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AP
Jeff Sessions pushed out after a year of attacks from Trump

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out Wednesday after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump, who inserted in his place a Republican Party loyalist with authority to oversee the remainder of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

The move has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, given that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, until now Sessions’ chief of staff, has questioned the inquiry’s scope and spoke publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the probe.

Congressional Democrats, concerned about protecting Mueller, called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation in its final but potentially explosive stages.

That duty has belonged to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants “answers immediately” and “we will hold people accountable.”

The resignation, in a one-page letter to Trump, came one day after Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives and was the first of several expected post-midterms Cabinet and White House departures. Though Sessions was an early and prominent campaign backer of Trump, his departure letter lacked effusive praise for the president and made clear the resignation came “at your request.”

“Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as Attorney General of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country,” Sessions wrote.

The resignation was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions’ tenure, when he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because of his campaign work and following the revelation that he had met twice in 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Trump blamed the recusal for the appointment of Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began examining whether Trump’s hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct the probe.

The investigation has so far produced 32 criminal charges and guilty pleas from four former Trump aides. But the work is not done and critical decisions await that could shape the remainder of Trump’s presidency.

Mueller’s grand jury, for instance, has heard testimony for months about Trump confidant Roger Stone and what advance knowledge he may have had about Russian hacking of Democratic emails. Mueller’s team has also been pressing for an interview with Trump. And the department is expected at some point to receive a confidential report of Mueller’s findings, though it’s unclear how much will be public.

Trump had repeatedly been talked out of firing Sessions until after the midterms, but he told confidants in recent weeks that he wanted Sessions out as soon as possible after the elections, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

The president deflected questions about Sessions’ expected departure at a White House news conference Wednesday. He did not mention that White House chief of staff John Kelly had called Sessions beforehand to ask for his resignation. The undated letter was then sent to the White House.

The Justice Department did not directly answer whether Whitaker would assume control of Mueller’s investigation, with spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores saying he would be “in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.”

Rosenstein remains at the department and could still be involved in oversight.

Without Sessions’ campaign or Russia entanglements, there’s no legal reason Whitaker couldn’t immediately oversee the probe. And since Sessions technically resigned instead of forcing the White House to fire him, he opened the door under federal law to allowing the president to choose his successor instead of simply elevating Rosenstein, said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.

“Sessions did not do the thing he could have done to better protect Rosenstein, and through Rosenstein, the Mueller investigation,” Vladeck said.

That left Whitaker in charge, at least for now, though Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said he should recuse himself because of his comments on the probe.

Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa who twice ran unsuccessfully for statewide office and founded a law firm with other Republican Party activists, once opined about a scenario in which Trump could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mueller’s probe.

In that scenario, Mueller’s budget could be reduced “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said during an interview with CNN in July 2017 before he joined the Justice Department.

In a 2017 CNN op-ed, Whitaker wrote, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”

Trump’s relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the Alabama Republican was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and despite the fact his crime-fighting agenda and priorities, particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement policies, largely mirrored the president’s.

He found satisfaction in being able to reverse Obama-era policies that conservatives say flouted the will of Congress, encouraging prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could and promoting more aggressive enforcement of federal marijuana law.

He also announced media leak crackdowns and tougher policies against opioids, and his Justice Department defended a since-abandoned administration policy that resulted in migrant parents being separated from their children at the border.

But the relationship was irreparably damaged in March 2017 when Sessions, acknowledging previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador and citing his work as a campaign aide, recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Trump repeatedly lamented that he would have never selected Sessions if he had known the attorney general would recuse himself. The recusal left the investigation in the hands of Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller two months later after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey.

In piercing attacks, Trump called Sessions weak and beleaguered, complained that he wasn’t more aggressively pursuing allegations of corruption against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and called it “disgraceful” that Sessions wasn’t more serious in scrutinizing the origins of the Russia investigation for possible law enforcement bias — even though the attorney general did ask the Justice Department’s inspector general to examine those claims.

The broadsides escalated in recent months, with Trump telling an interviewer that Sessions “never had control” of the Justice Department.

Sessions endured most of the name-calling in silence, though he did issue two public statements defending the department, including one in which he said he would serve “with integrity and honor” for as long as he was in the job.

Sessions, who likely suspected his ouster was imminent, was spotted by reporters giving some of his grandchildren a tour of the White House over the weekend. He did not respond when asked why he was there.


AP file photo  

In this July 13 photo, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks in Portland, Maine.


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Open Again

The new Route 14 bridge in East Montpelier opened to traffic Wednesday. The project began in 2016 and vehicles have been using a temporary bridge since April. The structure is about twice as wide as the old bridge with a new traffic light, sidewalk and left turn lane.


AP
Added Democratic ranks pose threat to Trump governing agenda

WASHINGTON — Democrats have regained control of the House from President Donald Trump’s Republican Party in the midterm elections powered by a suburban revolt that has threatened what’s left of the president’s governing agenda.

But the GOP added to its Senate edge and prevailed in some key races for governor Tuesday, beating back the potential of big Democratic gains across the board. The “blue wave” that some had feared from Election Day never fully materialized.

The mixed verdict in the first nationwide election of Trump’s presidency showed the limits of his hard-line immigration rhetoric in America’s evolving political landscape, where college-educated voters in the suburbs rejected his warnings of a migrant “invasion.” But blue-collar voters and rural America embraced his aggressive talk and stances.

The new Democratic House majority will end Republican dominance in Washington for the final two years of Trump’s first term with major questions looming about health care, immigration and government spending.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who would be in line to become the next speaker, spoke of “a new day in America.” Trump, in a tweet, said that “in all fairness” Pelosi “deserves” to return to her former role as speaker, despite some rumblings in her party. “She has earned this great honor!”

But the Democrats’ edge is narrow. With 218 seats needed for a majority in the 435-member House, Democrats have won 220 and the Republicans 193, with winners undetermined in 22 races.

Trump was expected to address the results at a postelection news conference scheduled for midday Wednesday.

The president’s party will maintain control of the executive branch of the government, in addition to the Senate. But Democrats suddenly have a foothold that gives them subpoena power to probe deep into Trump’s personal and professional missteps — and his long-withheld tax returns.

Early Wednesday, Trump warned Democrats against using their new majority to investigate his administration.

“If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level,” Trump tweeted, “then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!” It wasn’t clear what “leaks” he was referring to.

It could have been a much bigger night for Democrats, who suffered stinging losses in Ohio and in Florida, where Trump-backed Republican Ron DeSantis ended Democrat Andrew Gillum’s bid to become the state’s first African-American governor.

The elections also exposed an extraordinary political realignment in an electorate defined by race, gender, and education that could shape U.S. politics for years to come.

The GOP’s successes were fueled by a coalition that’s decidedly older, whiter, more male and less likely to have college degrees. Democrats relied more upon women, people of color, young people and college graduates.

Record diversity on the ballot may have helped drive turnout.

Voters were on track to send at least 99 women to the House, shattering the record of 84 now. The House was also getting its first two Muslim women, Massachusetts elected its first black congresswoman, and Tennessee got its first female senator.

Three candidates had hoped to become their states’ first African-American governors, although just one — Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams — was still in the running.

Overall, women voted considerably more in favor of congressional Democratic candidates — with fewer than 4 in 10 voting for Republicans, according to VoteCast, a nationwide survey of more than 115,000 voters and about 20,000 nonvoters — conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

In suburban areas where key House races were decided, female voters skewed significantly toward Democrats by a nearly 10-point margin.

Democrats celebrated a handful of victories in their “blue wall” Midwestern states, electing or re-electing governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker was defeated by the state’s education chief, Tony Evers.

The road to a House majority ran through two dozen suburban districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Democrats flipped seats in suburban districts outside of Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago and Denver. Democrats also reclaimed a handful of blue-collar districts carried by both former President Barack Obama and Trump.

The results were more mixed deeper into Trump country.

In Kansas, Democrat Sharice Davids beat a GOP incumbent to become the first gay Native American woman elected to the House. But in Kentucky, one of the top Democratic recruits, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, lost her bid to oust to three-term Rep. Andy Barr.

Trump sought to take credit for retaining the GOP’s Senate majority, even as the party lost control of the House. In a tweet Wednesday, he referred to the election results as a “Big Victory.”

History was working against the president in both the House and the Senate. A president’s party has traditionally suffered deep losses in his first midterm election, and 2002 was the only midterm election in the past three decades when the party holding the White House gained Senate seats.

Democrats’ dreams of the Senate majority, always unlikely, were shattered after losses in top Senate battlegrounds: Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, North Dakota and Texas.

Some hurt worse than others.

In Texas, Sen Ted Cruz staved off a tough challenge from Democrat Beto O’Rourke, whose record-smashing fundraising and celebrity have set off buzz he could be a credible 2020 White House contender.

Nearly 40 percent of voters cast their ballots to express opposition to the president, according to VoteCast, while one-in-four said they voted to express support for Trump.

Overall, 6 in 10 voters said the country was headed in the wrong direction, but roughly that same number described the national economy as excellent or good. Twenty-five percent described health care and immigration as the most important issues in the election.

Nearly two-thirds said Trump was a reason for their vote.

The president bet big on a xenophobic closing message, warning of an immigrant “invasion” that promised to spread violent crime and drugs across the nation. Several television networks, including the president’s favorite, Fox News Channel, yanked a Trump campaign advertisement off the air on the eve of the election, determining that its portrayal of a murderous immigrant went too far.

One of Trump’s most vocal defenders on immigration, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, lost his bid for governor.

Kobach had built a national profile as an advocate of tough immigration policies and strict voter photo ID laws. He served as vice chairman of Trump’s now-defunct commission on voter fraud.

The president found partial success despite his current job approval, set at 40 percent by Gallup, the lowest at this point of any first-term president in the modern era. Both Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s numbers were 5 percentage points higher, and both suffered major midterm losses of 63 and 54 House seats, respectively.

Several ambitious Democrats easily won re-election, including presidential prospects Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Some others played outsized roles in their parties’ campaigns, though not as candidates, and were reluctant to telegraph their 2020 intentions before the 2018 fight was decided. They included New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden.


Local
Warmth is on the way for heat-seeking City Hall

BARRE — City Hall still isn’t feeling the heat, but officials are cautiously optimistic a prolonged indoor cold snap could come to an end by the close of business Thursday.

Nearly three weeks after the only functioning boiler in the basement of City Hall suffered a catastrophic failure, its recently installed replacement was scheduled to be test fired Wednesday afternoon.

Barring any unexpected developments — and Public Works Director Bill Ahearn said there have been more than a few to this point in the program — a series of safety checks will be completed in time for the new boiler to be brought on line later Thursday.

Ahearn conceded employees at City Hall have heard that before.

“I was certain we were going to have it running last Thursday,” he said of the boiler he’s hoping will be phased into service today and fully functioning before workers head for home.

“So far, every time I’ve said that something comes up,” he said.

Though the removal of the old boiler and the installation of the new one seemingly went off with out a hitch, a wiring issue delayed plans to start the new heating system last week. Those issues were subsequently resolved, but arranging for a controls service technician to inspect and sign off on the system took more time than anticipated.

Ahearn said while a technician was scheduled to arrive Tuesday morning, an emergency call dashed that plan. A technician did visit City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, but wanted to return with a second technician on Wednesday.

According to Ahearn, the city is keenly interested in making sure the controls are properly calibrated after losing both City Hall boilers – one in February and the other last month. The twin boilers were installed in 1994 and the one that failed most recently had been operating with an irreparable crack in its casing for two years.

While the delays have caused some discomfort for employees and the Barre Opera House, Ahearn said outdoor temperatures have been mercifully mild and temporary heating sources have kept indoor temperatures tolerable, if not optimal.

“Some areas are less than fully comfortable,” he said.

While it has taken more time than anticipated to put the new boiler into service, Ahearn stressed the importance of “getting it right,” while noting the timing could have been worse.

“If the boiler had to fail I’m glad it failed in October and not December so we aren’t dealing with freezing pipes,” he said.

City Manager Steve Mackenzie shared another bit of good news with respect to the boiler replacement with city councilors, who ratified the emergency purchase earlier this week. Mackenzie said it appears the new heating system will cost significantly less than the $50,000 that was initially projected. Though there is still work to do, he said, he expects the actual cost will be less than $38,000.

Ahearn said if the safety checks don’t raise any red flags the boiler will start pumping out heat later Thursday. He said it will be eased into service with sections of the building brought on line sequentially starting with the upstairs opera house and working down to the lower levels of City Hall.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


AP
New acting attorney general is a GOP loyalist from Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The man who will serve at least temporarily as the nation’s top law enforcement official is a relatively inexperienced Republican Party loyalist from Iowa who has called for limiting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Matthew G. Whitaker, 49, will become the nation’s acting attorney general following the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions. President Donald Trump announced the appointment Wednesday, saying on Twitter that Whitaker “will serve our Country well” and that a permanent attorney general will be nominated later.

The former federal prosecutor served as Sessions’ chief of staff for one year.

The bulk of Whitaker’s relevant experience came when he served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 until 2009, a position for which he was recommended by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that role, the telegenic former college football player managed attorneys who prosecuted federal crimes and represented the government in civil matters in half of Iowa.

Recent acting and permanent attorneys general have been longtime government lawyers or high-ranking politicians with more experience navigating Washington than Whitaker.

Critics worry that Whitaker may be unlikely or unwilling to defend the Department of Justice’s independence against political interference by the White House, given his history of partisanship and loyalty to Trump. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that Whitaker should recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation given his previous public comments that appeared to exhibit hostility toward the inquiry.

During a brief stint last year as a conservative legal commentator on CNN, Whitaker often appeared as a Trump defender, saying he saw no evidence the president colluded with Russians during the 2016 campaign or obstructed justice. He wrote last year on CNN.com that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation to stop him from delving into Trump’s finances.

“If he doesn’t, then Mueller’s investigation will eventually start to look like a political fishing expedition. This would not only be out of character for a respected figure like Mueller, but also could be damaging to the President of the United States and his family — and by extension, to the country,” he wrote.

He also said on CNN last year that he could see a scenario in which Sessions’ replacement doesn’t fire Mueller but “just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

Asked whether Whitaker would assume control over Mueller’s investigation, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores said Whitaker would be “in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.” The agency did not announce a departure for Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has closely overseen his work.

Des Moines attorney Guy Cook, a Democrat who has known Whitaker for years, called him a clear thinker and a “no-nonsense guy who is not to be underestimated.”

“But I think most importantly, from the president’s perspective, he’s loyal,” Cook said. He said that reasonable people can agree with Whitaker’s perspective on the Mueller investigation, but “I’m sure that’s something that got the president’s attention.”

Grassley said Whitaker “will work hard and make us proud,” saying that the department would be in good hands during the transition.

Most of Whitaker’s career has been spent in private practice, including at a Des Moines law firm he founded with other Republican Party activists in 2009. He has twice failed in bids for statewide elected office, most recently losing the 2014 GOP primary for the U.S. Senate to now-Sen. Joni Ernst.

After that campaign, Whitaker helped start and served for three years as executive director for the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a self-described “ethics watchdog” that often targets Democratic officials and groups with misconduct investigations and complaints. He has said that Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted for her email scandal as secretary of state and that Trump made the right call in firing FBI Director James Comey. He earned $402,000 in 2016, the group’s tax filing shows.

Whitaker has also cultivated close relationships with Republican leaders and activists during the Iowa caucuses, the first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contests that occur every four years. He served as state chairman during the 2012 election cycle for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s campaign. After Pawlenty’s bid fizzled, he served in the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns of Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who is now energy secretary.

Whitaker grew up in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny. He attended the University of Iowa on a football scholarship, playing tight end under the legendary coach Hayden Fry and catching a pass for the Hawkeyes in the 1991 Rose Bowl. He majored in communications studies as an undergraduate and was interested in broadcasting and film production. He later earned an MBA and a law degree from the school.

After starting his career in private practice, Whitaker first ran for office in 2002, losing a race for state treasurer to longtime Democratic incumbent Michael Fitzgerald. President George W. Bush appointed him as the U.S. attorney based in Des Moines in 2004.

During his tenure, his office was accused of having political motivations in bringing an extortion charge against then-Democratic state Sen. Matt McCoy, which stemmed from a dispute McCoy had with a business partner. Whitaker denied that accusation, and McCoy was acquitted at a 2007 trial.


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Logging in

Students from River Rock School in Montpelier play in a hollow log that was relocated to the city’s Blanchard Park on Wednesday. The natural play structure comes from a silver maple cut on Liberty Street years ago. It was moved this week from Hubbard Park to the new location. From left are Sarah Austin, Eva Maker and Riley Punchar.


Local
Garage bond vote sets project wheels turning

MONTPELIER — After the successful election vote for a $10.5 million bond to build a public parking garage in the Capital City, leaders are working out the details of what happens next with the project.

In Tuesday’s midterm election, city voters approved the bond vote 2,459-1,877.

The vote paved the way for hotel owner Fred Bashara II to close a deal with Hilton Hotels to build a Hampton Inn & Suites franchise hotel and garage behind the Capitol Plaza Hotel on State Street. Bashara asked the city to partner with the garage. The city agreed but increase the size of the garage from 230 to 358 spaces.

After the successful vote, city and hotel officials will be busy moving both projects forward.

“We’re very excited, very relieved and happy that the local residents voted in the affirmative for this,” Bashara said. “The new hotel can’t be built without the city parking garage and the parking garage can’t be built and paid for without the new hotel.”

The Bashara family will lease 200 spaces in the parking garage for its two hotels. Another 100 spaces will be permitted, and 30 spaces will be leased to tenants of a proposed affordable housing project by nearby Christ Episcopal Church. The leases are expected to pay for much of the construction and maintenance costs over the length of the loan for the project. Additional funding will come from additional Tax Incremental Finance district revenues that help pay for infrastructure costs, such as sewer and water, roads and sidewalks and electrical utilities.

“So, it’s truly a public-private partnership,” Bashara said. “We’re grateful for the positive vote and excited about the opportunity (this) will create for our downtown,” he added.

Bashara said the hope is to break ground on the project soon, possibly next month.

“The project will continue and we’re going to be meeting with the contractors and see what we have to do to move forward but we want to start it this year,” he said.

Bashara said there would be ongoing discussions about the management of displaced parking on the Capitol Plaza parking lot during construction of both the hotel and the garage, which are each expected to take a year to complete.

“Right now, we’re working the city and other private landowners around the city to be able to use some parking, but we have nothing definite yet,” Bashara said. “We’ll have to let our tenants and our guests know. We should have enough parking for our hotel guests, but our tenants may have to relocate, or shuttle or whatever we have to do.”

At City Hall, officials said they would also be working on coordinating construction schedules and alternative parking arrangements.

“We will be meeting with the contractors and hotel folks very soon and will issue detailed schedules as they are available,” City Manager Bill Fraser said in an email Wednesday.

“The next immediate steps are to complete the permitting processes,” Fraser continued. “ ... the Development Review Board is considering the garage application in deliberative session. When/if they issue a favorable decision, we will need to assess any conditions and adjust designs accordingly.”

After closing the public hearing this week on the design of the garage, the DRB is scheduled to deliberate at its Nov. 19 meeting when a vote on the final design is expected.

The DRB will also have to consider a petition filed by a group of city residents, seeking party status to the city’s application to build the garage, in the hopes of mounting a legal challenge, alleging the project would “not be in accord” with the city’s master plan and zoning regulations.

Fraser also noted that the city awaits the determination of its Act 250 application for an expedited review of the garage because it would be built in a designated downtown.

The Act 250 District 5 Environmental Commission has also been asked by resident Alan Goldman for a jurisdictional opinion on whether 10 current or prospective projects on more than 10 acres within the city’s Tax Incremental Finance district should trigger review under the land use law.

“The city has filed our Act 250 application for the garage under the (state statute) 6068b process,” Fraser said. “We, of course, need a decision on Alan Goldman’s claim that the project requires full review.”

Work on both projects is still subject to an environmental review of the site that is known to have been contaminated by motor oil lubricants, leaking gas and heating oil from underground storage tanks, and contamination from a dry-cleaning business. To lower the grade of the garage project to match the adjacent Heney lot on which part of the garage would be built, it will require the removal of 4,300 tons of soil that may require remediation if contaminated. Disturbance of the contaminated soil on the hotel site is expected to be minimal, except to place building foundation footings.

“We are also completing the environmental assessment process at this same time,” Fraser said. “That will tell us what, if any, remediation needs to be included in the project and allow us to review funding requirements for any needed work.

“The finalization of permit work will determine the construction schedule. The actual construction schedule will determine the amount and nature of dislocated parking, construction impact and the like,” Fraser added.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com


Rail

“Our election process is outdated and dysfunctional. District gerrymandering, cumbersome voter registration requirements, too few polling places and malfunctioning machinery have created both deliberate and unintended barriers to voting that disproportionately affect minority and low-income communities.”

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Apple Fall Leaves

Opening reception for joint art exhibit by artists Mary McKay Lower and Elizabeth Nelson. 5-7 p.m. T.W.Wood gallery, 46 Barre St., Montpelier, 262-6035, twwoodgallery.org