Supreme Court revives Biden’s ghost gun restrictions

The Supreme Court revived the Biden administration’s restrictions on so-called ghost guns in a 5-4 emergency ruling Tuesday.

The justices agreed to pause a lower court’s decision, which invalidated the regulation nationwide, as the administration continues its appeal.

The decision hands a victory to Biden, at least for now. Biden last year announced the crackdown on ghost guns, referring to firearms that are sold as do-it-yourself kits and are generally hard to trace.

The case will now proceed in a lower appeals court, which is slated to hear oral arguments next month. The matter could ultimately return to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three liberals in temporarily reviving the restrictions. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissented.

Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts walks to the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts walks to the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The new regulations implemented by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have come under multiple legal challenges from gun rights advocacy groups.

In June, a Republican-appointed federal judge in Texas ruled the regulation exceeded the ATF’s authority and vacated it, siding with two firearm owners, two advocacy organizations and five entities that manufacture or distribute guns.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later narrowed the decision, but the Supreme Court on Tuesday put the rest of the Texas judge’s decision on hold.

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At issue is how the ATF places restrictions on ghost guns by expanding its interpretation of two provisions of a long-standing federal gun law. The first clarifies that the federal definition of a “firearm” includes certain parts kits, and the second defines “frame or receiver” to include disassembled parts that can be readily converted into a functional gun. 

By expanding the definitions, the regulation stretches federal serial number, record-keeping and background-check requirements to ghost guns. But the federal judge in Texas ruled the ATF’s interpretation exceeded the law’s scope. 

Beyond the debates over the agency’s interpretation, the Justice Department also argued to the Supreme Court that the judge had improperly made the ruling take effect nationwide.

Alito, who handles emergency requests arising out of the 5th Circuit, had previously issued two brief pauses in the same case in recent days as the court weighed the administration’s bid.

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In seeking the pause, the administration cited a rise in ghost guns submitted for tracing, from 1,600 in 2017 to more than 19,000 in 2021.

Allowing the judge’s ruling “to take effect would let tens of thousands of untraceable ghost guns flow into our Nation’s communities — with many going to felons, minors, or those intending to use them in crimes,” the Justice Department wrote in court filings.

“A stay, in contrast, would simply require respondents to comply with the same straightforward, inexpensive requirements for commercial firearms sales that tens of thousands of dealers already comply with in millions of transactions each year,” the filing continued.

The request was supported by March for Our Lives, Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The attorney general for Washington, D.C., joined by 20 Democratic state attorneys general, also filed an amicus brief backing the Biden administration. 

“The Final Rule stops a growing segment of the modern gun industry from exploiting new technology to widen the very gaps that the [Gun Control Act of 1968] sought to close,” the attorneys general wrote to the justices. “It is no surprise that law enforcement ‘strongly supports’ efforts to treat ghost guns the same as other firearms.”

The groups that filed the lawsuit were backed by a national trade association representing U.S. firearms manufacturers.

“We’re deeply disappointed that the Court pressed pause on our defeat of ATF’s rule effectively redefining ‘firearm’ and ‘frame or receiver’ under federal law,” said Cody J. Wisniewski, general counsel at Firearms Policy Coalition Action Foundation, which represents the challengers.

“Regardless of today’s decision, we’re still confident that we will yet again defeat ATF and its unlawful rule at the Fifth Circuit when that Court has the opportunity to review the full merits of our case,” he said in a statement.

Updated at 2:06 p.m.

Grand jury convenes in Trump case: Here’s how grand juries work

A federal grand jury has been meeting to decide whether to bring charges against former President Trump in connection with the transfer of power following the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

But what is a grand jury?

Before unveiling felony charges in federal court, prosecutors must present evidence to grand jurors and receive their signoff.

Federal grand juries comprise between 16 to 23 people, and at least 16 must be present for a quorum. In this instance, the jurors are all residents of Washington, D.C. They have been meeting behind closed doors in a courthouse just blocks from the Capitol and White House.

Prosecutors have brought in numerous witnesses from Trump’s orbit to testify.

Ultimately, the proceedings wrap up with the grand jury taking a vote on prosecutors’ proposed indictment. 

Recent signs suggest the indictment vote could be close. Trump has said he received a target letter from the Justice Department more than two weeks ago that gave him the opportunity to testify before the grand jury, a step that usually occurs when prosecutors are nearing a final charging decision.

At least 12 jurors must vote in favor of the indictment for it to be returned, known as a “true bill.”

Grand jurors are asked to decide whether there is probable cause to believe the person in question committed a crime. It’s a much lower standard than prosecutors would need to prove at trial: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 

What charges prosecutors are considering remain unclear. If the grand jury votes to return the indictment, in D.C. it is generally received by the duty magistrate judge and placed under seal.  On Tuesday, Judge Moxila Upadhyaya is scheduled as the duty magistrate. A different judge would oversee the trial.

In the classified documents case filed in Florida, prosecutors moved to unseal the charges ahead of Trump’s first court appearance. It remains unclear when the charges would be unsealed in the Jan. 6 case.

Trump demands recusal of judge overseeing hush money criminal case

Former President Trump is calling for the New York judge overseeing his hush money criminal case to recuse himself, arguing the judge cannot be impartial.

Trump’s lawyers noted in a new filing apparent political donations Judge Juan Merchan made to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and liberal-leaning groups. They also referenced the judge’s participation in a previous case related to Trump and reports that Merchan’s daughter works at a progressive digital agency.

“This case before this Court is historic and it is important that the People of the State of New York and this nation have confidence that the jurist who presides over it is impartial,” Trump’s lawyers wrote. “Most respectfully, the foregoing facts compel the conclusion that Your Honor is not and thus should recuse.”

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with reimbursements made to his then-fixer, Michael Cohen, for making a $130,000 hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.

Trump has pleaded not guilty, while he also remains under multiple other criminal investigations.

A person named Juan Merchan who works for the New York court system donated $35 in July 2020 to political causes, according to Federal Election Commission records. The donations comprise a $15 donation to Biden’s presidential campaign, $10 to the Progressive Turnout Project and $10 to a group called “Stop Republicans.”

Trump’s lawyers demanded Merchan explain the contributions.

“The fact that Your Honor previously donated money to President Trump’s opponent in 2020 might suggest to the reasonable observer that the Court would rather another candidate be elected in 2024 over President Trump,” the attorneys wrote.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to comment and indicated it will respond in court papers.

Trump’s legal team further took aim at media reports that Merchan’s daughter is the chief operating officer at a progressive digital agency, Authentic Strategies, which lists Biden’s campaign and other Democratic candidates as clients.

“Your Honor’s familial relationship with the President and COO of Authentic is particularly problematic given the role this very case may play in political campaigns and advertising in the 2024 presidential election,” Trump’s team wrote. 

“It is likely that many of President Trump’s opponents, both political candidates and organizations, will attempt to use this case — and any rulings by the Court — to attack him,” they continued. “Indeed, virtually every client listed on Authentic’s website has been critical in the past of President Trump and fundraised on these criticisms.”

The Hill has reached out to Authentic Strategies for comment.

Trump’s filing further notes Merchan’s role overseeing the criminal prosecution of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s former chief financial officer. Weisselberg as part of a plea deal was sentenced to five months in jail for his participation in a tax-fraud scheme, and Trump’s lawyers are accusing Merchan of overstepping by attempting to induce Weisselberg to cooperate against Trump. 

New York trial judges are not categorically barred from facilitating plea agreements, but they must abide by certain limits. 

Susan Necheles, one of Trump’s attorneys who signed the recusal motion, represented the Trump Organization as the Manhattan district attorney’s office prosecuted the scheme. When the Trump Organization had its trial for tax fraud, Necheles squarely pinned the blame on Weisselberg.

“Your Honor’s prior conduct in attempting to induce cooperation against President Trump and his interests creates a perception that Your Honor is biased against President Trump and warrants recusal in this case,” Necheles and Todd Blanche, another Trump attorney, wrote in court filings on Friday.

“Surely, the Court would not have pushed Mr. Weisselberg to cooperate against President Trump and his interests unless it thought he was someone who was worthy of prosecution,” they continued. “That mindset reveals Your Honor as someone who has prejudged the defendant’s guilt and is biased against his interests.”

Trump's lawyers in recent weeks have separately attempted to move the former president's case to federal court, a move prosecutors are opposing. Merchan retains oversight of the case until the federal court rules on that attempt.

—Updated at 4:14 p.m.

Republicans knock Biden for not freeing Whelan in prisoner swap

A growing number of Republican lawmakers are criticizing President Biden for freeing a Russian arms dealer to secure WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release, and for failing to free former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in the deal.

Biden on Thursday morning announced Griner was returning to the U.S. after she spent nearly 10 months in Russian custody, in exchange for the U.S. releasing infamous arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The administration had also sought the release of Whelan, who was arrested in Russia in 2018 on spying charges that he vehemently denies, but Biden on Thursday said Moscow is “treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s.”

Republicans quickly issued statements expressing relief at Griner's release while condemning the president for snubbing Whelan. Many of the GOP lawmakers also expressed worry the deal would incentivize Moscow to imprison Americans in the future for leverage.

"The Biden administration has allowed Viktor Bout, a dangerous arms dealer who was convicted of conspiring to kill American law enforcement, to walk free,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the House Armed Services Committee ranking member, said in a statement.

“This move to appease Vladimir Putin will only encourage further hostage taking by Russian security forces. While I welcome the release of Brittney Griner, I cannot help but think about Paul Whelan — as he has apparently been abandoned by the Biden administration,” Rogers added.

Biden said on Thursday his administration will "never give up” on securing Whelan's release.

Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence on charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, kill U.S. employees, transfer and use of anti-aircraft missiles and support of a designated terrorist organization.

He has been accused of running massive arms shipments to sanctioned regimes in African and Middle Eastern countries, earning him the nicknames “Merchant of Death” and “Sanctions Buster.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who introduced impeachment articles against Biden last year, said the swap marks another reason to push for his removal from office.

“Biden just returned the ‘Merchant of Death,’ an international arms dealer convicted of conspiring to kill Americans, to Putin and left former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained for over four years, to rot in a Russian prison,” wrote Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House.

“Biden's now aiding both sides of the war,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who will succeed Banks in the role, wrote in a retweet of Banks’s post.

Whelan himself spoke with CNN on Thursday from Russia, saying he was happy that Griner was released but adding he felt "greatly disappointed" that more had not been done to secure his freedom.

“My prayers are with Brittney Griner and her family as they heal from this,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) wrote on Twitter. "I hope Brittney continues to use her platform to keep the pressure to bring former Marine Paul Whelan home. Leaving Paul in Russia to Putin's whim would be a disgraceful abdication of Biden's leadership.”

Scott's home-state colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), tweeted, “It is a bitter pill to swallow that Mr. Whelan remains in custody while we release the ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout back to Russia.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed relief at Griner’s release while criticizing the continued detainment of Whelan and Marc Fogel, an American teacher detained in Russia for allegedly possessing 17 grams of medical marijuana in violation of Russian law.

“Unfortunately, the Biden Administration’s handling of this situation leaves behind other Americans, like veteran Marine Paul Whalen and teacher Marc Fogel,” Rubio wrote.

“What’s more, Putin and others have seen how detaining high-profile Americans on relatively minor charges can both distract American officials and cause them to release truly bad individuals who belong behind bars.” 

Mace says there is ‘pressure on the Republicans’ to impeach Biden if they win House

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) on Sunday said Republicans will face pressure to impeach President Biden if they take the House majority in the midterms.

“I believe there's a lot of pressure on Republicans to have that vote, to put that legislation forward, and to have that vote,” Mace said of an impeachment vote when asked by NBC “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd. 

“I think that is something that some folks are considering,” she continued.

Mace declined to say how she would vote on a potential Biden impeachment, but noted that she did not vote to impeach former President Trump in 2021 because “due process was stripped away.”

“I will not vote for impeachment of any president if I feel that due process has been stripped away for anyone, and I typically vote constitutionally regardless of who's in power,” she told Todd.

“I want to do the right thing for the long term because this isn't just about today, tomorrow, this year's election. This is about the future of democracy. This is about protecting our Constitution.”

Others in Mace’s conference have already taken the first step toward impeaching the president.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) introduced articles of impeachment against Biden the day after his inauguration, accusing him of abuse of power in relation to the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden, in Ukraine.

House Republican leadership last week released an outline of their agenda if they take the House majority, dubbed “Commitment to America.”

The agenda proposes conducting “rigorous oversight to rein in government abuse of power and corruption,” referencing the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Biden administration’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, although it does not detail specifics as to how Republicans would do so.

When pressed on Republicans’ potential plans to impeach Biden, Mace on Sunday said she would prefer to keep the focus on reducing inflation and improving the economy, rather than “chasing that rabbit down the hole.”

“I do believe it's divisive, which is why I push back on it personally when I hear folks saying they're going to file articles of impeachment in the House,” she said. “I push back against those comments because we need to be working together.”

Crenshaw denounces ‘crazy’ GOP rhetoric on FBI: ’99 percent of Republicans are not on that train’

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) on Sunday sought to distance himself from those in his party calling to defund the FBI following the agency’s search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

“Oh yes, it's crazy,” Crenshaw responded when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked him about recent GOP rhetoric on “State of the Union.”

Many in the GOP have portrayed the search, which was connected to an investigation into the former president’s handling of classified documents, as politically motivated. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) filed impeachment articles against Attorney General Merrick Garland and called for the FBI to be defunded.

Those demands have been met with condemnation from some in the GOP, drawing comparisons to the defund the police movement that has been promoted by progressive lawmakers including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“It makes us seem like extremist Democrats, right?” Crenshaw said on Sunday. “And so Marjorie and AOC can go join the defund the law enforcement club if they want. Ninety-nine percent of Republicans are not on that train.”

Despite separating himself from those calls, Crenshaw on Sunday did call for accountability and transparency from the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) following the search, saying it was "automatically political." 

A federal judge last week signaled openness to releasing a redacted version of the affidavit to support the search warrant application, but the DOJ has opposed the move, citing concerns for witness safety.

“The criticisms that we're leveling against the FBI and DOJ are fully warranted,” Crenshaw told Tapper. “It is not those criticisms that lead to a crazy person attacking an FBI.”

An armed man attempted to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office in the days following the Mar-a-Lago search, and the intelligence community cited the incident in a recent bulletin warning of increased threats to federal law enforcement.

The FBI arrested a Pennsylvania man following the search for allegedly threatening to kill the agency’s personnel.

“That's completely wrong, but that's not where 99 percent of Republicans are at, of course,” Crenshaw said on CNN.

Jan. 6 panel hits prime time: Five things to watch

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack is hours away from the first of its highly anticipated series of public hearings.

The prime-time hearing kicks off at 8 p.m. on Thursday and will be aired on the big three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as cable networks CNN and MSNBC. Fox News announced it will not air the hearing on its main network.

The committee described Thursday’s hearing as an initial summary of a “coordinated, multi-step effort” to overturn the 2020 election results, including previously unseen material and witness testimony.

Here are five things to watch for at tonight’s hearing:

How strongly the committee connects Trump to the riot

Some Democrats have voiced hope that the panel’s findings will amp up pressure on the Justice Department to prosecute former President Trump for his role in the attack. 

But exactly how strong the committee connects Trump himself to the riot remains a central question of the panel’s hearings.

But Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who sits on the panel, said in a Washington Post Live interview on Monday that the committee has found evidence on Trump that supports “a lot more than incitement,” the charge Democrats laid out in their second impeachment trial against Trump.

The House had voted to impeach the then-president for incitement to insurrection before Trump was ultimately acquitted in the Senate.

Raskin said he believed Trump and the White House were at the “center” of Jan. 6. 

“The select committee has found evidence about a lot more than incitement here, and we’re gonna be laying out the evidence about all of the actors who were pivotal to what took place on Jan. 6,” Raskin said.

How the committee leverages testimony from Trump’s inner circle

The committee has conducted more than 1,000 interviews in its yearlong investigation, subpoenaed more than 100 people and has promised to share video footage of some of its depositions.

The committee has pledged to air footage from interviews with “Trump White House officials, senior Trump administration officials, Trump campaign officials and indeed Trump family members,” the aide said.

The panel also sat down with a wide range of senior Trump White House officials, including some who were with the former president on Jan. 6.

It has also sat down with former Justice Department officials who spoke about Trump's pressure campaign at the department, as well as with legal advisers to former Vice President Mike Pence.

The committee has also interviewed multiple Trump family members, including Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son; his fiancee, Kimberly Guilfoyle; Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter; and her husband, Jared Kushner.

Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said on Wednesday that Ivanka Trump’s testimony would not air in Thursday’s hearing, but he left open the possibility it may be played later.

Those videotaped testimonies will be part of a multimedia presentation. The committee hired a veteran ABC producer to assist with assembling the videos as it looks to transform its evidence into a ready-for-TV package.

How organized groups played a role in spurring violence

Among the thousands of people who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 were extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Dozens of these groups’ members have been charged in connection with the riot.

The role of the Proud Boys is expected to come into particular focus on Thursday when documentarian Nick Quested appears as a witness. 

Quested filmed footage of Proud Boys members during the Capitol breach and a Jan. 5 meeting between the leaders of the two extremist groups. 

Prosecutors charged five Proud Boys leaders with seditious conspiracy on Monday. 

The committee has also taken interest in the groups that planned the now-infamous rally on the Ellipse and other events preceding the riot.

The panel issued subpoenas to individuals listed on event permits filed by Women for America First for the Ellipse event and some of the group’s contractors.

The committee also subpoenaed people affiliated with the “Stop the Steal” movement, with one organizer having said the group intended to direct Ellipse rally attendees to a subsequent event on Capitol grounds.

How the committee looks ahead to future elections

Perceptions of the committee’s end goal are varied among lawmakers. Some Democrats hope the hearings will provide a high-stakes history lesson for the public, while others desire greater accountability for the riot’s central players. 

As Democrats weigh their options, the panel itself has reportedly become divided about what long-term reforms to implement.

Axios reported on Sunday that Raskin has argued for abolishing the Electoral College to prevent future subversion of the electoral counting process. But Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the panel’s vice chair, has voiced opposition to that proposal out of concerns it would diminish the committee’s credibility, according to the outlet.

Axios reported that other committee members have pushed more modest reforms, like changes to the Electoral Count Act and federal voting rights legislation.

How Republicans combat the hearing’s messaging

The panel scheduled its first hearing for prime time in attempts to cut through to large swaths of the American public, but the committee is already facing headwinds.

Fox News announced it will not air the hearing on its cable channel, although its lower-profile sister network Fox Business will do so. Prominent Fox News host Tucker Carlson will host his show at 8 p.m. on Thursday just as the hearing begins.

But Republicans are mounting a broader media battle as the hearings approach.

The GOP is arguing the hearings are just meant to distract voters from issues like inflation and crime. The House Committee on Administration Republicans sent a letter to the Jan. 6 panel asking it to preserve all records in preparation for an investigation of the investigation.

At House Republican leadership’s press conference earlier on Thursday, just one of nine attending lawmakers said they would tune in to Thursday’s hearing: Rep. Kelly Armstrong (N.D.).

Cheney officially launches reelection bid: ‘This is a fight we must win’

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) formally launched her reelection bid on Thursday, seeking the Republican nomination for her seat for the fourth time amid rebukes from her own party.

"Some things have to matter," Cheney said in her announcement video. "American freedom, the rule of law, our founding principles, the foundations of our republic matter. What we do in this election in Wyoming matters."

"I'm asking for your vote because this is a fight we must win," she said.

Cheney has drawn the ire of former President Trump and his allies for voting for Trump’s second impeachment and serving as the vice chairwoman of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The committee is seen as illegitimate by a number of her Republican colleagues in the lower chamber.

First elected to the House in 2016, Cheney has faced primary challengers in each of her reelections but has won each previous time with large margins. In this year’s Aug. 16 primary, she will face a challenger, attorney Harriet Hageman, backed by Trump and his allies, who have viewed removing Cheney as a top priority.

Trump is slated to stump for Hageman at a Saturday rally, which will also include video addresses by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who became chairwoman of the House Republican Conference after Cheney was ousted from the role last year. Saturday’s rally will also feature speeches from Hageman, Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne and two more of Cheney’s House Republican colleagues, Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.).

Cheney made no direct mention of Hageman or her backers in the video posted Thursday, but she called for voters to “reject the lies” and “toxic politics.”

“When I know something is wrong, I will say so,” Cheney said in the announcement. 

“I won't waver or back down. I won't surrender to pressure or intimidation. I know where to draw the line and I know that some things aren't for sale,” she continued.

Cheney has deep ties in Wyoming — her father served as Wyoming’s sole congressman for ten years before becoming the secretary of Defense and later vice president. Cheney highlighted those ties in her announcement video, which included images of her dad and mentions of her family history in Wyoming, which she said dated back to 1852.

“In Wyoming, we know what it means to ride for the brand,” she said. “We live in the greatest nation God has ever created, and our brand is the United States Constitution.”

The Wyoming Republican Party has repeatedly admonished Cheney in recent months.

The state party censured her last February after Cheney voted to impeach Trump over Jan. 6. and later voted in November to no longer recognize her as a member of the GOP.

On a national level, House Republicans last May decided to oust Cheney from her role as conference chair in a closed-door meeting by voice vote. 

Among the intense criticism from her own party, Cheney has continued to criticize her fellow GOP lawmakers. Earlier this month, she accused House Republican leadership of enabling “white nationalism, white supremacy and anti-semitism” after a mass shooting in Buffalo that killed 10 people in a racist attack.

Cheney has boasted strong fundraising throughout her campaign, hauling in $2.94 million in the first quarter of 2022. But her influence will come to the test as she faces primary voters in a state Trump won by more than 40 points in 2020.