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Legal experts: White House expands use of executive privilege

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, appeared in January before the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian political interference, he refused to answer questions about his conversations with Trump after he was fired by the future president in June 2016.

The Republicans running the panel responded not with a subpoena, which Congress can use to compel testimony. They invited Lewandowski to return when he was ready, and he's scheduled to testify again on Thursday.

Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist; Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son; and Hope Hicks, the outgoing communications director, also have declined to discuss certain topics in closed-door House committee hearings.

Over in the Senate, top Trump administration intelligence and law enforcement officials, most notably Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have refused to discuss their private conversations with Trump, at least in public hearings, regarding Russia and other issues.

Most of the conflicts over congressional testimony have revolved around executive privilege, the president's legal authority to keep some conversations and other material secret to protect internal deliberations. Although the White House hasn't formally invoked the privilege, Trump's current and former aides said they would not answer questions to protect the president's right to cite the privilege later should he seek to do so.

Legal experts said the White House had significantly broadened the traditional use of executive privilege to direct individuals to avoid answering questions about specific conversations with the president.

The Trump White House is "preventing any testimony from people on the grounds that something, at some point, is potentially covered by executive privilege," said Mark J. Rozell, a professor at George Mason University who has studied the presidency.

"Then it becomes a blanket protection to prevent any and all questions from current and former staff, which is an almost breathtaking notion of executive privilege," he added.

Robert Bauer, who served as White House counsel under President Barack Obama, said the Trump administration "is attempting something quite new."

"Normally, an administration advances a claim of executive privilege, then negotiates around it to accommodate the Congress without forcing the conflict to outright confrontation," Bauer said.

In this case, he said, current and former Trump aides have declined "to answer questions on the grounds that they were instructed not to do so. This is not standard practice in dealing with unwanted congressional inquiries, and there is no constitutional basis for it."

Jim Schultz, a former deputy counsel in Trump's White House who now works at the Cozen O'Connor law firm, said there was nothing wrong with safeguarding the president's prerogative to keep some information secret.

"It's the obligation of the White House counsel to protect the institution of the White House and the executive privilege that goes along with it," Schultz said.

"If there were another party in the White House, the Democrats would not be thumping away about it," he added.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, conceded that partisanship could be at play. But he said Republicans were bending over backward to accede to White House efforts to rope off areas of inquiry.

"I've rarely seen a total surrender, a total failure of congressional oversight," Nadler said. "They're going further than the president's party usually goes."

Republicans have accused Democrats of conducting a partisan quest to embarrass the president and his inner circle. They also have argued that special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a criminal investigation of the Russian meddling, and whether Trump or his aides committed any crimes, reducing pressure on Congress to find the answers for themselves.

Still, the pushback is a sharp contrast with how Republicans investigated allegations of wrongdoing in the Obama administration.

As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California issued more than 100 subpoenas to investigate the failed "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking operation, the Internal Revenue Service's treatment of conservative groups, and armed attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA post in Benghazi, Libya.

Issa also successfully pushed to hold then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress after the Obama administration invoked executive privilege to withhold information from his committee. The Justice Department declined to prosecute Holder, who headed the department, a reminder that the executive branch often has more leverage in disputes with Congress.

Issa declined to be interviewed for this story.

The venue for most conflicts involving the Russia investigation has been the House Intelligence Committee, one of three congressional panels conducting inquiries.

When the House panel interviewed Donald Trump Jr. about his June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, he refused to recount his conversation with his father about the meeting, claiming attorney-client privilege because a lawyer was present at the time.

Bannon, the former White House strategist, rejected to answer any questions from the committee regarding events or conversations after the election. After the committee slapped him with a subpoena, Bannon agreed to return for another hearing.

But during his second appearance, he was only willing to address a pre-determined list of yes or no questions that White House lawyers had helped him prepare.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, declined to discuss whether Bannon would be held in contempt.

A spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the panel's chairman, did not respond to a question about how many subpoenas had been issued in the investigation. Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., declined requests for interviews.

Funeral notices

Sandra M. Saltzman

Memorial services will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13, 2018 at the All Faiths Chapel on the BSDC campus in Beatrice. A private family burial will be in the Pleasantview Cemetery of rural Pickrell. A guestbook is available online at

Trump blames Dems, and vice versa, for failed 'Dreamers' protections

WASHINGTON — Deadlocked with Congress on an immigration issue that both parties say they support, President Donald Trump has gone on the attack, blaming Democrats and further dimming the chances of agreement before November's elections to protect so-called Dreamers from deportation.

In a speech to Republican-friendly Latino business leaders this week, Trump said he wants to sign a law replacing the Obama-era program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — to allow up to 1.8 million young immigrants who are in the country illegally to stay, get work permits, attend college or serve in the military. The problem, he said, is Democrats.

"They're nowhere to be found. It's really terrible," Trump said, while Republicans are "ready, willing and able."

He urged the audience: "Go get DACA. Go push those Democrats. I'm telling you it's lost. So this is a moment for DACA, for all of us."

The president's comments, which echoed his partisan tweets of recent days, reflected his sensitivity to being blamed himself for the demise of a program that is broadly popular with Americans. His speech came in a week when the program was supposed to end, by his order of last September, and after he rejected bipartisan Senate legislation to replace it last month. The president's party, which controls Congress, has been unable to agree on legislation it could pass without Democrats' backing.

Democrats point out that DACA's proposed expiration is a problem of Trump's own making, given his September order putting nearly 700,000 young permit-holders at risk of deportation.

"Right now the president created this crisis and only the president can end this crisis," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said in the Senate on Wednesday.

"Six different times we've gone to him and six different times he's rejected bipartisan approaches," Durbin said. "Congress needs to do its job."

Court decisions have temporarily kept the program partially operating, in the meantime, requiring the administration to continue renewing the two-year protections indefinitely for people already approved for DACA permits. That was unchanged by a third court ruling this week in the president's favor.

The two earlier federal court decisions also removed the urgency for Congress and the White House to act on a substitute program, according to lawmakers from both parties.

"While I'm glad that DACA recipients have a little bit more time, for some, that urgency is no longer there," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida who has worked on previous immigration bills.

Similarly, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, said on Wednesday: "Some of the time pressure has gone off DACA, but if you're a DACA kid, you're a DACA young adult, you still feel that pressure, I'm sure."

It is a problem "we ought to solve," Blunt said. "There is an ongoing discussion, but I don't think there's a bipartisan solution."

Republicans and Democrats each are waiting for an overture or concession from the other party, according to interviews on Capitol Hill. Democrats, however, are less eager to act in the wake of the court rulings, banking that they will have more congressional seats — and more leverage — after the midterm election results are in.

"If there was helium in the balloon, I think it has been zapped," said Angela Kelley, a senior strategic adviser for immigration at the Open Society Policy Center, which favors looser immigration restrictions. Republicans have "no clear plan," she added, and "Democrats would be wise to hang back and see what they come to them with."

"Right now, Democrats are just not talking," said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "They are playing with the Dreamers."

The Senate last month failed to pass either Trump's preferred bill, which would not only legalize Dreamers but also sharply restrict legal immigration, or a separate, bipartisan measure with more support. Afterward, several Republican senators suggested extending the current DACA program as part of a government-spending bill that must pass by March 23 to avoid another federal shutdown.

Yet as Republican and Democratic leadership aides have met this week to determine what goes into the spending bill, neither side has proposed adding an immigration provision, three aides said.