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DOJ adds two top prosecutors to Matt Gaetz investigation, sources say


(WASHINGTON) -- Two top prosecutors in the Justice Department were added several months ago to the ongoing federal probe examining sex trafficking allegations against Rep. Matt Gaetz, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed to ABC News.

The Washington-based prosecutors, one with expertise in child exploitation crimes and the other a top official in the DOJ's Public Integrity Section, have been on the Florida-based case since at least July. In recent months, they joined a team in Florida that's been looking into whether Gaetz violated federal law by providing goods or payments to a 17-year-old girl in exchange for sex, sources confirmed to ABC News. The news of the new prosecutors was first reported by The New York Times.

Gaetz has not been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing. In a statement to ABC News on Thursday, a spokesperson for Gaetz said, "Congressman Gaetz is innocent. The former DOJ official who tried to extort him is guilty. No number of political operative prosecutors at a politically weaponized DOJ will change this."

The news comes just days after a federal judge in Central Florida granted a request from attorneys representing former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, Gaetz's one-time self-described "wingman," to delay Greenberg's sentencing while he continues to provide prosecutors with information about his activities in connection with the ongoing federal probe.

Greenberg in May pleaded guilty to multiple federal crimes, including sex trafficking of a minor and introducing her to other "adult men" who also had sex with her when she was underage, and agreed to provide "substantial assistance" to prosecutors as part of their ongoing investigation.

"This is obviously not a normal situation," U.S. attorney Roger Handberg told the judge earlier this week in requesting a delay in Greenberg's scenting. "Mr. Greenberg is a prolific criminal."

"Mr. Greenberg was not alone," Handberg added. "This is an unusual situation with a number of lines of investigation we are pursuing."

ABC News previously reported that Gaetz's former associate had been steadily providing information and handing over troves of potential evidence in the sprawling probe, including years of Venmo and Cash App transactions and thousands of photos and videos, as well as access to personal social media accounts, sources said.

Private messages first reported by ABC News potentially shed light on how Greenberg allegedly met women online who were paid for sex, and allegedly introduced them to the Florida congressman and other associates. The messages, first reported by ABC News in August, appear to show Greenberg texting with a woman he met online in September 2018 and discussing payment options. Greenberg also appears to ask the woman, who was of legal age, if she would take drugs; he then sets up a get-together with himself, Gaetz, the woman, and one of her friends, the messages appear to show.

Amid the ongoing investigation, Gaetz has remained active in Congress and has forcibly pushed back against the DOJ and the media. During Thursday's House Judiciary hearing, Gaetz questioned Attorney General Merrick Garland on whether there are prohibitions against DOJ officials who have been "partisan committee staff" members working on criminal investigations. Todd Gee, one of the two new prosecutors added to the Gaetz investigation, previously worked as a House Homeland Committee staffer for Democrats during the Bush Administration.

Greenberg's sentencing is now scheduled for March 2022, a date the judge said would be a "deadline we have to meet."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Why can't congressional Democrats deliver more on their promises? It's complicated.

Stephen Emlund/iStock

(NEW YORK) — In January, when President Joe Biden took office and Democrats secured both chambers of Congress, millions of Americans had high hopes that the laundry list of causes touted on the campaign trail would become reality.

They had promised action on voting, elections and policing reform, on immigration and infrastructure. They touted sweeping programs now in Democrats' social spending bills, addressing issues they said Americans care about most, from child care to climate change.

But this week's failure by Senate Democrats' latest effort to even start debate on a voting rights bill, their first piece of legislation to pass the House, is just the latest blow to Biden's campaign agenda and the vow Democrats made to preserve Americans' most fundamental right in the wake of the 2020 election's "Big Lie."

Many Democrats who expected more are frustrated.

"You've got real Americans that have spent time and energy in promoting supporting these plans," said Domini Bryant, a social worker in Houston told ABC News. "I don't have time to deal with the political rhetoric that is happening in our world right now because all that is happening is real people -- real working people -- are getting dumped on.”

"We're still allowing 'Big Lie' rhetoric to reign supreme when you have real issues happening out here, like the fact that there have been millions of dollars put towards this pandemic recovery yet you still have thousands of people homeless right now," she added.

It's no secret Biden and congressional Democrats are having trouble with their own self-imposed deadlines -- such as missing policing reform by the anniversary of the death of George Floyd in May, although a majority of Americans say major changes are needed to policing.

Since Democrats control both Congress and the White House -- why haven't they been able to achieve their legislative priorities? With Biden's approval rating sinking, and congressional midterms nearly one year away, experts ABC News spoke with are predicting Democrats could pay a high price for their perceived inaction.

"Most Americans believe that government should be helping solve our problems and that compromise is better than obstruction," said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "But the incentives for our elected leaders to do compromise has dissipated, creating a vicious cycle where we're seeing less action on what the average American wants. By the same token, there's also a very, very little incentive for the elected leaders to deliver moderation, because there'll be primary, and they'll lose.”

Frances Lee, a political scientist and professor at Princeton University, said that although this Congress is deadlocked on high-profile legislation, it has been productive in responding to coronavirus crisis, pointing to the American Rescue Plan passing in March -- although it did so without any Republican support.

"It's a tale of two cities," she told ABC News. "On the one hand, this Congress has impressive crisis response, and on the other, a stalemate on issues that aren't necessarily connected to that crisis."

GOP's strategy of obstruction

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the "single most important thing" for Republicans was to make him a one-term president. McConnell would go on to do everything possible to prevent Obama from achieving major legislative wins.

"And that's basically been the strategy that the Republicans have employed for the last 12 years," said Lawless.

"It doesn't matter if the Republicans could also claim credit for something that will be good for the American people or advance the economic interests of their state or their district. Republicans are now viewing any Democratic victory as separate and apart from their own interests," she said. "This has now become a sort of permissible way to govern, whereas prior to that point, I think most legislators would not have wanted the American people to know that they were more interested in obstructing than they were in governing."

That kind of strategy makes bipartisanship and cooperation exceedingly rare, experts said, and in many cases, not even pursued, which has heightened internal strife in the parties.

"Thirty years ago, forty years ago, if you had two members of your own party who weren't in love with a bill, you'd cross party lines and you'd see if you could find some allies there, but that's just not a viable strategy anymore," she added.

She said the current stalemate over raising the debt ceiling provides the perfect example of McConnell's strategy.

Republicans for months have said that Democrats would need to act on their own to raise the debt limit because they have total political control of Washington and are planning to pass a multi-trillion social and economic package with zero input from Republicans.

"They've made the case to their constituents and to Republican voters across the country that doing nothing is better than governing from the 'socialist left,'" Lawless said.

Democrats, meanwhile, have argued raising the debt limit is a bipartisan responsibility, in part, because it covers spending that already took place under the Trump administration with unified GOP support.

"Republicans just have to let us do our job," Biden said in a speech last month on the nation's debt limit. "Just get out of the way. If you don't want to help save the country, get out of the way so you don't destroy it.”

A recent poll from Politico/Morning Consult suggested that public opinion may not push either party to change direction. Overall, 31% of registered voters said they would mostly blame Democrats if the country defaults on its debt, while 20% said they would primarily blame Republicans. Thirty-nine percent said they would blame both parties equally.

"We expect our elected officials to deal with complicated issues like that," said Jeremy Gelman, who wrote the book, "Losing to Win: Why Congressional Majorities Play Politics Instead of Make Laws." "But making it seem like your opponents don't have it together, that's good politics."

Loyalty to the filibuster

With a majority in the House of Representatives and Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, Democrats could, in theory, pass their legislative priorities without Republican support.

But not while the Senate filibuster rule stands in their way.

While legislation dealing with the budget can go through the reconciliation process and pass without GOP support, as was done with the American Rescue Plan in March, the Senate requires 60 votes for "cloture" -- to end debate on a piece of legislation so it can proceed to a final vote, which then, in most cases, requires a simple majority to pass.

In short, without 60 Senate votes, a piece of legislation doesn't even have a chance of being voted upon.

"That means that unless there is complete unity among Democrats in the Senate, the bill is already a non-starter. Every single member can hold a package hostage for their litmus tests," Lawless said. "And on bills that can't go through the reconciliation process, without 10 Republican votes, they're dead on arrival."

For four months under Obama, Democrats did have 60 votes in the Senate and, therefore, total control of Congress. It was during that slim window that Obamacare passed in the Senate with all 60 Democratic votes.

Progressives in 2021 argue Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who call themselves moderates and have staunchly opposed ending the filibuster, should help carve out an exception to push over the line key reforms, especially on the fundamental issue of voting rights, that they and fellow Democrats were elected to pursue. But Manchin and Sinema have refused to budge, arguing making an exception could backfire if Republicans take back control of the Senate.

"They've certainly articulated legitimate reasons why they are reluctant to make these exceptions," Lawless said. "But in this political climate, it seems tone-deaf not to do it."

Democratic infighting

While Americans might expect that unified government -- as Democrats have now with the White House and Congress -- Lee said that it's more normal for parties with total control to face hurdles delivering on their agendas.

As evident by Democrats' current stalemate on the social spending package, Lee argued parties are not as unified on many issues as they might claim to be with voters.

"It's the reality we're seeing now," said Lee. "They get elected in these separate states and districts, and they differ in their political priorities and coloration, so it's very hard for them to get on the same page."

House progressives have vowed to vote against a bipartisan infrastructure bill -- which received 19 GOP votes in the Senate -- unless a deal is reached with Senate Democrats and the White House on a larger spending package involving social policies which they plan to pass through budget reconciliation.

"We make these promises to people, and they're expecting us to deliver on them," Jayapal told CNN this month.

Every unified government since the Clinton administration has failed on at least one of its top priorities due to internal dissent, not due to the filibuster, Lee said.

Gelman added that party leaders will pursue policies they know will fail -- as Senate Democrats did on voting rights -- in order to make a political statement.

"They also know that those are popular policies with their voters. They need to have solutions that they can offer in the future, and they think it's probably politically valuable to show off the Republicans as being obstructionists," he said.

Razor-thin margins

What makes it especially difficult to govern in the current Congress are the razor-thin margins in both chambers. Comparing this Congress to the previous ones with the unified government, Lee said the current political climate is more difficult than most because there are "no votes to spare."

Democrats and Republicans currently have 50 seats each in the Senate, with Harris serving as the tie-breaker vote. The margins are tight in the House too, where most legislation needs a simple majority, with 220 Democrats and 212 Republicans.

"Parties have trouble advancing bold legislation even when conditions are more favorable -- and they're just not very favorable for either party right now," she said.

She compared the current margins to those under former President Bill Clinton when tried to reform health care in 1994, but without 60 votes to end a GOP filibuster, the effort failed.

Lee said it's the norm for "about half of all a party's agenda items to fail," so Americans should actually expect those failures to be higher in a Congress with super narrow majorities as is the case now.

With critics saying Republicans are playing a game of chicken on the debt ceiling, experts say Democrats are also playing a dangerous game with their political future.

"If with unified control the Democrats are unable to push forward Biden's agenda, then it's hard to imagine that they'll get anything that they want between 2022 and 2024," Lawless said.

Unprecedented polarization?

It's also a time in Washington of arguably unprecedented polarization, in the wake of the 2020 election and Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

With the influence of cable news, and social media, lawmakers can get stuck in an echo chamber with their own supporters instead of trying to appeal to a broader cross-section of the country.

"We've reached a point in time where our political communication is so partisan and so polarized, that it's hard even to blame the average American for not knowing the alternative viewpoint," Lawless said. "They're not exposed to it."

Despite the division, experts said compromise remains the most effective way to pass changes in the world's greatest deliberative body.

"We're constantly sort of bombarded by messages from the politicians themselves that everything's so divisive," Gelman said. "But the reality is, legislating in this system of government requires bipartisanship."

Greg Lee, a technology consultant in Columbus, Ohio, who used to identify as a Republican but is now votes Democratic, said the American people are left to suffer while lawmakers on both sides take things to political extremes.

"They’re not doing a good job of balancing their constituents needs with their desire to be reelected," he said. "Congress should be a collaborative body, not a win at all costs game."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

House votes to hold Steve Bannon in criminal contempt

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The House of Representatives voted to hold Trump administration adviser Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress on Thursday for defying a congressional subpoena by the Jan. 6 select committee investigating the attack on the Capitol.

The vote fell largely along party lines: 229-202, with nine Republicans voting with Democrats.

Select committee Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in debate ahead of the vote that allowing Bannon to ignore their subpoena would set a dangerous precedent.

"To my colleagues who choose to vote against enforcing the subpoena, you are saying to all future men and women who are called before this body that they can ignore a subpoena from Congress without consequence," he said. "The consequences of that vote won't be limited to this investigation and this subpoena alone. Your vote will be given serious long-lasting damage to Congress. And that, in turn, will do serious damage to our country which we all love dearly."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed the resolution shortly after the House vote and tweeted out a photo.

Her office told ABC News the referral has now been formally transmitted to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. The Justice Department will now decide whether to prosecute Bannon.

The select committee, a nine-member panel, voted unanimously Tuesday evening to send a report recommending contempt charges to the full House.

GOP Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill, the two Republicans who sit on the committee, voted with all Democrats to advance to debate on Thursday. House GOP leaders had whipped their members to vote "no."

But Democrats argued on the House floor that lawmakers have a Constitutional responsibility of oversight.

"Mr. Bannon's willful disregard for the select committee's subpoena demonstrates his utter contempt for the American people's right to know how the attacks on January 6 came about," Kinzinger said. "His own words strongly suggest that the actions of the mob that stormed the Capitol and invaded this very chamber came as no surprise to him. He and a few others, were by all accounts, involved in planning that day's events and encouraged by those who attacked the Capitol, our officers and our democracy."

"I have no doubt that Mr. Bannon's scorn for our subpoena is real. But no one, and I repeat, no one is above the law," Kinzinger said. "And we need to hear from him."

Cheney, also speaking with Democrats in favor of the bill, said Bannon's statements on his podcast on Jan. 5, the day before the attack, were "shocking and indefensible."

"He said all hell is going to break loose. He said, 'We are coming in right over the target,'" she said. "There are people in this chamber right now who were evacuated with me and the rest of us that day and during the attack. People who seem to have forgotten the danger of the moment. The assault on our Constitution, the assault on our Congress. People who you will hear argue that there is simply no legislative purpose for this committee, this legislation and this subpoena," she said.

"There is no doubt that Mr. Bannon knows far more than what he said," she continued. "There is no doubt that all hell did broke loose. Just ask the scores of brave police officers who were injured that day protecting us. The American people deserve to hear his testimony."

Including Cheney and Kinzinger, nine Republicans voted with Democrats to hold Bannon in contempt: Reps. Anthony Gonzalez, Peter Meijer, Fred Upton, Nancy Mace, John Katko, Brian Fitzpatrick and Jaime Herrera Beutler. Rep. Mike Simpson had voted "yes" but changed it to "no."

Two of the nine Republicans who voted with Democrats -- Fitzpatrick and Mace -- did not vote to impeach former President Donald Trump earlier this year. And several Republicans who did vote to impeach Trump did not back the effort to hold Bannon in contempt.

Mace, who spoke to reporters outside the Capitol after her vote, said she wanted to uphold the subpoena power of Congress, given that Republicans could retake the chamber next year.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., earlier Thursday argued that the Jan. 6 select committee's subpoena for Bannon's testimony was "invalid" because Republicans aren't serving on the panel and claimed Democrats are using the panel to target their political opponents.

However, Republicans decided not to sit on the panel after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat two of five members recommended by McCarthy for making baseless claims about the validity of 2020 election. That came after Republicans killed an effort in May to establish an independent commission of members selected by both parties to investigate the Jan. 6 attack.

"Issuing an invalid subpoena weakens our power, not voting against it," McCarthy said, defending Republicans' plans to overwhelmingly vote against holding Bannon in contempt of Congress this evening. "[Bannon] has a right to go to court to see if he has executive privilege or not. I don't know if he has it or not, but neither does the committee."

His message follows a memo circulated to Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, in which House GOP leaders argued that the Jan. 6 select committee that subpoenaed Bannon for records and testimony is "pursuing a partisan agenda to politicize the Jan. 6 attack" instead of "conducting a good faith investigation."

Asked about the importance of GOP support on the effort, Pelosi said at her weekly press conference that it's Republicans' duty to vote to hold Bannon in contempt.

"Because they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," Pelosi told reporters.

"The genius of our Constitution and our founders was the separation of powers checks and balances, if in fact you went to negate the ability of one check of another branch of government over another, then you are undermining the constitution," she said.

"This goes beyond Bannon in terms of its importance. And you would think that if they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, they would vote for the system of checks and balances," she said.

It's been 38 years since the Justice Department pursued contempt of Congress charges: Environmental Protection Agency official Rita Lavelle was indicted in 1983. A jury eventually found Lavelle not guilty.

The Democrat-led House held former Attorney General Bill Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress in 2019 for defying subpoenas for records, but the Trump Justice Department did not take up the case.

Bannon could face up to a year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine if the Justic Department charges him and he is eventually found guilty.

ABC News' Sarah Donaldson contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

GOP senator seeks to block controversial proposed bank account monitoring


(WASHINGTON) — In the wake of a controversial proposal by the Treasury Department and Senate Democrats to direct collection of additional data on Americans' bank accounts, Senate Republicans -- led by South Carolina’s Tim Scott -- introduced a bill Thursday to prevent the Internal Revenue Service from implementing any such policy change.

"The Democrats’ plan to allow the IRS to spy on the bank accounts of nearly every person in this country, even those below the poverty line, should be deeply concerning to anyone who values privacy and economic inclusion," Scott said in a statement provided exclusively to ABC News.

The Biden administration on Tuesday backed down on a controversial proposal that would have directed the IRS to collect additional data on every bank account that sees more than $600 in annual transactions, after widespread criticism from Republican lawmakers and banking industry representatives, who said the tax enforcement strategy represented a breach of privacy by the federal government.

Instead, the administration and Senate Democrats are proposing to raise the threshold to accounts with more than $10,000 in annual transactions, and any income received through a paycheck from which federal taxes are automatically deducted will not be subject to the reporting. Recipients of federal benefits like unemployment and Social Security would also be exempt.

According to the new GOP bill, called the Prohibiting IRS Financial Surveillance Act, "The Secretary of the Treasury (including any delegate of the Secretary) may not require any financial institution to report the inflows or outflows of any account maintained by such institution, or any balances, transactions, transfers, or similar information with respect to any such account, except to the extent that such reporting is required under any program, or other provision of law, as in effect on the date of the enactment of this Act."

"Every American should be wary of giving the IRS more power and more tentacles into private financial transactions," Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in a statement. "The IRS bank reporting proposal is one of the biggest expansions of the agency’s authority we’ve ever seen, and is fundamentally flawed. I’m proud to support Senator Scott’s legislation to stop this proposal in its tracks and protect Americans’ personal, private financial information."

The GOP bill is sponsored by every member of Republican leadership and nearly the entire conference, a clear indication, according to a source familiar with the matter, that the party sees "this move and the unified support from leadership … as a clear indication of where we’ll focus our energies in the coming reconciliation fight.”

The changes made by Democrats -- a clear indication of how politically volatile the issue is -- would exempt millions of Americans from the reporting requirement, and help the IRS target wealthier Americans, they say, especially those who earn money from investments, real estate, and other transactions that are more difficult for the IRS to track.

"Under the current system, American workers pay virtually all their tax bills while many top earners avoid paying billions in the taxes they owe by exploiting the system. At the core of the problem is a discrepancy in the ways types of income are reported to the IRS: opaque income sources frequently avoid scrutiny while wages and federal benefits are typically subject to nearly full compliance. This two-tiered tax system is unfair and deprives the country of resources to fund core priorities," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement Tuesday.

"Today’s new proposal reflects the Administration’s strong belief that we should zero in on those at the top of the income scale who don’t pay the taxes they owe, while protecting American workers by setting the bank account threshold at $10,000 and providing an exemption for wage earners like teachers and firefighters," Yellen said.

A Treasury fact sheet says, "Imagine a taxpayer who reports $10,000 of income; but has $10 million of flows in and out of their bank account. Having this summary information will help flag for the IRS when high-income people under-report their income (and under-pay their tax obligations). This will help the IRS target its enforcement activities on those who are actually evading their tax obligations—decreasing costly and burdensome audits for the vast majority of taxpayers who pay what they owe."

The proposal is a long way from being enacted. It's currently included in a multi-trillion dollar social spending package lawmakers and the White House have been negotiating for months. If that package is passed and signed into law, the requirement wouldn't begin until December 2022.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who spearheaded the effort to revise the proposal, disputed Republican claims that the goal is to snoop on Americans' financial transactions.

"The bottom line is, wealthy tax cheats are ripping off the American people to the tune of billions and billions of dollars per year. Tax cheats thrive when the reporting rules that apply to them are loose and murky. Democrats want to fix this broken approach and crack down on the cheating at the top," Wyden said in a press conference on the announcement Tuesday.

Wyden made clear that even Americans who might make a large purchase over $10,000 wouldn't be subject to the additional reporting.

"If you don’t have $10,000 above your paycheck, Social Security income, or the like coming in or going out, there’s no additional reporting. We’ve also addressed the scenario where an individual spends a significant amount of savings for a major purchase. There will be no additional reporting in this scenario, as long as the amount of money coming into the account does not exceed wages +$10,000," Wyden said.

Still, Republicans insisted millions of Americans will be affected and voiced concern that the IRS would be given far too much power.

"The Biden administration’s plan to allow the IRS to monitor Americans' bank accounts is a dangerous idea that will only prove to be worse over time,” said Senator Pat Toomey, R-Pa. “Today the administration wants to know your annual account inflows and outflows. What will they demand access to tomorrow?"

ABC News' Sarah Kolinovsky contributed to this report

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Garland: DOJ will follow 'facts and the law' in Bannon contempt referral


(WASHINGTON) — Attorney General Merrick Garland told lawmakers on Thursday that the Justice Department will follow "the facts and the law" if the House of Representatives votes to refer former President Donald Trump's ally Steve Bannon for criminal prosecution for defying a congressional subpoena.

"I will say what a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia said I think yesterday or a day before," Garland said in response to a question on Congress' potential contempt referral for Bannon. "If the House of Representatives votes for a referral of a contempt charge -- then the Department of Justice will do what it always does in such circumstances, we will apply the facts and the law and make a decision consistent with the principles of prosecution.”

Garland's first appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee came on the same day that the House is set to vote on whether to hold Bannon, who formerly served as a White House advisor to Trump, in contempt of Congress.

Historically such prosecutions are rare and politically fraught -- but Garland's potential decision on the referral would have significant ramifications for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol as it seeks to compel cooperation from individuals who allegedly had communications with Trump around that day.

The matter was further complicated over the weekend when President Joe Biden told reporters he hoped the department would move forward with prosecutions of those, like Bannon, who defy the select committee's subpoenas. A DOJ spokesperson swiftly released a statement following Biden's remarks restating the department's independence, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified afterward that the president was in no way giving direction to Garland on the issue.

"The Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop," spokesperson Anthony Coley said.

In the hearing, Garland also defended the Justice Department's handling of its sprawling investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection. He testified Thursday that more than 650 people across the country have been charged in the more than nine months since the attack.

"The violence we witnessed that day was an intolerable assault, not only on the Capitol and the brave law enforcement personnel who sought to protect it, but also on a fundamental element of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power," Garland said.

Republicans on the panel expressed concern about the treatment of some of the rioters being detained ahead of trial, after judges ruled they either presented a threat to the general public or a risk of flight and obstruction of justice.

Last week, a federal judge overseeing one case of a rioter being held in detention pending trial did make a referral to Garland to investigate whether jailed rioters are having their rights violated based on their status as Capitol riot defendants. Garland confirmed in Thursday's hearing that the U.S. Marshals Service subsequently conducted an inspection of their conditions and the Civil Rights Division is reviewing the findings.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Clinton shares first update on recovery following hospitalization: 'I’m really glad to be back home'

Noam Galai/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Former President Bill Clinton spoke out for the first time following his hospitalization.

In a video posted on Twitter Wednesday night, Clinton, 75, said he's feeling better, and is "on the road to recovery."

"Hi everyone, I was so touched by the outpouring of support I received during my stay in the hospital. Thanks so much. I’d also like to thank the doctors and nurses at UC Irvine Medical Center for the absolutely wonderful care that they gave me over the last seven days," he said.

The former president -- who has battled a number of health issues, including heart problems, over the past two decades -- was taken to the hospital last Tuesday to be treated for an infection not related to COVID-19, his spokesperson said.

"I’m really glad to be back home," Clinton said in the video Wednesday. "I’m doing great, enjoying this beautiful fall weather. I’m on the road to recovery but I want to remind everyone out there: Take the time to listen to your bodies and care for yourselves. We all have work to do and each of us has an important role to play in life and in the immediate future. I, for one, am going to do my best to be around, to keep doing the most good I can for a lot longer."

Last week, an aide said Clinton was diagnosed with a urological infection that transformed into a broader infection, but the prognosis was "good."

He was released from the hospital Sunday.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Pete Buttigieg defends paternity leave, says supply chain issues have 'no easy fix'

Pete Buttigieg/Twitter

(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spoke on "The View" about the criticism he's been met with over his paternity leave amid Congress' pending approval of the Biden administration's infrastructure bill.

Buttigieg and husband Chasten welcomed twins Joseph August and Penelope Rose in August. On Wednesday, he told the co-hosts about his growing family.

"It's such an incredible blessing," he said, adding that he has a "whole new appreciation" for parenting now that he's living it.

"Every time I look in their eyes, I just realize that the most important thing that Chasten and I will do in our lives is be dads to these incredible, beautiful, little children, our boy and our girl," he continued.

When Buttigieg went on paid paternity leave after their twins were born, Congress was discussing the Biden administration's Build Back Better Act. If the $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package is passed, it would give all workers up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

Under current U.S. policy, the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees who qualify can take time off to care for a newborn or loved one or recover from illness without losing their job -- but leave is unpaid in most cases.

Buttigieg faced criticism from media figures such as Tucker Carlson about taking his paternity leave amid a pending infrastructure bill and supply chain crisis, and he said "maybe some good came out of" the attacks.

"It's helped us have a conversation about parental leave," he said. "Every American ought to be able to get paid parental leave. That's something that the president believes in and has proposed. It's something I believe."

But, he continued, "When parents take that parental leave, they need to be supported in making that choice."

Buttigieg acknowledged the negative impact parental leave stigmas can have on women who "find their ability to get ahead in their careers influenced by these judgments," and he shared his perspective on why men should use it.

"If there's this idea that maybe men have access to paternity leave but it's frowned on if they actually use it, then obviously that doesn't work for a marriage like mine, but also for a man who's married to a woman," Buttigieg said. "That carries with it the assumption that the woman's going to do all the work. That just makes no sense in the 21st century."

"There's still this cultural idea, I think, out there in some places, that this is vacation," he said.

"My work day as a secretary of transportation starts at a relatively normal hour," he continued. "My workday as a dad starts at about 3 in the morning when Chasten finally hits the sack and it's my turn to start that first feeding."

The infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress includes paid family leave -- and potential solutions to existing supply chains disruptions.

"There's no easy fix. There's no magic wand, but there are a lot of things we can do," Buttigieg said about the supply chain crisis on "The View." "We're relying on infrastructure that was built decades ago, sometimes a century ago."

Buttigieg said "supply, demand and the pandemic" are the main forces behind the supply chain bottlenecks being seen around the world, which caused record shortages of household goods to electronics to automobiles for American consumers.

"Americans have more money in their pockets compared to a year ago," Buttigieg said. "Where they used to maybe spend it on going to shows or travel, they've been more likely to spend it on things, which is why actually we have a record number of goods coming through our ports."

"Retail sales are through the roof, that's part of why we have this challenge, but it is creating a lot of pressure on businesses, especially small businesses that can't exactly charter their own ship or create their own supply chain when they have a challenge," he said.

He argued the infrastructure bill would not only address long-term issues, but also short-term issues, such as "working with the ports to get them open 24/7" and "make it easier for truck drivers to get commercial driver's licenses."

"All of those steps are going to make a difference. But again, the biggest difference of all, the thing that would really help with all of the disruptions, all of the shocks that we're seeing is to put this pandemic behind us," Buttigieg said.

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Senate Republicans once again block voting rights reform bill


(WASHINGTON) -- Senate Republicans have stopped -- for the second time this year -- a Democratic measure aimed at enacting sweeping federal election law changes, a move that is certain to increase pressure on the majority to change the chamber's filibuster rule.

Every Senate Republican opposed the vote to start debate on the voting rights bill.

"This bill is a compromise, but a good one. It's a bill that every Senate Democrat is united behind enthusiastically," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer before the vote. Schumer had worked to get moderate Democrat Joe Manchin behind the proposal known as the Freedom to Vote Act.

The legislation is a product of Democrats' concerns about the wave of stricter new voting laws in red states following the false claims by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen.

Manchin, D-W.Va., refused to endorse a more comprehensive reform effort by his caucus in June, saying it lacked bipartisan input and encroached too far on state's rights to run elections. But after months of trying to corral GOP support, Manchin has found none.

The vote on Wednesday was to start debate on the measure, a move that required 10 Republicans to vote with all Democrats. But no Republicans supported the revised bill.

"There are areas where we could perhaps work together, but the legislation that's been crafted (by Democrats) is not what I'll support," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a consensus-minded Republican whom Manchin approached. "Federalizing election law is something which I think is not a good idea."

Sen. Angus King, D-Maine, a lead sponsor of the legislation and member of that working group, pleaded with colleagues to support the bill, saying U.S. democracy is "fragile" and at stake in the wake of Trump's false claims about the 2020 election despite no widespread fraud found in multiple, nonpartisan investigations.

"The problem with this goes well beyond the wave of voter suppression legislation sweeping the country; the deeper problem is the massive and unprecedented erosion of trust in the electoral system itself, the beating heart of our democracy," said King. "Of all the depredations of Donald Trump, this is by far the worst. In relentlessly pursuing his narrow self-interest, he has grievously wounded democracy itself. And by the way, I mean 'narrow self-interest' quite literally; he doesn't give the slightest damn about any of us -- any of you -- and will cast any or all of us aside whenever it suits his needs of the moment."

But Republicans for months have said they see the efforts to counter red state laws as nothing more than "a partisan power grab."

"The only thing this proposal would have done for the people…would be to help make sure that the outcome of virtually every future election meant that Democrats win and Republicans lose. Thus, Republicans would be relegated to a permanent minority status. That was the goal," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, charged in a Tuesday floor speech. "If this bill weren't so dangerous, it would have been laughable."

King told reporters on a conference call that the only option after the vote Wednesday is to alter the Senate's filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation but also imposes no requirement on the 41 senators who are in opposition other than his or her stated opposition to legislation that is up for a vote.

"I've been very, very reluctant on (changing the filibuster), but on the other hand, it strikes me that this is a very special case, because it goes to the very fundamentals of how our democracy works," King told reporters, adding that the debate among Democrats "can't go on forever, because as you know redistricting has already started in states…It's got to happen, I would say, in this calendar year."

King said Democrats are looking at a number of possible changes, from requiring those supporting a filibuster to appear on the floor and hold the chamber with speeches -- the so-called "talking filibuster" -- to modifying the rules to end filibusters on motions to start debate -- which is what will happen Wednesday -- to ending the filibuster altogether.

Changing the filibuster would require all Democrats to be united, but that is not the case currently. Manchin and his fellow moderate, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have steadfastly refused to change the chamber's rules citing a fear of permanently damaging the institution.

Outside groups pushed back Tuesday and called on Biden to do more.

"The president must get in the game. Say into a microphone, 'You've got to get rid of the filibuster," said Meagan Hatcher-Mays of the progressive group Indivisible.

"The filibuster is paralyzing the Senate. It's preventing it from doing the very basics, such as debating bills," said Adam Jentleson, a one-time deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and founder of the Battle Born Collective, a progressive interest group.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred Tuesday when asked about support for the filibuster.

"It's a discussion that we would have with leaders and members in Congress," said Psaki, who added that the White House was focused on the Wednesday vote. "Republicans still have an opportunity to do the right thing to protect people's fundamental right to vote."

The Democrats' new bill still encompassed sweeping election law changes, including voter ID requirements, expanded early voting, making Election Day a national holiday, banning partisan gerrymandering, and implementing election security and campaign finance measures.

Among the provisions dropped or changed since June were the automatic mailing of ballots. Under the new measure, any voter could request a mail-in ballot but they are not sent out automatically. The legislation would have continued to allow voter roll purges but required changes to be "done on the basis of reliable and objective evidence" and prohibited the use of returned mail sent by third parties to remove voters.

The bill would have also no longer implemented public financing of presidential and congressional elections. Still, there were a number of election security provisions, including mandatory, nationwide use of machines that deliver paper ballots.

ABC News' Allie Pecorin contributed to this report.

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Jan. 6 committee recommends holding Bannon in contempt

Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on Tuesday moved to punish Trump adviser Steve Bannon, recommending the full House hold him in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with a subpoena for records and testimony.

The nine-member panel voted unanimously Tuesday evening to send a report recommending contempt charges to the full House. If approved by the full chamber as soon as this week, the matter would then be referred to the Justice Department to decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

"Our goal is simple: we want Mr. Bannon to answer our questions," Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in the meeting. "We want him to turn over whatever records he possesses that are relevant to the select committee’s investigation. The issue in front of us today is our ability to do our job."

The Justice Department has declined to comment on how it might act on a criminal referral for Bannon or others who may be held in contempt.

After President Joe Biden said recently that the Justice Department should prosecute Bannon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki attempted to distance the White House from that action, telling reporters on Monday that Biden "believes it's an independent decision that should be made by the Department of Justice."

The matter could take months, if not years, to litigate, and could result in a fine of up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison.

Robert Costello, Bannon's attorney, told committee members that his client would not cooperate with the probe given Trump's executive privilege concerns, or without a court order to do so.

"Though the Select Committee welcomes good-faith engagement with witnesses seeking to cooperate with our investigation, we will not allow any witness to defy a lawful subpoena or attempt to run out the clock, and we will swiftly consider advancing a criminal contempt of Congress referral," Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a statement earlier this month.

Thompson said Bannon "stands alone in his complete defiance" of the committee.

"We have reached out to dozens of witnesses. We are taking in thousands of pages of records. We are conducting interviews on a steady basis," he said.

The committee's report argues that the committee's efforts to seek information from Bannon are justified because he "had specific knowledge about the events planned for January 6th before they occurred."

"Mr. Bannon was a private citizen during the relevant time period and the testimony and documents the Select Committee is demanding do not concern discussion of official government matters with the President and his immediate advisors," the panel wrote in the report, in response to Trump's claims of privilege.

Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee, said that Bannon and Trump's claims of privilege "suggest that President Trump was personally involved in the planning and execution of January 6th."

She also warned Republicans that Trump's continued lies about widespread election fraud are "a prescription for national self-destruction."

"You know that there is no evidence of widespread election fraud sufficient to overturn the election; you know that the Dominion voting machines were not corrupted by a foreign power. You know those claims are false. Yet President Trump repeats them almost daily," she said.

"The American people must know what happened. They must know the truth. All of us who are elected officials must do our duty to prevent the dismantling of the rule of law, and to ensure nothing like that dark day in January ever happens again," Cheney said.

Several other former Trump aides and associates, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Kashyap Patel, who served as a senior Pentagon official, continue to negotiate with the committee over cooperation after receiving subpoenas.

It's not clear if Dan Scavino, one of Trump's longest-serving aides, will cooperate with the panel's investigation.

On Monday, the former president announced he was suing the committee, as well as the National Archives, to block lawmakers from receiving Trump White House records.

The Biden administration had refuted Trump's of claim executive privilege, saying that the invocation "is not in the best interests of the United States," White House counsel Dana Remus wrote in a letter to the National Archives.

As a result, the National Archives notified Trump's attorney last week that it planned to turn over dozens of records to the committee on Nov. 12, "absent any intervening court order."

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White House defends Rahm Emanuel's ambassadorial nomination against liberal backlash

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(WASHINGTON) -- Amid a fresh wave of criticism from liberal activists and lawmakers, the White House on Tuesday defended President Joe Biden's decision to nominate Rahm Emanuel for U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The former congressman and chief of staff to President Barack Obama has faced questions over how, as mayor of Chicago, he handled the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.

Emanuel faces his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, which is also the seventh anniversary of McDonald's killing -- prompting renewed outcry this week.

He's one of dozens of Biden ambassadorial nominees still stuck in the confirmation process. Biden has seen a single-digit handful of his ambassadorial nominees confirmed by the Senate, leaving key vacancies in foreign capitals and at the highest ranks of the State Department that some analysts warn pose a national security threat.

Republican senators, especially Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have put holds on dozens of nominees over Biden's refusal to sanction the German company behind Russia's pipeline, Nord Stream 2. But the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., secured confirmation for 33 nominees on Tuesday, sending them to the Senate floor for a final vote.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back against new calls for Biden to withdraw Emanuel's nomination on Tuesday.

"The president nominated Rahm Emanuel to serve as ambassador to Japan because he's somebody who has a record of public service, both in Congress, serving as a public official in the White House, and certainly also as the mayor of Chicago, and he felt he was somebody who could best represent the United States in Japan," she told reporters.

No Democratic senators have spoken out against Emanuel's nomination. Instead, powerful Democratic senators like Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip and a fellow Illinois Democrat, have backed him. Durbin tweeted back in August that Emanuel "has a lifetime of public service preparing him to speak for America. ... I will do all I can to help Rahm become America's voice in Japan."

Some House Democrats, however, have urged the White House to reverse course, although they do not vote to confirm nominees.

"This nomination is deeply shameful. ... That the Biden administration seeks to reward Emanuel with an ambassadorship is an embarrassment and betrayal of the values we seek to uphold both within our nation and around the world. I urge the Senate to vote NO on his confirmation," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a statement last month.

This week, Kina Collins, a Democrat running for Congress in Emanuel's home state of Illinois, has been leading advocacy against him.

"We can't say Black Lives Matter and plan to build back better by appointing the man who covered up a police murder to a cushy job as an ambassador -- a job the man is completely unqualified to hold," tweeted the community organizer and activist, running again against Democratic lawmaker Danny Davis, who has held the Chicago district's seat for over two decades.

At issue is the accusation that Emanuel, a longtime Democratic power player, helped cover up the 2014 killing of McDonald, a black teenager shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke, a white policer officer.

Chicago police had said McDonald ignored warnings and approached the officers, but video, released 13 months later by a judge's order, showed McDonald veering away from Van Dyke before the officer shot him.

The city reached a settlement with McDonald's family, and in October 2018, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.

Emanuel had said the city could not release the video because of a Justice Department investigation, said he did not see the video until shortly before its release, and has denied any wrongdoing. The video was released in Nov. 2015, seven months after Emanuel won reelection as mayor.

Asked whether Biden and Emanuel have spoken, including about the McDonald case, Psaki told reporters, "I don't have any record of him speaking with him necessarily through the process. ... Obviously, he's somebody who he was familiar with. He knew his record of long standing prior to the nomination. And the president has made his own comments about that case, which I would point everyone to."

Emanuel, a former ABC News contributor, was reportedly under consideration for a Cabinet secretary position during the transition last winter, but ultimately, he was not nominated for a role. The White House announced his nomination for ambassador to Japan on Aug. 20 after months of speculation.

To date, only nine Biden ambassador picks have been confirmed by the Senate, with dozens of others held up by Cruz, Hawley, and others over foreign policy disagreements with the White House, especially on Nord Stream 2.

"There have been unprecedented delays, obstruction, holds on qualified individuals from Republicans in the Senate," Psaki said Monday. "The blame is clear. It is frustrating. It is something that we wish would move forward more quickly."

After months of battle, however, there was a breakthrough Tuesday, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voting to send 33 nominations to the Senate floor for a vote.

"As the United States faces an unprecedented confluence of challenges on the world stage, our security, interests, and ability to advance our values and assert global leadership should not be imperiled by the obstructionism of those infatuated with playing politics with our entire national security infrastructure," Menendez said Tuesday.

Among those approved by the committee are Cindy McCain, John McCain's widow, for U.S. envoy to the United Nations agencies in Rome; former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken Trump critic, as ambassador to Turkey; famed pilot Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger as U.S. envoy to the International Civil Aviation Organization; and former Delaware Democratic Gov. Jack Markell as U.S. envoy to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

ABC News's Sarah Donaldson contributed to this report from the White House.

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Biden admin backs down on tracking bank accounts with over $600 annual transactions


(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration on Tuesday backed down on a controversial proposal to direct the IRS to collect additional data on every bank account that sees more than $600 in annual transactions, after widespread criticism from Republican lawmakers and banking industry representatives, who said the tax enforcement strategy represented a breach of privacy by the federal government.

Instead, the administration and Senate Democrats are proposing to raise the threshold to accounts with more than $10,000 in annual transactions, and any income received through a paycheck from which federal taxes are automatically deducted will not be subject to the reporting. Recipients of federal benefits like unemployment and Social Security would also be exempt.

The IRS would collect the total sum of deposits and withdrawals from bank accounts with more than $10,000 in non-payroll income. Information on individual transactions would not be collected.

The changes were announced Tuesday by the Treasury Department.

"In response to considerations about scope, it [Congress] has crafted a new approach to include an exemption for wage and salary earners and federal program beneficiaries. Under this revised approach, such earners can be completely carved out of the reporting structure. This is a well-reasoned modification: for American workers and retirees, the IRS already has information on wage and salary income and the federal benefits they receive," a Treasury Department fact sheet on the changes said.

The changes would exempt millions of Americans from the reporting requirement, and help the IRS target wealthier Americans, especially those who earn money from investments, real estate, and other transactions that are more difficult for the IRS to track.

"Under the current system, American workers pay virtually all their tax bills while many top earners avoid paying billions in the taxes they owe by exploiting the system. At the core of the problem is a discrepancy in the ways types of income are reported to the IRS: opaque income sources frequently avoid scrutiny while wages and federal benefits are typically subject to nearly full compliance. This two-tiered tax system is unfair and deprives the country of resources to fund core priorities," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

"Today’s new proposal reflects the Administration’s strong belief that we should zero in on those at the top of the income scale who don’t pay the taxes they owe, while protecting American workers by setting the bank account threshold at $10,000 and providing an exemption for wage earners like teachers and firefighters," Yellen said.

The fact sheet says, "Imagine a taxpayer who reports $10,000 of income; but has $10 million of flows in and out of their bank account. Having this summary information will help flag for the IRS when high-income people under-report their income (and under-pay their tax obligations). This will help the IRS target its enforcement activities on those who are actually evading their tax obligations—decreasing costly and burdensome audits for the vast majority of taxpayers who pay what they owe."

The proposal is a long way from being enacted. It's currently included in a multi-trillion dollar social spending package lawmakers and the White House have been negotiating for months. If that package is passed into law, this requirement wouldn't begin until December 2022.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden D-Ore., who spearheaded the effort to revise the proposal, dispute Republican claims that the goal is to snoop on Americans' financial transactions.

"The bottom line is, wealthy tax cheats are ripping off the American people to the tune of billions and billions of dollars per year. Tax cheats thrive when the reporting rules that apply to them are loose and murky. Democrats want to fix this broken approach and crack down on the cheating at the top," Wyden said in a press conference on the announcement Tuesday.

Wyden made clear that even Americans who might make a large purchase over $10,000 wouldn't be subject to the additional reporting.

"If you don’t have $10,000 above your paycheck, Social Security income, or the like coming in or going out, there’s no additional reporting. We’ve also addressed the scenario where an individual spends a significant amount of savings for a major purchase. There will be no additional reporting in this scenario, as long as the amount of money coming into the account does not exceed wages +$10,000," Wyden said.

The administration did not specify if the changes will impact the additional tax revenue they might be able to collect through enforcement. The administration has estimated improved tax enforcement could net up to $600 billion in additional tax revenue over the next decade.

The initial proposal, which would have affected nearly every non-dormant bank account in the U.S., raised the ire of Republican lawmakers, who called it a breach of privacy and an example of government overreach. Even with the revisions to the proposal, Republicans in the Senate remained critical.

"So how long is it gonna take for them to say, 'Well you know we need a little bit more information because we really can't make much of this.' Then they're going to want individual transactions and who knows what," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, cited President Biden's commitment not to raise taxes on any American making less than $400,000, suggesting that threshold ought to be applied to IRS reporting.

“Why don't they just put a ban in there that bans the IRS from snooping in the accounts of people who make less than $400,000? That's the question I think that should be asked with the sponsors of this approach," Crapo said.

Crapo was hard-pressed to give an example of an alternative way to close the tax gap other than to say mention “closing loopholes.”

Banking industry representatives remain skeptical of any additional reporting requirement, saying it will create a burden, especially for smaller community banks.

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Trump sues to block release of Jan. 6 records to Congress

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(WASHINGTON) -- Former President Donald Trump filed a lawsuit Monday against the Jan. 6 select committee and the National Archives as he seeks to block the release of presidential records related to his communications around the insurrection.

In the lawsuit, Trump's attorney Jesse Binnall argues the committee "has decided to harass President Trump ... by sending an illegal, unfounded, and overbroad records request to the Archivist of the United States."

Binnall also accuses President Joe Biden of engaging in "a political ploy to accommodate his partisan allies" by refusing to block the release of Trump's records to the Jan. 6 committee.

"The Committee's request amounts to nothing less than a vexatious, illegal fishing expedition openly endorsed by Biden and designed to unconstitutionally investigate President Trump and his administration. Our laws do not permit such an impulsive, egregious action against a former President and his close advisors," Binnall writes.

The lawsuit asks that the district court "invalidate the Committee's requests" and enjoin the National Archives from turning over the records.

"At a bare minimum, the Court should enjoin the Archivist from producing any potentially privileged records until President Trump is able to conduct a full privilege review of all of the requested materials."

The lawsuit could set up a contentious fight with potentially significant ramifications for both the work of the Jan. 6 committee investigating the Capitol assault and the ability for other former presidents to assert executive privilege over records from their administrations.

Earlier this month, Biden ordered the National Archives to release records identified by the select committee that Trump had sought to classify as privileged communications. In a letter to Archivist David Ferriero, White House counsel Dana Remus said the materials should be handed over within 30 days of notification to Trump, "absent any intervening court order."

"President Biden has determined that an assertion of executive privilege is not in the best interests of the United States, and therefore is not justified as to any of the documents," Remus wrote. "These are unique and extraordinary circumstances. Congress is examining an assault on our Constitution and democratic institutions provoked and fanned by those sworn to protect them, and the conduct under investigation extends far beyond typical deliberations concerning the proper discharge of the President's constitutional responsibilities."

While the Supreme Court following the Nixon administration previously ruled that former presidents should have some role in deciding whether their presidential records should be released, that precedent has so far not been tested when a current administration opts to deny the former president's privilege assertions.

"The former President's clear objective is to stop the Select Committee from getting to the facts about January 6th and his lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to delay and obstruct our probe. Precedent and law are on our side. Executive privilege is not absolute and President Biden has so far declined to invoke that privilege," Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a statement Monday night. "Additionally, there's a long history of the White House accommodating congressional investigative requests when the public interest outweighs other concerns. It's hard to imagine a more compelling public interest than trying to get answers about an attack on our democracy and an attempt to overturn the results of an election."

"The Select Committee's authority to seek these records is clear. We'll fight the former President's attempt to obstruct our investigation while we continue to push ahead successfully with our probe on a number of other fronts," Cheney and Thompson added.

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Out of the Shadows: Christopher Steele defiant on dossier, says Trump still 'potential' threat

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Retired British spy Christopher Steele is stepping out of the shadows to discuss his so-called "Steele dossier" for the first time publicly, describing his efforts as apolitical and defending his decision to include the most explosive and criticized claims about Donald Trump contained in his controversial 2016 report.

"I stand by the work we did, the sources that we had, and the professionalism which we applied to it," Steele said in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos about how he gathered his intelligence, and the life-altering events that ensued after his work and identity were made public.

The dossier's contents, laid out in 17 memos, upended Washington and quickly ricocheted across the globe after BuzzFeed News published the bombshell reports in early 2017 -- 10 days before Donald Trump was sworn into office. The salacious mix of sex, spies, and scandal made for an irresistible political drama. But the real-world implications of its claims, even though unproven, exacerbated an already fraught moment in American history.

Trump and his allies immediately lashed out at the allegations laid out in the dossier, calling it "fake news" and "phony stuff." The president's detractors embraced it, using it to buttress growing suspicions about what they saw as Trump's odd infatuation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Over time, journalists and experts from both sides of the political aisle grew increasingly skeptical about the dossier's claims, noting that despite deep investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team and others, many of Steele's allegations have never been verified, and some have been debunked.

"Everyone with whom the dossier was shared sent reporters out, tried to confirm the basic allegations within it. And it never got any traction because no one could nail anything in it down," said Barry Meier, author of "Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies," and a vocal critic of Steele's.

"Bearing in mind, this was raw intelligence," said Chris Burrows, Steele's partner in the private investigative firm Orbis Business Intelligence. "Raw intelligence in the sense that what we sent over was the initial findings."

Yet in many ways, the dossier proved prescient. The Mueller probe found that Russia had been making efforts to meddle in the 2016 campaign, and that Trump campaign members and surrogates had promoted and retweeted Russian-produced political content alleging voter fraud and criminal activity on the part of Hillary Clinton. Investigators determined there had been "numerous links -- i.e. contacts -- between Trump campaign officials and individuals having ties to the Russian government." And, proof emerged that the Trump Organization had been discussing a real estate deal in Moscow during the campaign.

All were findings that had been signaled, at least broadly, in Steele's work.

Cloistered in his London home and his firm's office, Steele has never responded to his critics in public. Through all the cacophony of political rhetoric and cable news punditry, one notable voice has been missing: Steele's.

Now, nearly five years after his report became public, Steele has broken his silence to defend his name, his credibility, and the dossier that captured the world's attention.

"It was credible reporting," Steele told Stephanopoulos. "We knew some of it was right, and we suspected some of it may never be provable."

"Out of the Shadows: The Man Behind the Steele Dossier" is available Monday, October 18, on Hulu.

A sordid conspiracy

Christopher Steele penned his reports between June and December of 2016 for a law firm that represented Democrats and the campaign of party nominee Hillary Clinton. His reporting was initially meant to be internal work for the firm conducting opposition campaign research.

Over seven months, the memos laid out a series of damning claims alleging that the Russians were attempting to influence the campaign in Trump's favor, that members of the Trump campaign had various connections and communications with Kremlin officials, that the campaign had coordinated with Kremlin officials and accepted a flow of anti-Clinton information, and, most alarmingly, that the Kremlin perhaps had materials with which it could blackmail or exercise leverage over Trump.

Steele said that as he worked on the report, he grew increasingly alarmed by the picture it was painting.

"It meant that, for the first time, there was a potentially serious situation of 'kompromat' against a presidential candidate. And therefore, it became much more of serious issue than we had expected," Steele recalled. "I was surprised and shocked."

Even before the dossier surfaced publicly on Jan. 10, 2017, the FBI and several news outlets had already seen Steele's intelligence reports and had attempted to corroborate their contents, but could not. Within days of its publication, some allegations fell apart quickly. Reports that Trump's personal attorney and self-described fixer Michael Cohen had relatives who maintained ties to Putin were swiftly debunked.

Trump's allies mounted a full-fledged campaign to pick the dossier apart -- and malign its author. Trump himself repeatedly lashed out at Steele and the report. At one point, then-President Trump tweeted of Steele: "This man should be extradited, tried, and thrown into jail. A sick lier [sic] who was paid by Crooked Hillary & the DNC!"

Asked if he was ever worried about Trump's calls for his extradition, Steele at first laughed: "He also called me a liar, spelled L-I-E-R, George. So, you know, these things have to be taken, I think, with a pinch of salt."

But Steele said that the ensuing investigations, legal fights, and withering attacks -- including Trump's claims that his reporting was a "hoax" -- did take a toll.

"The idea that somebody with my track record -- and I've never had my integrity, professionalism, or expertise on Russia questioned at any point in my career -- would be inventing some strange, fabricated document or information, is absolute anathema, and I wouldn't be a successful businessman if that were the practice," Steele said.

The dossier did deal a series of blows to Steele's credibility in both media and government investigations, most notably a December 2019 Justice Department inspector general report that cast doubts on his sources.

The inspector general wrote that "certain allegations" in Steele's reporting "were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available."

"Do you accept that conclusion?" Stephanopoulos asked Steele.

"I think they are putting too much store, frankly, into what FBI knew about early on in the campaign," Steele said. "I think the FBI is generally an effective organization. I'm not sure the extent to which FBI has got good coverage of Moscow and Moscow politics and Moscow operations."

Through it all, Steele said, he has remained confident in the broad strokes of his dossier, which he insists remain "still very credible."

"I think there are parts of the dossier which have been stood up, there are parts of the dossier that haven't been stood up," Steele said. "And there are one or two things in it which have been proven wrong."

Drafting the dossier

Steele's firm agreed to take on the project at the behest of Fusion GPS, a Washington-based corporate research firm, in the spring of 2016. Fusion GPS's initial client had been a Republican financier, but when Trump emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, a law firm representing the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign agreed to inherit Fusion GPS's research.

Steele said he knew within the first month of his reporting that "supporters of Hillary Clinton" were funding Fusion GPS's work, and by extension his own.

"I didn't know what opposition research was," Steele said. "But from our perspective, what we were doing was very similar to other project work we'd done, which is getting human intelligence out of Russia on an issue of interest to a client."

Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee the assignment for Steele was relatively simple -- Donald Trump had made repeated trips to Russia during his career as a real estate mogul, but not sealed any deals.

"He was the lead Russianist at MI6 prior to leaving the government and an extremely well-regarded investigator, researcher, and, as I say, we're friends and share interest in Russian kleptocracy and organized crime issues," Simpson testified regarding Steele. "I would say that's broadly why I asked him to see what he could find out about Donald Trump's business activities in Russia."

Steele told ABC News that the mission expanded almost immediately into two main threads: "One was what the Russians were doing in terms of potential interference in the campaign; and two, what the links were between Trump and the Trump campaign and Russia," Steele said.

"We realized it was potentially quite a big project and potentially quite a controversial project," he added. "But frankly, George, when we went into it, we weren't expecting to find a great deal."

Steele soon became convinced he had wandered into something more involved, and more concerning.

The four pillars

In defending his work, Steele describes his intelligence reports as resting on "four pillars" of information that he believes have held up over time as accurate.

"One was, there was a large-scale Russian interference campaign in the American election in 2016," he said.

"The second was that this had been authorized and ordered at the highest levels, including Putin," he said.

"The third had been that the objective of this was to damage Hillary Clinton and to try and get this rather unorthodox candidate, Donald Trump, elected," Steele said. "And the fourth was, there was evidence of collusion between Trump and people around Trump and the Russians."

Part of the challenge -- and the intrigue -- of Steele's reporting is that much of it is virtually impossible for lay people to verify. When the Department of Justice's inspector general examined the dossier's claims, he concluded that what Steele described as "raw intelligence" amounted to little more than rumor and bar talk.

Very little corroborating evidence has emerged to support the dossier. But neither, Steele points out, has there been much concrete contradictory evidence either.

His critics have taken issue with that particular line of defense.

"The common refrain when people were speaking about the dossier is, 'Well, we don't know if that's not true,'" Meier said. "People who are intelligence operatives anchor their reports to rumors, to hearsay, to bar talk, to smoke. That's the world that Christopher Steele operated in. And I guess that's the world he continues to operate in. I prefer the world of facts. That's the world I'm comfortable in."

It isn't just Steele's critics who have accused him of trafficking in rumors. His own collector -- the person who actually traveled to Russia on his behalf to gather information, including the "pee tape" allegation -- later told the FBI that he "felt that the tenor of Steele's reports was far more 'conclusive' than was justified," and that "information came from 'word of mouth and hearsay' ... 'conversation that [he/she] had with friends over beers,'" according to a Justice Department inspector general report.

Steele suggested his collector may have "taken fright" at having his cover blown and "[tried] to downplay and underestimate" his own reporting when he spoke to the FBI. Steele added that the information he gathered passed through an important filter: his experience as an expert on Russian intelligence activities going back decades. He said his confidence in the dossier's claims about Russia's interest in Trump is based on his knowledge of Putin -- a figure whom he has studied for decades.

"This is the M.O. of the KGB and its successor organizations," Steele said, referring to Russia's intelligence services.

Skeptics of Steele's reporting, however, suggest he may have fallen victim to another trademark of Russian spy craft: disinformation. Speaking to congressional investigators in October 2019, Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official in the Trump administration and a longtime friend of Steele's, called Steele's dossier a "rabbit hole."

"It's very likely that the Russians planted disinformation in and among other information that may have been truthful, because that's exactly, again, the way that they operate," Hill said.

Steele acknowledged that "there is a chance" the Russians intentionally tainted his reporting, but said he felt it was "very unlikely."

"Ultimately, any disinformation operation has an objective," Steele said. "Seems to me pretty far-fetched that the Russians' objective during the campaign of 2016 was to aide Hillary Clinton and to damage Donald Trump. And I just don't think you can get past that."

The 'pee tape'

One allegation from Steele's dossier stood out immediately: a claim that the Russians had obtained a compromising video of Trump at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow in 2013. According to the dossier, the tape purportedly showed Trump "employing a number of prostitutes to perform a 'golden showers' (urination) show in front of him" on a bed where the Obamas supposedly once stayed.

The supposed "pee tape" never emerged. But the claim may be the public's most enduring symbol of Steele's work -- particularly after it became a favorite of late-night comics.

Steele told ABC News he believes the alleged tape "probably does" exist -- but that he "wouldn't put 100% certainty on it."

When Stephanopoulos asked him to explain why the tape, if it does exist, has not been made public, Steele replied that "it hasn't needed to be released."

"Because I think the Russians felt they'd got pretty good value out of Donald Trump when he was president of the U.S.," Steele said.

"[Putin] wouldn't be releasing it in a hurry for all sorts of reasons," he continued. "He would put it under very strict lock and key and make sure it never got out, unless he chose for it to get out."

For his part, Trump has repeatedly and firmly denied this specific allegation. At a press conference the day after BuzzFeed published Steele's dossier, Trump told reporters that he was "a germaphobe." As recently as last week, Trump reportedly told donors at a private speech that he is "not into golden showers."

Pressed by Stephanopoulos on how he can assess the likelihood of a seemingly outlandish allegation without concrete evidence, Steele cited his lengthy career as a British intelligence officer focused on Russia.

"When you've worked on Russia for 30 years like I have and you've spent as much time, sadly, in the brains of the Russian leadership as I have, you begin to understand these things," Steele said. "And you actually sense whether something's credible or not."

Still defiant

Steele's dossier took its first major hit with the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's highly anticipated report, which largely omitted mention of Steele's name or his claims. The most significant mention of Steele was not positive.

The report cast doubt on one of the dossier's most striking claims: that Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, had traveled to Prague in the summer of 2016 for "secret meeting/s with Kremlin officials."

Cohen has vehemently denied ever traveling to Prague or meeting with Russian interlocutors. The Justice Department inspector general reinforced Mueller's findings, saying the FBI had determined that this specific allegation was untrue.

To this day, Steele says he remains unmoved.

"Do you accept that finding, that it didn't happen?" asked Stephanopoulos.

"No," Steele replied. "I don't."

"But the FBI looked into this and said it wasn't true," Stephanopoulos said.

"I don't know to what extent they were able to look into it. I don't know what evidence they gathered," Steele said. "I haven't seen any, if you like, report on that aspect. So, from my point of view, I think it's still an open question."

Reached for comment, Cohen sarcastically told ABC News, "I’m pleased to see that my old friend Christopher Steele, a/k/a Austin Powers, has crawled out of the pub long enough to make up a few more stories."

"I eagerly await his next secret dossier which proves the existence of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and that Elvis is still alive," Cohen said.

Stephanopoulos pressed Steele: "Do you think it hurts your credibility at all that you won't accept the findings of the FBI in this particular case?"

"I'm prepared to accept that not everything in the dossier is 100% accurate," Steele replied. "I have yet to be convinced that that is one of them."

Dismissing claims that subsequent government reports undermined his findings, Steele argued that, in his view, Mueller's team actually served to reinforce the broad strokes of his dossier -- those "four pillars" he described.

"Those four pillars that we mentioned ... when you actually look at the detail, if you're forensic about looking at the detail of the report, then it paints a totally different picture, in my view," Steele said. "And I think there's a lot of supportive commentary and evidence and so on, there, for the work we had done."

But further investigative efforts undertaken at various levels of government have appeared to confirm the notion that Steele's reporting was at best flawed and at worst incorrect.

A bipartisan report published by the Senate Intelligence Committee in April 2020 found that Steele's assertions about Trump campaign aide Carter Page -- which accused him of conducting "secret meetings in Moscow" with Kremlin leaders -- were incorrect. Page himself would later testify before Congress that he spoke briefly with a mid-level Russian official during a visit for a Moscow speech, but that the conversation was short and inconsequential.

"Other than ... facts which were readily available in news reports at the time of their inclusion in the dossier -- the Committee did not find any information that corroborates the allegations related to Page in the dossier," the report concluded.

Stephanopoulos asked Steele about the FBI decision to rely in part on his work in seeking and obtaining court approval to eavesdrop on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

"Any regrets about that?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"It had nothing to do with us," Steele replied. "I didn't even know what FISA was, frankly, in 2016. We were not told of any use of our material in such a process. And therefore, if there were problems with that process, they weren't our problems, they were the problems of the people conducting it."

A potential threat

Steele conceded in the ABC News interview that he could not provide evidence for many of his claims, including those about Page. But pressed by Stephanopoulos on some of the findings that have come up against the harshest criticism, Steele remained defiant.

"Not the 'pee tape,' not Michael Cohen in Prague, not Carter Page?" asked Stephanopoulos.

"None of those things, to my mind, have been disproven," Steele replied. "They may not have been proven. And we maybe will hear more about those things as we go forward."

Steele said he is watching American politics from a distance these days. He said he has concerns about a potential Trump return to the presidency in 2024.

"So, Donald Trump, in your view, is a continuing threat, as long as he's an active political player, to the national security?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"A potential one," Steele replied. "Yes."

And as long as Trump remains active in politics, Steele contends that more evidence to support the dossier's claims may still surface.

"I don't think this book is finished," Steele said. "By a long shot."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Policies at southern border pushing migrants to take greater risks, advocates say


(PIMA COUNTY, Ariz.) -- Ely Ortiz is used to receiving heartbreaking phone calls.

But Ortiz, the president of Aguilas del Desierto, or Desert Eagles, a volunteer-run organization that conducts search and rescue missions for migrants who are believed to be missing or dead, still remembers a call one night in 2019 from a pregnant woman who said her husband was lost somewhere near the Arizona border.

The woman said her husband called to tell her he crossed into the United States, but became disoriented when he tried to reunite with the smugglers who had advised him to go around a port of entry and cross the border in a remote region where there was no wall. Ortiz dispatched a team of rescuers and says 14 relatives of the missing man joined his team, including his father and brother.

After a few hours of searching, Ortiz said they found his body already rapidly decaying under the desert sun. His brother identified the remains.

"That was one of the saddest things I've ever witnessed in my life," Ortiz said.

This year alone, official numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show the agency rescued over 11,800 migrants and reported over 470 deaths near the border. The number of rescues has more than doubled since last year and the number of deaths is the highest since 2005.

CBP only counts rescues and deaths when the agency is involved in the response, so a more accurate picture of how many are missing and perished can be pieced together by analyzing data from medical examiner's offices and the few organizations helping to identify remains of suspected migrants.

Humane Borders and the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office created a Migrant Mortality Map tracking migrant deaths in Arizona. So far this year, 189 remains have been recovered and experts expect the number to grow as winter approaches and desert temperatures plummet. The death rate could potentially surpass the 223 cases reported in 2020.

While there are many factors that drive people to attempt border crossings, immigrant advocates say policies held over from the Trump administration are a central cause. They argue Title 42 and "Remain in Mexico" make seeking asylum more difficult and the protocols are pushing migrants to take greater and more frequent risks to get into the country.

Title 42, a clause of the 1944 Public Health Services Law, allows the government to prevent the entry of migrants during a public health emergency without giving them an opportunity to claim asylum, a right afforded by U.S. law. Former President Donald Trump enacted the policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as "Remain in Mexico," is a controversial policy enacted by Trump in late 2018 that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed.

Bradford Jones, a spokesperson for Humane Borders and a political science professor at University of California, Davis, said human remains are increasingly found in the western desert away from cities and potable water. He credited the westerly trend in part to Title 42.

"My strong sense is that Title 42 expulsions are also contributing to either migrant deaths, or certainly migrants getting into distress; that's not just in Arizona, but also in Texas," Jones said.

The Biden administration defended its use of the policy in response to an ongoing lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to stop the administration from using it to expel families. More than 1.1 million migrants have been expelled under Title 42 since the policy went into effect in March 2020, according to data released by CBP.

"This has been the worst policy that was implemented by Trump that -- much to our surprise and disappointment -- has been continually used by the Biden administration," said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

Gaubeca said migrants with legitimate claims of asylum are bypassing ports of entries out of fear they'll be expelled under Title 42. As they move away from the heavily surveilled areas of the border and into more remote terrain, the chances of reaching civilization and getting help if they are injured or lost diminish.

Dulce García, executive director of Border Angels, draws a strong correlation between the implementation of Title 42 and the places in the desert where her organization renders aid. They place thousands of gallons of water along paths heavily traveled by migrants and since Title 42 went into effect, they've placed the containers in more remote areas.

"We drop the water and we see that in some routes there's 100% consumption and that's an indicator that people are still crossing. We see kids' backpacks, kids' shoes, women's underwear. ... It's family units that are going through there," said García.

During a discussion as part of the Sougan Center's 2021 Global Security Forum on Tuesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas stressed that Title 42 is a public health authority not an immigration policy.

"It is not an immigration policy that we in this administration would embrace. But we view it as a public health imperative as the Centers for Disease Control has so ordered," said Mayorkas.

Border Angels runs 17 temporary migrant shelters in Mexico along the border that are filled with thousands of people who have attempted to cross the border several times and are waiting to see if Title 42 and the MPP are terminated.

The Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden's effort to end MPP in August, but the administration recently announced it would attempt to terminate the policy again.

In a late-night filing Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security filed two documents – one which objected to the court’s decision to reinstate MPP, which the Biden administration had ended, and the other that said it was complying with the order and was engaged in high-level talks with the Mexican government to restart the protocols in mid-November.

People expelled under Title 42 are either repatriated to their home countries or moved back across the border often before they can fully prepare an asylum claim. The percentage of individuals apprehended more than once by Border Patrol agents grew from 7% in 2019 to 26% in 2020, according to CBP data.

"It certainly creates the incentive to cross multiple times and not immediately seek out Border Patrol because you may be expelled," said Shaw Drake, an attorney for ACLU Texas.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

DOJ pledges independence after Biden calls for prosecutions of those who defy Jan. 6 committee subpoenas

Robert Cicchetti/iStock

(WASHINGTON) -- The Justice Department on Friday evening issued a statement reiterating its commitment to remain independent soon after President Joe Biden told reporters he hoped that witnesses who defy subpoenas from Congress' select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot would face federal prosecution.

"The Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop," DOJ spokesperson Anthony Coley said.

The statement came after comments from Biden following his arrival back at the White House Friday when he was asked what his message is for those who defy subpoenas from the Jan. 6 select committee.

"I hope that the committee goes after them and holds them accountable," Biden said after returning from a trip to Connecticut.

When asked whether he thinks those individuals should be prosecuted by the Justice Department, Biden answered, "I do, yes."

Biden's comments came just a day after the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection announced it would meet next Tuesday to consider criminal contempt proceedings against Steve Bannon, a former Trump aide who has refused to comply with a subpoena seeking testimony and any communications he may have had with with the former president in the days around the storming of the Capitol.

As both a candidate and while in office, Biden has repeatedly pledged to put up a wall between the White House and the Justice Department on criminal matters that critics had argued had completely deteriorated during his predecessor's years - where Trump repeatedly called for the prosecutions of his political enemies and pressured officials to take actions they later said they resisted.

"Though the Select Committee welcomes good-faith engagement with witnesses seeking to cooperate with our investigation, we will not allow any witness to defy a lawful subpoena or attempt to run out the clock, and we will swiftly consider advancing a criminal contempt of Congress referral," the committee said in a statement.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has similarly stated his desire to reinstate the department's independence from political matters.

Prior to their statement Friday seemingly pushing back against Biden's comments, the Justice Department has repeatedly declined to comment to ABC News on how it might act if and when the U.S. House votes for a criminal contempt referral stemming from a Jan. 6 committee witness declining to cooperate.

ABC News' Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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