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Rape allegation creates new crisis in New Jersey

New Jersey is transfixed on the future of its state government after testimony this week from an official in Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) administration who alleges a senior staffer on the governor’s campaign raped her.

The official, Katie Brennan, is now chief of staff of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. She says Albert J. Alvarez, the former chief of staff of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, raped her while both were working on Murphy’s campaign.

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Alvarez has denied the charges and the Hudson County prosecutor’s office declined to bring charges against him. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in a letter to lawmakers said there was no evidence that the prosecutor, Esther Suarez, had acted improperly in deciding against bringing charges.

But the controversy surrounding how the state and Murphy’s campaign handled the allegations appears set to grow.

Brennan in a hearing in Trenton last week said Murphy’s campaign and administration officials ignored her claims, and her lawyer has warned Grewal that his client may sue the state for discrimination.

“We believe Ms. Brennan has claims that arise, at a minimum, under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination,” Kathryn McClure, Brennan’s attorney, wrote in her letter to Grewal.

In her testimony last week, Brennan said she informed Murphy’s team several times of the allegations, but that her entreaties went unanswered.

“I had access to people in the highest positions of power in the state of New Jersey,” Brennan said. “At each turn, my pleas for help went unanswered. Somehow, it wasn’t a priority to address my sexual assault … until it impacted them.”

The Democratic majority leader of the state Senate, who is the co-chair of the committee investigating the incident, said Murphy’s office did not appropriately handle Brennan’s case.

“From what I know thus far I would characterize it as people in the administration failed her along the way,” state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D) told The Hill.

“This is not a woman who didn’t follow the appropriate procedures for somebody who is a victim,” she said of Brennan.

“She called friends that night, she went to the local police department and filed a report. She went to the hospital and had a rape kit, which triggered the country prosecutor getting involved. She did everything that any victim of rape should have done,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg said the state government needs to do more work, and hear from more people, to get to the bottom of the story. Noting that Murphy has agreed to cooperate with the investigative work 100 percent, she said there are not plans at this time to compel Murphy to testify.

Murphy has said he was unaware of the allegations until Alvarez resigned. He has also said it was wrong for Alvarez to have been hired for a position in state government.

“I wish we hadn’t made the hire in transition, period,” Murphy said in an October press conference. “I’m sick to my stomach once I heard what happened.”

Murphy has ordered an investigation into how his team responded to Brennan’s claims and why Alvarez was hired after the election. He also tasked state Grewal with transforming New Jersey’s criminal justice system into one that is more “victim-centric.”

“I watched Ms. Brennan’s opening statement today, and I commend the courage, bravery, and leadership she showed in telling her story. She is right: no one should have to go through an ordeal to have their voices heard. We must stand with survivors of sexual assault, and we must start from a place of believing the accuser,” he added in a statement after Brennan’s testimony.

“Specifically, these policies will expand the role of confidential sexual assault advocates for victims, require data reporting and evaluation on sexual assault prosecutions, mandate that law enforcement report sexual assault incidents to county prosecutors within 24 hours, and, if charges are not pursued, require a supervisor’s signoff and provide victims with an opportunity to meet with prosecutors to discuss the decision,” Murphy said.

While the governor has only been in office less than a year, he has already made a national name for himself. He was named vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association last Saturday and will become chairman in 2020, putting him in a prominent role during a high-profile presidential election cycle.

How he handled the unfolding controversy will be a test.

“We’re learning a lot right now and there are a lot of questions and every administration gets into some sort of trouble with something that happens down the chain of command, and the test is will be how Murphy handles that, which remains to be seen,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told The Hill.

Dems have new moniker for Trump: ‘Unindicted co-conspirator'

Democrats have ramped up their rhetoric toward President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be ‘in court right now’ if he weren’t the president or ‘privileged’ Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE in response to court filings in which prosecutors said Michael Cohen violated campaign finance laws at then-candidate Trump’s direction. 

A trio of Democratic lawmakers on Sunday raised the possibility that the president could face an indictment upon his departure from office, while Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Overnight Defense: Nauert tapped for UN envoy | Trump teases changes to Joint Chiefs of Staff | Trump knocks Tillerson as ‘dumb as a rock’ | Scathing report details Air Force failures before Texas shooting Senate edges closer to rebuking Trump on Saudi Arabia MORE (D-Conn.) argued that Trump is an “unindicted co-conspirator,” a term previously applied to former President Nixon.

“The president has now stepped into the same territory that ultimately led to President Nixon resigning the office. President Nixon was an unindicted co-conspirator, a — certainly a different set of facts,” Murphy said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“But this investigation is now starting to put the president in serious legal crosshairs, and he should be worried and the whole country should be worried,” he continued. 

The term, which became high-profile in reference to Nixon in 1974, applies when an individual is named in reference to another crime without being indicted for that crime. Nixon, who resigned before he could be impeached, was never indicted. A number of legal experts have said the term applies to Trump, who is referenced without being named in Cohen’s confession and sentencing recommendation.

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A pair of high-ranking House Democrats did not utter the phrase “unindicted co-conspirator” on Sunday, but argued the president’s legal troubles could soon intensify.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Hillicon Valley: Huawei executive facing possible US fraud charges | Dem blames White House for failure of election security bill | FCC investigating wireless carriers over coverage data | Assange rejects deal to leave embassy Dem lawmaker: Trump Jr. lied to Congress on two occasions MORE (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a prominent foil of the president’s, asserted on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the same case for putting Cohen — the president’s former attorney — in jail for his campaign finance law violations could be applied to Trump.

“My takeaway is there’s a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him. That he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time,” Schiff said.

The president’s defenders and attorneys have repeatedly argued that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the soon-to-be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that he disagrees with that suggestion.

“Nobody, not the president, not anybody else, can be above the law,” Nadler said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” claiming that Trump was at the center of a “massive fraud.”

If the Justice Department refuses to indict a sitting president, then the statute of limitations should be held so that charges can be filed after the individual leaves office, Nadler argued, speaking generally and not specifically about Trump.

The term “unindicted co-conspirator” began to resurface in August in reference to Trump after Cohen, a longtime Trump Organization employee, pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to bank fraud, tax fraud and two counts of making or aiding campaign finance law violations. In Cohen’s plea, he indicated he broke campaign finance law at Trump’s direction when he paid two women who alleged they had affairs with the president.

Former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman told WBUR in Boston at the time that “there can be little doubt that Donald Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator in those two crimes.”

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersChildren’s singer Raffi on criticizing Trump: ‘You have to fight fascism with everything you’ve got’ Sanders to Colbert: ‘You will be my vice presidential candidate!’ Sanders: Trump said midterms were about him, and he lost MORE (I-Vt.), some Democrats and critics of the president floated the term in the weeks that followed.

It resurfaced this week after federal prosecutors filed a series of documents related to investigations into former Trump associates.

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE detailed the extent of cooperation between his team and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn in a filing last Wednesday, and on Friday filed paperwork detailing allegations that former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFive takeaways from the bombshell Cohen, Manafort filings Cohen and Manafort pose new problems for President Trump Hannity downplays Cohen, Manafort filings: ‘How will America ever recover?’ MORE lied to prosecutors repeatedly after reaching a plea agreement.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan on Friday also filed documents that laid out allegations against Cohen, and stated that he violated campaign finance laws at the direction of “Individual 1,” whose description matches Trump.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) argued the court filings showed that prosecutors believe Trump “committed a felony that enabled him to become president.”

“Covering up those payments is part of what was done, part of the conspiracy in which Donald Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator,” Blumenthal said.

The comments drew the ire of Trump, who in a pair of tweets blasted Blumenthal over his years-old misleading statements about his military service during the Vietnam War. 

“Watched Da Nang Dick BlumenthalRichard (Dick) BlumenthalDems have new moniker for Trump: ‘Unindicted co-conspirator’ Trump blasts Blumenthal after senator calls him an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ MORE on television spewing facts almost as accurate as his bravery in Vietnam (which he never saw),” Trump tweeted. 

While Democrats were in agreement that the latest court filings spelled legal trouble for Trump, they were largely noncommittal on whether the documents should presage impeachment proceedings.

Nadler, who as Judiciary Committee chairman would oversee impeachment proceedings in the House, said the campaign finance violations would qualify as “impeachable offenses,” though he stopped short of saying such action would be warranted.

Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingSunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Angus King: John Bolton engaging in ‘deliberate ignorance’ about Khashoggi killing tape Angus King: Trump administration ‘giving a pass to dictators around the world’ MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he doesn’t believe there’s enough public evidence to go through with impeachment.

Schiff said lawmakers need to “wait till we see the full picture” before deciding on impeachment.

Republicans and allies of the president have for months stood by Trump throughout his legal ups and downs, and continued to do so on Sunday.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Meadows says ‘too early to tell’ if special House election should be held in North Carolina Kobach ‘very concerned’ voter fraud may have happened in North Carolina MORE (R-Ky.) downplayed the potential legal implications of campaign finance law violations, saying the matter has been “over-criminalized,” while Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Meadows says ‘too early to tell’ if special House election should be held in North Carolina Kobach ‘very concerned’ voter fraud may have happened in North Carolina MORE (R-Fla.) urged Americans to wait for a full accounting of the facts.

“There’s no reason to not stand by anybody in this moment,” Rubio said on CBS. “There are pleadings, there are cases, there are evidence, we’re going to wait for all of it to be out there. And I would caution everyone to wait for all of it to be out there until you make judgment.”

John Kelly’s exit raises concerns about White House future

The departure of White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE is raising concerns about how the White House will face potential legal and political challenges in 2019. 

Kelly, who was thought to bring order to an often chaotic White House, will leave the West Wing as special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE‘s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election appears to be closing in on President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be ‘in court right now’ if he weren’t the president or ‘privileged’ Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE.

Trump will also face a divided Congress next year, with Democrats slated to take control of the House in January, giving the party subpoena power.

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Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Overnight Defense: Nauert tapped for UN envoy | Trump teases changes to Joint Chiefs of Staff | Trump knocks Tillerson as ‘dumb as a rock’ | Scathing report details Air Force failures before Texas shooting Senate edges closer to rebuking Trump on Saudi Arabia MORE (D-Conn.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that he’s concerned Mueller may be on the “chopping block” after the departure of Kelly.

“I imagine that [Kelly] was one of the people that was attempting to convince the president not to fire Mueller, to not issue pardons as a means of trying to influence the investigation.”

“And so I think with his departure, certainly depending on who replaces him, our concerns that Mueller may be on the chopping block are more serious and this legislation becomes more important,” he added.

Kelly, a retired four-star general, was viewed as having brought a level of stability to a White House filled with turmoil.

He was also thought to have been able to scale back Trump’s decisions, as he imposed a number of restrictions on the president after he took over the reins as chief of staff from Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusJohn Kelly was always doomed to fail as chief of staff John Kelly to leave White House at year’s end The Memo: All eyes on Kelly as Trump shake-up gathers steam MORE last year. Kelly reportedly limited Trump’s access to his personal cell phone and limited impromptu visits to the Oval Office among aides.

Outgoing Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection hacking will come to a ‘breaking point,’ says Dem strategist Webb: GOP must play prevent defense The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — George H.W. Bush lies in state | NRCC suffers major hack | Crunch-time for Congress MORE (R-Wis.) in a statement on Saturday called Kelly a “force for order, clarity, and good sense.”

“Our country is better for his duty at the White House. During this time he has become a dear friend and trusted partner,” Ryan said. “He was a force for order, clarity, and good sense. He is departing what is often a thankless job, but John Kelly has my eternal gratitude.”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage Meadows says ‘too early to tell’ if special House election should be held in North Carolina Kobach ‘very concerned’ voter fraud may have happened in North Carolina MORE (R-Fla.) told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday he didn’t know yet whether he should be concerned about the order and stability of the White House after Kelly’s exit.

“It depends who they put in as a replacement,” he said. “Hopefully it will be someone just as qualified, just as strong. It’s good for our country to have someone like that in that post.”

Trump announced Kelly’s departure on Saturday, calling him a “great guy” and saying he will leave at the end of the year. His replacement is expected to have a more political focus than Kelly ahead of 2020.

Rumors of hot-tempered disputes with other staffers have dogged Kelly’s tenure, and he has been criticized over his handling of domestic abuse allegations against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, among other situations, which means not everyone is unhappy to see Kelly exit.

Rep. Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia House lawmakers introduce bill to end US support in Yemen civil war Poll shows Rep. Luis Gutiérrez as front-runner in Chicago mayoral race MORE‘s (D-N.Y.) response on Sunday was “thank u, next.” 

She said Kelly “destroyed his reputation” by making false allegations in the past, apparently referring to comments he made last year about Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.).

“John Kelly destroyed his reputation when he lied on a sitting Member of Congress,” she wrote on Twitter. “Trump’s Cabinet of Corruption is cracking. Thank u, next.”

Bernstein: Trump ‘is boxed in by Mueller’

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein said Sunday that President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be ‘in court right now’ if he weren’t the president or ‘privileged’ Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE has been cornered for the first time in his life. 

“He is boxed in by Mueller and the people around him know that he is and it’s on the question of … possible collusion with Russia and unquestionably a massive obstruction of justice that is now demonstrable for all to see, led by the president of the United States to cover up whatever the dealings of himself, his family, his aides were with Russia,” Bernstein told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday, following several bombshell legal filings last week by Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE‘s special counsel team regarding people close to the president.

“It certainly looks like they are the kind of offense that would call for impeachment hearings into the conduct of the president of the United States,” Bernstein said.

“There’s something much more important than just impeachment going on and that is the fact that Donald Trump for the first time in his life was cornered.”

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Mueller released a heavily redacted filing Friday that detailed allegations that former Trump campaign manager Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFive takeaways from the bombshell Cohen, Manafort filings Cohen and Manafort pose new problems for President Trump Hannity downplays Cohen, Manafort filings: ‘How will America ever recover?’ MORE lied to Mueller’s team, violating the terms of his plea deal to cooperate.

The same day, federal prosecutors in New York who were originally tipped off by Mueller said Trump directed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to break campaign finance law.

Those documents did not explicitly mention Trump by name, but make reference to a “Individual-1” who is described as having become president in January 2017.

Bernstein said Sunday that the developments mean that Trump is boxed in for the first time in his life. 

“As a business man he always could bully his way out of a corner, he always could buy his way out, cheat his way out,” said Bernstein, who has been a longtime critic of the president.

Mueller is expected to submit his final report soon and has indicted 33 people and three companies, but none have been charged with colluding with Russia on behalf of the Trump campaign. 

“We don’t know what those dealings are in detail,” Bernstein added. “But it’s clear that Mueller is now connecting the dots between a massive obstruction intended to hide the truth about the Trump campaign, Trump, his business organization, and his family from the investigators.”

Barr turned down defense attorney job with Trump: report

President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be ‘in court right now’ if he weren’t the president or ‘privileged’ Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE‘s pick to be the next attorney general, William Barr, was previously offered a position as Trump’s defense attorney, Yahoo News reports.

Trump met privately with Barr in the spring of 2017 and asked if he would serve as his defense attorney to defend him against special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE‘s ongoing investigation, according to the news outlet. 

Barr reportedly said he had other obligations, indicated his answer was no, but said he would think about it.

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Yahoo News reports that Trump and his top advisers discussed hiring Barr again earlier this year after Trump’s lead personal attorney handling Mueller’s investigation, John Dowd, resigned. 

The discussions ceased once Trump hired Rudy Giuliani this past summer to take Dowd’s place. 

The White House did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for confirmation of the report.

Trump on Friday said he would nominate Barr to be the next attorney general.

“He was my first choice since day one,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “He’ll be nominated.”

If confirmed, Barr would take over after the exit of Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsJohn Kelly to leave White House at year’s end Five things to know about William Barr, Trump’s pick for Justice Department Trump says AG pick deserves bipartisan support MORE, who resigned at Trump’s request in early November.

The president long criticized Sessions for not keeping a tighter leash on Mueller.

Barr is expected to face a tough confirmation battle in the Senate. Trump said Friday that he hoped the process will “go very quickly.”

Kudlow: Trump did not know about plan to arrest Huawei executive

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Sunday that President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be ‘in court right now’ if he weren’t the president or ‘privileged’ Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE did not know of the plan to arrest a top executive of a Chinese tech firm before it happened.

“He did not know,” Kudlow said on “Fox News Sunday,” when asked if Trump knew about the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer when he sat down for dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit last weekend.

Meng Wanzhou was detained on the same day Trump reached a trade truce with Jinping, but news of her arrest did not break until Wednesday.

It had previously been unclear if Trump knew of Meng’s arrest as he discussed a trade deal with the Chinese leader last weekend. 

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National security adviser John Bolton said Thursday that he did not know if Trump knew of Meng’s arrest, which threatens to reignite the trade dispute between the U.S. and China.

A White House spokesman later told The Hill that Trump did not have advance knowledge.

China has demanded Meng’s release. She faces potential extradition to the U.S. for her suspected violation of U.S. trade sanctions on Iran.

Kudlow added on Sunday that Trump “had no reaction” after he heard of her arrest.

Fox’s Chris Wallace pressed Kudlow, noting that reports have said the president was “livid” that Canada arrested Meng as he worked to reach a trade deal with China. 

“Regarding the Huawei prosecution, let me just say that’s a law enforcement action, primarily Department of Justice,” Kudlow said. “It is a very important issue because the evidence suggests, at least so far … that Huawei did break the Iranian sanctions through different financial channels.”

“We will see how that plays out,” he added.