to migrate to the United States.

Mr. Walizada, 31, who interpreted for the U.S. Army for four years until 2013, said that he had complained one day, using profanity, that his assigned combat vest was too small. When the episode came to light later that year, Mr. Walizada’s preliminary approval for a visa was revoked for “unprofessional conduct.”

“I get phone calls from the Taliban saying, ‘We will kill you’ — they know who I am and that I worked for the Americans,” Mr. Walizada said.

No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that advocates for the relocation of Afghan interpreters to the United States, says that more than 300 translators or their relatives have been killed since 2014. Thousands of S.I.V. applicants have submitted “threat letters” they received from the Taliban.

A worker transported merchandise at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran on Wednesday as the country continues to be in economic crisis brought on by sanctions and made worse by the pandemic.
Credit…Atta Kenare/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Biden administration on Thursday lifted sanctions on three former Iranian government officials and two Iranian companies involved in the country’s oil industry, a conciliatory gesture days before a potentially decisive round of nuclear talks in Vienna.

The administration cautioned against reading too much into the move. Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said there was “absolutely no connection” between the sanctions and discussions among several world powers and Tehran.

Those talks are intended to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 deal that sought to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for an end to many of the international sanctions that have squeezed the country’s economy.

In the same statements announcing that the United States had lifted some sanctions, the State and Treasury Departments also said they were imposing new ones on a dozen Iranian individuals, entities and vessels for providing financial support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran.

A sixth round of nuclear talks begins in Vienna this weekend. Robert Einhorn, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution, said that the timing of the U.S. announcements suggested a connection to the nuclear issue, and that it might be a signal of American flexibility.

“What they’re saying to Iran,” Mr. Einhorn said, “is, look, we’re prepared to be reasonable here: When sanctions are no longer warranted, we’re prepared to lift them; but when they are warranted, we’re prepared to impose them.”

That message could also provide ammunition to Republicans in Congress who contend that President Biden, in his determination to renew the nuclear deal, will trade away the leverage over Iran that sanctions provide.

At a daily briefing with reporters, Mr. Price insisted that there “is no linkage, there is no connection” to the nuclear talks. But he added that the action was a reminder that U.S. sanctions could always be reversed.

“Every time we impose sanctions, it is our hope that through a verified change in behavior, a verified change in status, we’ll one day be able to remove those sanctions,” Mr. Price said. “Because that means that one way or another, our policy objectives have been met.”

The United States has been negotiating with Iran since April, though only indirectly, through intermediaries in Vienna, because of Tehran’s refusal to speak directly with American officials.

Biden administration officials have said for weeks that they are prepared to lift sanctions on Iran as part of a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 deal, and that the main obstacle to an agreement is whether Iran’s hard-line leadership is prepared to respond by scaling back its nuclear activities.

The 2015 deal, negotiated by the Obama administration and several other world powers, traded Western sanctions relief in return for Iran’s agreement to accept limits on — and international monitoring of — its nuclear program to ensure that it did not try to build a weapon. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.

Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, right, is under investigation for professional misconduct over his legal challenge to President Biden’s 2020 victory.
Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

The State Bar of Texas is investigating whether Attorney General Ken Paxton committed professional misconduct by challenging President Biden’s victory in the courts, which a complaint called a “frivolous lawsuit” that wasted taxpayer money.

The investigation, which could result in discipline ranging from a reprimand to disbarment, is the latest obstacle for Mr. Paxton, who has been at the center of bribery and corruption accusations and who was indicted in 2015 on allegations of securities fraud in a case that has not been resolved.

Mr. Paxton, a Republican, is also being challenged by a member of the Bush family in next year’s primary for attorney general, a position that has served as a political springboard. Both candidates are vying for an endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump, who still wields great influence over Texas Republicans.

After it became clear that Mr. Biden won the election, Mr. Paxton filed a lawsuit in early December that was ridiculed by many legal experts and ultimately rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. He had asked the court to extend a deadline for the certification of presidential electors, arguing that election irregularities in four other states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — warranted further investigation.

That month, Kevin Moran, a retired Houston Chronicle reporter and president of the Galveston Island Democrats, filed a grievance to the Texas State Bar. In his filing, Mr. Moran contended that Mr. Paxton knew the lawsuit lacked legal merit and that any unelected lawyer would face disciplinary action for filing a frivolous lawsuit.

“Knowing that the national election had NOT been rigged or stolen, he acted in a way to stoke those baseless conspiracy theories nationwide,” Mr. Moran wrote.

The State Bar of Texas said it was prohibited by statute from discussing any pending matters, and the attorney general’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Mr. Paxton’s campaign spokesman, Ian Prior, denounced the complaint as a “low-level stunt” and “frivolous allegation.”

Democrats said State Representative Mike Nearman had shown a complete disregard for the rule of law and the principles of democracy.
Credit…Andrew Selsky/Associated Press

Lawmakers in Oregon ejected one of their colleagues from office for the first time in state history late Thursday night, voting 59 to 1 to oust Representative Mike Nearman for his role in helping a far-right crowd breach the State Capitol in December.

Mr. Nearman, who was the only no vote, had faced rising pressure from his Republican colleagues to resign from office this week, days after newly surfaced video showed him apparently coaching people on how they might get inside the closed Capitol. Previous security footage had showed how Mr. Nearman exited the building where protesters had gathered, allowing them inside and setting off a confrontation with law enforcement officers.

Mr. Nearman, who faces misdemeanor charges for his actions, said on Thursday that legislative leaders should have never excluded the public from the Capitol — a decision that was a coronavirus precaution. But Democrats said Mr. Nearman had shown a complete disregard for the rule of law and the principles of democracy.

“His actions were blatant and deliberate, and he has shown no remorse for jeopardizing the safety of every person in the Capitol that day,” Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, said in a statement after the vote.

The case had striking similarities to the U.S. Capitol siege that unfolded a couple of weeks later. Although the crowd in Salem was smaller, it was filled with Trump supporters waving flags, far-right agitators wearing body armor, and people chanting for punishment: “Arrest Kate Brown,” they shouted, referring to Oregon’s Democratic governor.

But while Republicans in Congress have resisted major actions in the Capitol siege — recently rejecting a plan for an independent commission — G.O.P. lawmakers in Oregon coalesced in recent days around the idea that Mr. Nearman needed to go. Each of his colleagues joined in a letter this week calling for his resignation.

The House Republican leader, Christine Drazan, said Mr. Nearman had indiscriminately allowed violent protesters into the building. Representative Bill Post, a Republican who said he was one of Mr. Nearman’s closest colleagues, wrote a message explaining that Mr. Nearman had lied to him personally and to other Republican colleagues about whether there was evidence that opening the door had been planned.

“That plan put at risk lawmakers, staff and police officers inside of the building,” Mr. Post wrote.

In the video that surfaced last week, apparently streamed online in the days before the Dec. 21 breach, Mr. Nearman coyly repeats his own cellphone number, suggesting that anyone trying to enter the Capitol could text him.

“That is just random numbers that I spewed out. That’s not anybody’s actual cellphone,” Mr. Nearman said in the footage. “And if you say, ‘I’m at the West entrance’ during the session and text to that number there, that somebody might exit that door while you’re standing there. But I don’t know anything about that.”

A carefully spaced line of people waiting for assistance at a Social Security Administration office in March 2020.
Credit…Joshua Bright for The New York Times

The Biden administration lifted restrictions on the number of federal employees permitted to work from the office while maintaining a flexible telework policy that was expanded during the pandemic, according to guidance issued on Thursday.

The memo from the Office of Management and Budget reversed a policy issued in January that imposed a 25 percent cap on the number of employees that could work in the office. The new guidance comes as the nation works toward President Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of the country vaccinated by July 4 and reopening offices, schools and businesses throughout the United States.

The policy issued on Thursday followed up on an announcement the day before directing agencies to not require workers to get vaccinated in order to return to the office. “Agencies may establish occupancy limits for specific workplaces as a means of ensuring physical distancing between unvaccinated individuals,” according to the guidance issued Thursday.

The loosening of the restrictions “will facilitate planning for an increased return of Federal employees to physical workplaces, and it clearly reinforces that the safety of the Federal workforce remains a top priority,” according to a statement from Jason Miller, deputy director for management for the Office of Management and Budget.

But there will not be an immediate surge back to federal offices. The heads of agencies will need to complete a phased plan for the return of employees by July 19 while fulfilling obligations to respective labor unions, some of which have pressed for clean work environments and flexible schedules for employees. When each department does fully re-open, it will continue to allow employees “maximum telework flexibilities,” according to the directive issued Thursday.

Republicans have recently pressed Mr. Biden to lift the restrictions. Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, ranking member of the subcommittee on government operations, wrote a letter to the Office of Management and Budget claiming the lack of “face-to-face services during the pandemic has had real, negative impacts on veterans, Social Security beneficiaries, and others who need prompt, attentive service from public servants at federal agencies.”

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