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Trump’s new tactic on Russia investigation, tie Mueller to Comey

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WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller, the somber-faced and demanding FBI director who led the bureau through the Sept. 11 attacks, and James Comey, his more approachable and outwardly affable successor, may be poles apart stylistically but both command a wealth of respect in the law enforcement and legal community.

That hasn’t stopped President Donald Trump and his associates from repeatedly trying to draw unflattering attention to their relationship, insinuating a personal bond they suggest could disqualify Mueller from credibly serving as special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation. Most recently, in an interview that aired Friday on “Fox & Friends,” Trump claimed Mueller was “very, very good friends with Comey, which is bothersome.”

The emphasis on their ties, besides being aimed at undermining Mueller’s credibility and the legitimacy of his investigation, could also be an attempt by Trump to make the case for an eventual Mueller dismissal on conflict of interest grounds.

But the truth is more complicated and not squarely on the president’s side.

Mueller and Comey, both known for their integrity and self-assuredness, served closely alongside each other in the Bush administration Justice Department. They played pivotal roles in a 2004 White House confrontation and have spoken warmly of each other over the years, with Comey describing Mueller as “one of the finest people I’ve ever met.” But they’re not known to be especially close friends, and legal experts say whatever connection they do have doesn’t come close to meriting Mueller’s removal.

“Jim has never been to Bob’s house. Bob has never been to Jim’s house,” said David Kelley, who succeeded Comey as U.S. attorney in Manhattan and has known him and Mueller for years. “They’ve had lunch together once and dinner together twice, once with their spouses and again after Jim became the FBI director so that Bob could give him the rundown of what to look for.”

All of that information would have been available to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who himself has known both men for years — when he appointed Mueller last month to run the investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. That probe is also expected to explore the circumstances of Trump’s firing of Comey on May 9 and whether that dismissal was an attempt to obstruct the Russia probe.

The norms of legal ethics would generally frown upon a prosecutor who investigated a matter in which a friend or relative was a target of a crime. But Comey, though a likely witness, would not be a considered a victim of a crime in the classic sense as the firing in and of itself would not be illegal, said Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics scholar at the New York University law school.

“Although Comey may well be what I call roadkill in the subjects Mueller is investigating, he’s not the victim. His firing has been a consequence of the crime that Mueller is investigating. Their friendship would not require recusing,” he said.

Trump’s efforts to highlight, and exaggerate, their relationship seem by design, as conflict of interest is one of the few grounds for dismissal of a special counsel.

As president, Trump could demand that Rosenstein fire Mueller by citing a conflict of interest, but Rosenstein has said he wouldn’t follow any order that he didn’t think was lawful or appropriate and that he had seen no legitimate basis to dismiss the special counsel. A conceivable argument for conflict of interest could include a family connection or a business tie, none of which is known to exist in the relationship between Mueller and Comey.

“Being workplace acquaintances doesn’t come close to a conflict of interest,” said Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet.

Comey was selected by President Barack Obama in 2013 to succeed Mueller as FBI director. At a White House ceremony, Mueller praised Comey as a man of “honesty, dedication and integrity,” and Comey repaid the favor minutes later by joking that he “must be out of my mind to be following Bob Mueller.”

Years earlier, Comey was acting attorney general and Mueller the FBI director when both were on the same side of a tense faceoff over the renewal of a sweeping domestic surveillance program.

Comey, in dramatic 2007 testimony that helped cement his reputation for political independence, recalled how he rushed to the hospital to prevent White House officials from trying to coax the ailing John Ashcroft, who’d given the powers of his position to Comey, into reauthorizing the program. He called his chief of staff and told him to get as many people to the hospital as possible.

“I hung up, called Director Mueller and — with whom I’d been discussing this particular matter and had been a great help to me over that week — and told him what was happening,” Comey testified. “He said, ‘I’ll meet you at the hospital right now.'”

Mueller instructed his agents not to allow Comey to be removed from Ashcroft’s room and showed up as promised at the hospital. Comey was prepared to resign from the Justice Department if his concerns were ignored and, he said, Mueller was among the officials willing to leave, too.

Though they were allies that dramatic night, a more relevant takeaway to their supporters is a shared commitment to the rule of law.

“Anybody who knows Bob Mueller knows two things: One, if there were facts that would impede his ability to conduct an investigation that’s beyond reproach, he wouldn’t do it,” Kelley said. “Two, Jim is a witness in this case, one of possibly many. So what’s the point?”

“If that’s the best you’ve got from the White House, really, bring it on,” he said.

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Colorado, Arizona teachers pressure lawmakers for 2nd day

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Colorado and Arizona teachers plan to don red shirts and descend upon their respective Capitols for a second day in a growing educator uprising.

Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn’t guaranteed and the efforts don’t go far enough. The walkouts are the latest in demonstrations that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

On the first day of the historic statewide walkout, around 50,000 educators and their supporters marched Thursday through downtown Phoenix in nearly 100-degree (38-Celsius) heat and swarmed the Capitol grounds.

In much cooler Colorado, several thousand educators rallied around the Capitol, with many using personal time to attend two days of protests expected to draw as many as 10,000 demonstrators.

Lawmakers in Colorado have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the Great Recession. But teachers say Colorado has a long way to go to recover lost ground because of strict tax and spending limits.

Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has proposed 20 percent raises by 2020 and said he has no plans to meet with striking teachers or address other demands.

Teachers voted to walkout after Ducey unveiled his plan, saying that it failed to meet their other demands including about $1 billion to return school funding to pre-Great Recession levels and increased pay for support staff.

“We’re going to get this 20 percent pay increase, we’re going to get $100 million for support staff and other needs,” he said on KTAR radio. “And then if there’s still a teacher strike I don’t think that will make sense to parents, I don’t think that will make sense to kids.”

More than 840,000 students were out of school as a result of Thursday’s walkouts, according to figures from The Arizona Republic.

Most of Arizona’s public schools will be closed the rest of the week, and about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over the two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement’s #RedforEd mantle. In Oklahoma and West Virginia, teacher strikes stretched beyond the one-week mark.

Organizers say they haven’t decided how long their walkout will last.

“We want to make sure we can gauge the membership about what they want to do,” said Derek Harris, one of the organizers of grass-roots group Arizona Educators United.

At least one Arizona school district, the Chandler Unified School District, has said school will be held on Monday. The district said it polled staff and determined there are enough teachers to re-open.

___

Associated Press reporter Bob Christie contributed to this report.

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Robert Kennedy gets the Netflix treatment, new doc explores the the icon

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He was once called the most likely American in the 20th century to become president. But Robert F. Kennedy’s bid to follow in his older brother’s footsteps as commander in chief was cut short the same way John F. Kennedy’s White House term was: by a man with a gun.

Fifty years later, Bobby Kennedy’s life and transformation into a liberal hero is coming to Netflix in a new four-part documentary series available Friday. Through archival footage and interviews with friends and staffers, “Bobby Kennedy for President” takes an in-depth look at what drove him to seek public office, the events that shaped him and his legacy decades after his assassination.

“If we want to understand why Bobby Kennedy was so important to people, we have to understand all of it,” said Dawn Porter, director and executive producer, also known for “Gideon’s Army” and “Trapped.”

The series opens with a broadcaster’s prediction that “no American in this century has ever been so likely to be president as Robert Francis Kennedy.” It takes viewers through Kennedy’s combative time as attorney general, and his depression after his brother’s death, entry into the 1968 presidential race and assassination 83 days later.

The documentary explores Kennedy’s growth on issues like civil rights, through the guidance of black leaders like John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman. In documenting Kennedy’s journey from a “cop-at-heart” lawyer to polished politician, it highlights experiences that affected him, like a trip to the Mississippi Delta that opened his eyes to rural hunger.

Viewers hear from key figures in Kennedy’s life, including Paul Schrade, who was shot in the head when 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan fired at Kennedy on June 5, 1968. The series, produced by RadicalMedia, Trilogy Films and LooksFilm, also features interviews from Sirhan’s brother, Munir Sirhan, and Juan Romero, the Ambassador Hotel busboy who was at Kennedy’s side as he uttered his last words: “Is everybody OK?”

For Romero, a Mexican immigrant, it was one of the few times he has openly spoken about Kennedy’s death — something he had felt guilty about for years since Kennedy stopped to shake his hand before the gunshots. Romero had met Kennedy the day before while delivering room service. Kennedy thanked him and shook his hand then, too.

“I never felt so American,” Romero told The Associated Press.

Filmmakers spent more than a year gathering footage from museums, news outlets and presidential archives that transports viewers to a different time. Some of the footage, which shows Kennedy from his college days to the last day of his life, had never before been digitized and was at risk of being lost forever, filmmakers say.

“I didn’t want this to be talking heads with pictures as the background,” Porter said. “We wanted the archive to play out, to not be window dressing, but to let people watch that and absorb it and hopefully be in the moment, be taken back to that time,” she said.

At a time when distrust of politicians is high, Porter said she hopes the series reminds viewers that people serving in public office can be human and flawed, but also inspirational.

“Without saying (Kennedy) was the perfect person, there’s something comforting and inspiring to me about his willingness to try, his willingness to learn, his willingness to not give up,” Porter said. “Right now we all need a little dose of not giving up.”

___

Associated Press reporter Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report. Follow Alanna Durkin Richer at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Read more of her work at http://bit.ly/2hIhzDb.

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Explained: Why Colorado, Arizona teachers are walking off the job

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Tens of thousands of schoolteachers plan to walk off the job in Arizona and Colorado on Thursday, shuttering classrooms in pursuit of better pay and school funding.

But there are key differences between the protests in the two states, which share below-average spending on public schools. The actions build on a movement that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in Arizona and Colorado:

WHAT ARE TEACHERS PLANNING AND WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Teachers will walk off the job to hold rallies and other demonstrations at their respective state Capitols.

In Arizona, the first-ever statewide strike starts Thursday after educators voted overwhelmingly in favor of the action. There’s no end date scheduled, so it’s not clear how long classes might be interrupted.

Educators who are planning to participate could face consequences in the right-to-work state, where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory.

The Arizona Education Association, the largest teacher membership group, has warned its 20,000 members about a 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion saying a statewide strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.

But no school district has said they would fire educators who strike or revoke teaching certificates.

In Colorado, teachers in four suburban school districts, including two of the largest in the state, will hold protests Thursday. But the bulk of the widespread walkouts will happen as a single-day demonstration Friday.

No laws in Colorado prohibit strikes. In response to recent national protests, a Republican lawmaker proposed a measure docking teacher pay and threatening fines and jail time for striking. Democrats oppose it, and it’s not expected to pass the politically divided Legislature.

WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS?

Arizona teachers have a long list, including a 20 percent raise for teachers, who earn $47,403 annually compared with a national average of $59,660, according to 2017 data from the National Education Association. They also want yearly raises until their salaries reach the national average and competitive wages for classified staffers.

They are seeking a return to pre-Great Recession spending levels, which would be a roughly $1 billion increase annually, plus additional funding increases until Arizona reaches the national average in per-pupil spending.

In Colorado, teachers secured a $150 million annual boost to schools in this year’s budget negotiations but want to wipe out an annual school funding shortfall within the next four years. After next year’s boost, Colorado will underfund its schools by $672 million a year versus what’s required by the state Constitution.

Colorado teachers don’t have specific demands regarding salaries, because they are set at the local level. But the hope is that more state funding will trickle down in the form of better pay. The average Colorado teacher earned $51,808 in 2017, according to the national teacher salary data.

Complicating matters, lawmakers are negotiating sweeping changes to the state and school pension fund, which will likely cut teacher retirement benefits and could decrease their take-home pay. Educators say they hope their protests highlight that any changes to the pension fund could further erode their compensation.

HOW ARE STATE LEADERS RESPONDING?

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona has offered teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020 and pledged to see his proposal through despite concerns on how to fund it.

Ducey’s plan relies on higher-than-expected state revenue. Republican legislative leaders have questioned where the money might come from and are negotiating the plan this week.

Colorado lawmakers have secured a bipartisan deal to boost school funding but are negotiating on the pension changes. Republicans want public employees, including teachers, to put more of their own pay into the system to close a $32 billion funding gap. Democrats have countered with a plan to contribute $225 million in annual state funding to shore up the fund.

WHAT DOES THE WALKOUT MEAN FOR SCHOOLS, TEACHERS AND PARENTS?

In both states, school districts have been weighing whether to stay open or cancel classes.

Many in Arizona, including the state’s largest district in suburban Phoenix, will be closed at least Thursday and Friday. Some have said they will try to stay open if they have enough staff.

Many parents are scrambling to make child care plans. Community groups are organizing day camps, churches are opening for free care and some stay-at-home parents are volunteering to watch others’ children.

Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, will be closed Friday, along with more than a dozen others. Four others, including large suburban districts in Jefferson and Douglas counties, will be shuttered Thursday but are expected to reopen Friday.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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