President Trump reversed himself on Sunday and said that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, should not testify before Congress, setting up a potentially explosive confrontation with Democrats over presidential authority and the separation of powers.
The president argued on Twitter that Mr. Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election — which found no conspiracy between Moscow and Mr. Trump’s campaign but did not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice — was conclusive and that Congress and the American people did not need to hear from Mr. Mueller. “Bob Mueller should not testify,” he said. “No redos for the Dems!”
On Friday, Mr. Trump had said it was up to Attorney General William P. Barr whether Mr. Mueller testified. The president’s about-face now puts new pressure on Mr. Barr, who must decide whether to accede to Mr. Trump’s call. Last week, Mr. Barr said he had no objection to Mr. Mueller testifying.
The conflict over Mr. Mueller escalates Mr. Trump’s fight with Democrats just as his re-election campaign is taking shape. It comes on top of numerous refusals by the administration to turn over records to Congress, including a request for Mr. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump has also balked at testimony from his former White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II.
Still, the confrontation over Mr. Mueller, however much it antagonizes Democrats, could be short-lived. Mr. Mueller, who as special counsel is an employee of the Justice Department, is likely to finish his work this month. After that, any decision to testify before Congress would not be constrained by Mr. Barr, assuming the White House does not try to stop him by some other means, possibly through the courts.
Throughout the two-year investigation, Mr. Mueller has said virtually nothing in public. Democrats have insisted that Mr. Mueller is the best person to provide a detailed interpretation of the 448-page report that he delivered in March to Mr. Barr, and on Sunday, they vowed to press ahead.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, criticized the president, saying he “repeatedly tried to fire Mueller, then he refused to be interviewed by Mueller.”
“Now he’s trying to silence Mueller,” he said, adding, “Mueller must testify publicly before Congress.”
The House Judiciary Committee formally invited Mr. Mueller to testify last month and has been negotiating details of a possible appearance on May 15, but no date has been confirmed. Separately, the House Intelligence Committee has also invited Mr. Mueller to answer questions.
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Two people close to Mr. Trump said he had been moving toward an objection to Mr. Mueller testifying over the last few days as a counter to the call from some Democrats to impeach Mr. Barr for how he handled his own testimony last week to Congress.
But some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have warned that he risks turning Mr. Mueller into a martyred figure if he demands that he not testify. Others close to the president say he is making a mistake for a different reason in trying to restrain Mr. Mueller.
The special counsel, they say, would most likely face tough questions from Republicans about two F.B.I. officials, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who in text exchanges were deeply critical of Mr. Trump as they were investigating Russian interference in the election. Those questions would undercut Mr. Mueller’s investigation, those close to the president say, and allow them to paint it as a partisan attack on Mr. Trump.
Mr. Barr, during a hearing about the report before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, was pressed on whether Mr. Mueller should be allowed to testify.
“I’ve already said publicly I have no objection to him testifying,” Mr. Barr responded.
By Sunday, the president did have an objection. “Are they looking for a redo because they hated seeing the strong NO COLLUSION conclusion?” Mr. Trump tweeted. “There was no crime, except on the other side (incredibly not covered in the Report), and NO OBSTRUCTION.”
Democrats say it is essential to hear from Mr. Mueller given the friction between the special counsel’s office and Mr. Barr over how the report has been characterized.
After Mr. Mueller delivered his report to Mr. Barr in March, the attorney general issued a four-page summary in which he said there was no finding of collusion between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia. But he also quoted Mr. Mueller saying he could not exonerate the president on the obstruction issue.
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Mr. Mueller then wrote a letter to Mr. Barr complaining that his relatively short rendering of the lengthy report lacked context and full explanation. Last week, Mr. Barr called the letter “snitty” during his Senate testimony.
Mr. Trump and many of his allies have pushed the theme that Mr. Mueller’s report spoke for itself, and that there is no need for additional hearings or testimony. They say Congress should not only move on, but focus its oversight efforts on whether Democrats had even more troubling ties to possible Russian interference.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is among several supporters of the president who have tried to close the book on the Mueller inquiry by saying simply, “It’s over.”
Mr. Graham, however, did open a small window to hear from Mr. Mueller, saying that if the special counsel thought that Mr. Barr had mischaracterized a conversation with him during his congressional testimony, then he would offer the chance for him to clarify the matter before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter on April 8 to the committee chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, asking that Mr. Mueller testify.
“I write encouraging you to invite Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III to testify before our Committee without delay. If you seek both transparency and for the American public to learn the full contours of the Special Counsel’s investigation, public testimony from Special Counsel Mueller himself is undoubtedly the best way to accomplish this goal,” Mr. Collins wrote.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Collins said on Sunday that he still wanted Mr. Mueller to testify.
The effects of the Mueller investigation continued to weigh on the president into Sunday evening.
“Despite the tremendous success that I have had as President, including perhaps the greatest ECONOMY and most successful first two years of any President in history, they have stollen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back,” he said in another tweet.
Sarah Jessica Parker slams Bill de Blasio for proposing New York City library cuts
Sarah Jessica Parker slammed New York City Mayor (and Democratic presidential hopeful) Bill de Blasio over his proposed cuts to New York City libraries.
The “Sex and the City” star channeled her inner Carrie Bradshaw and wrote a missive blasting de Blasio’s $11 million funding cut proposal, which the New York Post reports would force the New York Public Library to cut back its hours and services offered.
“As Carrie Bradshaw might, I couldn’t help but wonder: Can New York City survive without strong public libraries? Could I, as a New Yorker, accept cuts to our wonderful, important, necessary, and beloved libraries? I’m sorry. I can’t,” she wrote.
“It is not only a regular neighborhood stop for books, programs, and more, it is a cornerstone, a beacon, and one of the most beloved buildings in our community. I don’t know what we’d do without it,” Parker, 54, continued.
At the urging of Parker’s note, several hundred people wrote “sticky notes” in support of their local libraries for InvestInLibraries.org.
By Sunday, hundreds of people had posted “sticky notes” with their names and that of their neighborhood lit house, including beloved ones in Midtown, Battery City and Yorkville in Manhattan.
Angela Montefinise, a senior public-relations director of NYPL, told the Post of the proposed budget cuts, “The impacts would be especially difficult, as we actually requested $35 million in additional funding this year to cope with rising costs, expanding and new branches to meet that growing needs of New Yorkers.”
Democrats Back Bill to Ban Sale of Gas-Powered Cars by 2040
Democrats will introduce legislation to mandate zero-emissions vehicles make up all new car sales by 2040.
The bill is co-sponsored by three Democrats running for president in 2020 who support the Green New Deal.
The internal combustion engine has long been a target for environmentalists.
Democrats will introduce legislation to completely phase out the use of gasoline-powered cars by mandating that only zero-emissions vehicles can be sold by 2040.
“When I take a lungful of air in this moment, it has 30% more carbon in it than when I was born,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, the bill’s main sponsor, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “That is a change that has never happened in a single generation of humankind on this planet.”
The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. California Rep. Mike Levin will introduce a House version of the bill, Huffington Post reported.
Harris, Gillibrand, and Sanders are running for president in 2020, and all of them co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution. However, no Democrat voted for the Green New Deal in March when it came up for a vote in the Senate.
Merkley, who also supports the Green New Deal, sees this bill as part of that broad vision of completely greening the U.S. economy. The Green New Deal calls for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years and dramatically expanding the welfare state.
“This is just one small contributor to that vision,” Merkley told The Huffington Post. “But we need to develop the details around many ideas so those ideas are ready to be combined into a larger package.”
“If we can’t get a larger package, but we can get individual pieces like electric cars, buses, better insulation, then we should do that, too,” Merkley said. “We need to push at every level.”
Merkley’s bill would mandate 50% of new vehicle sales be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. Companies can comply with the law by buying credits, which is similar to California’s zero-emission vehicle program that largely benefits electric car-makers, like Tesla.
The internal combustion engine has long been a target for environmentalists. Vehicle emissions are a large source of greenhouse gases and pollution, and some countries have already pushed forward with plans to get rid of gas engines.
France and the U.K., for example, plan on banning gas and diesel vehicles by 2040. On a more local level, Paris wants to ban gas-and-diesel-powered cars by 2030 and some German cities have also contemplated bans on diesel cars.
Merkley plans to introduce the bill Wednesday, and it’s nearly identical to electric vehicle legislation he introduced last year. The bill is unlikely to pass a Republican-controlled Senate and White House.
Huffington Post speculated that gas-powered cars could be taken completely off the road by 2050 based on current vehicle turnover rates.
There are, however, legitimate questions over the feasibility of drastically ramping up electric vehicle sales. Part of the problem is building out all the charging stations needed to keep electric cars moving.
Zero-emission vehicles made up just 1.9% of U.S. car sales nationwide, according to the Auto Alliance.
The environmental benefits of electric vehicles also depend on what energy sources are used to generate power and make batteries. Recent studies have found electric cars may not have much of an impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
New York’s New Congestion Pricing Law
In the biggest change in local transportation policy in a generation, maybe two, “congestion pricing” will be instituted in Manhattan’s Central Business District in early 2021. It is the first action in decades that could actually lower traffic congestion, and that could provide a stable funding base for the capital program of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). It also transfers considerable power from the Mayor to the Governor.
Vehicles entering Manhattan on or below 60th Street will need to pay a charge, probably through the E-ZPass system or, if they do not have such passes but their license plates are photographed, higher rates via “pay-by-mail.” The program has three major goals—reducing traffic volumes on Manhattan’s streets by making it more expensive to drive; reducing air pollution; and providing an assured source of capital funding for the transit system.
The new program was enacted as part of the FY2020 State budget, Chapter 59 of the Laws of 2019. Most of it is codified in a new Article 44-C of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. This column discusses what the law provides, what is yet to be decided, and who will decide.
Coverage and Exemptions
Vehicles that travel south of 60th Street only on Route 9A (the West Side Highway) or the FDR Drive will not have to pay, but if they venture inward they will. The only exemptions written into the new statute are emergency vehicles, and vehicles transporting a person with disabilities (to be defined). People who reside south of 60th Street and have annual incomes below $60,000 will receive a credit against their state income taxes. Passenger vehicles will only have to pay once a day, even if they cross 60th Street more than once.
Beyond that, the board of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) will set the charges and decide on any exemptions or discounts. The statute directs TBTA to implement a plan for exemptions, credits or discounts for for-hire vehicles such as taxis, green cabs, black cars, and rideshare vehicles such as Uber and Lyft. Since Feb. 1, 2019 these vehicles have been paying a congestion surcharge for trips south of 96th Street of $2.75 ($2.50 for medallion taxis, $0.75 for pool trips). This surcharge was enacted by the State Legislature on April 1, 2018. Some in the taxi industry challenged the action; the New York State Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against the surcharge but lifted that order on January 31.
The statute also directs TBTA to consider giving breaks of some sort to drivers who already paid to enter Manhattan through one of the tolled bridges or tunnels.
The law authorizes TBTA to provide additional credits, discounts and exemptions to others, as informed by traffic studies. Among those who are already seeking breaks are motorcycle, tour bus and truck drivers, and police officers. There are conflicting press reports about whether some kind of exemption has been promised to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy for New Jersey motorists.
A practical limit exists on how many discounts and exemptions can be granted, however, because the statute requires that the revenues from the surcharge must be enough to support at least $15 billion in bonds for the 2020-2024 capital program, which translates to an annual revenue requirement of roughly $1 billion.
The revenues must all go to capital expenditures—80% for the New York City Transit Authority (i.e., subways and buses), 10% for the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), and 10% for the Metro North Commuter Railroad. The state budget includes a separate $100 million to design, procure and install the tolling system.
Most estimates are that the roundtrip charge will be in the $12-$14 range for passenger cars and around $25 for trucks during prime business hours, and less at night and on weekends.
The system will be planned, designed, installed and operated by TBTA, the arm of the MTA that tolls and maintains bridges and tunnels. By the end of May, the TBTA must enter into a memorandum of understanding with the New York City Department of Transportation with regard to how the congestion pricing system will be designed, installed and maintained. Unless that memorandum provides otherwise, all the key decisions will be made by the TBTA.
The law requires the TBTA to create a Traffic Mobility Review Board to conduct the traffic studies and recommend the toll amounts and variable tolling structure. One of the Board’s six members is to be recommended by the Mayor of New York City. The other five members will be appointed by the TBTA (read: the Governor’s Office) and are to include one member each from the LIRR and Metro North territories. The Board’s recommendations are due in November or December 2020. The statute provides that the system may not start earlier than Dec. 31, 2020, followed by a phase-in period of 60 days. Given that the MTA wants to begin collecting the money as soon as possible, the system will probably debut in January 2021. The ultimate toll amounts, exemptions, and other details will be decided by the TBTA.
There is no provision for public participation in any of these decisions, except that the TBTA must hold a hearing on the proposed charges. The statute explicitly exempts the whole of the congestion pricing plan from the State Environmental Quality Review Act and the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, two mechanisms by which public voices would normally be heard.
The law transfers a considerable amount of legal control over Manhattan streets from an agency controlled by the Mayor (the City’s Department of Transportation) to one controlled by the Governor (the TBTA). Mayor Bill de Blasio evidently agreed to this switch.
Those seeking less traffic congestion, cleaner air and more mass transit funding have been calling for charges to enter Manhattan for many years. The Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro (now Edward I. Koch) bridges had tolls in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but those did not last long. City officials proposed to reinstate the tolls in 1933 but they were not enacted. In 1973 Governor Nelson Rockefeller and outgoing Mayor John Lindsay submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a “transportation control plan” that included tolls on the free bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers. (All the other bridges and tunnels into Manhattan already had tolls.) Under the federal Clean Air Act, this plan was binding. Lindsay’s successor, Mayor Abraham Beame, vigorously opposed the tolls. When the courts rejected the City’s efforts to annul the plan, Congress provided relief in 1977 in exchange for pledges of more transit funding. Transit advocates repeatedly proposed new tolling plans in the ensuing years, but got nowhere.
Thirty years later, in 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing, having seen the success of such a scheme in London. The plan passed the City Council and received a pledge of federal funding, but could not gain the approval of the State Legislature. Opposition from the outer boroughs and the suburban counties demonstrated once again that bridge tolls—a key element of the plan—were a third rail of New York politics.
With the emergence of electronic systems for collecting tolls without queue-generating toll booths, and with the deterioration of the transit system, the case became stronger for charging for entry into Manhattan’s Central Business District and using the money to pay for transit. An additional important piece, put forward by the Move NY coalition that pressed for congestion pricing in the intervening years, was the idea of using a portion of the funding to improve transit access in so-called transit deserts—underserved parts of the outer boroughs. Governor Andrew Cuomo signaled support for the idea in 2017, and helped push it through in 2019. Mayor de Blasio came to support the proposal in the closing weeks of the state’s budget process.
Congestion pricing has long worked effectively in London, Singapore and Stockholm. New York will be the first city in the western hemisphere to adopt it. The rest of the world will be watching.
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