By Karen Freifeld
(Reuters) – An attorney for President Donald Trump on Friday blasted U.S. House Democrats’ request for six years of Trump’s tax returns as „a misguided attempt” to politicize the tax laws, accusing lawmakers of harassment and interference in IRS audits.
In a statement that mapped out the legal battlefield ahead, William Consovoy said the request, formally filed on Wednesday by U.S. House of Representatives tax committee Chairman Richard Neal, flouts „constitutional constraints.”
„The requests for his private tax information are not consistent with governing law, do not advance any proper legislative purpose, and threaten to interfere with the ordinary conduct of audits,” Consovoy said.
„We are confident that this misguided attempt to politicize the administration of the tax laws will not succeed,” he said.
One of the many investigations targeting Trump on Capitol Hill and in the U.S. court system, the House Democrat’s probe into the president’s tax returns could pull back the curtain on his business empire and his reputation as a savvy dealmaker.
Unlike previous presidents over recent decades, Trump has refused to make public past tax returns, while retaining ownership in many enterprises, ranging from golf courses and hotels to Trump Tower in New York City and his Mar-a-Lago private club in Florida.
Concerns about possible conflicts of interest have simmered since Trump moved into the White House in January 2017, along with lingering questions from his presidential campaign about his net worth, tax profile and past financial dealings.
Seeking answers to such questions, Neal this week invoked a law that gives the head of the tax committee the power to ask the Internal Revenue Service for a president’s returns. He is seeking both Trump’s personal and business tax returns.
Asked on Friday about Neal’s request, Trump said before leaving the White House for a trip to California, “From what I understand the law is 100 percent on my side.”
Congressional Republicans oppose Neal’s effort, saying such a move sets a dangerous precedent by turning the confidential tax documents of a U.S. citizen into a political weapon.
A tax committee spokesman said it had no comment for now. An IRS spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
„THEY DISLIKE HIS POLITICS”
When Neal filed his request to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig two days ago, Neal said it was „critical to ensure the accountability of our government and elected officials.”
Trump has long maintained that he cannot release his returns because they are under IRS audit. The IRS, which is overseen by the U.S. Treasury Department, has said that Trump could release his returns even while under audit.
Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen recently testified in Congress that he did not believe the president was being audited, but may have used the audit claim to avoid scrutiny that could lead to an audit and IRS tax penalties.
In a letter to Treasury General Counsel Brent McIntosh on Friday, Consovoy called the request „a transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech.”
He argued that any request from the House committee for private tax returns would need to have a legitimate legislative purpose, which he said Neal’s request lacked.
Consovoy said the IRS should not comply with the request until it receives a formal legal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Consovoy is also Trump’s personal lawyer in a case accusing him of violating anti-corruption provisions of the U.S. Constitution with his Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which is pending at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; writing by Tim Ahmann; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Leslie Adler)
WASHINGTON (AP) — NATO foreign ministers approved a series of measures Thursday aimed at countering Russia in the Black Sea region, an agreement that comes amid public rifts between the United States and several of the other 28 members on security and trade issues.
In a meeting in Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of NATO, the ministers agreed to provide Georgia and Ukraine with increased maritime cooperation, patrols and port visits. Both countries have faced Russian aggression and have aspirations to join the alliance.
The NATO ministers also renewed demands for Russia to end its annexation of Crimea, release Ukrainian sailors and ships it seized in a confrontation last year in the Sea of Azov and respect the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The U.S. announced it will withdraw from the 1987 treaty in August unless Russia returns to compliance.
But a deepening dispute between the U.S. and Turkey over the Turks’ planned purchase of a Russian air defense system, U.S. demands for allies, particularly Germany, to boost defense spending, and a row with Canada over tariffs hung over the commemoration ceremony at the State Department.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appealed for the allies to stand together to confront „great power” challenges from Russia, China and Iran. He hailed NATO’s deterrence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and said the alliance was well positioned to move forward as it confronts new and evolving challenges.
„We have rightly sought peace through strength here at NATO,” Pompeo said. „We must continue to do so, especially in this new era of great power competition from Russia, from China, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Addressing those challenges and others such as terrorism, cybercrime, uncontrolled migration, threats to energy security and new technologies will require enhanced resources, he said. He also renewed a warning that the U.S. might have to curtail intelligence cooperation with countries that rely on Chinese communications technology.
Pompeo said every NATO member had an obligation to explain to its citizens the need to increase their defense budgets and rejected what he called „tired excuses” about public opposition to such spending.
„We’re very hopeful that they will get it right, that they will understand that it is important for our collective defense,” he told reporters later, referring specifically to Germany.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in an address to Congress on Wednesday and again on Thursday, acknowledged serious divisions within the alliance and called for bigger defense budgets.
President Donald Trump has questioned the value of the alliance and criticized some members for not spending enough on defense.
Pompeo did not address the spat with Turkey in his remarks, but in a Wednesday meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu he had made clear Washington’s displeasure with Ankara for insisting it would go ahead with plans to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 system instead of the American Patriot system.
In a sign of rising tensions between the two capitals, Turkey’s foreign ministry disputed the State Department’s account of the meeting, which said Pompeo had warned of „potentially devastating consequences” of unilateral Turkish military action in northern Syria as well as consequences for buying the S-400.
The ministry said the account failed to accurately reflect the content of the discussion and added that „our alliance naturally requires that such statements are prepared with greater care.”
Asked about the Turkish complaint, Pompeo said he had re-read the account and it was „spot on.” ”I stand by every word of it,” he said, adding that his meeting with Cavusoglu had been „good” and „long” and that the Turks were well aware of the U.S. position.
The Trump administration is threatening to stop delivery to Turkey of the newest U.S. fighter jet, the F-35, if the S-400 purchase is completed. Vice President Mike Pence had delivered the same warning, noting that the U.S. and other NATO members had grave concerns about the S-400 as it is not interoperable with alliance systems.
„Turkey must choose,” Pence said Wednesday. „Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in the history of the world or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?”
Cavusoglu and other Turkish officials say they are proceeding with the deal because the need is urgent and the Patriots could not be delivered for another decade. They have also said the S-400 is not intended to work with NATO systems and will be a purely stand-alone defensive mechanism.
Stoltenberg acknowledged that the matter was a point of severe contention between the U.S. and Turkey and expressed hope that a resolution was possible. „We fully realize that this is now a challenge,” he said.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland took the opportunity of the NATO meeting to register Ottawa’s displeasure with being labeled a potential national security threat by the U.S. in relation to steel production. She called the designation, which has led to the imposition of tariffs on Canadian steel, „absurd” and pointed to her presence at the NATO meeting as proof that Canada is not a threat to the U.S.
„We really think this is groundless,” she told reporters.
Donald Trump had a unwelcoming message to those seeking political asylum in the United States: Don’t bother.
“Our country is full,” Trump said at an event in Calexico, Calif., to promote construction of a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. “Our area is full. The sector is full. Can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry. Can’t happen. So turn around, that’s the way it is.”
Trump described his remarks as “our new statement,” and said it applied to asylum seekers as well as immigrants crossing the border illegally.
“If you look at our southern border, the number of people and the amount of drugs, human trafficking — the human trafficking is something that nobody used to talk about, I talk about it. It’s a terrible thing. It’s ancient and it’s never been bigger than it is modern, right now, today. All over the world, by the way, not just here. All over the world, human trafficking, a terrible thing.” According to figures provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials the number of people arrested for illegally crossing the border rose from 47,986 in January to 66,450 in February. Families, many traveling from Central American countries, made up more than half of those numbers, CBP said.While arrests of criminal aliens have continued to fall the past two years, Trump assured his audience that “there is indeed an emergency on our southern border.”“It’s a colossal surge,” Trump said of the migrant caravans from Central America, “and it’s overwhelming our immigration system. We can’t take you anymore.”Specifically, Trump singled out those seeking asylum, saying that a large number of them were gang members.“It’s a scam. It’s a hoax,” Trump said. “I know about hoaxes. I just went through a hoax,” which is how he refers to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of his campaign’s ties to the Russian government.At the same time, Trump proclaimed that Mexico “has been absolutely terrific for the last four days,” arresting “thousands” of Central American migrants before they could reach the U.S. border. But then the president issued another warning.
“If for any reason Mexico stops apprehending and bringing the illegals back to where they came from, the U.S. will be forced to tariff at 25 percent all cars made in Mexico and shipped over the border to us. If that doesn’t work, I will close the border,” Trump vowed.
Trump had backed off from that threat earlier in the week after lawmakers from both parties threw cold water on the idea.
“Closing down the border would have potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country, and I would hope we would not be doing that,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned.
As for the country being “full,” the United States, with a population density of 35 people per square kilometer, ranks 175th of 240 countries, between Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan.
Trump’s rolling up the welcome mat for immigrants stands in opposition to the long-standing American tradition of welcoming immigrants summed up by the lines in Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
In February, Trump painted a very different picture regarding the country’s need for new immigrants.
“I need people coming in because we need people to run the factories and plants and companies that are moving back in,” Trump told reporters in February. “We need people.”
President Trump abruptly withdrew his nomination for Ronald Vitiello to run the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, leaving the agency without a Senate-confirmed director at a time when the president and his administration claim the country to be in the midst of an immigration crisis.
“Ron is a good man, but we’re going in a tougher direction,” Trump told reporters Friday morning, confirming earlier reports that the White House had sent members of Congress an official notice about the withdrawal late Thursday.
The notice, which came hours before Vitiello was scheduled to travel with Trump to the southwest border Friday, was reportedly so unexpected that some Homeland Security officials initially speculated it had been sent by mistake.
Vitiello, a longtime Border Patrol official who currently serves as both deputy and acting director of ICE, is the second nominee Trump has submitted to the Senate for the position.
As the federal agency tasked with enforcing U.S. immigration laws — which includes arresting, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants — ICE is largely viewed as the face of the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration agenda. However, the force of more than 20,000 law enforcement and support personnel has been operating without a Senate-confirmed director since Trump took office and appointed Thomas Homan as acting ICE chief.
A 30-year immigration enforcement veteran who has been honored for his work as executive associate director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations under President Barack Obama, Homan eagerly embraced Trump’s pledge to crack down on illegal immigration. He quickly ramped up arrests of undocumented immigrants across the country and became a vocal critic of sanctuary cities.
Homan effectively ran the agency for nearly 10 months before Trump officially nominated him for the ICE director position in November 2017. Despite earning high praise from the president, Homan’s handling of the agency raised concerns among Democrats in the Senate and his nomination did not make it far before Homan announced, in April of last year, that he would retire in June.
Vitiello, a longtime U.S. Border Patrol Agent and former senior border official, was then tapped to take over for Homan, bringing a decidedly lower-profile approach to the role than his outspoken predecessor, who went on to become a Fox News contributor. Trump officially nominated the new acting director in August of last year.
Vitiello encountered plenty of his own roadblocks on the road to confirmation, however, including concerns over controversial social media posts as well as his refusal to rule out future separations of immigrant families at the border.
In February, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security decided to postpone a vote on Vitiello for a second time after receiving a detailed letter from the president of the National ICE Council, the pro-Trump union representing ICE officers, outlining several issues with Vitiello’s “job performance record, judgment, character, and credibility,” which the organization said made him “unfit to serve as Director.”
Ultimately, however, the committee voted on March 11 to approve Vitiello’s nomination, and it was on track for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee when Trump abruptly pulled the plug, reportedly taking many lawmakers and Homeland Security Officials by surprise.
An ICE spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, and Trump has yet to offer any indication of whom he might be considering. In the meantime, Vitiello remains the agency’s deputy and acting director.