DOJ reviews allegation that Erik Prince misled Congress in Russia probe

The Justice Department has begun reviewing a 10-month-old allegation by the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), that Erik Prince, an ally of President Donald Trump, repeatedly misled lawmakers during the panel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In a Feb. 4 letter to Schiff from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, obtained on Tuesday by POLITICO, Boyd expressed regret for the lengthy delay in responding to the chairman’s April 30, 2019, request.

“We apologize for the delay in responding to your letter,” Boyd wrote, adding, “[T]he Department acknowledges receipt of your letter and will refer your request for investigation to the proper investigative agency or component for review.”

Schiff initially referred Prince to the Justice Department and sought “prompt” action for what he described as a series of “manifest and substantial falsehoods.” In that letter, delivered to Attorney General William Barr, Schiff said that Prince, the billionaire founder of a military contracting firm, intentionally misled the House Intelligence Committee and impaired its investigation of Russian links to the 2016 Trump campaign.

It’s unclear what led the Justice Department to return to Schiff’s request 10 months later on the eve of the Senate’s decision to acquit Trump on two impeachment charges. The department and a Prince attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment. U.S. Attorney John Durham has been tasked by Barr with reviewing the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation, which later morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the election.

In his April 30 letter, Schiff highlighted six instances in which information revealed about Prince in Mueller’s report diverged from his testimony in November 2017 before the committee. He homed in on Prince’s meeting, in the Seychelles in January 2017, with a Russian banker who is reportedly close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, an encounter Prince later told congressional officials took place purely by chance.

Prince told Schiff’s committee in late 2017 that he had no “official or, really, unofficial role” with the Trump campaign. He said he wrote unsolicited policy papers that he forwarded to Trump adviser Steve Bannon, attended some fundraisers and contributed to Trump’s campaign.

“So there was no other formal communications or contact with the campaign?” then-Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) asked.

“Correct,” Prince replied.

But a succession of news reports indicated that Prince’s relationship with the campaign was deeper than he let on. According to a New York Times report last May, Prince helped facilitate meetings for high-level Trump campaign staff.

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Rand Paul reads alleged whistleblower’s name on Senate floor

Sen. Rand Paul used the Senate floor on Tuesday to read aloud the name of an intelligence community official alleged to be the whistleblower who first raised alarms about President Donald Trump's conduct toward Ukraine.

Chief Justice John Roberts denied the Kentucky Republican’s attempts to mention the person’s identity last week during the question-and-answer portion of Trump’s impeachment trial. And Paul said he didn't intend to out the alleged whistleblower or stoke reprisals against the person.

But he used the final deliberations of the impeachment trial to name the person, who has been identified in Trump-allied media as the alleged whistleblower.

"I'm going to ask that question again this morning because the Constitution does protect debate," Paul said. "I think they made a big mistake not allowing my question. My question did not talk about anybody who is a whistleblower, my question did not accuse anybody of being whistleblower, it did not make a statement believing that someone was a whistleblower. I simply named two people's names because I think it's very important to know what happened."

In using the person's name on the Senate floor, Paul went further than any other House or Senate Republican, even those who have fiercely demanded that Democrats unmask the whistleblower, who they accuse of starting the groundswell of charges that led to Trump's impeachment. When Paul sought to have Roberts read his question during a two-day round of inquiries — Roberts refused, saying, "The presiding officer declines to read the question."

Paul said Tuesday that he supports protections against reprisal for whistleblowers but not necessarily anonymity.

"In the first month of [Trump's] office, in January of 2017, they were already plotting the impeachment," he alleged. "And you say 'Well, we should protect the whistleblower, and the whistleblower deserves anonymity.' The law does not preserve anonymity. His boss is not supposed to say anything about him, he's not supposed to be fired. I'm for that."

The whistleblower filed a complaint in August with an intelligence community watchdog, Inspector General Michael Atkinson. The complaint, which cited widespread concerns inside the Trump administration, alleged that Trump appeared to pressure Ukraine's president to launch politically motivated investigations of his Democratic rivals.

Atkinson indicated that the whistleblower showed "some indicia of an arguable political bias" but after reviewing the complaint and deemed it "urgent" and credible, triggering a requirement to transmit the complaint to Congress. The director of national intelligence, though, instead forwarded the complaint to the Justice Department, which overruled Atkinson's judgment and blocked the complaint from reaching the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

In September, Schiff subpoenaed for the document and received it two weeks later, when DNI Joseph Maguire testified about it to Congress. Schiff later acknowledged that his staff had been in contact with the whistleblower prior to his complaint to the inspector general, a revelation that fueled Republican claims — fiercely rejected by Schiff — that the Democrat knew the identity of the whistleblower. Schiff has called any suggestion that his staff coached or aided the whistleblower "smears."

Schiff initially indicated that his panel wanted to secure testimony from the whistleblower but later backed off that call after new witnesses came forward and offered more direct knowledge of the allegations against Trump, many of which bolstered and added details to the rough chronology described by the whistleblower. Schiff has also indicated he reversed course on seeking the whistleblower's testimony in part because Trump himself had made threats against the whistleblower's sources.

Republicans attacked Schiff throughout a series of fall impeachment depositions for blocking Republicans from asking questions that inched closer to identifying the alleged whistleblower, and he publicly cut short a line of questioning of National Security Council official Alexander Vindman that appeared geared toward identifying the whistleblower.

Rep. Louie Gohmert also used the alleged whistleblower's name during the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings in December, though he, too, did not identify the person as the whistleblower.

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Democrats launch last bid to break Trump’s impeachment firewall

House Democrats are preparing to rest their impeachment case Friday after one last attempt to soften President Donald Trump’s Republican firewall against his removal from office.

But so far, despite the lofty rhetoric of the House’s lead impeachment prosecutor Rep. Adam Schiff and the wealth of evidence they’ve presented, that wall hasn’t shown many cracks.

Democrats intend to tell their story one more time: Alleging that Trump abused his power by pressuring the Ukrainian government to launch baseless investigations against his Democratic rivals. And when he was caught, they say, he used his power to cover it up and stonewall the investigation.

As they have for two days, Democrats will toggle between exhaustive recitations of the evidence and appeals to senators’ consciences — saving their loftiest and most potent arguments for the primetime audience. They’ll also make one last plea for Senate Republicans to call witnesses in the trial, most prominently acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. Other witnesses have described both as central players with firsthand knowledge of the events at the heart of the Ukraine scandal.

Ostensibly, Democrats intend to focus their final day of arguments on the charge that Trump obstructed Congress’ investigation of the Ukraine matter. He directed about a dozen high-level witnesses not to cooperate with the House’s probe, including Mulvaney, Bolton and senior officials in the White House budget office. Many of the 17 witnesses who testified before House investigators — including several senior White House and State Department officials — defied Trump’s orders.

Impeachment managers focus on Ukraine, Biden, and preempting WH defense team arguments

Those witnesses provided the backbone of the allegations that Trump pressed Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked a Democratic Party server in 2016. Those witnesses provided evidence that Trump withheld $391 million in military aid to Ukraine and a White House visit for Zelensky amid Ukraine’s active war against Russian aggression, as part of the alleged pressure campaign.

Schiff made a direct appeal to Republicans at the close of Thursday’s trial session, urging them to vote to remove the president from office even with an election around the corner and Trump’s allies pressuring lawmakers to defeat the impeachment charges. Believing Trump did what Democrats allege but saying that it doesn’t rise to the level of removing him from office isn’t good enough, he argued.

“If you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed,” Schiff said in closing.

If Democrats hope to call any witnesses, they need to convince at least four Republican senators to join them, and their final arguments will likely reflect that effort. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are seen as the likeliest group, with Alexander — a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the linchpin.

Democrats will also reinforce their case that the Senate must demand documents from the White House and State Department that Trump refused to provide. The House’s seven impeachment prosecutors have contended that in some ways they’d even prefer to obtain the documents to witnesses, whose memories might be flawed or influenced by subsequent testimony.

Throughout their testimony, the impeachment managers emphasized holes in the full Ukraine story that could only be filled by specific documents that they know exist but that Trump has withheld from Congress. They include correspondence, like former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Bill Taylor’s cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo worrying about the hold on military aid. They also include the notes kept by Trump’s former national security aide Fiona Hill and contacts between Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and senior members of the State Department and White House.

So far, most Republicans have shown no signs of budging. While Romney and Collins are likely to support efforts to obtain additional witness testimony and documents, it remains unclear if two more GOP senators will ultimately vote alongside Democrats to demand more information.

Democratic aides working on the trial say they intend to tailor the final argument toward what they’ve termed the “two juries” — the senators who will decide Trump’s fate, and the American public, whose sentiments may guide them.

Schiff is all but certain to be Democrats’ closer for a third straight night.

He concluded the first day with a call for senators to “show the courage” that witnesses like Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was the subject of a smear campaign by Trump associates, showed in testifying over the president’s wishes. On the second night, Schiff challenged senators to consider whether any of them doubt that the scheme Democrats allege is really out of character for Trump.

“Does anybody really question whether the president is capable of what he’s charged with? No one is really making the argument, ‘Donald Trump would never do such a thing,’” he said. “Because, of course, we know that he would and of course we know that he did.”

The note that he leaves on Friday is the one that will echo as the White House defense team offers its rebuttal beginning Saturday, a process that could last until Monday or Tuesday next week.. Democrats used a large swath of their time on Thursday to preemptively counter the anticipated Trump defense: that his call to investigate Biden was a good faith request to root out corruption.

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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