Volker resigns from McCain Institute, says impeachment testimony ‘becoming a distraction’

WASHINGTON – Three days after he told staff at the McCain Institute that he was still their executive director, Kurt Volker resigned Monday because his role in a House impeachment inquiry “risks becoming a distraction” to the work of the institute.

Volker’s future with the institute was called into question after he spent 10 hours Thursday before House committees that are pressing an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

Volker resigned last month as U.S. special envoy for Ukraine after his name surfaced in a whistleblower’s report about President Donald Trump’s call to the new Ukrainian president.

He followed Thursday’s hearings with a Friday clear-the-air meeting with institute staff. But an institute spokesman said Friday that the institute’s trustees were going to meet to discuss “what’s best for the institute going forward, recognizing that, at some level, this is a distraction.”

The distraction centered on Trump’s July 25 call, in which the whistleblower said the president urged the Ukrainians to “do us a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joe Biden – a possible Trump challenger in 2020.

Three House panels that are handling the impeachment inquiry – the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees – released pages of text messages late Thursday from Volker in which he is an intermediary between Andrey Yermak, an aide to the Ukrainian president, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.

In those texts, Volker negotiates the terms of a meeting with Trump, with most indicating a meeting is contingent on the Ukrainians agreeing to announce an investigation.

In one text, on the morning of the call with Trump, Volker says the White House can likely “nail down a date for a visit to Washington” if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “convinces Trump he will investigate/’get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016.”

After Thursday’s meeting, the first of several expected over the next week, committee leaders wrote a “dear colleague” letter to other member of Congress that condemned the actions by Trump, his staff and Giuliani.

They said the Volker texts make it “immediately apparent” why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has tried to prevent State Department employees from appearing before the committees.

The committee chairmen, all Democrats, pointed to messages from Bill Taylor, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, who expressed doubts on the administration’s actions, including with delay of military aid. Taylor said the move would please Russia and shake the Ukrainians’ faith in the U.S. as an ally.

“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a personal campaign,” Taylor wrote in the texts Volker provided to the committees.

But Republicans in the hearings praised Volker’s testimony Thursday, while criticizing Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the Intelligence Committee chairman, and other committee leaders for limiting questions from lawmakers.

“If this is how Mr. Schiff will conduct these interviews in the future, that is a concern. Ambassador Volker has been impressive and has said nothing that coincides with what the Democrats are saying with their impeachment narrative,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ranking member on the Oversight Committee.

Volker met Friday with staff at the McCain Institute’s office, which is housed in Arizona State University’s Washington, D.C., building, to answer “any question that they had … and being as candid about his volunteer work” as the envoy to the Ukraine, said Luke Knittig, a spokesman for the institute.

National media reported Friday that Volker was on his way out, but Knittig said Volker told staff “he was continuing as our director.”

“His bosses, the people that he reports to, are discussing what’s best for the institute going forward, recognizing that, at some level, this is a distraction. But that’s where things stand,” Knittig added.

Volker declined comment as he left the meeting Friday. Calls to members of the institute’s board of trustees about Volker’s future were not immediately returned.

Arizona State University spokesman Bret Hovell confirmed in an email that Volker will remain executive director. Asked for how long, Hovell demurred Friday.

“What I can tell you is that we have nothing to announce. Kurt Volker is the executive director of the McCain Institute,” he wrote.

Written with Megan U. Boyanton. Read more here. 



Despite ICE detainer ruling, business as usual for Arizona sheriffs

WASHINGTON – Two weeks after a federal court halted some detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Arizona law enforcement agencies say they are still doing business with the agency as usual.

A U.S. District judge in Central California ruled last month that ICE requests to hold people based solely on an electronic database of biometric data are an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment.

But the ruling exempts states where state law allowed local officials to hold immigrants, and Arizona is one of those states. That leaves the decision to county sheriffs – a fact that one Phoenix immigration attorney said has left cases in the state “all over the map.”

State law allows county sheriffs “the authority to develop their own protocol consistent with the law,” said Ryan Anderson, a spokesman with the Arizona attorney general’s office. He said the law bars detention of people for “longer than necessary” on suspicion of being here illegally.

But the law, supplemented by a set of guides from the attorney general, leaves enforcement to local discretion, he said. That includes how they handle ICE detainers.

For Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, that means turning people over to Border Patrol, but only if federal authorities can come immediately and pick them up. Estrada will not hold them, unless federal officials have a warrant, he said.

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“If people are released, they have the right to move on,” Estrada said.

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier said his office will hand over someone on whom there is an active detainer request, and it will cooperate with ICE as needed. But county officials will not work on ICE’s behalf, he said.

“I wouldn’t expect a Border Patrol agent or ICE official to write parking tickets in Pima County,” Napier said. “It’s not their job.”

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said his deputies will cooperate with federal agencies, “if there’s a collective effort or mission.” That includes honoring detainers and picking up those believed to be in the country illegally.

“What it means in practice is, it’s all over the map,” said Ruben Reyes, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney, of the way local authorities in the state decide to handle detainer requests.

“It’s not so cut and dry,” Reyes said. “Is 30 minutes too long? Is 20 minutes too long?”

Even though Arizona is mostly unchanged, Reyes welcomed the Sept. 27 injunction by U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr., who said that “fatal” flaws in the database ICE uses to make decisions on whether or not to detain people made the policy unconstitutional.

“Citizenship and immigration status are complex inquiries that sometimes require information that cannot be obtained through databases that do not receive constant updates or real-time information about a subject,” Birotte wrote.

The ruling was attacked Thursday in a White House press briefing by Acting ICE Director Matt Albence, who called it an overreach by a court that vilifies ICE employees while risking “the release of criminal aliens back onto the street.”

“Make no mistake: Rulings from any individual federal court sitting in a single judicial district but purporting to cripple ICE authorities on a nationwide basis puts people at risk – innocent victims whose lives will be forever changed for the worse all across our great country,” Albence said.

Albence, joined by sheriffs from around the U.S. and assistant director Barbara Gonzalez, said the ruling will also hurt relations with states and localities. He said “the vast majority” of county sheriffs see the benefit of working with ICE and honoring its requests.

“We have done this for decades because it is good policy and it is even better public safety,” he said.

Birotte’s decision is the latest in several years of legal battles between immigration advocacy groups and the federal government. Salvador Sarmiento, national campaign director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, welcomed the ruling and said the White House event is evidence of what he sees as political desperation.

“The more they speak, it’s basically just galvanizing more people to oppose” them, said Sarmiento, whose organization is one of several involved in the suit.

Birotte did not block detainers outright: He ruled only on those based on the database search and not where, for example, an immigrant tells authorities he is here illegally.

But Reyes called the injunction a step toward more humane immigration law that “hinders the scope and the quickness with which the agency’s been able to” detain based entirely on the databases.

“It takes away one tool” ICE has historically used, Reyes said, “but it doesn’t take away the toolbox.”