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What Trump's Mueller 'exoneration' means for Democrats looking to beat him in 2020

It was bad timing for Beto O'Rourke.

On a campaign swing through South Carolina on Saturday, the Texas Democratic presidential hopeful rolled up his shirtsleeves and addressed a town hall in a high school gym. In his signature rasp, he told his Charleston audience that in his view, it was "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that U.S. President Donald Trump sought to "collude with the Russian government — a foreign power — to undermine and influence our elections."

By the next day, pro-Trump Republicans in the "no collusion" camp began gleefully circulating videos of O'Rourke's remarks.

It was easy to see why.

Over the weekend, Attorney General William Barr's summary of special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia report returned a long-awaited conclusion: There was insufficient evidence to prosecute Trump or anyone involved with his 2016 campaign for conspiring with Russians to beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.

"What will Democrats focus on now that [Trump] has been vindicated by this report?" conservative activist Charlie Kirk teased on Twitter.

The answer, Democratic operatives say, is the policy issues they've been focusing on all along, including health care, jobs and student loan debt.

Though Mueller's full report remains confidential, the key findings outlined by Barr lift the burden of the key allegation that has dogged Trump in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

For Trump, it may have looked like vindication. For Democrats, it appeared to be a political setback.

Jacob Palmieri, 21, is a pro-Trump voter and junior at the University of Maine. He says Mueller's findings are a major blow for the Democrats. (Jacob Palamieri)

Jacob Palmieri, 21, a Trump devotee and junior at the University of Maine, was ecstatic when a breaking-news alert about Mueller's findings pinged on his phone during a road trip back from his spring break. He took a screenshot and sent it to about a dozen liberal and conservative contacts, believing Democrats had lost a core campaign issue.

"It's tough for Democrats because they've blamed their loss for two years on Russia," he said. "This is a big hit [against] the Democrats. I felt exonerated, to be honest." 

He said sending the message was his way of "rubbing it in the faces" of people on both sides who said he was wrong and the president is a "Russian agent."

Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg told CBC News he was reserving judgment on the possible political fallout of Barr's summary, remarking on Monday, "I'm interested in seeing the report before spiking the football."

Ohio-based Republican strategist Ryan Stubenrauch was less circumspect.

"This was the Democratic issue after Trump was elected, up until now," he said. "I can't think of what any of them said about the report over the last two years, but I'm sure several [Democratic candidates] made comments and will have egg on their face."

If Stubenrauch was struggling to recall a specific remark about Trump-Russia collusion, there might be a good reason why: The topic does not seem to have come up much on the stump.

Demonstrators gather in front of city hall in Los Angeles last November to call for the protection of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

"Democrats did not win control of the House in 2018 because they talked about collusion," said Brent Budowsky, a former Democratic aide and progressive commentator. "They don't go out there and say, 'I'm here in Wisconsin to talk about collusion.' They talk about a higher standard of living, higher wages, better health care."

No doubt Barr's letter citing that Mueller's team found no evidence of Russian collusion is a political gift for Trump. It allows him to make a more convincing case to his base that the special counsel's probe was a partisan witch hunt.

But to say Democrats were banking on Mueller's collusion findings to unseat Trump in 2020 shows a misunderstanding of what American voters in the heartland really care about, Budowsky said.

"I think it's an important issue for many Democrats, but it's not at the top of the list, even remotely."

While Mueller's findings on collusion might be all the talk inside the Capital Beltway encircling Washington, D.C., Jen Psaki, a former State Department spokeswoman under president Barack Obama, noted in tweet on Monday:

Half of the ad purchases by Democrats running in the midterms were on health care, with the issue being touted as the policy matter voters cared most about.

Still, plenty of political risk lies ahead for Democrats.

Aggressive congressional inquiries after Mueller's investigation has wrapped could seem like overreach. Five House committees are investigating Trump for alleged misdeeds, including obstruction of justice, bank and insurance fraud and campaign finance violations.

That might be reminiscent of how Republicans treated President Bill Clinton in 1998 during his impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice — a process that voters grew tired of. They responded in the next election by delivering a shellacking to the Republicans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now being praised for trying to tamp down impeachment talk within her party, and appears to be vindicated for her caution.

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, has said the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, left, has exonerated his team on allegations of colluding with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. However, some legal experts say Mueller's report could still contain evidence of obstruction of justice. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/Leah Millis/Reuters)

The media and progressives have been "obsessed" with impeachment and Mueller's report, said Patrice Onwuka, a conservative writer with the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative think-tank.

But judging by the president's Twitter activity, the obsession may have been more his than that of his liberal challengers in 2020. An online search of the president's tweets found at least 190 mentions of the words "collusion" or "collude" in reference to Mueller's work since Trump was inaugurated in 2017 — amounting to nearly 1.7 mentions per week of his presidency.

By contrast, a search of all the public Twitter accounts belonging to the top 11 Democratic presidential candidates found only one such mention of "collusion" by O'Rourke, two mentions by Elizabeth Warren, three mentions by Bernie Sanders and one reference by Julian Castro.

Simply put, collusion hasn't been the lifeblood of Democratic election campaigns, said Rachel Gorlin, a Democratic consultant in Washington.

As for O'Rourke's ill-timed comment on Saturday. That came during a 45-minute appearance, and was prompted by a question about whether lawmakers should pursue impeachment.

"It's one comment on one day," Gorlin said. "If we look at the amount of oxygen that the 2020 candidates have given overall on the topic, I think it's only a tiny portion of what any of them is talking about."

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EU, Syria reject Trump's statement on Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights

U.S. President Donald Trump's abrupt declaration that Washington will recognize Israel's sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights drew strong condemnation from Syria, while the European Union and countries like Egypt and Russia also rejecting the overture.

The Syrian government called it "irresponsible," and a threat to international peace and stability. The Foreign Ministry in Damascus also said Syria is now more intent on liberating the Golan, "using every possible means."

The EU reiterated on Friday its position "has not changed" despite Trump's overture.

"The European Union, in line with international law, does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, including the Golan Heights and does not consider them to be part of Israel's territory," an EU spokesperson told Reuters.

Trump's administration has been considering recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Last week, in its annual human rights report, the State Department dropped the phrase "Israeli occupied" from the Golan Heights section, instead calling it "Israeli controlled."

Trump made his declaration in a tweet.

Against this backdrop of hostility towards the U.S. move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut after visiting Israel on Friday. He is expected to pile pressure on the government to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

The declaration is the latest in a series of moves that have fuelled anger among Israel's Arab enemies and U.S.-allied Arabs.

It follows the U.S. recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel's capital — a decision that also drew international criticism as the disputed city's status remains at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Egypt, France weigh in

Egypt said it considers the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian land; in a statement carried by state news agency MENA, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry cited UN Security Council resolution 497 of 1981 that rejected Israel's annexation of the territory.

The ministry "stressed the importance that everybody should respect the resolutions of international legitimacy and the United Nations Charter in respect of the inadmissibility of acquiring land by force," the statement said.

Israel captured much of the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it, a move not endorsed internationally. Netanyahu raised the possibility of U.S. recognition in his first White House meeting with Trump in February 2017.

Golan Heights force was set up after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to monitor the ceasefire. Much of the world, including Canada, recognizes the Golan Heights as occupied territory. 

UN personnel stand at a lookout point as they monitor the Israel-Syria border in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on Jan. 21. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)

France's Foreign Ministry said recognition of Israel's annexation is contrary to international law. "The Golan is a territory occupied by Israel since 1967. France does not recognize the Israeli annexation of 1981," the ministry said in a daily briefing.

"The recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, occupied territory, would be contrary to international law, in particular the obligation for states not to recognize an illegal situation," the ministry also said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces an election on April 9 and has been pressing for the United States to recognize Israel's claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Trump remains popular in Israel, and his advisers have been developing a Middle East peace proposal for release sometime after the Israeli elections. Netanyahu tweeted his gratitude.

Russia, an ally of President Basharal-Assad with forces in Syria, said Trump's comments risked seriously destabilizing the region and expressed hope the statement was just declaratory.

Iran, Assad's main regional ally and which also has forces in Syria, condemned the statement as illegal and unacceptable.

Turkey, a U.S.-allied state and an adversary of Damascus, also criticized the move, saying it had brought the Middle East to the edge of a new crisis and the legitimisation of the occupation of the Golan Heights could not be allowed.

Canada ended a 32-year peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights in 2006.

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Despite Trump's view, white nationalism is a growing threat, data shows

The phone call included condolences, a pledge of solidarity, and a question from the U.S. president.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's nation was still aching with grief after a white-nationalist gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch. As she spoke on Friday with U.S. President Donald Trump, her American counterpart asked what he could offer.

Ardern reportedly answered, "Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities."

Trump "acknowledged that and agreed," she told reporters. But if the two national leaders sounded like they shared a common understanding, it appears to have been fleeting.

The U.S. president, tweeting about the call, made no mention of Ardern's plea. Instead, on the morning after their chat, Trump defended Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro, whose recent on-air remarks were deemed to be so bigoted against Muslims that the network suspended her.

The same day as the phone call, the president rejected the idea that white nationalism was a rising worldwide threat, downplaying it as a problem concerning a "small group of people." Civil-liberties researchers disagreed with that characterization, pointing to the far-reaching references in the accused gunman's 73-page manifesto, which mentioned everything from Trump as a "symbol of renewed white identity" to popular internet memes and Norwegian massacre gunman Anders Breivik.

Asked on Saturday whether she agreed with Trump's assessment tamping down concerns about violent white nationalism, New Zealand's leader gave an unequivocal "No."

The data takes her side.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks at a press conference in Wellington, N.Z., after the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15. Ardern said her country's values would not be shaken by the attacks. (Associated Press)

According to the Anti-Defamation League, 98 per cent of extremist killings in the U.S. last year were tied to far-right extremists. Europol's annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report last year found a near doubling in the number of people arrested for right-wing extremist offences in 2017.

And data from the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino says that hate crimes in America's largest cities rose for the fifth consecutive year in 2018.

"In the U.S., far-right extremism has eclipsed violent Salafi jihadists," said the centre's director, Brian Levin. "The difference is white nationalism has emerged into a coalesced and growing socio-political force, with tentacles that extend into the mainstream. That's something many other extremist movements do not have."

Republican Congressman Steve King, for example, has openly mused that being labelled a "white nationalist" shouldn't be such a bad thing.

Levin testified before Congress four years ago about the extremist threat. At the time, he said Salafi jihadists represented the most prominent threat to the U.S., with far-right white nationalists coming second.

"That has flipped," he said on Monday.

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a briefing on "drug trafficking on the southern border" at the White House on March 13. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Fort-nine out of 50 extremist-related killings in the U.S. last year were tied to white nationalists. One incident, a stabbing by a troubled Florida teen, involved the teen shouting about jihadist leanings, though the alleged perpetrator was also a former white supremacist.

All of which is to say that Trump — whose apparent concerns about Islam prompted his call in 2015 for a database to register Muslims and efforts to implement a travel ban — is mistaken about the growing danger of worldwide white-nationalist extremism, Levin said.

He cited FBI statistics that showed a spike in hate crimes after the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, and a further spike beyond that after candidate Trump's proposal for a Muslim ban. Levin contrasts that with former president George W. Bush's speech six days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., when Bush declared, "Islam is peace" at Washington's Islamic Center.

"For the six days that followed [the attacks], anti-Muslim hate crimes totaled 26, dropping down to five on Sept. 18, the day after the president's tolerance address," said Levin.

They declined another two-thirds by the next year.

"Leaders have an important place in society for not just modelling behaviour," Levin said, "but in promoting or rebutting the negative stereotypes that fuel attacks."

Last October, with days to go before crucial U.S. midterm elections, Trump conceded there was "no proof" to his claim that "unknown Middle Easterners" were part of a migrant caravan of mostly Central American families approaching the southern border to legally seek asylum.

Trump has described migrants heading to the border as "an invasion of our country." In his manifesto, the alleged New Zealand gunman called immigrants "invaders" on "our lands."

Ardern hugs and consoles a woman on March 17 as she visits Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington to lay flowers among tributes to attack victims. (Associated Press)

Similarities in the rhetoric rang chillingly familiar to Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. He was reminded of the white-supremacist marchers who swarmed the outdoor quad at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Brandishing torches, the crowd cried, "You will not replace us," and "Jews will not replace us."

Echoes of white-nationalist ideology were sprinkled into the Australian-born New Zealand suspect's rambling manifesto, which took its title from a French conspiracy theory that nonwhites will, through a system of mass immigration, overtake Western population centres.

"So what does he call his manifesto? 'The Great Replacement.' And what did they chant in Charlottesville?" Rosenthal asked rhetorically.

It's a kind of trans-national exchange that needs to be taken seriously, Rosenthal said, adding that the idea that white-supremacist formation is isolated is no longer viable as an explanation.

Racist tropes about a "great replacement" or "white genocide" are fairly standard, and online connectivity has acted as a force multiplier. But trying to shut down that discourse is "asking for trouble," warned Eric Kaufmann, an expert on nationalism and white identity at Birkbeck College at the University of London.

A police officer stands guard outside Linwood mosque, the second mosque attacked by the gunman last week. (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)

"I do think the attempt to shut them up is going to fuel them. It can be better to let the steam out of this" with fact-based counter-arguments, he suggested.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney defended the president on Fox News on Sunday, saying, "The president is not a white supremacist."

Researchers of racist ideology generally agree that Trump himself is not regarded as a white nationalist among far-right extremists. Even so, he's hailed as a vehicle for the politics of white nationalism. On 4chan and its sister website 8chan, Trump is known by the nickname "God Emperor."

"He has helped create space for white nationalist politics," said Matthew Lyons, an expert on the alt-right and author of Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right's Challenge to State and Empire.

A 2017 ABC/Washington Post poll conducted in the aftermath of the fatal Charlottesville march  found that nearly one in 10 Americans said they considered Nazi views to be acceptable.

Trump is seen as useful to white nationalists; even if he isn't part of their cause, he has arguably helped them become more outspoken, Lyons said.

"There's a debate among white nationalists on Trump as a policymaker or a leader," Lyons said. "It's not the same as white nationalism. But it helps to validate it."

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Pentagon sends Congress list of military projects that could be cut to fund Trump's wall

The U.S. Pentagon sent a 20-page list of military construction projects to Congress Monday as lawmakers tried to figure  out which might be cut to pay for President Donald Trump's wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Democrats expressed hope that the task would make lawmakers more likely to override Trump's veto of a measure aimed at preventing the cuts.

The document listed hundreds of projects envisioned around the U.S. and the world that are worth around $ 12.9 billion US. In an accompanying letter, Defence Department officials said that because they won't target projects for which money was already awarded or for items like housing, many items listed won't be cut. They did not specify which would be exempted.

The list includes a cemetery at the U.S. Military Academy in New York and a command and control facility at Camp Tango in South Korea.

It is essentially up to Congress to go through the list and figure out which projects will not be affected, including military housing, barracks and projects that have already been awarded funding.

New bollard-style U.S.-Mexico border fencing is seen in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, earlier this month. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The list is unlikely to satisfy Congress.

"This list is wholly insufficient and just tells Congress what projects it already approved," said Evan Hollander, a spokesman for Representative Nita Lowey, a Democrat and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"This appears to be nothing more than another stall tactic designed to delay the political consequences of President Trump's emergency declaration."

Trump declared a national emergency at the Mexican border last month, invoking a law that would let him use other budget funds to build barriers and fulfil his prime 2016 campaign promise.

Trump proposed using his declaration to steer $ 3.6 billion US in military construction projects to wall constructions. He has vetoed legislation aimed at annulling his border emergency, and the House plans to vote on overriding the veto next week. Congress is expected to fall short of the two-thirds majorities needed in each chamber to override the veto.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed the first veto of his presidency Friday, overruling Congress to protect his emergency declaration for border wall funding. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Even so, Democrats latched onto the list to drum up support for the veto override by pointing to home-state projects facing potential cuts.

"What President Trump is doing is a slap in the face to our military that makes our border and the country less secure," Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

"Now that members of Congress can see the potential impact this proposal could have on projects in their home states, I hope they will take that into consideration before the vote to override the president's veto."

A spokesperson for Republican Sen. James Inhofe, chair of the Armed Services panel, said the document "is not a list of projects that will definitively be impacted." She said Inhofe will continue working with defence officials "to determine projects that would allow for the use of the armed forces without negatively affecting any military construction projects."

Before Congress voted to block Trump's emergency declaration, Democrats had complained that it was taking the Pentagon too long to provide its list of targeted projects.

A razor-wire-covered border wall separates Nogalas, Mexico, at left, and Nogales, Ariz. Trump has proposed steering $ 3.6 billion US in military construction projects to further border wall constructions. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

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U.S. Senate appears set to reject Trump's border wall emergency declaration

Opponents of U.S. President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border appear to have enough Senate votes to reject his move, now that Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky has said he can't go along with the White House.

The House has voted to derail the action, and if the Senate follows later this month, the measure would go to Trump for his promised veto.

Three other Republican senators have announced they'll vote "no" — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Paul makes it four, and assuming that all 47 Democrats and their independent allies go against Trump, that would give opponents 51 votes — just past the majority needed.

Congress is unlikely to have the votes to override. 

'Congress didn't authorize it'

"I can't vote to give the president the power to spend money that hasn't been appropriated by Congress," Paul said at a GOP dinner Saturday night at Western Kentucky University, according to the Bowling Green Daily News newspaper in Kentucky.

"We may want more money for border security, but Congress didn't authorize it. If we take away those checks and balances, it's a dangerous thing."

Republican Sen. Rand Paul speaks during a television interview in 2018. 'I can't vote to give the president the power to spend money that hasn't been appropriated by Congress,' Paul, who often supports Trump's agenda, said Saturday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Many lawmakers opposed to the emergency declaration say it tramples Congress's constitutional power to control spending and would set a precedent for future Democratic presidents to make such a declaration for their own purposes. They also are concerned Trump would siphon money from home-state projects to barrier construction.

Under the declaration, Trump would divert $ 3.6 billion US from military construction to erect more border barriers. He's invoking other powers to transfer an additional $ 3.1 billion to construction.

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U.S. House to vote today on revoking Trump's emergency order

Democrats are moving quickly to try to roll back President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency to siphon billions of dollars from the military to fund construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Tuesday's vote in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives comes on legislation to revoke Trump's executive order from earlier this month and would send it to the Republican-held Senate, where it would take only a handful of GOP defections to pass it.

Trump is likely to prevail in the end since he could use his first-ever veto to kill the measure if it passes Congress, but the White House is seeking to minimize defections among the president's Republican allies to avoid embarrassment.

The vote could be challenging for Republican lawmakers who view themselves as conservative protectors of the Constitution and the powers of the federal purse that are reserved for Congress. But Republican vote counters are confident that the tally won't get near the two-thirds that would overturn a Trump veto.

Democratic leaders said Monday that the vote is not about the merits of Trump's wall but how Trump is trampling on the Constitution by grabbing money that he can't obtain through normal means.

"The beauty of the Constitution, the heart and soul of the Constitution, is the separation of power — co-equal branches of government to be a balance of power," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

"The Constitution spells out the responsibilities, giving the Congress of the United States, among other powers, the power of the purse. The president's power grab usurped that constitutional responsibility and fundamentally violates the balance of power envisioned by our founders."

Thom Tillis of North Carolina, seen in 2018, is the latest Republican to publicly declare his likelihood to vote for the motion. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP)

Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican from California, said any defections from his party will be kept well below the threshold required to sustain a veto. Describing the argument Republican leaders are using to tamp down opposition within their party, he said, "There's an emergency along the border."

"If Republicans vote their beliefs, we'll get a lot. If they vote their party, we won't get a lot," said majority leader Steny Hoyer, Democrat from Maryland.

On Monday, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said he would vote to block the order, joining Maine's Susan Collins and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski as Republicans supporting the resolution. Congress must defend its power of the purse and warned that a future Democratic president might abuse the power to advance "radical policies," Tillis said.

Those three would put the vote at a 50-50 tie if every Democrat supports the measure, and other GOP senators oppose Trump's manoeuvre as well, though the White House was scrambling to stave off defections. It looks fairly certain that enough Republicans will vote in favour of the measure to put it over the top.

"I think it's unnecessary, unwise, and inconsistent with the United States Constitution and I'll decide how to vote when I'm presented with something to vote on," said Lamar Alexander, Republican from Tennessee, who is retiring at the end of the term. "I feel strongly about it."

Senate voting on Trump's emergency order could drag under a rarely used procedure, which an aide said is possibly a first for the chamber. The law allows for up to 15 days of committee review — in this case, at the Armed Services panel — with a full Senate vote three days later. Senators, though, said the process could be expedited.

Trump would seek to divert funds

At issue is Trump's longstanding vow to build a wall along the 1,900-mile southwest border, perhaps his top campaign promise. He has long since dropped any pretense that money for the wall would come from Mexico, which he once claimed would be the source of funding.

Earlier this month Congress approved a huge spending bill providing nearly $ 1.4 billion US to build nearly 90 kilometres of border barriers in Texas's Rio Grande Valley, ending a dispute that had led to a record 35-day partial shutdown of the government. Trump had demanded $ 5.7 billion to construct more than 322 kilometres.

Also Monday, national security experts and former lawmakers from both parties issued public declarations against Trump's edict, saying that the situation along the southern border is not a genuine emergency and that Trump is abusing his powers.

"We are aware of no emergency that remotely justifies such a step," wrote 58 former senior national security officials, including Republican Chuck Hagel, a former Nebraska senator and defence secretary. "Under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today that entitles the President to tap into funds appropriated for other purposes to build a wall at the southern border."

An incomplete section of border fencing as seen from the Texas side at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso on Feb. 23. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool via Reuters)

In addition, 28 Republican former House members and senators, many of them from the party's shrinking moderate wing, wrote an open letter declaring their opposition to Trump's emergency declaration.

"How much are you willing to undermine both the Constitution and the Congress in order to advance a policy outcome that by all other legitimate means is not achievable?" wrote the former GOP lawmakers, among them former Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana and once the chairman of the Senate's foreign relations committee.

Trump's declaration of a national emergency gives him access to about $ 3.6 billion in funding for military construction projects to divert to border fencing. Lawmakers in both parties are recoiling at the politically toxic prospect of losing cherished projects at back-home military bases. The Defence Department has not identified which projects may face the axe.

But the administration is more likely to tap $ 600 million from a federal asset forfeiture fund first. In addition, it is considering shifting more than $ 2 billion from Defence Department accounts into a Pentagon counter-drug fund to be tapped for wall construction.

Trump's edict is also being challenged in the federal courts, where a host of Democratic-led states such as California are among those that have sued to overturn the order.

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Trump's pick for ambassador to UN Heather Nauert withdraws from consideration

Heather Nauert, U.S. President Donald Trump's pick to be the next American ambassador to the United Nations, has withdrawn from consideration, the State Department said.

Nauert, a State Department spokesperson, said in a statement that "the past two months have been gruelling for my family and therefore it is in the best interest of my family that I withdraw my name from consideration."

Her impending nomination had been considered a tough sell in the Senate, where she would have faced tough questions about her relative lack of foreign policy experience, according to congressional aides.

A potential issue involving a nanny that she and her husband had employed may also have been a factor in her decision to withdraw, according to one aide. That issue, which was first reported by Bloomberg on Saturday, centred on a foreign nanny who was legally in the U.S. but did not have legal status to work, according to the aide, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The aide said some involved in the vetting process saw Nauert's inexperience and questions about her ability to represent the U.S. at the UN as a larger issue.

Nauert's impending nomination had been considered a tough sell in the Senate, where she would have faced tough questions about her relative lack of foreign policy experience, according to congressional aides. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Trump's initial UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, served for nearly all of the administration's first two years. She announced her resignation in October with plans to step down by year's end.

That December, Trump said he would nominate Nauert, called her "very talented, very smart, very quick" and said he thought she would be "respected by all." In the wake of November elections that strengthened Republican control of the Senate, her confirmation appeared likely if not easy. Yet Trump never put Nauert's name forward with the Senate and no confirmation hearing was scheduled.

The State Department in its statement that Trump would announce a nominee for the U.N position "soon."

Made jump to State Department from Fox News

Nauert was a Fox News Channel reporter when she joined the State Department as spokesperson almost two years ago during Rex Tillerson's tenure was secretary of state. She rose to the upper echelons of the department's hierarchy after Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018 and Mike Pompeo replaced him.

In the department's statement, Pompeo said he respected Nauert's decision on the UN job and that she performed her duties as a senior member of his team "with unequalled excellence."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, said he respected Nauert's decision on the UN job and that she performed her duties as a senior member of his team 'with unequalled excellence.' (Brendan Smialowski/Pool Image via AP)

"Serving in the Administration for the past two years has been one of the highest honours of my life and I will always be grateful to the president, the secretary, and my colleagues at the State Department for their support," Nauert said in the statement provided by the department.

Before coming to the State Department, Nauert was a breaking news anchor on Fox & Friends. With a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she had moved to Fox from ABC News, where she was a general assignment reporter.

Nauert, who did not have a good relationship with Tillerson and had considered leaving the department, was appointed acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs after his departure. The appointment ended in October.

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U.S. government funding bill passes Congress, ready for Trump's signature

Both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a government funding bill Thursday that would avert another partial shutdown.

The bill, however, does not contain the $ 5.7 billion US President Donald Trump wanted for a border wall. It now needs the president's signature ahead of a deadline of Friday at midnight to become law. 

The White House said earlier in the day that Trump will sign the bill, but that he will also declare a national emergency to get the wall built.

"The President is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country," said Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. 

An emergency declaration to shift funding from other federal priorities to the border is expected to face swift legal challenge.

The White House says Trump will sign the bill but will also declare a national emergency to get the funding he wants to build the wall. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The bipartisan legislation provides more than $ 300 billion to fund the Department of Homeland Security and a range of other federal agencies through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Funding is due to expire for those agencies on Friday.

While it does not contain the money Trump demanded for the wall, it does contain $ 1.37 billion in new money to help build 88.5 km of new physical barriers on the border. It is the same level of funding Congress appropriated for border security measures last year, including barriers but not concrete walls.

Trump will almost certainly face legal challenges if he does declare a national emergency to get additional funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, circumventing the power of Congress to set spending policy.

The administration has been eyeing several pots of money — including disaster funds, counter-narcotic accounts and military construction dollars — to fund the wall, according to congressional aides and White House officials.

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has said there are various accounts available.

Shifting funds

One possibility is shifting a portion of the $ 13 billion in disaster aid Congress approved last year for Puerto Rico and a dozen states, including California and Texas, hit hard by hurricanes, flooding and other disasters. The money funds Army Corps projects, and the Puerto Rico aid alone totals more than $ 2 billion.

But Texas lawmakers revolted over White House plans to tap Hurricane Harvey funds, and Republican Sen. John Cornyn said Thursday they won assurances from the White House that the money won't be used for the wall.

"We've been pretty clear we thought that would be a mistake," said Cornyn, who along with the state's governor and other lawmakers urged the White House to stay away from that account. "There's limited pots of money he can get into, but I'm pretty confident he won't get into disaster funds."

A more likely option is the military construction account that's used to upgrade bases and facilities.

U.S demonstrators hold hands at the open border to make a human wall in support of the construction of the new border wall between U.S and Mexico February 9. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Legal scholars said it is unclear how such a step would play out, but they agree a court test would likely focus on whether an emergency actually exists on the southern border and on the limits of presidential power over taxpayer funds.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters she might file a legal challenge. 

"We will review our options," she said, adding that Democrats would respond "appropriately."

Legal challenge could bump up against 2020 election

A long legal fight could stretch into Trump's 2020 re-election bid, and embolden critics who already accuse him of authoritarian tendencies and unpredictable swerves in policy-making.

Some Democratic state attorneys general are already saying they may go to court to block any declaration of a national emergency on the southern border.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra of California wrote Thursday on Twitter that any border crisis is of the president's own making and "we will do what we must to hold him accountable."

His counterpart in Washington state, Bob Ferguson, said that if Trump's declaration depletes federal aid to the state, he'll "take appropriate steps to block this unlawful action."

The Democratic Party's field of presidential hopefuls was split on support for the bill.

It won support from Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who launched her presidential campaign Sunday, and from Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is expected to join the Democratic primary soon. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, another Democrat weighing a presidential run, also voted in favor.

White House hopefuls who opposed the legislation include California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Sanders said he has "concerns" about the bill but "I cannot turn my back on" federal workers who would have to work unpaid in a government shutdown.

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Trump's state of the union address tonight is expected to press border wall fight

U.S. President Donald Trump is set to deliver a state of the union address tonight that's expected to challenge Democrats to approve funding for his long-sought border wall, but stop short of declaring a national emergency over it, at least for now.

Watch the speech live on CBC News Network and cbcnews.ca beginning at 9 p.m ET.

Millions of Americans are expected to watch the address on television, giving Trump his biggest opportunity to date to explain why he believes a barrier is needed on the U.S. southern border with Mexico. The president's speech, now set to start at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday before a joint session of Congress, was delayed for a week because of the shutdown that ended on Jan. 25.

When he takes centre stage in the chamber of the House of Representatives, sitting behind him over his shoulder will be his main congressional adversary, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who became House Speaker after her party won control of the chamber in November's elections.

She has shown no sign of budging from her opposition to Trump's demand for $ 5.7 billion US in wall funds that triggered a historic 35-day partial government shutdown.

Trump has contemplated declaring a national emergency, which he says would let him reallocate funding from elsewhere without congressional action.

'Giving Congress another chance'

But a source close to Trump said the president was not expected to take that step, which would likely draw a swift court challenge from Democrats. Instead, he will urge a congressional committee to do a border security deal by Feb. 15.

"He's going to set the stage," the source said. "He'll tell people: 'Here's why I should,' but say: 'I'm giving Congress another chance to act.'"

Trump's speech will also offer an olive branch to opponents as he looks toward the 2020 election, targeting areas he sees for potential bipartisan agreement, such as infrastructure improvements, lowering prescription drug costs and health care.

However, the bitter partisanship of the past two years was on display Tuesday just hours before Trump was to deliver his speech.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer seems to have triggered the latest Trump Twitter outburst when he said on the Senate floor that the president talks about unity in his annual addresses to the nation but "spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us." He accused Trump of "blatant hypocrisy."

Partisan divisions

Minutes later, Trump tweeted that Schumer hadn't even seen the speech and was "just upset that he didn't win the Senate, after spending a fortune."

A senior administration official said Trump would "encourage Congress to reject the politics of resistance and retribution, and instead adopt a spirit of co-operation and compromise so we can achieve it."

But that message could be undermined with Trump threatening to go his own way on the wall if he cannot get Congress to approve the funding he wants. On Sunday, Trump tweeted: "If there is no Wall, there is no Security." He has said the wall, which he promised in his 2016 campaign, is needed to deter illegal immigration and drugs.

Some Republicans are urging Trump not to declare an emergency.

"I'm for whatever works that prevents the level of dysfunction we've seen on full display here the last month, and also doesn't bring about a view on the president's part that he needs to declare a national emergency," Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said he remains hopeful Congress can resolve the dispute.

Foreign policy in focus

Trump will also address foreign policy, including support for an effort to coax Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro into leaving power, declaring the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) all but defeated, and perhaps announcing where he will next meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He will also give an update on trade talks with the Chinese.

Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and the White House's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, went over the speech on Monday night with about a dozen supporters including former campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, as well as Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, a source familiar with the meeting said.

The source said Trump would discuss troop drawdowns in Syria and Afghanistan, and that about half the speech would be devoted to foreign policy.

U.S. and Turkish soldiers conduct the first-ever combined joint patrol outside Manbij, Syria, on Nov. 1. American officials have delivered mixed messages on a potential drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria. (Arnada Jones/U.S. Army via Reuters)

Trump will also claim success on economic policy, including cutting federal regulations, the source said.

Some Democrats have invited guests to the speech to highlight various causes, some at odds with Trump's policies, making a raucous atmosphere possible inside the House chamber.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state said Monday she would invite climate scientist Lisa Graumlich, dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, as her guest, to underscore the climate change issue.

Trump's guests for the speech include Anna Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman whose life sentence for drug offences was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who was allegedly bullied because of his last name. They will sit with the president's wife Melania Trump during the address.

"One thing you will see is that the chamber is full and the president is surrounded by women, by people of colour, by individuals who have really been hurt by this president and many of the actions that he has taken," Jayapal said.

Republican strategist and former White House official Raj Shah said the speech offered Trump a chance to turn the page.

"Washington right now looks a little bit petty and a little bit small and the state of the union is an opportunity to go big and talk in broad themes about what's good about America and look beyond some of the issues of the last few weeks," he said.

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Federal prosecutors subpoena Trump's inaugural committee

Federal prosecutors in New York issued a subpoena Monday seeking documents from Donald Trump's inaugural committee, furthering a federal inquiry into a fund that has faced mounting scrutiny into how it raised and spent its money.

Inaugural committee spokesperson Kristin Celauro told The Associated Press that the committee had received the subpoena and was still reviewing it.

"It is our intention to co-operate with the inquiry," she said.

A second spokesperson, Owen Blicksilver, declined to answer questions about which documents prosecutors requested. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, which issued the subpoena, declined to comment.

The investigation is the latest in a series of criminal inquiries into Trump's campaign and presidency. Special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russia and whether the president obstructed the investigation. In a separate case in New York, prosecutors say Trump directed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen to make illegal hush-money payments to two women as a way to quash potential sex scandals during the campaign.

Foreign donations?

The Wall Street Journal, citing a copy of the subpoena, reported that prosecutors asked for "all documents" related to the committee's donors and vendors, as well as records relating to "benefits" donors received after making contributions.

The newspaper reported late last year that federal prosecutors are investigating whether committee donors made contributions in exchange for political favours — a potential violation of federal corruption laws. It said the inquiry also was focused on whether the inauguration misspent the $ 107 million it raised to stage events celebrating Trump's inauguration.

The subpoena also requested documents relating to donations "made by or on behalf of foreign nationals, including but not limited to any communications regarding or relating to the possibility of donations by foreign nationals," the Journal reported.

The New York Times reported late last year that federal prosecutors are examining whether anyone from Qatar, Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries made illegal payments to the committee and a pro-Trump super political action committee. Foreign contributions to inaugural funds and PACs are prohibited under federal law.

The head of the inaugural committee, Tom Barrack, confirmed to The Associated Press that he was questioned by Mueller in 2017. He told the AP he was not a target of the Mueller investigation.

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