Hunger Strikes At ICE Detention Centers Spread As Parole, Bond Is Denied

Some detainees at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, went on a hunger strike last year. There have been at least six hunger strikes at detention centers in the first three months of 2019 alone.

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In the last week of March, dozens of asylum-seekers held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., initiated a hunger strike. Activists said 150 people joined the demonstration, while ICE put the number at 24.

It was a short-lived demonstration, ending on March 30, according to ICE. But it was at least the sixth hunger strike at a detention center in the first three months of 2019 alone.

“We have never seen so many hunger strikes in so many different places in less than three, four months,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigrants rights activist based in Washington state. “And the ones we have been able to engage with have been led by asylum seekers.”

For several of the hunger strikes, the detainees’ central demand was to be released while their cases were adjudicated, a process that can take years. That was the first demand of the River Correctional strike, as well as the 77-day hunger strike that occurred at the El Paso Processing Center. That demonstration made national headlines when ICE agents began force feeding detainees. A judge eventually ordered the agents to stop.

Asylum seekers have two ways to escape detention while their cases are still being reviewed: bond or parole. The use of bonds in immigration court increased in the final years of the Obama administration, a trend that has been reversed under President Donald Trump. And parole — a type of release granted to asylum seekers who are found to have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries — has nearly disappeared altogether, immigration advocates and attorneys say.

“The way the system is operating right now, especially in Louisiana, is a farce,” said the wife of one of the hunger strikers at River Correctional. For fear of retribution from ICE agents, she asked to be identified only as “Dee,” an abbreviation of her first name. She also asked that her husband’s name not be included for fear it would interfere with his asylum case.

The pair are from Cuba, and fled last year after they say they were imprisoned and tortured for their political beliefs.

“To feel that there is no hope, I think that’s been the hardest thing for him,” Dee said of her husband. “He’s been through worse, but the mental, psychological feeling that you are going to come to a refuge and instead find a prison, that’s what is really the hardest thing.”

Trump has taken a firm stance on immigration, including those seeking asylum, vowing to keep asylum seekers in detention or force them to stay outside of the United States while their claims are being considered.

“We’re going to catch, we’re not going to release,” he said at a press conference in November. “They’re going to stay with us until the deportation hearing or the asylum hearing takes place. … And they await a lengthy court process. The court process will take years sometimes for them to attend. Well, we’re not releasing them into our country any longer. They’ll wait.”

Trump has provided two primary reasons for the new approach. First, he says that asylum seekers who are released don’t return for their court hearings, stating that as few as three percent will appear in court. But according to a 2017 Department of Justice report, 89 percent of asylum seekers appeared at a hearing at which a decision on their case was made.

The other major justification provided by the Trump administration is that the asylum system is a loophole for immigrants who are not in danger, but rather looking for an easier path into the country.

“You do not subject yourself to a year of detention, even just six months of detention, let alone five years of detention, if you don’t have a credible claim,” said Jeremy Jong, a Louisiana-based immigration attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dee pointed to the conditions that she and her husband have faced. She said they didn’t have adequate food or clothing, and that her husband was put in solitary confinement after the hunger strike as retribution for his political activity.

“In general, ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in an email. “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”

Dee said that what made things worse is that a private company was making money from her husband’s suffering.

“This immigrations system has become so lucrative,” she said. “This whole system is for profit.”

River Correctional, a private prison owned by Ruston-based LaSalle Corrections, has held immigration detainees since late last year, according to Cox.

“We don’t do that here anymore”

Between 2009 and 2014, the first six years of the Obama administration, immigration courts denied bonds between 51 percent and 60 percent of the time, according to data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That changed in 2015 and 2016. In the administration’s final two years, denials dipped to 44 percent.

But since Trump took office, those denials have increased again, to 52 percent in 2018. Louisiana’s immigration courts are even more tightfisted, with a denial rate of 61 percent in 2018, compared to 41 percent in 2016.

“The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) does not comment on third-party reporting of EOIR data,” said Amanda St. Jean, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. “Please note that an immigration judge renders decisions on bond on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant factors.”

Villalpando said that while human rights violations in the immigration system have grown faster under Trump, many of these issues are not new.

“Obama left an incredible huge machine of detention and deportation to an administration with no shame,” she said.

Even with the growing rate of denial, some asylum seekers aren’t eligible for bond at all.

Asylum seekers who come to the country outside of a port of entry and are caught by Border Patrol agents after already entering the U.S. were eligible for bond. Bond can be granted either by ICE or an immigration judge. Though earlier this week, Attorney General William Barr ordered immigration judges to stop releasing some detained asylum-seekers out on bail. The order does not apply to family units or unaccompanied minors.

But even before Barr’s decision, migrants who surrendered at a legal port of entry weren’t eligible for bail. Their only option is parole, which can only be granted by ICE and has changed even more dramatically than bail.

In 2018, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against officials from ICE and homeland security, arguing that ICE was violating its own policy by issuing blanket denials to parole.

The ACLU lawsuit claims that ICE is in violation of its own policy — the 2009 Parole Directive, which says that an asylum seeker should be released on parole if they’re found to have a credible fear, established their identity and do not present either a flight risk or a danger to the community. The plaintiffs in the ongoing case looked at how parole was treated at five different ICE field offices.

Between 2011 and 2013, those field offices granted parole to 92 percent of arriving asylum seekers, according to the lawsuit. In 2017, from February through September, that number fell down to just four percent.

Activists say that although the ACLU suit focused on those five offices, the change isn’t just limited to those regions. The New Orleans field office, for example, was not included in that assessment. But Jong said he witnessed a similar phenomena.

“I would say that in cases that I had, granting of parole was the rule rather than the exception for folks who had turned themselves in at a port of entry,” he said. “Essentially after the new administration took office, the parole grant rate has dropped off of a cliff. … I’ve literally heard of it happening once in the last two years.”

He recalled a case from 2018 in which he was trying to get parole for one of his clients.

“When we submitted the parole request to the deportation officer, the deportation officer laughed and said, ‘Parole? We don’t do that here anymore.’ ”

Cox, the ICE spokesman, pointed to the Trump administration’s rollback of the 2014 Department of Homeland Security Immigration Enforcement Priorities policy as a potential explanation for the change in parole. The former policy shifted Homeland Security’s focus to immigrants who posed national security and public safety risks, rather than those with no criminal records or minor ones.

“The current administration repealed that document and no longer exempts classes or categories of persons from enforcement of federal law,” Cox said.

“We abided by the law”

In December, Dee and her husband crossed into the U.S. at a legal port of entry.

After leaving Cuba, they traveled to Mexicali — a Mexican city on the California border — where they had to wait a month before being allowed through, Dee said. The Trump administration put a “metering” system in place last year, limiting the daily number of people crossing through legal ports of entry and forcing many asylum seekers to wait for months until their number is called.

“We abided by the law that Donald Trump laid out,” Dee said. “In order to claim asylum, you’re supposed to do that at a port of entry at the border. We waited for one month in Mexicali. We hardly had anything to survive there, we hadn’t brought anything with us.”

The couple turned themselves in to officials and requested asylum. They were both put into detention. Dee was in a California detention center for two months before being granted parole, she said. Her husband was shuffled between several different centers before being landing in Ferriday in February, according to Dee.

Dee said she’s been frustrated that even after following what she thought was the appropriate protocol, she’s still being punished. Villalpando wasn’t surprised, and said that the country’s immigration laws are unfairly opaque and constantly shifting.

“This is not a fair system to fight your case,” Villalpando said. “It’s a system to ensure you will be in detention the longest time possible.”

This is their only option

While the likelihood of being released on bond or parole is falling, so are the chances that asylum will ultimately be granted. In 2012, only 42 percent of asylum applications were denied. Last year, that number was 65 percent.

Between 2013 and 2018, the New Orleans immigration court denied 80 percent of asylum applications. The second Louisiana immigration court in Oakdale denied 90 percent. One of the judges at the Oakdale Court, Judge Agnelis L. Reese, has denied every single asylum application she’s ruled on for the past seven years. The third Louisiana immigration court, in Jena, opened in July, so data isn’t yet available.

“For so many of these people this is their only option, they can’t go back,” Jong said. “They’ll ask, ‘what are my chances.’ and you have to be honest with them and tell them ‘look, nobody has ever won an asylum case in front of this person, so your chances aren’t good. And they’ll say, ‘well I’m going to die.’ “

“What are you supposed to say to that?” Jong asked. “The abject sense of injustice, of hopelessness is really palpable in those conversations.”

Villalpando said that if the Trump administration’s goal was to make some asylum seekers give up hope, he’s partially succeeded. But, she said, there are many who remain determined.

“It’s just such a inhumane and constant violation of human dignity in detention,” she said. “Yet, we see the hunger strikes. That’s the most important part of any discussion that although the vast majority of people might not end up winning their cases or even to be able to fight their cases, there will always be a number of people who will remain strong and try to keep their dignity intact and will try to expose the system as it is.”

Dee said she counts herself and her husband among that group. She said she still believes he will be released. In the meantime, she said she will continue to speak out against the judges and ICE officials keeping her husband in detention.

“They’re animals,” she said.

This story was produced in partnership with NPR Member station WWNO and The Lens.

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‘We Pray For The Caliphate To Return’: ISIS Families Crowd Into Syrian Camps

Women carry children near the al-Hol camp in Syria’s Kurdish-majority region of Rojava. The camp is filled with more than 72,000 people — most of them women and children who came out of the last ISIS-held territory.

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The women huddle for shelter from the rain under a corrugated iron roof, their long black cloaks dragging in the mud as they wait in line for food and pray for the return of the ISIS caliphate.

The squalid al-Hol camp, in the Kurdish-majority region of Syria known as Rojava, is filled with more than 72,000 people — most of them women and children who came out of the last piece of ISIS-held territory in Baghouz.

They include thousands of Iraqis and Syrians who believe they will usher in a new caliphate. And they pose a risk to the Iraqi government, seeking to repatriate the Iraqis, and to Syrian Kurdish authorities, having nowhere to send the Syrians.

“This is injustice — we pray for the caliphate to return,” says one of the women, who says this is the third day they have been turned away from promised cartons of food. Everything is in short supply here.

“If it weren’t for the airstrikes on our tents and camps killing our children,” she says, “we would not have left the caliphate.” All refuse to give their names.

All of the women are completely covered in long black cloaks, with only a slit for their eyes. A few have covered even their eyes.

“Convert, convert!” a group of women and girls shout at me, urging me to recite the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger.”

“If you became Muslim and cover like us and became a member of our religion, you would not be killed” in the ISIS caliphate, one woman tells me.

To the world, to the governments it threatened and the hundreds of thousands it killed in Iraq and Syria, ISIS was one of the most brutal organizations known.

To its followers — who number in the tens of thousands and escaped the fall of the last ISIS territory in Syria with their beliefs intact — ISIS could do no wrong.

In their caliphate, they say there was justice. There was no bribery or corruption or wasta — the influence peddling at the heart of most countries in the region.

“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and any shepherd were on the same level,” says an Iraqi boy, referring to the ISIS leader now believed to be in hiding.

They say when there was food in the caliphate, it was distributed. Here at the camp, they say they come every day to be humiliated and told there’s nothing for them.

Malnourished infants have died due to lack of shelter and medical care in the camp in this breakaway region of Syria, according to the World Health Organization and other aid groups. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the Rojava region now faces an uncertain future.

The women in the camp believe its harsh conditions are deliberate — part of what they believe to be a continuing war against Muslims around the world.

They say everything under ISIS was what God wanted.

“Of course there were beheadings — why should I lie?” says a Syrian woman. “It’s based on the Quran and the rules of God.”

Asked about the Yazidi minority, which ISIS targeted with a campaign of genocide, the women shout: “Devil worshippers!”

Misconceptions about the ancient Yazidi religion have led to dozens of massacres over the centuries. When ISIS took over a third of Iraq in 2014, thousands of Yazidis were killed or captured as sex slaves.

Women and children wait for distribution of food at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. Most are family members of ISIS fighters, viewed by the region’s Kurdish Syrian leadership as a potential danger. Iraq says it wants to bring back 30,000 of its citizens to place in Iraqi camps, but few are willing to return.

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“If they don’t convert to Islam and they don’t become Muslim like us and worship God, then they deserve it,” says an Iraqi woman.

This camp, they complain, is full of infidels. There is music. Male and female guards wear tight clothing and smoke cigarettes. They say the men harass women.

They insist that everything was better in what they call al-dawla – the state.

“There, a woman would walk with her head held high and a man would lower his eyes,” says a Syrian woman. “Here, it’s the opposite.”

The region’s Kurdish Syrian leadership views the large numbers of radicalized women and children as a continued danger.

“The women and children who have been raised on the mentality of ISIS and terrorism need to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into their communities,” says Abdulkarim Omar, a foreign relations official in the Kurdish region of northeast Syria. “Otherwise, they will be the foundations of future terrorism.”

But there is little money or political will for reintegrating ISIS families in either Iraq or Syria.

At a smaller camp run by the Kurdish Syrian forces, ISIS wives from Western countries are exposed to lectures about how ISIS is not Islam and what ISIS did to Yazidis and other women.

But there are no similar programs at al-Hol camp for Syrian and Iraqi ISIS families — and there are very few in Iraq.

“Any official who goes for an hour and speaks to them can’t change anything — are you a prophet that they would believe in you?” says Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi counter-terrorism expert in Baghdad.

“We have proposed [de-radicalization] programs in the past, but no one has implemented them,” says Ali Abbas Jahaker, a deputy director at Iraq’s Ministry of Migration. Jahaker says the Iraqi government plans to repatriate 30,000 Iraqi women and children over three months, but will not force the families to return against their will.

In Syria, camp officials say so far, fewer than 1,000 Iraqis have indicated they want to go home.

The women at al-Hol say they are there because ISIS leader Baghdadi told them to escape to save their children.

“This is the next generation of the caliphate,” says one of the women. “If you talk to them, they have the true creed implanted in their minds. The true creed will remain.”

And in fact, it’s a girl from the Iraqi city of Tikrit who is among the most fervent in the group. She appears to be 11 or 12.

On judgment day, the girl tells us, God will pour molten metal in the ears of those who listen to music.

“The ones who are not covered, now I ask God in the next life to light the fires of hell with their hair!” she declares.

She says she went to school under ISIS — what she calls a proper school, with boys and girls segregated — and vows she won’t go to school again until the caliphate returns.

They all believe it’s just a matter of time.

Awadh al-Taee contributed reporting from Baghdad.

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‘The Raven’s Tale:’ O, For A Muse Of Angst

America’s most macabre poet is tormented by his muse — literally — in this young adult imagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s teenage years.

Edgar can’t wait to get out of Richmond, where everyone knows him as a charity case who was taken in by the Allan family after his parents died. The problem is that his foster father will only pay for him to go away to university if he gives up writing. But giving up on his brooding, romantic verse is unthinkable, especially once it gives birth to a flesh and blood muse. Lenore is a vision of horror, with raven feathers in her hair and a string of teeth about her neck like jewels, and Edgar can’t deny the connection that burns between them.

Muses made manifest aren’t unusual in this slightly alternate version of the early 19th century. Every creative person has one, whether they are hearthside storytellers or singers in the church choir. But most muses don’t linger long in their eerie, human state. Once a creative person has dedicated themselves to their art, their muse moves into the spirit realm, appearing only in bird form in the corporeal world. And Edgar learns much of what he knows about muses from an enslaved woman named Judith, who helped raise Edgar and who has an owlish muse of her own.

Tormented by his foster father’s disapproval and cruelty, Edgar battles against his muse, leaving her to fend for herself in a town where everyone fears her. Even once he gets away to university, he shoves her to the side, relying instead on his more presentable satiric muse, a snotty young gentleman who introduces himself at one of the little salons that Edgar hosts in his room. When his foster father fails to pay for his expenses, Edgar spirals into debt and self-loathing as he tries and fails to resist his love of the dark creativity that Lenore represents. His only hope is to cast off the judgement that has shadowed his entire life and embrace his true talent.

The Raven’s Tale is a flawed book, but the concept is intriguing. In a genre where brooding boys so often rule the romantic roost, teenage Edgar Allan Poe is kind of an ideal hero for a work of historical fantasy. Between his tragic childhood loss, his complicated relationship with his family, and his burgeoning creativity, he makes for a sympathetic and interesting protagonist. The best parts of the book pit Edgar against very real hardships, and we see the historical details come to life. We cringe at his embarrassment about being the only student not in uniform, because his foster father won’t pay for one. We shiver alongside him when he runs out of firewood and is forced to burn his table to keep from freezing. We feel the tumbling loss when he goes to a party to see his secret fiancée, only to discover it’s her engagement party to another, wealthier gentleman.

Because these are its strengths, I wish The Raven’s Tale focused on offering thoughtfully considered historical fiction instead of taking flight into more fantastical realms. For me, the conceit of the living muse is confusing. Everyone seems to be vaguely aware that muses exist, but if they exist with the frequency portrayed, it seems like they would be an accepted part of society instead of the oddity they seem to be.

But the biggest difficulty I have with The Raven’s Tale is the way it represents slavery. Poe’s foster family owned three slaves. In the book, Edgar has a close relationship with Judith, who goes so far as to say that she cares for him as if he were her own son. She exists in the narrative to support Edgar emotionally — in particular as a spiritual advisor in the ways of muses – making her uncomfortably close to the stereotypical “magical negro.”

There is a moment where it seems like the narrative almost wants to engage with the topic of slavery. Edgar is ordering Lenore around, and she proclaims, “you are not my master,” prompting him to reconsider his treatment of her. But when you consider the fact that Edgar is in a position to order around other people who are literally enslaved, a void opens up at the center of this book. Slavery is more horrifying than any of the macabre imaginings Edgar can conjure, and his foster father’s refusal to offer unconditional love and support his creative pursuits pales in severity when you consider that he owns other human beings.

The Raven’s Tale is a story about listening to your inner voice and trusting yourself, and about parents passing down their own repression and pain to their children. These are worthy topics, but it’s difficult to look at them with full interest when something so much darker lurks just beneath the surface.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.

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‘National Enquirer’ To Be Sold To Hudson News Heir James Cohen

American Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, struck a deal to sell the tabloid and two other publications.

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American Media Inc. has made a deal to sell the National Enquirer, following months of scandals involving the tabloid’s ties to President Trump and its reporting practices.

The company announced on Thursday that it had reached an agreement with James Cohen, magazine distributor and son of the founder of Hudson News. The sale would include two other publications, Globe and National Examiner.

In a statement, American Media President and CEO David Pecker said that Hudson News has the “long-term vision needed to ensure the growth of these brands.” Announcing its intent to sell last week, AMI said it wanted to focus on its teen and active lifestyle brands.

The company has become embroiled in controversies surrounding Trump’s presidential campaign, the details of which emerged as a result of federal investigations.

As part of a deal with federal prosecutors in New York City last year, AMI admitted that it helped arrange a payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal in order to help Trump’s campaign keep her quiet. The Enquirer allegedly used a tactic known as “catch-and-kill” — buying the rights to a damaging story in order to bury it.

Pecker, who has deep ties to Trump, personally agreed to collaborate with federal prosecutors to avoid prosecution himself.

AMI also ran into a recent controversy with Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who accused the company of blackmailing him by threatening to publish potentially embarrassing personal photos. Bezos said that the company demanded he stop an investigation into how the tabloid obtained other private photos and texts of him and his girlfriend. AMI denied the accusations and said it had engaged “in good faith negotiations” with Bezos.

The company has run into financial trouble in recent years and said that the sale would reduce its debt to $355 million. The agreement also includes a multi-year service contract that AMI says will generate “substantial fees” for publishing, financial and distribution services, according to the company.

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Meet The People In Trump’s Orbit Who The Mueller Report Says Ignored His Orders

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (left), former Deputy National Security Advisor Designate Kathleen Troia ‘K.T.’ McFarland and former White House Counsel Don McGahn were named in Robert Mueller’s report as people who did not carry out President Trump’s asks.

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Tasos Katopodis; Chris Kleponis/AFP; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Attorney General William Barr said there would be no obstruction of justice charges against the president stemming from the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, which was released in redacted form on Thursday.

But the threshold for charting the president might have been breached, had staffers not resisted his directives to engage in actions that would have impeded the investigation.

The more-than-400-page report names 10 one time close aides or other government officials who refused to carry out requests Trump made that may have violated the law.

“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” Mueller wrote on Page 158 of the report.

Some of the resistance came from people Trump loathed, such as FBI director James Comey whom the president would controversially fire (thus launching Mueller’s investigation in the first place). But other close members of his team also rebuffed the president, including his former chief of staff, campaign manager and White House counsel.

Here is a list of those who acted as essentially legal guardrails for the president and may have also kept themselves out of legal peril.

White House counsel Don McGahn

Former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who resisted efforts to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

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Trump tried to stop the special counsel’s investigation before it began in earnest. On page 4 of Mueller’s report, he writes that the president tried to get White House counsel Don McGahn to pressure Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to relieve Mueller of his duties:

“On June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn at home and directed him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed. McGahn did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”

McGahn feared a comparison to President Richard Nixon’s purging of legal officials from the Justice Department during the Watergate scandal.

When the episode was later reported in the press, the president pressured McGahn to deny the reports. “McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the President to be testing his mettle,” the report says.

McGahn left the White House in October 2018.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions resisted Trump’s efforts to unrecuse himself from supervising the Mueller investigation.

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Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Sessions had decided in March 2017 to recuse himself from any investigations into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia due to meetings he had with the Russian ambassador in 2016.

Trump pressured Sessions to rethink his recusal from the Russia investigation as another one way to gain control over the Mueller probe. On page 5, Mueller writes:

In early summer 2017, the President called Sessions at home and again asked him to reverse his recusal from the Russia investigation. Sessions did not reverse his recusal. In October 2017, the President met privately with Sessions in the Oval Office and asked him to “take [a] look” at investigating Clinton. In December 2017, shortly after Flynn pleaded guilty pursuant to a cooperation agreement, the President met with Sessions in the Oval Office and suggested, according to notes taken by a senior advisor, that if Sessions unrecused and took back supervision of the Russia investigation, he would be a “hero.” The President told Sessions, “I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.” In response, Sessions volunteered that he had never seen anything “improper” on the campaign and told the President there was a “whole new leadership team” in place. He did not unrecuse.

Sessions’ decision to recuse himself was seen as the ultimate betrayal by Trump. Although Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump, the relationship between the two soured as Trump repeatedly bashed and criticized him in public and on social media. Sessions was finally forced out the day after the November 2018 midterms, when Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives.

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and senior White House official Rick Dearborn

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tried to get someone else to fire Jeff Sessions.

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When both McGahn and Sessions wouldn’t follow directives to fire or limit Mueller’s powers, Trump turned to a loyalist who didn’t work in the White House, his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. According to the report, Trump pressured Lewandowski ask Sessions to give a speech to walk back his recusal.

Mueller later writes that Trump again pressured Lewandowski a month later when the message had still not been transmitted to Sessions:

One month later, in another private meeting with Lewandowski on July 19, 2017, the President asked about the status of his message for Sessions to limit the Special Counsel investigation to future election interference. Lewandowski told the President that the message would be delivered soon. Hours after that meeting, the President publicly criticized Sessions in an interview with the New York Times, and then issued a series of tweets making it clear that Sessions’s job was in jeopardy.

Despite his apparent promise to the president, Lewandowski dragged his feet. Instead, he “asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to deliver it to Sessions” because he “believed Dearborn would be a better messenger because he had a longstanding relationship with Sessions.” But, “Dearborn was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through.”

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus

Then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in 2017. Priebus also resisted orders to fire Jeff Sessions.

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Trump continued to fume over Sessions’ continued role as Attorney General, and hoped to find yet another way to remove him in order to curb Mueller’s investigation. In July 2017, Trump “told Priebus that he had to get Sessions to resign immediately” because “the country had lost confidence in Sessions and the negative publicity was not tolerable.”

“Priebus replied that if they fired Sessions, they would never get a new Attorney General confirmed and that the Department of Justice and Congress would turn their backs on the President,” Mueller writes, but Trump suggested a recess appointment instead. However, Priebus still saw Trump’s request was problematic, and called McGahn to help stop it. Priebus and McGahn discussed both resigning to stop Trump from firing Sessions. Still, Trump continued to push his then-chief of staff about the directive:

Even though Priebus did not intend to carry out the President’s directive, he told the President he would get Sessions to resign. Later in the day, Priebus called the President and explained that it would be a calamity if Sessions resigned because Priebus expected that Rosenstein and Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand would also resign and the President would be unable to get anyone else confirmed. The President agreed to hold off on demanding Sessions’s resignation until after the Sunday shows the next day, to prevent the shows from focusing on the firing. By the end of that weekend, Priebus recalled that the President relented and agreed not to ask Sessions to resign.

Staff Secretary Rob Porter

Before Trump had pressured Priebus to fire Sessions, Trump considered defanging the Mueller investigation by having Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand take it over. He reached out to Porter about Brand’s loyalties because he knew her, and “asked him to sound her out about taking responsibility for the investigation and being Attorney General.” Trump would bring it up to Porter a few more times, but he was unwilling to do so:

Later, the President asked Porter a few times in passing whether he had spoken to Brand, but Porter did not reach out to her because he was uncomfortable with the task. In asking him to reach out to Brand, Porter understood the President to want to find someone to end the Russia investigation or fire the Special Counsel, although the President never said so explicitly. Porter did not contact Brand because he was sensitive to the implications of that action and did not want to be involved in a chain of events associated with an effort to end the investigation or fire the Special Counsel.

Porter would later resign in February 2018 amid allegations over domestic abuse, which he denied.

FBI Director James Comey

Former FBI Director James Comey resisted Trump’s efforts to shut down the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

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It was Comey’s firing by Trump that triggered Mueller’s appointment. Comey alleged that Trump had asked the FBI director to go easy on an investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn over misleading the FBI and Vice President Pence about his contact with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump denied asking Comey about the Flynn matter, but Mueller finds that “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.”

When the President met with Comey the day after Flynn’s termination – shortly after being told by [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie that firing Flynn would not end the Russia investigation – the President cleared the room, even excluding the Attorney General, so that he could again speak to Comey alone. The President’s decision to meet one-on-one with Comey contravened the advice of the White House Counsel that the President should not communicate directly with the Department of Justice to avoid any appearance of interfering in law enforcement activities. And the President later denied that he cleared the room and asked Comey to “let Flynn go” – a denial that would have been unnecessary if he believed his request was a proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

One reason Trump was sensitive about any investigation into Russian influence is that he thought, Mueller says, any suggestion Russia had intervened in the 2016 election on his behalf would undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.

Deputy National Security Adviser KT McFarland

Former deputy national security adviser KT McFarland.

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

McFarland was Flynn’s deputy for the brief time he was national security adviser. Trump asked Priebus to have McFarland “draft an internal email that would confirm that the President did not direct Flynn to call the Russian Ambassador about sanctions. Priebus said he told the President he would only direct McFarland to write such a letter if she were comfortable with it.”

But McFarland didn’t know if that were the case, and she worried it would look like a quid pro quo in order for an ambassadorship to Singapore she was being considered for. Mueller goes on to write:

The evidence does not establish that the President was trying to have McFarland lie. The President’s request, however, was sufficiently irregular that McFarland — who did not know the full extent of Flynn’s communications with the President and thus could not make the representation the President wanted — felt the need to draft an internal memorandum documenting the President’s request…

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein resisted multiple efforts to curb the Mueller investigation.

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

When Trump was trying to make a case for firing Comey, he turned to Sessions and Rosenstein for their recommendations. Rosenstein expressed concern over Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server at the State Department but Trump told him:

…to include in his recommendation the fact that Comey had refused to confirm that the President was not personally under investigation. According to notes taken by a senior DOJ official of Rosenstein’s description of his meeting with the President, the President said, ‘Put the Russia stuff in the memo.’ Rosenstein responded that the Russia investigation was not the basis of his recommendation, so he did not think Russia should be mentioned. The President told Rosenstein he would appreciate it if Rosenstein put it in his letter anyway. When Rosenstein left the meeting, he knew that Comey would be terminated, and he told DOJ colleagues that his own reasons for replacing Comey were ‘not [the President’s] reasons.’

When press coverage turned against Trump following Comey’s firing, the White House called the Department of Justice and said they:

…wanted to put out a statement saying that it was Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey. Rosenstein told other DOJ officials that he would not participate in putting out a ‘false story.’ The President then called Rosenstein directly and said he was watching Fox News, that the coverage had been great, and that he wanted Rosenstein to do a press conference. Rosenstein responded that this was not a good idea because if the press asked him, he would tell the truth that Comey’s firing was not his idea. Sessions also informed the White House Counsel’s Office that evening that Rosenstein was upset that his memorandum was being portrayed as the reason for Comey’s termination.

Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe

Former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe.

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Trump summoned McCabe to the White House in the wake of Comey’s firing, and:

…asked McCabe whether many people in the FBI disliked Comey and whether McCabe was part of the ‘resistance’ that had disagreed with Comey’s decisions in the Clinton investigation. McCabe told the President that he knew Comey had told the President he was not under investigation, that most people in the FBI felt positively about Comey, and that McCabe worked ‘very closely’ with Comey and was part of all the decisions that had been made in the Clinton investigation.

Trump met with McCabe again later, and Trump “without prompting, told McCabe that people in the FBI loved the President, estimated that at least 80% of the FBI had voted for him, and asked McCabe who he had voted for in the 2016 presidential election.”

Ultimately, Trump chose McCabe as the temporary acting FBI director, but was suspicious of him because his wife had run for the Virginia state legislature as a Democrat. McCabe would later tell CBS News that he authorized an investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia because he feared that if he were “removed quickly or reassigned or fired, that the case could not be closed or vanish in the night without a trace.” Trump fired McCabe from the FBI just 26 hours before his retirement was set to take effect, denying him his full pension.

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Mueller Report Raises New Questions About Russia’s Hacking Targets In 2016

Voters casting ballots at voting machines at a high school in North Las Vegas on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016. The newly-released Mueller report detailed more about Russia’s efforts to hack election-related systems.

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While the headlines about special counsel Robert Mueller’s report have focused on the question of whether President Trump obstructed justice, the report also gave fresh details about Russian efforts to hack into U.S. election systems.

In particular, the report said, “We understand the FBI believes that this operation enabled [Russian military intelligence] to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government” during the 2016 campaign.

That came as news to Paul Lux, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, which has been working closely with federal authorities to protect their election systems against such attacks.

“I haven’t heard even a whisper” about such a breach, Lux told NPR, noting that the report referred to a county “government” office network, not specifically to an “elections” office, although the two are frequently connected.

It’s unusual that such a breach would occur and Florida officials would not know about it. For the past two years, election officials around the country have been working with both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to share information about potential security threats. They have set up several national communications networks specifically for that purpose.

But in a statement Thursday, the Florida Department of State also said that it “has no knowledge or evidence of any successful hacking attempt at the county level during the 2016 elections. Upon learning of the new information released in the Mueller report, the Department immediately reached out to the FBI to inquire which county may have been accessed, and they declined to share this information with us.”

Federal officials would neither confirm nor deny the Florida hacking incident, but one official familiar with the process told NPR that details that would identify the victims of such a cyberattack would not be shared with others besides the victim. Instead, the official said federal authorities would only share relevant information that could be used to protect others against similar incidents.

Voting booths at a polling station in Christmas, Florida on November 8, 2016. A Florida-based company that provides election equipment to localities was hacked by Russia during the 2016 election.

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Gregg Newton/AFP/Getty Images

Other Russian 2016 targets in Florida

It has been known for some time that a company that supplies many Florida counties with voter registration systems was the target of a spear phishing campaign by the Russians in 2016. The hackers then used the information gleaned from the company’s network to send malicious emails to more than 120 of its customers in Florida.

The company — identified elsewhere as VR Systems based in Tallahassee — has said that it warned customers shortly before the 2016 elections to be on the lookout for the fake emails and not to open any attachments.

The Mueller report said that a document attached to the e-mails was “coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer.” VR Systems told NPR in 2017 that to the best of its knowledge none of its customers had opened the malicious emails.

The special counsel report also said that Russian intelligence had installed malware on the vendor’s network, something VR Systems denies.

In a statement issued Thursday, the company’s chief operating officer Ben Martin said, “We disagree with the Special Counsel report because top cybersecurity experts, along with the Department of Homeland Security, have tested our network multiple times since 2016 and they found no indication of a breach or installation of malware on our company network.”

Martin said the company has taken steps since then to ensure the security of its systems, and added, “While we are proud of these efforts, we know that no system is ever completely secure and we work tirelessly every day to protect our systems and our customers.”

In fact, VR Systems is one of more than two-dozen election companies that serve on a new government coordinating council working with DHS and the FBI on cybersecurity. The council was created in response to Russia’s efforts in 2016 to interfere with the election.

VR Systems was also the supplier of electronic pollbooks that malfunctioned on Election Day in Durham County, North Carolina, in 2016. The state believes that user error by election and poll workers was responsible, but says it has not definitively determined the cause.

The State Board of Elections said in a statement issued Thursday that it had contacted VR Systems to verify that it is the vendor referred to in the Mueller report (the company name is redacted) and to seek assurances that its pollbooks, which are still used in some North Carolina counties, are secure.

The Mueller report notes another successful breach in the summer of 2016, involving the State of Illinois’ voter registration system.

According to the report, Russian hackers successfully exploited a vulnerability in the State Board of Elections website, giving them access to the records of millions of Illinois voters. The hackers were able to get personal information from 500,000 voters before the breach was detected and stopped by the state.

The report also noted that Russian military intelligence officers scanned multiple state and local election websites looking for vulnerabilities, including more than two dozen during a two-day period in July of 2016.

There’s no evidence that any of these hacking attempts — successful or not — affected the actual operations or outcome of elections in 2016. But some cyber security experts have raised the possibility that hackers planted malicious software that remains undetected. Moreover, the mere existence of cyberattacks against voting systems has served to undermine voters’ confidence in elections.

Illinois officials say they believe their system is now secure, but a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, Matt Dietrich, also said, “We never ever say that we are 100% safe. All we ever say is that we believe that we are one step ahead of any hackers who are out there.”

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Will Democrats ‘Follow The Mueller Report To Where It Leads’?

Attorney General William Barr speaks alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, and acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan, left, Thursday.

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Patrick Semansky/AP

Imagine, if you can, a scenario in which Attorney General William Barr declined to put out a four-page letter to Congress describing the Mueller report three weeks ago.

Imagine, too, that he didn’t hold a press conference Thursday before the redacted report’s release.

The narrative that set in after Barr stepped into the limelight might be very different. Barr declared in his letter that President Trump and his associates did not conspire with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election and that the president was not going to be criminally charged for obstruction of justice, even though the special counsel’s report didn’t “exonerate” him.

Barr went further Thursday, playing down the possibility that Trump obstructed justice. The president, after all, was “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency,” he said.

Translation: Not much to see here.

And then the 448-page, two-volume report was released. It told a more nuanced — and for some, damning — story about the president’s role and the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians. And it’s putting Democrats in a bind about what to do next and whether to push forward with possible impeachment proceedings.

The report concluded that no one on the campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russians, but it found “numerous links,” and the “campaign expected it would benefit” from the Russian efforts.

Criminal conspiracy? The Mueller team concluded it was not. But Barr said four times Thursday that there was no “collusion.” Collusion is the language of the president and has a much broader definition than a legal conspiracy that can be proven in a court of law.

Trump addressed potential obstruction in a tweet Thursday denying he did anything wrong despite the details explicitly laid out in the report.

“Donald Trump was being framed, he fought back. That is not Obstruction.” @JesseBWatters I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the RIGHT to use Executive Privilege. I didn’t!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2019

On obstruction, Mueller’s team found a lot of evidence for it. The report points to 10 separate instances of the president’s attempts to slow down investigations or oust officials like Mueller or then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump, though, was thwarted at times by those close to him, aides and allies who decided for either legal or political reasons not to follow through on the president’s requests.

The most notable example was Don McGahn, Trump’s White House lawyer, refusing to lean on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller. He decided “that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” according to the report.

All of it left Democrats crying foul, upset with Barr.

“What we’ve learned today is that Attorney General Barr deliberately distorted significant portions of Special Counsel Mueller’s report,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement. “Special Counsel Mueller’s report paints a disturbing picture of a president who has been weaving a web of deceit, lies and improper behavior and acting as if the law doesn’t apply to him. But if you hadn’t read the report and listened only to Mr. Barr, you wouldn’t have known any of that because Mr. Barr has been so misleading.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who is also running for president, called on Barr to resign, calling him an “embedded Trump ally.” “You can be the President’s defense attorney or America’s Attorney General,” he said, “but you can’t be both.”

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a former longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Democrats were in the majority, said the Mueller report “amounts to a formal presentment of misconduct that reached the highest levels of the Trump campaign and administration.”

He added, “Robert Mueller did his job. Now it’s time for Congress to do our job.”

The Mueller report notes that Department of Justice guidelines are “that a sitting President may not be prosecuted.” But Mueller’s team also points out, “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

And the report points to Congress: “With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”

And therein lies the quandary for congressional Democrats, newly in charge of the House and in charge of potential impeachment proceedings. Many Democrats feel Trump’s actions, particularly the president’s efforts at potential obstruction, are impeachable offenses. But veterans on Capitol Hill have seen what a partisan impeachment attempt did politically to Republicans 20 years ago when they impeached then-President Clinton.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who would shepherd impeachment proceedings, was careful during a press conference Thursday.

“The special counsel made clear that he did not exonerate the president and the responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions,” Nadler said.

But does that mean impeachment?

“That’s one possibility,” Nadler said, but, he added, “It’s too early to reach those conclusions.”

Instead, Democratic leaders want the full, unredacted version of the Mueller report, the underlying documents and for both Barr and Mueller to testify.

Barr is offering for select congressional leaders to view a less-redacted version; Barr is testifying May 2; and he said at his Thursday press conference that he had no objection to Mueller himself testifying before Congress.

Nadler has requested that Mueller testify no later than May 23.

But, at some point, Democrats will have to face the important to-impeach-or-not-to-impeach question.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, the House has to seriously consider impeachment, with Robert Mueller having laid out a very detailed case for it,” said Luis Miranda, a Democratic strategist and former Democratic National Committee spokesman, whose emails were among those hacked during the 2016 campaign. “Democrats were elected to a majority in the House to exercise congressional oversight and to carry out their Constitutional duty as a co-equal branch of government. Trump is unlikely to resign or be found guilty in the GOP-controlled Senate, but if you were elected to the House you have a distinct responsibility, even if it doesn’t square with 2020 electoral interests.

“It would be hard to go back to voters and ask them to trust you with their vote if you don’t follow the Mueller report to where it leads.”

At least two other strategists disagreed precisely because of those 2020 interests. They didn’t want to be named because of how their comments could affect relationships with Democratic clients.

“Impeachment proceedings only help Trump,” one of those strategists said. “[Republican] voters that don’t like Trump will now vote for him [if impeachment is started], because they see doing so as protecting the party. You’d also further invigorate Trump’s existing supporters. The unfortunate thing is that the report actually makes a good case for obstruction.”

Party leaders may use congressional investigations to see if something worthwhile emerges that wins over some Republicans. That’s necessary, another strategist said, because “it would take time and energy and not produce fruits of the labor” otherwise. In other words, this strategist said, it’s not worth it unless Trump is going to be removed, because as it is now, “there’s enough to wage a political fight” that can win in 2020.

That is exactly the kind of argument Democratic leaders make. Many firmly believe they need Republican cooperation. Pelosi said earlier this year that impeaching Trump was “not worth it” partially because the GOP Senate wouldn’t go along, Trump would still be president — and at what political cost to Democrats with the 2020 election around the corner?

That line seemed to be echoed again Thursday by one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants.

“Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told CNN’s Dana Bash. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment.”

Will that be enough for a restive Democratic base? For now, Democrats are sticking to calling for the unredacted report, demanding Mueller testify and seeing what turns up under other rocks they’re turning over in the myriad congressional investigations they now control.

Trump’s presidency may be “an exercise in normalizing extraordinary behavior,” as the Washington Post’s Dan Balz notes, but Democratic leaders believe the most likely way to remove him from office is… at the ballot box.

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