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Monday
Oct142019

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard says she’ll join Democratic debate after threatening to boycott

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- After Rep. Tulsi Gabbard threatening to boycott Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Ohio, she now says she will be on the stage with her fellow competitors.

"Thank you so much for your support. I just want to let you know that I will be attending the debate. Aloha,” Gabbard said in an email to supporters Monday morning.

Gabbard criticized the Democratic National Committee and corporate media for “rigging” the 2020 election against “the American people” in early voting states in a video she posted on social media last week.

“I am giving serious consideration to boycotting the next debate on October 15th. I will announce my decision within the next few days,” Gabbard said in a video posted on social media Thursday.

Gabbard cited meeting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who have “expressed to me how frustrated you are that the DNC and corporate media are essentially trying to usurp your role as voters in choosing who our Democratic nominee will be.”

Gabbard claimed the DNC and corporate media are trying to replace the roles of voters in early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and replace them with polling and “other arbitrary methods which are not transparent or democratic.”

“They're holding so-called debates, which really are not debates at all, but rather commercialized reality television meant to entertain, rather than to inform or enlighten.”

The DNC declined to comment on the matter to ABC News.

This isn’t the first time Gabbard had been critical of the DNC’s debate rules. After failing to make the debate stage in September, her campaign at the time cited what they describe as several irregularities in the selection and timing of the DNC sponsored polls.

According to the criteria that the DNC set forth, 2020 presidential candidates must meet the donor threshold of 130,000 unique donors and 2% in four DNC qualified polls for Tuesday's debate. Gabbard had exceeded the donor threshold for the September debate but needed two polls to meet the debate criteria.

Gabbard’s campaign had exceeded 2% support in over two dozen polls, but only two of the polls she had at the time were among those included on the DNC’s “certified” list. She has been polling among the bottom tier in such certified polls.

In a press release, the campaign said many of the uncertified polls, including those conducted by highly reputable organizations such as The Economist and the Boston Globe, are ranked by Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight as more accurate than some DNC “certified” polls.”

The Hawaii congresswoman, who stepped down as a DNC vice chairwoman to support Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bid in 2016, railed against her party saying, “the 2016 Democratic Primary election was rigged by the DNC and their partners in the corporate media against Bernie Sanders.”

Fellow 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson, who is also polling among the bottom tier of contenders in certified polls, came to Gabbard’s defense saying on Twitter “I have great respect for Tulsi for saying such inconvenient truth. She is absolutely correct.”


Gabbard has been a vocal critic of the DNC’s rules surrounding the debates, calling them out for banning candidates from participating in issue-based debates. Last week in New Hampshire, she said, "If I as a candidate go and participate in one of these debates or forums, that is not sanctioned by the DNC, the DNC says they will ban me from participating in any future DNC debate. That doesn't sound very democratic to me. This was a rule that was implemented in 2016. And it was a major issue that I raised when I was vice chair of the DNC at that time for this very reason."

But Gabbard also claimed that she was “looking forward” to using the upcoming debate platform and speak to millions of people and deliver her message.

“It's a challenging setup and dynamic that are on these debates where, you know, you never know exactly how much talk time you'll actually have, and being able to speak out on different issues of importance.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Oct142019

Trump administration warns of tariff hike if US, China trade deal is not finalized

Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned of a coming tariff hike if China does not finalize the specifics of a newly negotiated partial trade deal announced by President Donald Trump last week.

The tariffs on 15% of $160 billion worth of Chinese goods impacting consumer electronics-- cellphones, laptops, toys--would go into effect by Dec. 15. It was previously unclear whether the December tariffs would go into effect, given that both the U.S. and China are actively engaged in trade talks.

“I have every expectation that if there’s not a deal, those tariffs would go in place,” said Sec. Mnuchin on CNBC. “But I expect we’ll have a deal.”

The tariffs scheduled for this month on $250 billion worth of Chinese products, however, will no longer go into effect as Mnuchin described both sides as “having reached a fundamental understanding of key issues.”

Should the December tariffs go into effect, China would likely respond by imposing retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods at what would be the peak of the holiday shopping season.

“We have a fundamental agreement,” Mnuchin said on CNBC. “It is subject to documentation and there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.”

The trade talks are expected to continue when President Trump meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at an Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit next month in Chile.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Oct142019

Former US national security expert on Russia sits for deposition in impeachment inquiry

drnadig/iStock(WASHINGTON) --  Congress continues closed-door depositions this week regarding the growing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, and now Fiona Hill, a former top national security adviser on Russia who left the administration just before the president's July phone call with the president of Ukraine, is meeting with lawmakers Monday.

Democrats have accused Trump of abusing his office and potentially violating campaign finance laws. Despite admitting he wanted Democratic rival and former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden's son, Hunter, investigated by Ukraine for alleged corruption, Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong.

Hill’s lawyer, Lee Wolosky, tweeted Monday morning that his client was subpoenaed by Democrats ahead of her testimony. Sources tell ABC News Hill was appearing as a voluntary witness and that the White House did not attempt to block her testimony.

An official working on the impeachment inquiry told ABC News that the committee subpoenaed Hill "in light of attempts by the White House and the Administration to direct witnesses not to cooperate with the House's impeachment inquiry and efforts by the White House to limit any testimony that does occur."

"As is required of her, Dr. Hill is now complying with the subpoena and answering questions from both Democratic and Republican Members and staff," the official said.

A copy of the request for documents and testimony lawmakers issued to Hill last week, obtained by ABC News, revealed a broad spectrum of issues the Democrat-led committees hope she can shed light on. The request included information about the efforts by any current or former Trump administration officials -- as well as the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and newly indicted Soviet-born Florida-based businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Furman -- to investigate matters related to Burisma Holdings, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Hunter and Joe Biden, the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie "Masha" Yovanovitch.

Before her most recent work in the White House, Hill served under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama as a career national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council.

An accomplished scholar and author on modern Russia, and a sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, Hill initially was recruited to the post by Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his then-deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, according to a source. Hill officially joined the national security team under the leadership of Flynn's successor, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, in April 2017.

Hill, who holds a master's in Soviet studies and a doctorate in history from Harvard University, is described by former colleagues as the ultimate expert on all things related to Russian foreign policy, with a great wealth of institutional knowledge of Putin's domestic and international strategic goals. She is widely praised for her work on the NSC, and multiple individuals close to her have said they're amazed she lasted so long in the Trump administration.

"Hill would be able to describe to the committees discrepancies, observations and recommendations emanated by inter-agency discussions organized by the NSC, and if and how those recommendations were acted upon by the president," said ABC News Contributor John Cohen, a former DHS acting undersecretary who's worked as both a congressional and federal investigator.

"She would have access -- and would have been involved in -- senior discussions on Russia and other issues, with visibility in internal discussions within the White House on Russia and Ukraine," Cohen added.

Hill is presently on leave from The Brookings Institute in Washington, where she directed the Center on the United States and Europe from 2009 to 2017.

Reached by ABC News, Wolosky declined to comment ahead of Hill's testimony. The Brookings Institute also declined to comment.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Oct142019

'I am very concerned': FEC chairwoman on 2020 election interference

3dfoto/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The Federal Election Commission chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, told ABC News she is concerned that foreign entities could interfere in the 2020 election.

"I think we should be very concerned. I am very concerned. We saw foreign entities trying to take a role in the 2016 election," Weintraub said.

While Weintraub did not go into any specifics or comment on recent cases, her comments come as two men with ties to Rudy Giuliani were arrested on campaign finance violations.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Soviet-born businessmen based in Florida, have been charged with four counts, including conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud, false statements to the Federal Election Commission, and falsification of records. Both Parnas and Fruman have been tied to the work done by the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in Ukraine, where Giuliani has had significant business interests.

"I can only tell you that from the FEC perspective as I understand the law, if a foreign government is investing resources in producing something that will be a value to a campaign here in the United States, that's a problem," she stressed.

Weintraub said it is "illegal" for anyone to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. Election.

She would not discuss the president calling for China to investigate Joe Biden, but said that any foreign interference is unwelcomed, and on the issue of Trump's alleged involvement in asking Ukraine to investigate Biden, Weintraub wouldn't comment but defined what the law said.

"I'm not going to comment on what any individual may have done but I can just tell you that it is illegal for anyone to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election," she said.

"Well without commenting on the decision that the Justice Department made in any particular instance just talking about the law in general, I can tell you that the FEC has looked at things of value in a variety of context and sometimes they're not even ascertainable when you're talking about money that could be coming from foreign sources. The bar is pretty low on what you would want to investigate. I think because any interference at all is going to be illegal," she said.

"So we have looked at in the domestic context ... things like mailing lists, contact lists, opposition research things that people sometimes pay for. I mean that is one issue that is a thing of value that something that people normally pay for. We would also look at whether somebody spent money in order to acquire the information in order to produce the information that would also be a relevant factor for us," Weintraub added.

Her analysis directly contradicts the decision the Justice Department rendered about Trump's phone call with the president of Ukraine because it didn't amount to a thing of value.

"Well I think it's really important for candidates to know where the money is coming from that's coming into their campaigns and where any resources are coming from that is coming into their campaigns. One of my longstanding concerns about our current system is that there's too much dark money, there's too much obfuscation of where the money's really coming from. This applies to all resources," Weintraub said.

"Every candidate should be 100% clear with everyone they're dealing with that they are fully on board with complying with every law including and especially the law against accepting foreign money and foreign assistance," she said.

Weintraub's 18 years on the FEC has not been without controversy -- especially as of late.

In June, Weintraub seemingly subtweeted the president, by releasing a statement saying that it's illegal to get help from a foreign government during an election.

The tweet came after Trump told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in the Oval Office in June, "I think maybe you do both," in reference to whether his campaign would accept such information from foreigners -- such as China or Russia -- or hand it over the FBI.

"I think you might want to listen, there isn't anything wrong with listening," Trump continued. "If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent' -- oh, I think I'd want to hear it."

Weintraub resurfaced the statement when the president seemingly asked China to investigate Joe Biden earlier this month.

The FEC chairwoman has also been under scrutiny from Congressional Republicans and Republicans on her own commission.

Just this week, ranking member of the House Administration Committee sent a letter to the FEC inspector general alleging that "since at least February 2017 Chair Weintraub has used FEC resources to publish her personal opinion on political matters."

In response, Weintraub tweeted that she "will not be silenced."

Weintraub, who was nominated by George W. Bush, also took aim at her Republican colleague Caroline Hunter on Twitter over the blocking of an unpublished rule.

"GOP FEC Commissioner Caroline Hunter took the altogether unprecedented step of objecting to its being added to the Digest and blocked publication of the whole Digest as a result," Weintraub tweeted in a series of posts.

"I always thought these anti-regulatory people liked the First Amendment well enough. I guess they think it's just for corporations," she continued. "I'm not fond of anyone trying to suppress my speech."

"And I think the public should absolutely not miss out on this week's Digest. So! Because Commissioner Hunter has blocked the Commission from publishing the FEC's Weekly Digest, I have decided to publish the information myself here on Twitter," Weintraub explained.

The memo she tweeted summarized the FEC's interpretation of foreign national contributions.

Hunter has not responded to ABC News' request for comment.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Oct142019

Hunter Biden sits down for exclusive interview with ABC News

ABC News(LOS ANGELES) -- Hunter Biden sat down with ABC News anchor Amy Robach over the weekend at his home in Los Angeles for an exclusive interview, and no questions were off limits.

Tune in to Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline and ABC News Live and ABCNews.com starting Tuesday for more.

Hunter Biden, the 49-year-old son of former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, has become the focal point of a political firestorm over his former position on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

The board position has come into further focus since the release of a summary transcript of a whisteblower's complaint last month, which triggered an impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives.

In a July 25 phone call, President Donald Trump, according to the unnamed whistleblower, asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to look into alleged criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens in connection with Hunter Biden's job with Burisma.

U.S. arms sales to Ukraine have become embroiled in a controversy, with some claims of quid pro quo against the Trump administration, after the White House ordered nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine to be withheld.

Trump has repeatedly said there was no quid pro quo, and nothing wrong with the call to Zelenskiy at all -- he was simply asking Ukraine to investigate alleged corruption.

No evidence of illegal wrongdoing has been found against Hunter Biden or his father.

On Sunday, Hunter Biden's lawyer announced Hunter would step down from the board of a Chinese-backed private equity company by the end of this month and commit to halting all work with foreign entities if his father wins the presidency in 2020.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Sunday
Oct132019

Hunter Biden to step down from Chinese company board amid 'false attacks' by President Trump: Lawyer

iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden will step down from the board of directors of a Chinese-backed private equity company by the end of this month and commit to halting all work with foreign entities if his father wins the White House in 2020, according to his attorney.

The announcement on Sunday of Hunter Biden's impending plans to dispel "purported conflicts of interest, or the appearance of such conflicts" stemming from his overseas business interests comes amid unsubstantiated allegations by President Donald Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that he sought to cash in on his farther's power as vice president in the Obama administration.

The actions being taken by Joe Biden's 49-year-old son also come as Democratic leaders have launched an impeachment probe against Trump, who a whistleblower claims pressured newly-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.

In a July 25 phone call, Trump, according to the unnamed whistleblower, asked Zelensky to look into alleged criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens in connection with Hunter Biden's job with a Ukrainian gas company. U.S. arms sales to Ukraine have become embroiled in a controversy after the White House ordered nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine to be withheld.

In a lengthy statement released on Sunday to ABC News, Hunter Biden's lawyer George Mesires said the accusations leveled by Trump and Giuliani bear "little resemblance to the public records."

In recent days, Trump has turned his attention to China, and specifically Hunter Biden's involvement in negotiating a deal to create a joint investment fund between his company, Rosemont Seneca, and a Chinese state-run bank. Earlier this month, Trump called on Beijing to launch an investigation into the Bidens.

Mesires said Hunter Biden plans to resign from the board of BHR Equity Investment Fund Management Co., which is backed by the Chinese government, by Oct. 31.

"To date, Hunter has not received any compensation for being on BHR’s board of directors," Mesires said in statement that was first posted on the website Medium and reported by Bloomberg News.

Mesires said that while Hunter Biden has committed to invest about $420,000 to acquire a 10% equity position in BHR, "he has not received any return on his investment; there have been no distributions to BHR shareholders since Hunter obtained his equity interest. Moreover, Hunter played no role in directing or making BHR’s investments."

In April, Hunter Biden resigned from the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, a major Ukrainian natural gas company.

"Despite extensive scrutiny, at no time has any law enforcement agency, either domestic or foreign, alleged that Hunter engaged in wrongdoing at any point during his five-year term" with Burisma, Mesires said.

Acknowledging that he has become an issue for his father's campaign for president, Hunter Biden, according to Mesires, is also making a commitment to forgo work overseas if his father wins the 2020 presidential election.

"Under a Biden Administration, Hunter will readily comply with any and all guidelines or standards a President Biden may issue to address purported conflicts of interest, or the appearance of such conflicts, including any restrictions related to overseas business interests. In any event, Hunter will agree not to serve on boards of, or work on behalf of, foreign-owned companies," Mesires said in his statement.

"He will continue to keep his father personally uninvolved in his business affairs, while availing himself as necessary and appropriate to the Office of the White House Counsel to help inform his application of the Biden Administration’s guidelines or standards to his business decision-making."

During a gaggle with reporters in Iowa, Joe Biden told reporters that he did not consult with his son on what the statement said, but said it “represents the kind of man of integrity he is and what in fact he has done and why he stepped down.”

“He’s decided that he does not think that is good to do. He has said that he does not like the appearance of it,” Biden said, when pressed by reporters on why his son felt he needed to step down from the company if there was nothing wrong with the work he did abroad.

Biden also pledged he would take steps to ensure that there was no conflicts or appearance of conflicts with members of his family if he were elected in 2020.

“No one in my family will have an office in the White House, will sit in at meetings as if they’re a cabinet member, will in fact have any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or a foreign country. Period. Period. End of story.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Sunday
Oct132019

2020 candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren uses false ads to lash out at Facebook CEO

Twitter/@ElizabethWarren(WASHINGTON) -- Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren continued her campaign against Facebook on Sunday, one day after she posted false advertisements to Facebook on Saturday to see if she could prove to voters that the social media platform values profit over facts.

"Facebook holds incredible power to affect elections and our national debate. They’ve decided to let political figures lie to you -- even about Facebook itself -- while their executives and their investors get even richer off the ads containing these lies," Warren wrote in a series of Twitter posts Saturday criticizing Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

The ads, publicly sponsored by the Warren campaign, claim Zuckerberg endorsed President Donald Trump for reelection, showing a photo of Trump and Zuckerberg in the Oval Office. Then the ads immediately take it back, ironically slamming Zuckerberg for giving politicians free reign to post false information.

"You're probably shocked, and you might be thinking, 'How could this possibly be true?' Well, it's not," the ads say. "But what Zuckerberg has done is given Donald Trump free reign to lie on his platform -- and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters."

On Sunday, Warren levied criticism at Facebook over a reported settlement over a lawsuit related to inflated video metrics.

"Companies shifted their resources and strategies because of Facebook's inflated metrics, costing them money and contributing to job losses," Warren tweeted. "We need to do a lot more to hold Facebook accountable."

Criticism of the platform's ad policy broke out last week as Facebook political ad transparency reports showed Trump's reelection team dropped a total of $1.1 million on political ads between Sept. 22-28, pushing against an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats.

Warren said her campaign intentionally made the ad to see if Facebook would approve it, and they quickly did. She said many of the ads Facebook approves are ones TV stations won't even air.

"Once again, we’re seeing Facebook throw its hands up to battling misinformation in the political discourse, because when profit comes up against protecting democracy, Facebook chooses profit," Warren wrote.

She added, "Facebook just takes the cash, no questions asked."

Facebook tweeted about the ad via its newsroom account on Saturday in an effort to explain why it decided against pulling the fake ad.

"@ewarren looks like broadcast stations across the country have aired this ad nearly 1,000 times, as required by law," Facebook tweeted. "FCC doesn’t want broadcast companies censoring candidates’ speech. We agree it’s better to let voters—not companies—decide. #FCC #candidateuse"

The social media giant's response only seemed to intensify Warren's furry as she immediately responded in a tweeted that accused the company of changing its ad policies to boost what she called it's "the disinformation-for-profit business."

"You’re making my point here. It’s up to you whether you take money to promote lies," she wrote Saturday evening in a tweet that quoted the company's earlier statement. "You can be in the disinformation-for-profit business, or you can hold yourself to some standards. In fact, those standards were in your policy. Why the change?"

Facebook did not immediately respond to ABC News' e-mail request on Sunday asking for a response to Warren's claims about it changing its advertising policies.

Warren's campaign declined to detail how much they spent on this particular ad or how long they're planning on letting it run, but according to Advertising Analytics, a firm that tracks campaign spending, the price tag most likely fell somewhere in between $4,000 and $5,000.

In the last week, Warren's election team has spent a little more than $172,000 on Facebook advertising, bringing her total ad spending on the platform to about $4.1 million. According to analytics from Facebook's ad library, the fake ads have overwhelmingly and disproportionately reached women over men across all age demographics. They also weren't being shown in any or the four primary states as it's focus has been primarily targeted to states like California New York, Florida and Texas, according to ABC News' analysis of the public data.

This isn't the first rift between the lawmaker and Facebook.

In March, Warren unveiled her plans to break up "big tech" companies. Through the policy, Warren would "unwind tech mergers that illegally undermine competition " -- citing Amazon for its takeover of Whole Foods, Facebook for its takeover of WhatsApp and Instagram and Google's for its takeover of the mapping app Waze.

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power -- too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” Warren said in a statement. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else.”

Zuckerberg said he would "go to the mat" and fight for his company against Warren's policy, according to audio leaked Oct. 1 from a July Q&A session with Facebook employees at company headquarters.

"Does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government ... We care about our country and want to work with our government and do good things," Zuckerberg said in the audio. "But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight."

Warren expressed concerns on Twitter that she believes Facebook holds power not just over the social media market, but also the political conversation surrounding the 2020 election. And as the fourth Democratic debate nears and early-voting states are paying closer attention to the candidates, she said letting false claims circulate is dangerous.

"Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once through negligence," she tweeted. "Now, they've changed their policy so they can profit from lies to the American people."

A sign-up sheet was created on her campaign website to give voters what she called a chance to "hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Sunday
Oct132019

Arrest of Giuliani associates tied to Ukraine scandal renews scrutiny on campaign finance rules

iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The criminal "dark money" case involving two men with ties to President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has raised more questions about how the presence of foreign money in U.S. elections can enable nefarious actors to take advantage of a political system powered by cash.

The ultimate goal of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were charged Thursday with allegedly plotting a complex scheme to circumvent campaign finance laws, by using straw donations to disguise the original source of contributions and exceed donation limits, was "to gain influence with candidates as to policies that would benefit a future business venture," according to the indictment.

"It's very clear that the goal of these contributions was to buy access in order to advance their own personal financial interests and the interests of foreign government officials," Brendan Fischer, federal reform director at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, told ABC News. "That is a pretty clear example of the problems with our with our political system -- that in order to have your voice heard by powerful politicians, you have to give them money."

Both Parnas and Fruman have denied wrongdoing. Giuliani told ABC News' Kyra Phillips on Saturday that he has no knowledge he's under investigation and that no one from the Department of Justice had contacted him about Parnas or Fruman.

As foreign actors and governments continue to implement a wide range of tactics to penetrate and hold sway within America's political landscape, these unsealed charges raise questions about the extent to which individuals with foreign allegiances are leveraging political ties to undermine campaign finance safeguards and gain influence, experts said.

"The charges of conspiracy to funnel foreign dollars into U.S. elections against Florida businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman paint a troubling picture of the free flow of foreign money into our elections due to insufficient safeguards and lax enforcement," Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation for Common Cause, another watchdog group, said in a statement. "[Thursday's] indictments, though, likely represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of foreign meddling."

"Both men were also heavily involved in the efforts by the White House and President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate unsubstantiated allegations against Trump's political rival, Joe Biden," he added.

Loopholes in campaign finance law

Parnas and Fruman are not the first to allegedly try to buy political influence, and they likely won't be the last to defy existing rules, experts told ABC News.

But their alleged actions bring new scrutiny on the current campaign finance apparatus and the lawmakers and officials responsible for patrolling it. The entire system operates in relatively new terrain after the blockbuster 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court's conservative majority in the case ruled unconstitutional a longstanding federal law prohibiting corporate "independent expenditures" supporting or opposing federal candidates under the First Amendment.

Ryan said the advent of Citizens United, which fueled the rise of super PACs, political actions committees that can accept unlimited donations, unlike candidate committees and regular PACs that are limited, is the main reason the two Florida residents may have been able to easily conceal their identities while contributing to super PACs.

"It was clear in 2010 that disclosure laws on the books would not prevent the sort of corporate, straw-donor scheme at the heart of the Parnas and Fruman indictment unsealed [Thursday]," he noted.

But the alleged actions of Parnas and Fruman, Fischer said, clearly show why concerns over the weakness of campaign finance laws must extend beyond Citizens United.

"There's a history of wealthy donors using LLCs to make political contributions anonymously," Fischer said. "Wealthy donors setting up an LLC, putting money into the LLC, and then donating in the name of the LLC rather than in their own name in at first."

The problem, Fischer told ABC News, is the FEC's lack of enforcement.

"The reason that Fruman and Parnas may have felt comfortable using an LLC to launder their political contributions," Fischer said, "is because they figured the FEC wouldn't do anything about it."

The FEC has long faced criticism that it has been unable to act on important matters because of partisanship and frequent deadlocks. Concerns over the Federal Election Commission further intensified last month when one of the four remaining commissioners resigned, leaving the agency one vote short of the quorum required to act on any substantial matter.

But efforts to conceal foreign sources of political contributions haven't always gone unnoticed.

Last year, federal prosecutors indicted a veteran Republican lobbyist, Sam Patten, in a foreign lobbying and campaign finance case referred by special counsel Robert Mueller, leading to a guilty plea and cooperation from the operative, who illegally purchased tickets to Trump's inauguration on behalf of a foreign client. In April, Patten was sentenced to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and 500 hours of community service.

2 men tied to Ukraine scandal rankle GOP

The indictment of Parnas and Fruman details a "foreign national donor scheme" alleging how the two men and other associates funneled "$1-2 million" from a foreign donor with "Russian roots" into the U.S. political system between June 2018 and April 2019 to boost the donor's recreational marijuana business while concealing the origin of their money.

The indictment also alleges the defendants made a series of illegal straw donations that included $325,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action. Prosecutors allege that the two suspects violated the law by falsely reporting the origin of those funds under the name of "Global Energy Producers."

The indictment outlines Parnas and Fruman's alleged scheme to raise $20,000 for a "then-sitting U.S. Congressman" who "had also been the beneficiary of approximately $3 million" from America First Action during the 2018 midterm cycle. According to the indictment, Parnas allegedly met with the congressman and sought his "assistance in causing the U.S. government to remove or recall the then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine," Marie Yovanovitch.

The indictment doesn't name the congressman, but it appears to be former Rep. Pete Sessions, who is seeking a return to Congress in 2020, ABC News reported.

Sessions, in a statement on Thursday, stopped short of confirming that he is "Congressman-1" in the indictment, but added that if he is indeed the congressman in question, he would not have any knowledge of the alleged campaign finance scheme.

Another Republican member of Congress entangled in the scandal is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, after it was revealed an $11,000 donation from Parnas to McCarthy's joint fundraising committee with the National Republican Campaign Committee, Protect the House, also was part of the defendants' straw-donation scheme, the indictment showed.

But a McCarthy spokesperson said Thursday he is giving any donations from Parnas and Fruman to a local charity, adding, "The deception documented in [Thursday's] indictment has no place in our country."

Sessions, late Friday, similarly said he'd be donating what he'd received to charity, as reported by USA TODAY.

2020 Democrats map out campaign finance reforms

The allegations of illicit contributions from Parnas and Fruman to multiple Republicans, all the way up to a Trump-blessed PAC, come as many Democratic 2020 candidates have implemented some form of self-imposed limits on campaign fundraising -- a move that highlights the significance of the party's promise to get money out of politics.

Two top-tier candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have been leading the charge in swearing off closed-door, high-dollar fundraisers through the general election, and other 2020 candidates also have been vocal in criticizing Citizens United.

While the presidential hopefuls are perhaps churning out more detailed policies to reform campaign finance in the primary, Fischer argues that to prevent foreign cash from slipping through, candidates should go farther than just talking about big-picture ideas related to corporate donations or overturning Citizens United, an unlikely outcome given the current makeup of the Supreme Court.

Warren has also said she would only nominate commissioners who would rigorously enforce campaign finance laws, , Sanders has put out a proposal to restructure the FEC, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has made an effort to rid the political system of "dark money" and curbing foreign influence in elections a cornerstone of his campaign.

"Assuming that gridlock is going to be the norm for the next several years in Congress," Fischer said, "short of the FEC reform legislation passing, something the next president could absolutely do is to commit to nominating FEC commissioners who are committed to the mission of the agency, and who will actually enforce the law."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Sunday
Oct132019

Ambassador's removal 'deeply concerning': Rep. Jim Himes

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., called the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine's deposition on Friday "deeply concerning" and Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said the former ambassador "contradicted herself" in her testimony, during an interview on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

Marie Yovanovitch was deposed Friday by three House committees as part of their impeachment investigation. She testified that President Donald Trump pressured the State Department to remove her, based on "false claims" from his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Yovanovitch said she was told in late April that she needed to leave immediately -- "to be on the next plane" -- and then arranged a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.

"He said that the President had lost confidence in me and no longer wished me to serve as his ambassador. He added that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018," according to the remarks. "He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause."

"Equally fictitious is the notion that I am disloyal to President Trump," she said.

Himes, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl on Sunday that her removal was "deeply concerning" and became key in the House’s impeachment inquiry.

"She was very, very important because she is an example of abusing the American public trust in favor of narrow objectives" he said.

In a subsequent interview on "This Week," Zeldin, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed that Yovanovitch "contradicted herself" during her testimony, and said that he believes her testimony, and others -- including former U.S Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker -- should be released to the public.

"Now, if we all had Ambassador Volker's testimony, we would know that that's not true,” Zeldin told Karl. “We would also know that it obliterated the quid pro quo charge, that fairytale, that President Trump supposedly demanded that there would be an investigation open against the Bidens in order to get aide from the United States to Ukraine.”

Volker was deposed Oct. 3. His texts with Gordon Sondland, the U.S Ambassador to the European Union, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S diplomat to the Ukraine, were provided as part of his closed-door deposition before multiple House committees.

Himes told Karl on "This Week" that he expects the transcripts of the depositions will eventually be released, but gave two main reasons the depositions are happening behind closed doors.

"One reason is that when you’re talking to ambassadors and other U.S. government officials who have regularly had access to classified information, you need to be able to talk about that information and then go back and say 'hey, this conversation has to be redacted because it involves classified information.' That’s the most important reason," he said. "The second reason for this is that when you’re interviewing people who are around the president -- political supporters of the president -- you don’t want them to be able to look at each other’s testimony in order to coordinate testimony."

Some House Republicans and the White House have also criticized their inability to have a representative cross examine the witness.

"Impeachment is more akin to a grand jury indictment, and in a grand jury indictment, it happens behind closed doors, there aren’t cross-examinations. Evidence is presented," Himes said.

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Sunday
Oct132019

'We're ready to go at a moment's notice': Treasury Secretary Mnuchin on Turkey sanctions

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that President Donald Trump is focused on the developing situation in Turkey and that they will be meeting with the National Security Council Sunday, as reports of thousands of displaced citizens and escaped Islamic State fighters emerge.

"We are ready to go at a moment's notice to put on sanctions," Mnuchin said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday. "These sanctions could be starting small, they could be maximum pressure, which would destroy the Turkish economy."

A senior U.S. official confirmed to ABC News that the U.S. is withdrawing its troops from northeast Syria. A second official said that the Pentagon is working to convince Trump to keep a residual U.S. force in Syria.

Trump tweeted on Sunday that it was, "Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border."

Mnuchin echoed the president on "This Week," emphasizing that his goal is to get troops out of Syria and end "long-standing wars."

"I think the analogy that everybody's saying is, we're abandoning the Kurds, like the Kurds are these longstanding allies," he said. "Our role in Syria was not to defend land for the Kurds in historical issues. Our focus was to defeat ISIS."

On Friday, Mnuchin announced that Trump had signed an executive order that would allow the Treasury Department to activate "very significant" sanctions against "any person associated with the government of Turkey," if the country crosses certain lines in its operation against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Those economic penalties have not yet been activated, but in a statement, the Treasury Department indicated that the U.S. would sanction Turkey for any action that disrupts counter Islamic State operators and indiscriminate targeting of civilians or ethnic and religious minorities.

Mnuchin said on Sunday that the executive order authorizes sanctions that could go as far as shutting down all U.S. dollar transactions with the Turkish government.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, including some of Trump's allies, have expressed outrage at the decision to have U.S. forces in Syria stand aside for Turkey's military operation.

He also responded to criticism on the situation by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who told Axios on Thursday, "I think he's putting the nation at risk. … If I hear the president say one more time, 'I made a campaign promise to get out of Syria,' I'm going to throw up."

"Lindsey and the president are close. This is obviously an issue that they don't agree on," Mnuchin said Sunday, adding that the administration's "number one issue" is defeating ISIS.

Late Sunday morning, Trump tweeted that he was working with Congress on sanctions.

Graham replied on Twitter that it was a "good decision" by the president to work with Congress "to impose crippling sanctions" against Turkey's "outrageous aggression/war crimes in Syria."

On "This Week" Sunday, the treasury secretary also addressed "phase one" of a trade deal with China that was announced on Friday. He said that the deal touched on "very substantial" issues like intellectual property and financial services.

"We have a lot of work to do, but I am confident that both sides will work very hard and anticipate we will be closing this," he added.

When asked about Trump's telling reporters two weeks ago that China should investigate Biden, Mnuchin said the administration had "never" had any discussions on investigating the Bidens in the trade meetings.

"People who are trying to imply that the president is asking for things or quid pro quos -- I think this is ridiculous," he said.

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