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Why it matters: The report that Trump tried to fire Mueller

WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump pushed back Friday against reports that he ordered White House lawyer Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June.

“Fake news, folks. Fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories,” Trump retorted dismissively when asked about it by reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The reports, first by the Times and then others, said Trump backed off on his attempt to fire the man who is investigating him, his election campaign’s Russian contacts and his firings of FBI Director James Comey and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—but only after lawyer McGahn refused to relay his directive to the Justice Department and threatened to quit if Trump pressed the issue.

In Washington, Mueller’s team was still on the job Friday, investigating the president and his 2016 election campaign.

So ...

What if the allegation is true?

After the news came out Thursday night, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia quickly accused Trump of crossing “a red line” that should be met forcibly by lawmakers to protect the Constitution. Warner is the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. But Republicans were quick to dismiss the report, pointing out that Mueller had not actually been fired.

Some legal experts noted that presidents, like anyone else, can say things they don’t mean when angry. At the same time, others saw the alleged Trump order as part of a pattern of obstruction that could be pressed by Mueller, disrupting or even dooming Trump’s presidency.

Would such a presidential order be illegal?

Jacob Frenkel, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said defense lawyers would argue that the conversation with McGahn “was an expression of frustration and irritation, not an intended personnel action.”

A statement alone, without follow-up action, can be subject to different explanations and allow for reasonable doubt as to the intent, he indicated.

“It may not be the conclusion that people want to reach, but sitting back and looking at it objectively, the fact that there was no firing means there was no obstruction,” Frenkel said.

Andrew Leipold, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, concurred.

“People say all sorts of things that they’re going to do, and then they calm down and they think better of it and they get talked out of it,” he said. “Some of this may just be no more than the president—as all presidents have done—racing their engines about things.”

That said, this latest revelation isn’t the only example of presidential action that could be seen as an attempt to interfere with an investigation of Trump and his campaign. Another is the firing Comey as FBI director last May. Mueller was appointed special counsel by Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions stepped aside because of his own close involvement with the Trump campaign.

“It is easy to see where this would be an element or component to consider as part of an obstruction mosaic,” Frenkel said.

What does it mean for Mueller’s investigation?

It could have no bearing on the investigation at all.

Or it could be part of an obstruction case against Trump or others.

But that raises a perennial constitutional question: Can the president be charged in criminal court? Some in the legal field say yes. More say no, and that the only recourse is impeachment by Congress.

Meanwhile, despite the sensational nature of the Times report, there is likely little that Mueller doesn’t already know about events in the White House. More than 20 White House employees have given interviews to the special counsel’s investigation into possible obstruction and Trump campaign ties to Russian election interference.

John Dowd, one of Trump’s attorneys, said the White House, in what he called an “unprecedented” display of cooperation with Mueller’s investigation, has turned over more than 20,000 pages of records. The president’s 2016 campaign has turned over more than 1.4 million pages.

The number of voluntary interviews includes eight people from the White House counsel’s office.

An additional 28 people affiliated with the Trump campaign have been interviewed by either the special counsel or congressional committees probing Russian election meddling. Dowd did not name the people nor provide a breakdown of how many were interviewed only by Mueller’s team.

What about political fallout?

Trump’s national approval numbers are low, but his conservative base has kept up its solid support through all the criticism he has come under in his first year as president. Why would this be any different?

In Congress, Democrats have been quick to exploit the report. Warner called Trump’s actions “a gross abuse of power.” However, Republicans noted that the purported order came long ago and before Trump surrounded himself with new lawyers. Since then, his public demeanor toward Mueller has changed.

Nonetheless, Senate Republicans were worried last summer, and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis introduced legislation that would protect the special counsel. But that hasn’t gone anywhere.

Trump has softened his public criticism of Mueller, White House officials say over and over that he has nothing to hide, and his lawyers have signaled they are cooperating, too.

Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin says that since the legislation was introduced, “the chatter that the administration is considering removing special counsel Mueller has completely come to a halt.”

What happens next?

Mueller’s investigators hope to interview Trump soon.

This week, the president declared he was eager to do it—and under oath.

“I’m looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said when asked by reporters. As for timing, he said, “I guess they’re talking about two or three weeks, but I’d love to do it.”

His lawyers walked that back a bit. No interview has been agreed to, all sides agreed.

The story of Trump’s alleged effort to sack Mueller added just one more question.


Anthony Wahl 

The body of Pfc. Ethan Barclay-Weberpal, the U.S. Marine killed last week at a California military base, is carried into Whitcomb-Lynch Funeral Home on Friday following a procession from General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee to Janesville. Barclay-Weberpal, 18, was stabbed to death Jan. 16 at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego.


Education
Franklin Middle School students attempt kindness challenge

“My mom always says to me that I’ve always been very kind and very sweet, and she wants me to stay that way.”

—Anna Boyd, sixth-grader at Franklin Middle School

JANESVILLE

I love you, Anna Boyd’s mom.

Not just for giving a journalist a great lead to a story, but for teaching Anna that kindness matters.

It does give Anna, 11, an unfair advantage in this week’s Great Kindness Challenge at Franklin Middle School.

The Great Kindness Challenge is a national movement that has reached 10.5 million students in more than 15,000 schools in 91 countries, according to its website, thegreatkindnesschallenge.com. That translates to about 525 million acts of kindness.

At the local level, Franklin students aimed for 50 kind acts per kid—or rather 50 kind acts per adolescent struggling with the vicissitudes of middle school.

You remember middle school, right? You could be cast into gloom for days by an unkind look for wearing the wrong shirt or having an uncool locker decoration.

Middle-schoolers are at an age when self-absorption is developmentally appropriate—or at least not surprising, Franklin counselor Katie Clarquist said.

“Developmentally, they’re all about themselves,” Clarquist said. “They know this stuff (kindness), but they really have to be encouraged.”

Clarquist and school psychologist Brandee Wilker saw the kindness challenge as a way provide that encouragement and improve the school climate.

School climate matters, especially at this age. If students feel safe and welcome at school, they’re more likely to succeed academically.

“When you feel connected to the school, when you feel safe coming here, you’re going to do better and achieve more,” Clarquist said.

The kindness challenge gives students concrete ideas and activities, and that’s really the push they needed.

The list of 50 acts of kindness included:

  • The easy: Smile at 25 people, put a nice note in a friend’s backpack, give five people compliments, thank your crossing guard, bus driver, school volunteer or cafeteria staff.
  • The active: Pick up five pieces of trash on campus, offer to help a custodian or help your teacher with a needed task.
  • The creative: Make a friendship gift for someone new to you, draw a picture and give it to someone, or tell a joke and make someone laugh.
  • The socially precarious: Sit with a different table of kids at lunch, step up for someone in need or entertain someone with a happy dance.

As of Thursday morning, most students were more than halfway through the checklist.

Braden Weber, 11, was up to 27 and was working on sending thank-you notes to his grandfather—former school board member DuWayne Severson—as well as Superintendent Steve Pophal and the cafeteria staff.

Braden said he was surprised at the number of students who embraced the challenge.

“It’s, like, 50 things in a week,” he said. “That’s a lot.”

Braden said he expected to finish all 50—or at least get close.

Jaxon Tajerski, 11, said he expected to get close to finishing, as well.

He already does some of the suggested items on the list, such as telling a joke and making someone laugh.

But smiling at 30 people? That wasn’t something he thought about doing every day.

Meanwhile, Anna Boyd was busy checking boxes next to the acts of kindness.

Despite her head start, she wasn’t through her list of 50 kind acts yet.

She was working on it though.

With her natural talents, she’ll probably succeed.


Michigan St athletic director retires over Nassar sex abuse

EAST LANSING, Mich.

Michigan State University’s athletic director retired Friday, two days after the university president resigned over the school’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against its disgraced former sports doctor, Larry Nassar.

Mark Hollis, who had been in the job for 10 years, disclosed the move during a meeting with a small group of reporters on campus. He was asked why he would not stay on.

“Because I care,” Hollis said, holding back tears. “When you look at the scope of everything, that’s the reason I made a choice to retire now. And I hope that has a little bit, a little bit, of helping that healing process.”

Hours later, the university named its vice president to serve as acting president after the departure of President Lou Anna Simon. Bill Beekman is expected to serve briefly in the role until the board of trustees can hire an interim president and then a permanent leader.

Also Friday, USA Gymnastics confirmed that its entire board of directors would resign as requested by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC had threatened to decertify the organization, which besides picking U.S. national teams is the umbrella organization for hundreds of clubs across the country.

Some of the nation’s top gymnasts, including Olympians Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Simone Biles and Jordyn Wieber, said they were among Nassar’s victims.

At the university board’s meeting, Chairman Brian Breslin said it was “clear that MSU has not been focused enough on the victims.” The trustees, he said, want to resume discussions with those who have sued the school to “reach a fair and just conclusion.” Talks broke down last year.

The board plans to ask an independent third party to review health and safety at the school, and it wants state Attorney General Bill Schuette to consider appointing a neutral investigator to conduct an inquiry of the Nassar matter “to promote bipartisan acceptance of the results.” Schuette, who is running for governor, will further detail his probe in a news conference Saturday.

Trustee Brian Mosallam addressed his remarks toward the victims: “I am so truly sorry. We failed you.”

Beekman is vice president and secretary of the board. He began working at the university in 1995 and previously led the MSU Alumni Association. He has an undergraduate degree from MSU.

“I think our culture here at Michigan State clearly needs to improve,” he said. “We need to be able to make everybody that comes on our campus feel safe.”

Simon submitted her resignation Wednesday after Nassar, a former Michigan State employee, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for molesting young girls and women under the guise of medical treatment.

Several of the 150-plus victims who spoke at his sentencing hearing were former athletes at the school, and many victims accused the university of mishandling past complaints about Nassar.

“I don’t believe that I’ve ever met him,” Hollis said of Nassar. He insisted he did not know about complaints of abuse until an Indianapolis Star report in 2016.

Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday he is mulling an inquiry into the university, depending on whether it would interfere with other investigations such as the attorney general’s. Under the state constitution, the governor can remove or suspend public officers for “gross neglect of duty,” corruption or “other misfeasance or malfeasance.”

“The governor hasn’t seen enough done for the survivors after everything they’ve gone through,” spokeswoman Anna Heaton said. “He wants to make sure that something is being done.”

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos confirmed Friday that her agency is also investigating the Nassar scandal. She said in a statement that what happened at the school is “abhorrent” and “cannot happen ever again—there or anywhere.”

The Education Department was already reviewing separate complaints about the school’s compliance with Title IX, the law that requires public schools to offer equal opportunities to both genders, and compliance with requirements about providing campus crime and security information.

The board expressed support for Simon before her resignation, but she faced pressure from many students, faculty and legislators. While there has been no evidence that Simon or Hollis knew of Nassar’s sexual abuse, some of the women and girls who accused him said they complained to university employees as far back as the late 1990s.

Board members, who are elected in statewide votes, have also come under intense scrutiny. Two announced they will not seek re-election. Another, Joel Ferguson, apologized at the meeting for conducting an interview in which he said there was more going on at Michigan State than “this Nassar thing.”

The university faces lawsuits from more than 130 victims. Ferguson previously had said victims were ambulance chasers seeking a payday. The school resisted calls for an independent investigation before asking Schuette for a review a week ago.

Dozens of Michigan State students gathered Friday evening on campus to protest the school’s handling of the Nassar allegations. Some were expected to march to the Breslin Center where the men’s basketball team was hosting Wisconsin on Friday night.

Organizers called for students attending the game to wear teal-colored T-shirts in the “Izzone,” a vocal student cheering section named after head basketball coach Tom Izzo.

In a recent filing, Michigan State asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuits on technical grounds. The school says it has immunity under state law and that the majority of victims were not MSU students at the time of the alleged assaults.

“These arguments can seem disrespectful” to victims, but a defense is required by Michigan State’s insurers, Simon wrote last week in a campus-wide email. She added, “We have the utmost respect and sympathy” for victims.

The board last month authorized the creation of a $10 million fund to offer victims counseling and mental health services.

A Title IX probe conducted by the university cleared Nassar of sexual assault allegations in 2014. He was advised by the school to avoid being alone with patients while treating their “sensitive areas,” but the school did not follow up on and enforce its request.

At least 12 reported assaults occurred after the investigation ended, according to a university police report that was provided to the FBI for review by the U.S. attorney.

Hollis said he did not know about the 2014 investigation and has told as much to the FBI and campus police.

Former Michigan State rower Cate Hannum, who was treated by Nassar and wrote an open letter criticizing Simon’s handling of the case almost a year ago, said Hollis would not be retiring if he had “approached the situation with integrity from the very beginning instead of adopting a not-my-problem attitude.”

Now it doesn’t matter what Hollis did for MSU athletics, she said, “because he will be remembered for egregiously failing his female athletes.”


Bryan Wegter 

Janesville Craig’s Emily Pierson, front, dribbles the ball past a Middleton defender after grabbing a rebound during the first half of a Big Eight Conference girls basketball game Friday at Craig High School. Craig ended a five-game losing streak with a 64-49 victory over Middleton, improving to 5-8 in league play and 8-9 overall. Story, Page 1B.


Business
Instacart grocery delivery service comes to Janesville

JANESVILLE

Grocery shoppers in Janesville and nearby ZIP codes to the north soon can get their groceries delivered straight to their doors through a digital shopping service that’s expanding into Rock County.

San Francisco-based Instacart, a digital, app-driven grocery shopping service, announced this week that it plans to roll out its services in Janesville and some areas in northern Rock County and far southern Dane County on Wednesday.

Instacart plans to partner with Janesville retailers Schnucks, CVS pharmacies and Petco pet supply store to provide home delivery of groceries and other items.

Scott Holloway, Midwest region operations manager for Instacart, said his company has hired 100 part-time shoppers who will hand pick groceries and other items customers order on their smartphones using Instacart’s shopping app.

Instacart allows people to subscribe to the service for $35 a month or $149 annually, or pay a $5.99 surcharge for each delivery.

Locally, it’s a service similar to Woodman’s “Shop Woodman’s” app that allows customers to order groceries electronically then pick up their bagged items at a drive-up at the Lexington Drive store in Janesville—an electronic shopping method also called “click and collect.”

Instacart takes that type of service a step further by having its own workers, “personal shoppers,” shop for customers at Schnucks, CVS and Petco and deliver to customers’ homes in a time frame that works for the customer. It might be as quickly as an hour, Holloway said.

Holloway said Instacart already is available in the Madison area and in Illinois in the Chicagoland and Rockford areas. He said the company, which was founded in 2012, is expanding farther into “suburban and rural” areas.

He said the company decided to expand to Janesville because it got a “high volume” of requests for the company’s services from local ZIP codes.

In its new market, Instacart will serve people in all ZIP codes in Janesville, including the far south side, where Pick ‘n Save closed in November.

Delivery also will be available in northern Rock County and far southern Dane County, including Edgerton, Milton, Newville, Albion and the Lake Koshkonong area. That service area encompasses 38,000 households, Holloway said.

Instacart’s services in the Midwest are used by a broad spectrum of demographic groups, including millennials, baby boomers who shop for aging parents and companies that stock their own corporate kitchens and snack rooms, and people who don’t drive or own vehicles, Holloway said.

“Overall, in this day and age, people of all kinds are dealing with the same thing: They’re crushed more and more for time,” he said.

Holloway said Instacart’s shoppers can communicate directly with customers using smartphone messages if an item a customer has ordered is out of stock, allowing customers to instantly substitute a different or similar item.

Schnucks next week will make available to Janesville shoppers its own website portal to Instacart’s service, Schnucksdelivers.com, said Schnucks spokesman Paul Simon.

Simon said Schnucks has been partnering with Instacart since last year and in recent months began rolling out the partnership at stores in the Rockford, Illinois, area.

The move comes as e-commerce giant Amazon makes inroads into online grocery-selling via its buyout of high-end grocery chain Whole Foods last year.

“It’s technology,” Simon said. “We are keeping up with technology for the times, and it’s along with what our customers expect from us.”

Simon said Schnucks’ partnership with Instacart has been “very successful,” and he said it hasn’t necessarily affected the number of customers who visit the stores. He said it’s actually grown the chain’s overall customer base.

Simon called Instacart’s shoppers “proxy shoppers.” He said it’s hard to distinguish them from other supermarket customers except by their identification lanyards and their use of electronic devices to crosscheck orders.

He said Instacart shoppers check out purchases just like regular customers, and their presence doesn’t affect employment or staffing at the Schnucks stores where they shop. He said Instacart’s app and Schnucksdelivers.com offer some of the same sale prices in-store customers would get.

On Janesville’s south side, residents are still adjusting to the lack of a nearby neighborhood supermarket in the wake of the Center Avenue Pick ‘n Save’s closure late in 2017. A broker who is selling the former Pick ‘n Save has indicated it’s more likely the 130,000-square-foot space will be redeveloped for light industrial use rather than as another supermarket.

Gale Price, city economic development director, said Friday he was excited to hear about Instacart’s expansion into the Janesville market, particularly because the south side has had a “food desert” develop in the wake of Pick ‘n Save’s closure.

“It would be an option, certainly, when you think about what it costs if you don’t have a car. Six dollars seems like a small extra price to pay for getting groceries delivered,” he said.


Gazette at a Glance for Jan. 27, 2018

Local • 3A, 8A

Fight ends in shots fired

A landlord and tenant got into a fight Thursday night, resulting in the landlord firing a handgun at the tenant, but no one was hit, according to Lake Geneva police. Officers were called to the residence in the 700 block of North Street at about 11:53 p.m. Thursday and arrested Kevin Aumuller, 49, on charges of battery, criminal trespass to a dwelling, disorderly conduct and obstructing an officer, according to a police statement released Friday night.

Walker promotes tax credit

Gov. Scott Walker flew into Janesville on Friday to meet supporters and talk about the $100-per-minor-child tax credit he proposed Wednesday in his state of the state address. Parents would be able to claim the credits in May and June through a Department of Revenue website, he said. The money comes from a projected, unexpectedly large state budget surplus. The give-back is an acknowledgment that “the government took more of your money than it was supposed to, and now it’s giving it back to you,” Walker said.

Nation/World • 6B

New plan changes debate

The most contentious piece of President Donald Trump’s new proposal to protect the so-called Dreamers has nothing to do with them. It’s the plan’s potential impact on legal immigration that sparked fierce Democratic opposition Friday and appeared to sink chances for a bipartisan deal in Congress. The proposal outlined Thursday would end much family-based immigration and the visa lottery program, moves that some experts estimate could cut legal immigration into the United States nearly in half.