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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Friday that would allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages, despite the White House’s threat to veto the measure.

The U.S. Senate in May unanimously passed the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” known as JASTA. The bill’s passage in the House by voice vote, two days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks that killed about 3,000 people, was greeted with cheers and applause in the chamber.

“We can no longer allow those who injure and kill Americans to hide behind legal loopholes, denying justice to the victims of terrorism,” said Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers who crashed airliners in New York, outside Washington and in Pennsylvania were Saudi nationals. The Saudi government, which strongly denies responsibility, has lobbied against the bill.

Opponents of the measure said it could strain relations with Saudi Arabia and lead to retaliatory laws that would allow foreign nationals to sue Americans for alleged involvement in terrorist attacks.

The White House on Friday reiterated that President Barack Obama would veto the bill.

But some members of Congress have become increasingly restive about relations with Saudi Arabia, long an important player in U.S. Middle East policy. On Thursday, four senators introduced a resolution seeking to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to the kingdom, after 64 House members signed a letter in August asking Obama to delay the sale.

If Obama carries out the veto threat and the required two-thirds of both the Republican-majority House and Senate still support the bill, it would be the first time since Obama’s presidency began in 2009 that Congress had overridden a veto.

The House passed the measure by voice vote, without objections or recorded individual votes. That could make it easier for Obama’s fellow Democrats to uphold his veto later without officially changing their positions.

SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

JASTA would remove sovereign immunity, preventing lawsuits against governments, for countries found to be involved in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. It also would allow survivors, and relatives of those killed in them to seek damages from other countries.

In this case, it would allow suits to proceed in federal court in New York as lawyers try to prove that the Saudis were involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Backers say passage is long overdue. They argue that if Saudi Arabia, or any other government, is innocent of involvement in attacks, they have nothing to fear from the legislation.

“If they’ve done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a vocal advocate for the measure.

Previous versions of the bill had stalled in Congress because they provided fewer protections for countries against lawsuits.

Lawmakers had been under intense pressure from the Sept. 11 families to pass JASTA before the 15th anniversary of the attacks on Sunday.

A member of the French parliament, Pierre Lellouche, said he would consider retaliatory legislation in France, and would anticipate it elsewhere, if the final version of JASTA does not include waivers for countries that are U.S. allies and actively involved in fighting terrorism.

“It may trigger similar acts all over the place, and then you enter into a ‘state of jungle’ where everybody sues everybody,” Lellouche, who runs a parliamentary committee on international law, told reporters on a conference call on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Will Dunham and Tom Brown)

Photo: REUTERS/Peter Morgan

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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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