WASHINGTON, July 31, 2019 — Since becoming President in 2017, Donald Trump has frequently used his bully pulpit to draw attention to Americans held captive abroad by repressive regimes, and on occasion, to bring them home. But not every case is treated equally.
One of the first such successes of his presidency came in April 2017, when his administration convinced Egyptian dictator Fattah el-Sisi to allow Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi to return home after three years in custody on trumped-up human trafficking charges. Trump celebrated Hijazi’s return with her during a meeting in the Oval Office — complete with reporters and television cameras.
Just over a year later, in the weeks preceding his first meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump traveled to Joint Base Andrews in the wee hours of the morning to welcome home three Korean-Americans who’d been sentenced to hard labor.
And around that same time, he began tweeting about Andrew Brunson, an American missionary who’d been held by the Turkish on espionage and terrorism charges, and whose case he’d pressed during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When Erdogan’s government released Brunson in October 2018, Trump welcomed him back with another Oval Office photo opportunity.
Most recently, Trump was prevailed upon by First Lady Melania Trump and rapper Kanye West to press Sweden’s government to release Rakim Mayers, a New York-born rapper who goes by the stage name A$AP Rocky.
In a phone call last week, he appealed to Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to release Mayers, even offering to pay his bail. But when his offer fell on deaf ears, Trump lashed out at Sweden for not releasing the 30-year-old, who charged with assault after he and his entourage were captured on video allegedly punching and kicking a man who he claimed was following him.
“Give A$AP Rocky his FREEDOM. We do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Sweden should focus on its real crime problem!” Trump tweeted on July 25.
Meanwhile, Paul Whelan has lingered a Russian prison for nearly seven months
While Mayers’ case has captured the president’s attention, one American whose case has escaped it is Paul Whelan, a 49-year-old Michigan man who has been in a Russian prison for just under seven months.
A former police officer, Whelan is employed by auto parts maker BorgWarner as its chief security officer. He was arrested on December 28 while visiting Moscow for a wedding, and was subsequently charged with espionage.
Although Russian authorities have accused Whelan of working for the Central Intelligence Agency, intelligence community veterans say a person with his background would never be recruited as a covert intelligence agent.
Coincidentally, his arrest came two weeks after a Russian citizen, Maria Butina, pleaded guilty to being involved in an organized plot, sponsored by Russian government officials, to gain influence with National Rifle Association and Republican Party officials.
Russian officials have, at times, suggested that Whelan could be exchanged for Russians held on criminal charges in the United States, including Butina and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted of drug smuggling charges.
But unlike Mayers’ case — or those of Hijazi, Brunson, or the Korean-Americans formerly held by the Kim regime — Whelan’s case has, for the most part, unfolded without a word from the president of the United States.
In the nearly seven months since Whelan’s arrest, Trump has addressed his case publicly just once in January, when, prompted by a reporter’s question, he replied: “we’re looking into that.”
But the President has not spoken publicly about Whelan since then, and, according to White House sources, has not raised the issue during any of the myriad phone calls or meetings he has had with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an interview with BeltwayBreakfast, Whelan’s twin brother David said it’s “really hard to know” his brother’s case has not brought about the same sort of response from President Trump.
“It’s not clear to me why the administration speaks out on the half of some detainees and not others,” he said.
What role is the State Department playing in the Paul Whelan case?
While David Whelan praised the current U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, for keeping him and the rest of Paul Whelan’s family informed about his brother’s condition, he explained that other than a single meeting between his and Paul’s sister Elizabeth Whelan and National Security Adviser John Bolton, his family has gotten little in the way of information about what, if anything, is being done to bring his brother home.
According to Ms. Whelan, that June meeting was the culmination of six months of attempts to establish a dialogue between the Whelan family and NSC officials.
Ms. Whelan explained that she first reached out to Fiona Hill, then the NSC’s Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs in January of this year, shortly after he brother was captured.
“I sent information [to Hill] via the contacts I had, not expecting that she was going to suddenly jump on a plane and go and try to get Paul out, but I wanted it on her radar that this situation was going on,” said Ms. Whelan, a Martha’s Vineyard-Based painter. She added that unlike advocates of other Americans who’ve been held abroad during Trump’s presidency, she and her siblings have elected to work quietly.
“We have taken a particular tack through this entire scenario, of not being a family that goes in…banging on desks,” she said.
Her low-key approach paid off in April, when she connected with Hill’s deputy, Joe Wang, eventually leading to the meeting with Bolton. “We knew that there were a lot of meetings coming up of a global nature where Paul could be discussed, and we wanted the State Department continuing to bring Paul’s name up and try to move something.”
Following that meeting, on June 16 Bolton Tweeted: “Had a productive meeting Friday with Elizabeth Whelan on how to support her brother Paul, who is imprisoned in Russia. Russia has provided no evidence of wrongdoing.”
Put on display in a Moscow courtroom, Whelan himself suggests to Trump: ‘Tweet your intentions’
Soon after this brief interaction in early June, Paul Whelan was brought before a Moscow courtroom on June 20. Speaking from a behind a glass cage in that Moscow courtroom, Whelan shouted for Trump to intervene on his behalf.
“Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect and defend American citizens wherever they are in the world,” various media outlets reported. “Tweet your intentions.”
Whelan had requested of the Russian judge that he be released from prison and placed under house arrest instead; the judge denied that request.
But when it came to President Trump’s meeting with Putin at this year’s G20 summit on June 28-29, Ms. Whelan said her interactions with NSC officials did not give her the impression that the president would bring up her brother’s case during his one-on-one meeting with the Russian leader.
“I had no expectation necessarily that President Trump himself was going to bring it up,” she said. I felt that if President Trump had not [already] said something, the likelihood of him suddenly saying something at G20 might not be that large.”
Video of the start of Trump’s meeting with Putin at the G20 summit showed him joking with the Russian dictator about Russia’s meddling in American elections. White House readouts of the meeting did not indicate that Whelan’s case was one of the subjects discussed.
State Department says it continues to be engaged to ensure humane treatment for Whelan
A State Department spokesperson said that the department remains in regular contact with the Whelan family and will continue to press for fair and humane treatment, due process, and access to appropriate medical care. They also said that the department urges the Russian government to guarantee a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay, in accordance with its international legal obligations.
Further, the spokesperson said that the department has protested to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Paul Whelan’s mistreatment while in custody, and that they have asked Russia to investigate these allegations and ensure Mr. Whelan’s safety and security.
Consular officials conducted the embassy’s 11th prison visit this month to Whelan since he was first detained.
But will Donald Trump say or Tweet something about Paul Whelan?
Although the Whelans asked to meet with the president, Ms. Whelan said she did not expect their request to be granted. Still, she said she remains grateful for the opportunity to meet with Bolton, who, according to a senior administration official, has been “intimately involved” in efforts to free Paul.
“The administration feels that in this particular instance, diplomatic means are the best course of action,” the official said.
“Ambassador Huntsman is engaged, and Ambassador Bolton is deeply engaged. They’re in constant communication with the family as well,” the official said.
But David Whelan disputed the official’s representations of Bolton’s involvement. “It’s different from how I would have characterized any NSC communication with the family,” he said.
Not all Americans who are held captive abroad and treated equally
The Whelan family’s predicament is compounded by a quirk in federal law which means not all Americans who are held captive abroad are treated equally.
When an American is taken hostage by terrorists or a transnational criminal organization, an Obama-era Executive Order, Executive Order 13698, provides a mechanism to marshal the full resources of the United States government in order to bring that person home.
According to former National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, the impetus for the 2014 Executive Order was a rash of kidnappings and murders perpetrated by the then-ascendant Islamic State terrorist organization.
ISIS, Price said, was “a challenge unlike others we had faced in the hostage-taking realm, because it rose to new levels of brutality in its operations.”
“The understanding was that with a terrorist group like ISIS, there needed to be better coordination between and among all the instruments of government,” he said.
“The point of the executive order was to effectuate information sharing between and among instruments and government — military intelligence, diplomacy, treasury, and law enforcement — and with the family, because another realization that we came to is that in some of these cases, the family members weren’t getting adequate updates on the status of their loved one to the extent of what was known, and regarding what the U.S. government was doing in order to try to bring about the relief and the safe recovery of their of their loved ones.”
Executive Order 13698 also established a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, whose responsibilities include the coordination of diplomatic engagements “regarding cases in which a foreign government confirms that it has detained a U.S. national but the United States Government regards such detention as unlawful or wrongful.”
In failing to raise the Whelan case publicly, is Putin’s Russia being given special treatment by the Trump White House?
But according to David Whelan, he and the rest of his family have been led to believe that Paul’s case is not one that would be handled by the SPEHA because he is being held in a Russian prison, not an ISIS spider-hole.
“My understanding is that in order to engage things like the [SPEHA],the term ‘hostage’ has a very specific meaning,” he said, which excludes anyone held in a country “that nominally has the rule of law.”
Noting that Russia is not known for having much in the way of an independent criminal justice system, Whelan differentiated his brother’s case from that of Mayers.
“I would say that Sweden has a much stronger case for saying they have a rule of law than Russia does,” he said.
Why is the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs in Sweden?
But one person who doesn’t appear to accept Sweden’s case for having established rule of law is President Trump, who this week sent Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O’Brien to Sweden in support of Mayers.
O’Brien, who was in a Stockholm courtroom on Tuesday for Mayers’ trial, told CNN that he was there to “support the members of the family and the American citizens.”
Asked to weigh in on why Mayers’ case seems to have attracted President Trump’s attention while his brothers has not, David Whelan lamented the fact that “there seems to be a need to have celebrity or have some sort of angle in order to get the wheels of the government to move.”
However, he declined to opine on why the President might have decided to send O’Brien to Sweden, when his own family has not been given access to the same level of support.
“One of the things that every family that’s involved in this sort of situation realizes is that some things happen in the open and some things happen behind the scenes. If the administration chooses to use one tool in one particular case and doesn’t in another, it doesn’t necessarily make us feel that Paul isn’t getting the attention he needs.”
“But I would convey to [Trump] my concern that Paul has been in a Russian prison for seven months, and that the American government has not taken a public stance that they’re going to bring him home.”
Price criticizes Trump for special treatment of an American rapper Mayers in Sweden
Price, the former NSC spokesman, did comment on O’Brien’s involvement in Mayers’ case. Price is currently Policy Director at National Security Action.
Mayers’ case, Price said, is not even in the same category as what was envisioned for the SPEHA’s portfolio.
“it is very clear cut that what is happening to [Mayers] is part of a judicial proceeding in a country where rule of law is not only established, but is ingrained in the system,” he said.
“So this is not something that was ever envisioned by the executive order. Nor I think was it something that had ever been envisioned in any other realm other than the Trump administration.”
Price said the President’s use of the SPEHA “reinforces the message that we’ve long known, which is that President Trump places his own personal and political interests above those of the American people. And in this case, he’s placing his personal and political interests above people like Paul Whelan.”
“The fact that he is attaching his name, imprimatur and tools of government which weren’t even designed and envision for a case like this suggests that to him, this is good politics as he is under fire for racist statements and racist actions,” he said.
“For him to champion this particular case — which most accounts is proceeding through a well-established judicial system — makes a mockery of legitimate efforts, most of which go on in silence, to free Americans held unjustly, whether it’s by a state or a non-state actor.”
The White House did not respond to repeated queries as to what had prompted President Trump to dispatch O’Brien to Sweden, whether Trump was even aware of Whelan’s case, or if he would be sending O’Brien to Russia to advocate for Whelan’s release.
The State Department did not respond to repeated inquiries as to whether President Trump’s decision to send O’Brien to Sweden represented an expansion of his portfolio or a change in U.S. policy towards Americans held on criminal charges abroad.
Despite Efforts To Calm Americans’ Fears, Trump’s Coronavirus Approval Drops
President Donald Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States is leaving Americans less than impressed.
A Morning Consult poll released Tuesday shows less than half of voters surveyed — 49 percent — approve of the president’s approach to dealing with the threat posed by the virus’ spread in the US.
The results of that poll, taken from February 28 to March 1, showed a marked drop from the 56 percent of voters who said they approved of Trump’s actions when surveyed from February 24 to February 26th, a decline caused by a 9-point drop in independents approving of his performance, as well as a 7-point drop among Democrats.
The same February 28-March 1 poll showed the number of voters who disapprove rising to 37 percent, which leaves the president’s net approval on the coronavirus issue at 12 points. That’s less than one third of what it was three weeks ago.
The president’s declining approval numbers on coronavirus come despite his attempts to project calm during two press conferences last week, during which he attacked Democrats for supposedly politicizing the issue.
Trump also tried to stem discontent in the financial markets by putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating his administration’s response to the outbreak.
But Pence has a checkered history when it comes to public health matters. As governor of Indiana in 2015, the future Vice President presided over an outbreak of HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — among intravenous drug users that saw over 200 people infected.
Although Pence was advised by public health experts to declare a public health emergency and issue emergency regulations to allow needle exchanges to operate in Indiana (which bans them).
Citing his own belief that needle exchange programs encourage drug use (a belief which is contradicted by most public health experts), Pence refused to allow any such emergency measures until roughly two months after the outbreak peaked, when he approved an exchange which would operate for 30 days.
In 2018, Yale University epidemiologists found that the outbreak could have been stemmed had Pence and other state officials acted faster.
“Our findings suggest that with earlier action the actual number of infections recorded in Scott County — 215 — might have been brought down to fewer than 56, if the state had acted in 2013, or to fewer than 10 infections, if they had responded to the [hepatitis C] outbreak in 2010-2011,” the study’s lead author, Forrest W. Crawford, said at the time. “Instead, they cut funding for the last HIV testing provider in the county.”
Another of the paper’s authors, Yale University’s Gregg Gonsalves, tweeted on Wednesday that Trump’s decision to place Pence in charge of coronavirus response ““speaks to a lack of seriousness by the White House.”
When asked on Saturday whether he and Pence would pledge that politics and ideology would play no role in determining how the Trump administration responds to a coronavirus outbreak, Trump refused to do so.
Speaking in his own defense, Pence downplayed the seriousness of the 2015 outbreak, which he said occurred “in a very small town.”
“I think my experience as a governor, dealing with two different infectious diseases and seeing the vital role that local healthcare providers play, that federal officials play, it has really informed me,” he said.
Trump’s Attempt To Delay Bolton Book Unlikely To Pass Muster With Courts, Experts Say
President Trump is personally seeking to block publication of his former national security adviser’s book by asserting that any conversation with him is by its very nature classified.
The heretofore unprecedented theory would prevent Ambassador John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser until last fall, from publishing his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” until either Trump relents and allows it or a judge intervenes after litigation that would undoubtedly delay the book’s publication until well past its announced March 7 release date.
According to The Washington Post, Trump has told aides that he will endeavor to block the book’s publication on the grounds that his conversations with Bolton are classified in their entirety, no matter the topic.
While the president has broad authority to declare information classified — or to declassify it — an assertion that all conversations between him and his national security advisor are classified would contradict the posture taken by the career National Security Council staff tasked with reviewing the manuscript prior to publication.
In a letter sent last month to Bolton attorney Charles Cooper, NSC records office senior director Ellen Knight warned that Bolton’s book “appear[ed] to contain significant amounts of classified information” which had been deemed top secret, but also maintained that the NSC would assist with revisions to excise that information so as to “move forward as expeditiously as possible.”
Knight, a career official whose role places her in charge of the prepublication review process, told Cooper that NSC staff would “do our best to work with you to ensure your client’s ability to tell his story in a manner that protects U.S. national security.”
Joshua Geltzer, a Georgetown University Law Center visiting professor who served as the NSC’s Senior Director for Counterterrorism from 2015-2017, said an assertion that any conversations between Bolton and the president are per se classified was unlikely to pass legal muster.
“At best, that’s mushing classification together with executive privilege,” he said. “Sometimes people think of [classification] as a form of privilege, but it’s not the same as the privilege that attaches to the communications between the President and his closest advisor.”
Geltzer said he would hope that the career NSC officials who’d normally review Bolton’s book would do their jobs “as they understand them to be best and correctly done,” but conceded that Trump could, in theory, overrule them.
If the President wants to overrule them, he definitely has that authority in many, many areas. But I would hope that their instinct is still to do the job correctly, rather than to do it incorrectly.”
Steven Aftergood, a physicist who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said claiming any conversation with the president is classified would be an “unusually aggressive and expansive view of classification,” but said such an assertion would not necessarily pass legal muster because the White House would need to indicate to Bolton what information in the book is classified “with a degree of specificity.”
Knight, Aftergood said, would most likely not tolerate such an abuse of the prepublication review process because she is “a career professional who has spent decades distinguishing carefully between what is classified and what is not.”
If Bolton is forced to file suit to ensure publication of his manuscript, Geltzer said judges might not take kindly to such a sweeping declaration of classification in the post-Snowden era.
A judge, he said, could ask for the government to submit an ex parte affidavit — one that is submitted to the court without a copy being seen by the other side — explaining why certain information has been deemed classified at a level that disclosure would cause “grave harm” to national security.
But forcing Bolton to take the White House to court could backfire, he explained.
“Are they really going to claim that John Bolton, a hard, right conservative, is trying to jeopardize national security by disclosing classified information? Who is really going to believe that?” he asked.
“Everyone will understand what what game is being played right now if publication is is blocked, or significantly deferred,” he said. If his book is is delayed for months or longer, everyone will understand that it’s not because of national security reasons, but because of political ones.”
Party-Line Votes Stop Schumer’s Subpoena Push
The Senate has rejected a succession of amendments to the rules governing President Trump’s impeachment trial which would direct Chief Justice John Roberts to issue subpoenas to the White House and several executive branch agencies which refused to honor subpoenas issued during the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Senators voted along party lines, 53-47 to table a series of amendments offered to the proposed Republican-authored trial rules by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, which would have compelled the White House, the State Department, and the Office of Management and Budget to produce documents for the Senate to consider as evidence when deciding whether to remove Trump from office for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, condemned Democrats for objecting to the “very reasonable proposal” of using a process similar to that used to try President Bill Clinton in 1999.
“This seems to be a time for Adam Schiff and the house managers to attack the president and lecture the American people,” he said.
While speaking to reporters during a break in the trial, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar hit back against White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who during part of his arguments on Tuesday remarked that “some of you” (referring to senators who are currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination) “should be in Iowa” rather than sitting in the Senate chamber.
“I’ve made clear from the very beginning that I’ve got to do my constitutional duty,” she said.