Now for sale on Facebook: Looted Middle Eastern antiquities

The New York Times reports:

Ancient treasures pillaged from conflict zones in the Middle East are being offered for sale on Facebook, researchers say, including items that may have been looted by Islamic State militants.

Facebook groups advertising the items grew rapidly during the upheaval of the Arab Spring and the ensuing wars, which created unprecedented opportunities for traffickers, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio and a former antiquities official in Syria. He has monitored the trade for years along with his colleagues at the Athar Project, named for the Arabic word for antiquities.

At the same time, Dr. Al-Azm said, social media lowered the barriers to entry to the marketplace. Now there are at least 90 Facebook groups, most in Arabic, connected to the illegal trade in Middle Eastern antiquities, with tens of thousands of members, he said.

They often post items or inquiries in the group, then take the discussion into chat or WhatsApp messaging, making it difficult to track. Some users circulate requests for certain types of items, providing an incentive for traffickers to produce them, a scenario that Dr. Al-Azm called “loot-to-order.” [Continue reading…]

Is this a constitutional crisis?

Dahlia Lithwick writes:

It is probably safe to say that this is not how we imagined America’s little fling with representative democracy would end. But on Wednesday morning, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler described the battle unfolding between the Trump White House and Congress thusly: “The ongoing clash between congressional Democrats and President Trump over the Mueller report has turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis.” On Thursday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used the same turn of phrase, warning that the nation is now in a “constitutional crisis.”

In the totality of Trump scandals, this week’s is rather boring and technical. The problem at hand: The House Judiciary Committee seeks to interview William Barr, the attorney general of the United States, on the subject of the Mueller report. When he refused to show up, they voted to hold him in contempt of Congress for doing so. Meanwhile, the president has opted to assert seemingly boundless executive privilege in an attempt to shield the unredacted Mueller report from congressional scrutiny. The question at hand is basically: What happens in this standoff between Congress and the president? The stalemate, and immovable positioning, is certainly making it feel as though we are hurtling at high speeds toward a new precipice.

As Adam Liptak concluded in the New York Times Tuesday, we are clearly facing an impending threat to our established constitutional order. (As a refresher, that order, as laid out in the Constitution, is that Congress is tasked with overseeing the executive branch, but the executive branch can keep designated things secret.) Even John Yoo, architect of the infamous Bush-era torture memos, seemed to agree that the constitutional impasse we’ve reached is without precedent. As former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah explains, the White House’s sweeping refusal to cooperate with Congress on any investigation has the makings of a constitutional crisis, because “the head of the Justice Department” is now helping block congressional investigations into the president “regardless of law or merit.” [Continue reading…]

How the courts should handle Trump’s oversight defiance

Neil Eggleston and Joshua A. Geltzer write:

The Treasury Department, with its Monday announcement that it would not comply with a demand from House Democrats to release President Trump’s tax returns to Congress, has set up a battle that will now go to the courts to be settled.

President Trump has already filed a novel lawsuit to block his own accounting firm from complying with a congressional subpoena for financial records. Whatever the case or lack thereof to Mr. Trump’s suit, he deserves his day in court, just as any plaintiff would.

But the American people deserve that day to come quickly, given the obvious stakes for Mr. Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. For a court to be conscious of timing isn’t a political act — it’s simply responsible. We had firsthand experience at the White House dealing with the 2016 election’s most politically explosive litigation: the review and release of Hillary Clinton’s emails. A federal judge, conscious of the election implications, moved that litigation at breakneck speed. The same urgency should apply in Mr. Trump’s case. [Continue reading…]

Trump would have faced ‘multiple felony charges’ were he not president, hundreds of former federal prosecutors assert

The Washington Post reports:

More than 370 former federal prosecutors who worked in Republican and Democratic administrations have signed on to a statement asserting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings would have produced obstruction charges against President Trump — if not for the office he held.

The statement — signed by myriad former career government employees as well as high-profile political appointees — offers a rebuttal to Attorney General William P. Barr’s determination that the evidence Mueller uncovered was “not sufficient” to establish that Trump committed a crime.

Mueller had declined to say one way or the other whether Trump should have been charged, citing a Justice Department legal opinion that sitting presidents cannot be indicted, as well as concerns about the fairness of accusing someone for whom there can be no court proceeding.

“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice,” the former federal prosecutors wrote. [Continue reading…]

If William Barr continues to defy subpoenas, Watergate offers House Democrats several options

Michael Conway writes:

The House Judiciary Committee grappled 45 years ago with the same thorny issue that it faces this week: how to respond to an executive branch defiantly refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas.

That committee is currently dealing with the Trump administration’s refusal to comply with its subpoena for the unredacted report (and its supporting documents) of special counsel Robert Mueller and contemplating issuing one to compel the testimony of Attorney General William Barr, who refused an invitation to testify on Thursday.

The Watergate congressional investigators, however, had a card that the current Congress lacks, as the 1974 committee’s subpoena for President Richard Nixon’s tapes was part of an impeachment inquiry of the president.

Because the current Congress has not authorized an impeachment inquiry, the ability of the House to enforce its subpoenas or to punish Barr is sharply circumscribed. History affords Congress maximum power only when it is investigating a possible impeachment. The 1974 staff report bluntly stated, “The Supreme Court has contrasted the broad scope of the inquiry power of the House in impeachment proceedings with its more confined scope in legislative investigations.”

Embracing its unique constitutional role to check an out-of-control executive branch by using its impeachment power against either President Donald Trump, Barr or both will be the sole way to guarantee that Congress can enforce its subpoenas.

Only by instituting an impeachment proceeding will Congress be equipped to act on the evidence that Mueller intended to convey to it. And by not acting, a dangerous precedent will be set, relegating Congress to subservience to the president as a forever-unequal branch of government. [Continue reading…]

Watergate had the Nixon tapes. Mueller had Annie Donaldson’s notes

The Washington Post reports:

The notes, scribbled rapidly on a legal pad, captured the fear inside the White House when President Trump raged over the Russia investigation and decreed he was firing the FBI director who led it: “Is this the beginning of the end?”

The angst-filled entry is part of a shorthand diary that chronicled the chaotic days in Trump’s West Wing, a trove that the special counsel report cited more than 65 times as part of the evidence that the president sought to blunt a criminal investigation bearing down on him.

The public airing of the notes — which document then-White House counsel Donald McGahn’s contemporaneous account of events and his fear that the president was engaged in legally risky conduct — has infuriated Trump.

“Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed,” Trump tweeted a day after the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.

The scribe keeping track of the president’s actions was Annie Donaldson, McGahn’s chief of staff, a loyal and low-profile conservative lawyer who figures in the Mueller report as one of the most important narrators of internal White House turmoil.

Her daily habit of documenting conversations and meetings provided the special counsel’s office with its version of the Nixon White House tapes: a running account of the president’s actions, albeit in sentence fragments and concise descriptions. [Continue reading…]

The United States attorney general is now a defense lawyer for Donald Trump

Benjamin Wittes writes:

I was willing to give Bill Barr a chance. Consider me burned.

When Barr was nominated, I wrote a cautious piece for this magazine declining to give him “a character reference” and acknowledging “legitimate reasons to be concerned about [his] nomination,” but nonetheless concluding that “I suspect that he is likely as good as we’re going to get. And he might well be good enough. Because most of all, what the department needs right now is honest leadership that will insulate it from the predations of the president.”

When he wrote his first letter to Congress announcing the principal conclusions of the Mueller report, I wrote another piece saying, “For the next two weeks, let’s give Attorney General William Barr the benefit of the doubt” on the question of releasing the report in a timely and not-too-redacted fashion.

I took a lot of criticism for these pieces—particularly the second one, in which I specifically said we should evaluate Barr’s actual performance in regard to releasing the Mueller report, and thus wait for him to act, rather than denouncing him preemptively.

Barr has now acted, and we can now evaluate his actual, rather than his hypothesized, performance.

It has been catastrophic. Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject. It is a kind of trope of political opposition in every administration that the attorney general—whoever he or she is—is politicizing the Justice Department and acting as a defense lawyer for the president. In this case it is true.

Barr has consistently sought to spin his department’s work in a highly political fashion, and he has done so to cast the president’s conduct in the most favorable possible light. Trump serially complained that Jeff Sessions didn’t act to “protect” him. Matthew Whitaker never had the stature or internal clout to do so effectively. In Barr, Trump has found his man. [Continue reading…]

Pelosi says Barr has committed a crime by lying to Congress

Politico reports:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday accused Attorney General William Barr of committing a crime by lying to Congress, blasting him in a closed-door meeting and later at a news conference.

“We saw [Barr] commit a crime when he answered your question,” Pelosi told Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) during a private caucus meeting Thursday morning, according to two sources present for the gathering.

“He lied to Congress. He lied to Congress,” Pelosi said soon after at a news conference. “And if anybody else did that, it would be considered a crime. Nobody is above the law. Not the president of the United States, and not the attorney general.”

The allegation comes as Democrats have intensified their criticisms of the attorney general over his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, his refusal to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, and the Justice Department’s unwillingness to comply with a subpoena for the full unredacted report. [Continue reading…]

Democrats threaten Barr with contempt after he no-shows House hearing

The New York Times reports:

House Democrats, decrying what they called an erosion of American democracy, threatened on Thursday to hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress after he failed to appear at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee and ignored a subpoena deadline to hand over Robert S. Mueller III’s full report and evidence.

They seized on a letter from Mr. Mueller to the attorney general in which he took Mr. Barr to task for the way he had characterized the special counsel’s conclusions on whether President Trump had obstructed justice. At two hearings, before the House and Senate, Mr. Barr indicated he had been unaware of such discontent.

“What is deadly serious about it is the attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday, referring to a House hearing in which he said he was unaware that the special counsel had protested his portrayal of his conclusions. “That’s a crime.”

Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, fired back, “Speaker Pelosi’s baseless attack on the attorney general is reckless, irresponsible and false.”

Convening in a nearly empty hearing room despite his absence, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, called on Republicans to join Democrats in standing up for the rights of Congress against an administration that he said was systematically thwarting its constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch.

But mostly he trained his ire at the attorney general, who objected to Mr. Nadler’s insistence that staff lawyers be allowed to ask questions at the hearing.

“The attorney general must make a choice,” he said. “Every one of us must make the same choice. That choice is now an obligation of our office. The choice is simple: we can stand up to this president in defense of the country and the Constitution we love, or we can let the moment pass us by.” [Continue reading…]

Saudi and other foreign government leases at Trump World Tower raise more emoluments concerns

Reuters reports:

The U.S. State Department allowed at least seven foreign governments to rent luxury condominiums in New York’s Trump World Tower in 2017 without approval from Congress, according to documents and people familiar with the leases, a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause.

The 90-story Manhattan building, part of the real estate empire of Donald Trump, had housed diplomats and foreign officials before the property developer became president. But now that he is in the White House, such transactions must pass muster with federal lawmakers, some legal experts say. The emoluments clause bans U.S. officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments without congressional consent.

The rental transactions, dating from the early months of Trump’s presidency and first revealed by Reuters, could add to mounting scrutiny of his business dealings with foreign governments, which are now the subject of multiple lawsuits.

Congressional staffers confirmed to Reuters that the Trump World Tower lease requests were never submitted to Congress. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said his committee has been “stonewalled” in its efforts to obtain detailed information about foreign government payments to Trump’s businesses.

“This new information raises serious questions about the President and his businesses’ potential receipt of payments from foreign governments,” Cummings said in a statement to Reuters. “The American public deserves full transparency.” [Continue reading…]