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By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — An ambitious bill seeking to stem the rise of sexual assaults in the military died Thursday after senators from both parties refused to limit the role of commanding officers in deciding whether to prosecute such cases.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) pushed the issue to prominence during this congressional session, arguing on behalf of victims who testified that they feared retaliation for pressing assault allegations up the military chain of command. Her bill — which won support from 17 of the 20 women in the Senate — would have shifted sexual assault investigations to military prosecutors.

Instead senators advanced a competing bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) who agreed with military brass that removing commanders from investigations would undermine their authority with troops. Rather than strip commanders of the power to press cases, her measure would allow alleged victims to choose whether their cases would be handled by commanders or military prosecutors.

The debate produced an emotional — and rare — scene Thursday in the Senate, as two of the chamber’s notable women — who had once worked together on the issue but quickly parted ways — bitterly argued over the best way to curb the rise in reports of military sexual assaults.

“Listen to the victims,” said Gillibrand, reading from often wrenching testimonies about fear and retaliation. “The people who do not trust the chain of command are the victims.”

But McCaskill, a former prosecutor, appealed to defense hawks in the Senate, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in making her case.

She noted that Congress late last year instituted changes to the military’s system for reporting and investigating sexual assaults, which the Pentagon estimates have risen 35 percent in recent years.

“When the sun sets today, this body will have passed 35 major reforms in just a year, making the military the most victim-friendly organization in the world,” McCaskill said.

Gillibrand, her voice rising, shot back that the changes were “not even close” to resolving the problem. An estimated 26,000 members of the military — men and women — are believed to have been sexually assaulted in 2012, according to the Pentagon. Only a fraction of those cases are prosecuted, reports show.

“This is not an opportunity to congratulate ourselves,” Gillibrand said.

The scope of the problem was underscored late Thursday when the Army confirmed it was investigating its top sexual assault prosecutor, Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, on allegations of making unwanted sexual advances two years ago to a lawyer who worked for him.

“We can confirm that this matter is currently under investigation and that the individual in question has been suspended from duties, pending the outcome of the investigation,” an Army spokesperson said.

Also Thursday, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, one of the highest-ranking officers ever to face a court-martial, pleaded guilty at the start of his trial to several charges, including having an illicit affair with a female captain, impeding an investigation and pressuring other female officers to send him nude photos.

The general pleaded not guilty to the most serious charges against him. They include twice forcing the captain to perform oral sex, groping her, committing sodomy, engaging in public sex and threatening to kill the captain and her family if she revealed their three-year affair.

Gillibrand’s bill had the support of various armed service organizations. The Service Women’s Action Network said “today’s disappointment is merely a detour in our march to justice.”

Both of the senators’ proposals needed at least 60 votes to overcome a filibuster threat.

Gillibrand’s measure was defeated, 55 to 45, with support from 43 Democrats, one independent and 11 Republicans.

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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