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Trump lashes out at Russia probe; Pence hires a lawyer

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By John Wagner and Ashley Parker

A heightened sense of unease gripped the White House on Thursday, as President Trump lashed out at reports that he’s under scrutiny over whether he obstructed justice, aides repeatedly deflected questions about the probe and Vice President Pence acknowledged hiring a private lawyer to handle fallout from investigations into Russian election meddling.

Pence’s decision to hire Richard Cullen, a Richmond-based lawyer who previously served as a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, came less than a month after Trump hired his own private lawyer.

The hiring of Cullen, whom an aide said Pence was paying for himself, was made public a day after The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is widening his investigation to examine whether the president attempted to obstruct justice.

A defiant Trump at multiple points Thursday expressed his frustration with reports about that development, tweeting that he is the subject of “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history,” and one that he said is being led by “some very bad and conflicted people.”

Trump, who only a day earlier had called for a more civil tone in Washington after a shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., fired off several more tweets in the afternoon voicing disbelief that he was under scrutiny while his “crooked” Democratic opponent in last year’s election, Hillary Clinton, escaped prosecution in relation to her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

Before the day ended, the White House was hit with the latest in a cascade of headlines relating to the Russian probe: a Post story reporting that Mueller is investigating the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-law and adviser.

“The legal jeopardy increases by the day,” said one informal Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss conversations with White House aides more freely. “If you’re a White House staffer, you’re trying to do your best to keep your head low and do your job.”

At the White House on Thursday, aides sought to portray a sense of normalcy, staging an elaborate event to promote a Trump job-training initiative, while simultaneously going into lockdown mode regarding Mueller’s probe.

At a previously scheduled off-camera briefing for reporters, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy White House press secretary, was peppered with more than a dozen questions about ongoing investigations over about 20 minutes.

In keeping with a new practice, she referred one question after another to Trump’s personal lawyer.

Sanders, for example, was asked whether Trump still felt “vindicated” by the extraordinary congressional testimony last week by James B. Comey, the FBI director whose firing by Trump has contributed to questions about whether the president obstructed justice.

“I believe so,” Sanders said, before referring reporters to Marc E. Kasowitz, Trump’s private attorney.

As Trump’s No. 2 and as head of the transition team, Pence has increasingly found himself drawn into the widening Russia investigation.

Pence — along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kushner, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and White House Counsel Donald McGahn — was one of the small group of senior advisers the president consulted as he mulled his decision to fire Comey, which is now a focus of Mueller’s investigation.

He also was entangled in the events leading up to the dismissal of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who originally misled Pence about his contact with Russian officials — incorrect claims that Pence himself then repeated publicly.

The vice president was kept in the dark for nearly two weeks about Flynn’s misstatements, before learning the truth in a Post report. Trump ultimately fired Flynn for misleading the vice president.

There were also news reports that Flynn’s attorneys had alerted Trump’s transition team, which Pence led, that Flynn was under federal investigation for his secret ties to the Turkish government as a paid lobbyist — a claim the White House disputes. And aides to Pence, who was running the transition team, said the vice president was never informed of Flynn’s overseas work with Turkey, either.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Russian election meddling and related issues were a prominent part of the agenda.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats spent more than three hours in a closed session with the Senate Intelligence Committee, just days after he refused to answer lawmakers’ questions in an open session about his conversations with Trump regarding the Russia investigation.

Several GOP lawmakers said they think Mueller should be able to do his job — including probing possible obstruction by Trump — but added that they were eager to put the probe behind them.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, said he retains confidence in Mueller and that he’s seen nothing so far that would amount to obstruction by Trump. His assessment, Cornyn said, includes the testimony last week by Comey, who said he presumed he was fired because of Trump’s concerns about the FBI’s handling of the Russian probe.

“I think based on what he said then, there doesn’t appear to be any there there,” Cornyn said. “Director Mueller’s got extensive staff and authorities to investigate further. But based on what we know now, I don’t see any basis.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he didn’t find news that Mueller is exploring obstruction of justice particularly surprising given it’s clear he is “going to look at everything.”

“There has been a lot of time spent on the collusion issue — 11 months by the FBI and six months by Congress — and both sides agree they haven’t found anything there,” Thune said. “I hope at some point all this stuff will lead to an ultimate conclusion, and we’ll put this to rest.”

In the meantime, the Republican National Committee appears to be girding for a fight.

“Talking points” sent Wednesday night to Trump allies provided a road map for trying to undercut the significance of the latest revelation related to possible obstruction of justice.

“This apparent pivot by the investigative team shows that they have struck out on trying to prove collusion and are now trying to switch to another baseless charge,” the document said.

The RNC also encouraged Trump allies to decry the “inexcusable, outrageous and illegal” leaks on which it said the story was based and to argue that there is a double standard at work.

The document said there was “an obvious case” of obstruction that was never investigated against former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch related to the FBI investigation of Clinton’s email server.

In his afternoon tweets, Trump picked up on that argument. In one tweet, the president wrote: “Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?”

“Why is that Hillary Clintons family and Dems dealings with Russia are not looked at, but my non-dealings are?” Trump said in another.

Trump restricted his musing Thursday on Mueller’s investigation to social media, passing on opportunities to talk about it in public.

The president did not respond to shouted questions about whether he believes he is under investigation as he departed an event Thursday morning designed to highlight his administration’s support of apprenticeship programs.

That event was part of a schedule that suggested no outward signs of concern by Trump about his latest troubles.

He was joined at the apprenticeship event by several governors, lawmakers and other dignitaries. Before turning to the subject at hand, Trump provided an update on the condition of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot Wednesday during the attack on Republican lawmakers at an early-morning baseball practice.

Attempting to strike a unifying chord, Trump said: “Steve, in his own way, may have brought some unity to our long-divided country.”

Later in the afternoon, Trump and the first lady traveled to the Supreme Court for the investiture ceremony for Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

Among the questions Sanders deflected Thursday was to whom exactly Trump was referring as “bad and conflicted people” in one of his early morning tweets.

“Again, I would refer you to the president’s outside counsel on all questions relating to the investigation,” Sanders said.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the outside counsel, did not respond to an email and phone call seeking comment on the questions Sanders referred to him.

Earlier this week, one of the president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr., highlighted on Twitter an op-ed in USA Today that argued that Mueller should recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he has a potential conflict of interest, given his longtime friendship with Comey, a crucial witness.

The piece, which Donald Trump Jr. retweeted, was written by William G. Otis, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University who was a special counsel for President George H.W. Bush.

Christopher Ruddy, a friend of Trump’s, made headlines this week when he said during a PBS interview that he believed Trump was considering firing Mueller.

The White House didn’t immediately deny that notion but made clear that Ruddy was not speaking for Trump. The following day, Sanders said Trump had no intention of trying to dislodge Mueller.

Sanders was asked again Thursday whether Trump still has confidence in Mueller.

“I believe so,” she said, later adding: “I haven’t had a specific conversation about that, but I think if he didn’t, he would probably have intentions to make a change, and he certainly doesn’t.

Ed O’Keefe, Karoun Demirjian and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.

US News

Trump’s travel ban is finally getting its Supreme Court showdown

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Donald Trump’s travel ban is officially headed to the Supreme Court for what’s likely to be its final showdown.

The High Court announced that its justices would hear Trump v. Hawaii on Friday afternoon after vacating a lower court’s decision to stay the current version of Trump’s travel ban. Most recently, the famously liberal 9th Circuit court had struck down the ban entirely and set the stage for a Supreme Court showdown.

Trump’s travel ban, which prohibits people from certain Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S., is now in its third version. In September, the administration added Venezuela, Chad, and North Korea to the existing list of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Iran. While multiple lower courts had blocked the two earlier versions of the policy, those were eventually replaced, making a Supreme Court hearing unnecessary.

In early December, the Supreme Court allowed the third version to go into effect — but only until the 9th Circuit completed its ruling on a pending appeal. After that, the justices would decide whether to hear the case again. Previously, in June, the High Court had ruled that travelers from countries named in the ban with ties to the United States would remain unaffected.

When the first ban was officially introduced in an executive order on Jan. 27 of last year, critics and advocacy groups immediately began characterizing it as an unconstitutional Muslim ban, meant to target immigrants and travelers by their place of origin, ethnicity, and religion rather than any security threat they might pose. Throughout all the ban’s iterations and court battles, that fundamental argument has remained the same.

“Every version of the ban has been found unconstitutional, illegal, or both by federal trial and appellate courts,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, in a press release on Friday. “The Supreme Court can and should put a definitive end to President Trump’s attempt to undermine the constitutional guarantee of religious equality and the basic principles of our immigration laws, including their prohibition of national origin discrimination.”

And Neil Katyal, a lawyer for those appealing the ban, tweeted:

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Briefing Room

“America is home”: How Trump’s immigration policies are upending Somali lives in the US

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Maruf Sharif was shackled in the plane, which was flying him over the Atlantic Ocean to a country he hadn’t seen for almost three decades.

But before the flight’s final destination at the Somali capital Mogadishu, it stopped for a layover in Dakar, Senegal. There, a disturbing narrative was revealed about the ordeal endured by Sharif and the 91 other Somali deportees who were being returned to Somalia.

During the flight, a lawsuit filed by some of the detainees notes that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents forced them to stay seated, denied them access to a bathroom, and “kicked, struck, choked, and dragged” them. This “inhumane” treatment lasted for 48 hours—23 of which the plane sat on the runway in Senegal.

Citing logistical problems, immigration officials eventually decided to turn the plane and head back to the United States. It’s not completely clear why this happened. ICE told the New York Times that a relief flight crew had been unable to get sufficient rest.

The aircraft and its detainees spent their time in Dakar parked at the airport. Observers say the episode gives insight into the poorly planned and hasty nature of the deportation agenda under the Trump’s immigration policy.

However, the return to the US was a relief for Sharif and his family, who were fighting his deportation and who had tried everything to keep him in the US. The trip back also saved Sharif from taking the reverse journey back to Somalia where he left when he was just eight years old.

In the mid-1990s, after fleeing Somalia’s civil war and living in Kenya as a refugee, Sharif and his family were granted resettlement and moved to the United States. As a teenager navigating the streets of Columbus, Ohio, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and in 2002, was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
After a decade, Sharif was released on parole in 2012 and went about rebuilding his life. Despite his criminal record, he started working the system to get his driver’s license, got engaged, and got a stable job working at a restaurant where he worked himself from dishwasher to second chef. Members of his family who spoke to Quartz said that he was really determined to change his life and start a family.

“He was really improving,” Ahmed Aden, a relative of Sharif’s who lives in Nairobi, told Quartz. “He was very passionate and working hard.”

But all that changed in early 2017 after president Donald Trump was elected into office. On Jan. 2017, Trump barred the citizens of seven majority Muslim nations including Somalia from entering the United States. While the ban was challenged in courts and Iraq removed from the list, the Supreme Court allowed it to take full effect in December. As Trump pushed for tougher immigration enforcement, federal immigration officials also stepped up their arrests of undocumented immigrants and refugees.

This was bad news for Sharif, who wasn’t an American citizen yet. After being summoned by his parole officer in early 2017, Sharif was detained by ICE officials and informed that he will be deported back to Somalia. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, the 35-year-old was hardly the only one facing deportation. In the last year, forced removals by ICE officials of Somali citizens have more than doubled, jumping from 198 in 2016 to 521 in 2017.

Kim Hunter, an immigration lawyer in Minnesota, said that up until last year, the civil strife and insecurity in Somalia deterred officials from deporting immigrants. Only those with “the most serious criminal records” were being expelled, while those working and living lawfully were even assured by officials that they weren’t priorities.

“The Trump Administration put a great deal of pressure on Somalia to start accepting deportees,” Hunter, who has two clients who were due for deportation, said. “And as with so many actions by the current government, this has generated a lot of confusion and fear.”

Trump’s reversal of long-standing immigration policies was bound to impact the Somalis, one of the largest African immigrant communities in the US. Over the last few years, Somalis in the US have become the microcosm of the debate surrounding immigration, refugee resettlement, and national security.

In 2016, a federal jury found three men guilty of plotting to join the terror group ISIL overseas. This made the community vulnerable to surveillance; at one point, the Federal Bureau of Investigation directed its agents to use a community outreach program for spying.

During the presidential elections, Trump also singled out Somalis multiple times, accusing them of coming from “dangerous territories,” fraying social nets, and blamed faulty vetting processes for allowing a large number of Somalis to come to states like Minnesota, Maine, and Ohio.

Kali Mohamed, a community activist in Minneapolis, says this is “unfair” given that members of the community own businesses, pay taxes, and annually send more than $200 million in remittances back home. In 2016, voters of the District 60B in southeast Minneapolis also elected Ilhan Omar, who became the first Somali-American Muslim female legislator in the US.

Kali says the increased scrutiny, travel bans, and subsequent deportations now threaten to instill fear and suspicion and break up families. “It’s really hard trying to navigate through all this,” he said.

State of limbo

After almost a year in detention, Sharif was slated for deportation back to Somalia in mid-December. That’s when he landed in Senegal, shackled along with the others. Afterwards, a federal judge in Florida granted them a temporary reprieve and they were taken to various detention centers in Florida.

At the Glades county detention facility where Sharif is, several Somali detainees have since complained of alleged maltreatment and abuse. In a sworn affidavit seen by Quartz by immigration lawyer John Bruning from Kim Hunter’s law firm, detainees complained of being verbally abused and being subjected to excessive physical force.

Sharif’s family, however, confirmed to Quartz that he has suffered no physical injuries while at Glades but was put in solitary confinement for about a week for refusing to remove his kufi cap.

Lawyers like Hunter now hope that this period of stay would allow them to reopen appeal cases for their clients. And families like Sharif’s hope he would be allowed to stay, and not return to a dangerous country that recently experienced its deadliest terror attack ever.

Aden says that before he was arrested, Sharif called to convey how his life was turning positively. “He is very expressive and frank and he would tell you how he was happy,” Aden said. “He would say ‘America is home.’”

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Africa

Trump criticised over ‘shithole countries’ remark

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AL JAZEERA — A small group of US senators say they reached a compromise on immigration reform, but it has yet to win the support of President Donald Trump.

According to several reports, Trump made vulgar remarks about Haiti, El Salvador and African countries during the discussions, calling them “shithole countries” and objecting to immigrants coming from there.

He suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries like Norway.

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