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Trump, lawyers lay out expansive presidential powers view

WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump claimed Monday he has an “absolute right” to pardon himself, part of an extraordinarily expansive vision of executive authority that is mostly untested in court and could portend a drawn-out fight with the prosecutors now investigating him.

No need of a pardon anyway, Trump tweeted, because “I have done nothing wrong.” In fact, his lawyers assert in a memo to special counsel Robert Mueller, it’s impossible for him to have done anything wrong in the area of obstructing justice, an issue Mueller has been investigating. That’s because, as the country’s chief law enforcement officer, Trump himself has ultimate control of the Justice Department and executive branch.

Beyond that, his lawyers have repeatedly insisted that it’s beyond dispute that a sitting president cannot be criminally prosecuted.

Trump also tweeted Monday that the Justice Department’s “appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL.”

Mueller’s investigation moves forward nonetheless, and as it does courts might have to confront questions with minimal if any historical precedent. Those include whether a president can be forced to answer questions from prosecutors, whether it’s possible for a commander in chief to criminally interfere in investigations and whether a president’s broad pardon power can be deployed for corrupt purposes.

“There’s a reason they’re untested. It’s because they were unthinkable,” said Savannah Law School professor Andrew Wright, who served in the White House counsel’s office under President Barack Obama. “The president’s game here in part is to take issues that are so beyond the pale that they have never been tested and say, ‘Look, there’s no authority here on point.’”

Mueller is investigating whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump took steps to shut down that investigation through actions including the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Though Trump insists he did nothing wrong, the statements from him and his lawyers, including the just-disclosed January memo to Mueller, make clear that much of their defense revolves around establishing that he was constitutionally empowered to take the actions he took.

The defense argument suggests that protocols meant to protect against abuses of power are merely norms the American public has come to expect, rather than laws binding on a president.

In Trump’s view, for instance, he is entitled to fire an FBI director—Comey or any other—for any reason. He can similarly terminate an FBI investigation given the constitutional powers he enjoys, the president’s lawyers say. That argument may help ward off allegations from Comey that the president asked him to consider shutting down an FBI investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

There is logic to the argument that Trump couldn’t have obstructed justice by firing Comey, even if the questions haven’t been fully resolved, said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law.

“If you’re trying to apply the obstruction statutes to something the president has the power to do, then I don’t think the statute applies,” he added.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was questioned repeatedly Monday about whether the president is above the law, said no, he is not.

But Blackman said that was overly simplistic, that the better question is how the law applies to the president.

“It’s a great slogan, but the law doesn’t treat the president in all respects,” Blackman said. “There are certain things the president can do that no one else can do,” such as granting pardons and negotiating international treaties.

There’s some historical precedent for a court clash that could be instigated by the Trump investigation, but in many ways the arguments remain unsettled.

The Supreme Court has never definitively ruled on the question of whether a president can be forced to testify, though the justices in 1974 did rule that Richard Nixon had to produce recordings and documents that had been subpoenaed.

Bill Clinton was subpoenaed in 1998 to appear before the Whitewater grand jury, though that subpoena was withdrawn after Clinton struck a deal to give testimony. The agreement headed off a potential challenge to the subpoena on constitutional grounds.

In a 1997 ruling allowing Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton to go forward, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “We have made clear that in a criminal case the powerful interest in the ‘fair administration of criminal justice’ requires that the evidence be given under appropriate circumstances lest the ‘very integrity of the judicial system’ be eroded.”

He also said that presidents have given testimony and produced documents often enough that “such interactions ... can scarcely be thought a novelty.”

Though Mueller has raised the prospect of subpoenaing Trump if he rejects a voluntary interview, it’s not clear he’ll actually do so. Such a move could theoretically end in a court defeat for Mueller and would almost certainly prolong the investigation.

The past several days have also spurred arguments about the scope of the president’s pardon power.

Trump has already proved willing to break from protocol through granting pardons outside the Justice Department’s pardon attorney, which historically reviews clemency petitions and makes recommendations on worthy candidates.

On his own, he has recently pardoned conservative Barack Obama critic Dinesh D’Souza, who had pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud, and former Bush administration White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. And Trump said he was contemplating clemency for Martha Stewart and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, among “lots” of other people.

A 1974 opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Opinion maintains that presidents cannot pardon themselves “under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case,” though that question has never been tested before the country’s highest court.

In the end, the Mueller investigation raises significant questions about how to balance a president’s right to manage the executive branch as he believes with the public interest that he be subject to the law.

“Their argument has antecedents that are legitimate about the president’s management of the executive branch,” said Wright, who also served as a lawyer for former Vice President Al Gore. “But they’re taking them well past their logical extremes.”


Local
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It's a dog's life: Texas transplant gets his first set of wheels in Wisconsin

JANESVILLE

People say “It’s a dog’s life” like that’s a bad thing.

They should meet Rex, a Labrador retriever mix with a birth defect that reduced his front legs to two stubs and paws.

Rex and his siblings were dropped off at Houston shelter. Instead of being euthanized with dozens of other unadoptable dogs, Rex was rescued. And then rescued again. And again.

Now he lives in a nice house with a fenced-in yard, three other dog friends and people who love him. He gets to go swimming some weekends. Most recently, he got a special cart to help him get around.

A dog’s life indeed.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Rex was hopping (on his back legs) or wriggling forward (on his front legs) to greet visitors to his home—or rather, JoLynn Burden’s home.

But Rex was the center of attention, not the Burdens. The Ettehadiehs had come from Houston to see him. Faith and Combiz Ettehadieh and their son Ethan were the first people to rescue Rex.

“It could have been a lot worse. He could have been euthanized at four weeks,” Faith tells people who express sympathy for Rex.

“He gets around just fine,” JoLynn said. “He’s very happy.”

It’s true. Callie Burden, 14, or Booker Burden, 16, might have to carry Rex into the backyard, but once he gets there, he explores on his own.

“If he wants to go somewhere, he’ll get there,” JoLynn said.

Rex can hop on his back legs. With his stubby front legs, bent over paws and reddish-tan coloring, he looks like a kangaroo.

He also can wiggle forward, using his bulging shoulder muscles to crawl and his back legs to push.

Rex learned to swim at Dunkin Dogs in Janesville. He wears a floatation vest, but his shoulder muscles move in the classic “doggie paddle” motion and his back legs kick him forward.

On a recent weekend, the Burdens took Rex and their other dogs to Lake Koshkonong. Family members put their hard-top raft in the water. Rex leaped from the raft and swam back. The family pulled him out and then off he went again. Over and over.

“He uses his tail like a rudder,” JoLynn said.

Now Rex has a new cart from Gunnar’s Wheels. The front part of his body rests in a supportive sling. Wheels on metal legs allow him to move forward without putting all of his weight on his back legs.

“We didn’t want him to get arthritis or injure his back legs,” JoLynn explained.

Rex’s youth was a factor, too. He’s such a young dog that the Burdens believed he would get good use out of the cart.

Rex is still learning how to drive it and hasn’t mastered the trick of turning yet.

This is not his first set of wheels. The Ettehadieh family made him a makeshift cart with training wheels when he was a puppy.

Rex—the Ettehadiehs called him “Nugget”—is the 48th dog or group of dogs the family has rescued.

“Sometimes we get a litter,” Faith said. “We just count that as one.”

The Ettehadiehs and the Burdens work through Houston-based Lola’s Lucky Day and Paddy’s Paws, a Fort Atkinson-based dog rescue. Lola’s Lucky Day brings dogs from the Harris County Shelter and other Texas shelters to Wisconsin and works with groups such as Paddy’s Paws to find them homes.

The stray dog population is much larger in Texas.

“People don’t spay and neuter like they do here,” Faith said.

At animal shelters where Faith lives, a dog that is surrendered by its owner might be euthanized immediately if the shelter is full, she said.

Strays picked up off the street must be kept for a few days so families have a chance to reclaim them.

JoLynn estimates that Paddy’s Paws has saved at least 1,900 dogs since its founding in late 2014.

Lola’s Lucky Day has foster families in both Texas and Wisconsin. Once in Wisconsin and established in a foster family, the dogs are put up for adoption. If the adoption doesn’t work out, the dog still has its Wisconsin foster family.

The Ettehadiehs were Rex’s first foster home. He was placed in an adoptive home in Wisconsin, but when that placement didn’t work out, he went to the Burdens’ home as a foster dog.

“After about six months, we decided that this was his forever home, not his foster home,” JoLynn said.

The foster and adoptive families who are part of Lola’s Lucky Day and Paddy’s Paws often stay in touch, and social media helps strengthen those connections.

The Ettehadiehs loved Rex so much they decided to visit him to see how he was doing.

“It’s hard to give them up,” Ethan Ettehadieh said of the foster animals. “But if we didn’t give them up, we couldn’t help other dogs.”


Chip Somodevilla 

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to the crowd during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


Crime
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Clinton school officials criticized for punishment of students who laced brownies

CLINTON

Clinton Community School District officials were criticized Monday night for their response to several seniors who reportedly served brownies laced with sexual-enhancement drugs that rendered two underclassmen sick last week.

Two males and one female, ages 17 and 18, are accused of serving brownies containing Zyrexin—billed as an over-the-counter sexual-enhancement drug—to five students.

Two of the students became ill, and their parents took them for medical treatment Wednesday, according to a news release from Clinton Police Chief Dave Hooker.

Hooker said the supplement label warns people with circulatory problems, diabetes and other conditions not to take it, and he said the supplement contains a large dose of caffeine.

The two students who fell ill were released and are in good condition, according to the release. Hooker called the students “healthy, athletic lads.”

But Hooker wondered what might have happened if someone with a medical condition had eaten the brownies, adding that the allegation against the students is very serious. He said he discussed the case with Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary and said he will forward completed reports to O’Leary today for consideration of possible charges.

Stara Rankin, the mother of one of the victims who fell ill, said she doesn’t believe the three students meant any harm by serving the brownies. But she told the Board of Education that district officials failed in holding the perpetrators accountable and following up with the victims.

“I don’t understand why it took so long for the school counselor to reach out to my son,” Rankin said. “When he returned to school on the next day, he was laughed at. There was only one teacher in the whole school … to go and ask him if he was okay.”

Kristen Franseen, the mother of another victim, also criticized district officials, saying she wasn’t notified that her son had ingested the laced brownies until an hour-and-a-half after the incident.

“When he told me he doesn’t want to go to school, as a parent, that breaks my heart,” Franseen said. “He’s absolutely humiliated, and he feels betrayed by the administration and like he’s unimportant in the matter.”

After the two students reported symptoms, Hooker said school officials acted quickly and removed the brownies. The perpetrators had never been in trouble with Clinton police or with school authorities, as far as Hooker knew, he said.

“It was just a senior prank, but the problem with (the perpetrators) is they’re young, and they don’t look at the bigger picture. They didn’t bother looking at any of the warnings and didn’t think it would harm anybody,” Hooker said.

Hooker said two parents threatened a protest at Sunday’s graduation ceremony over how the district handled discipline in the case. Hooker said he asked the parents not to punish the rest of the graduating seniors. There were no incidents Sunday.

District Administrator Jim Brewer spoke after the parents delivered their remarks to the board Monday night, saying the district is bound by privacy rules and cannot discuss disciplinary action it took on the three students.

But he told the crowd of about 70 the victims are not to blame, and he reminded the attendees the school “did not bring this on.”

“We’re dealing with kids, folks,” Brewer said. “I’m telling you right now, the frontal lobe is not fully developed. We know for a fact students have poor planning and judgment. They don’t think through like you and I.

“Some people called it a senior prank. That was not a prank. Kids, you cannot do that.”

Brewer said he wants perpetrators to reflect on what they did wrong, and he said officials conducted “due process” meetings to assess the health of the victims, remorse of the perpetrators, behavioral record of the perpetrators and cooperation of the families.

“We want our students to reflect on what they did wrong,” Brewer said. “We asked students to think about it, and they did. They went over and above. There are multiple perspectives to every decision. I always keep all kids in my mind. Sometimes we will get it right, and sometimes we won’t.”

The Clinton School District posted on its Facebook page Saturday that the perpetrators of the “so-called senior prank ... face progressive discipline for the inappropriate actions.”

In the post, the district touted its “restorative justice” disciplinary approach, writing that it “focuses on building relationships and repairing harm, rather than simply punishing students for misbehavior. It emphasizes accountability and making amends with the victims.”

But the mothers in attendance said they thought the district’s restorative justice approach benefited the perpetrators more than it aided the victims and their families.

“They’ve talked to the (perpetrators’) families multiple times. They haven’t reached out to us at all,” Rankin said. “We’re not an outsider. This is our school, too. If this would’ve happened on any other day of the year, what would the consequences have been? I want to know where all the accountability lies. If this happens again, what is your plan?”