RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Virginia Democrats pressured Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax to resign on Monday over accusations of sexual assault, which he denies, but held off on pursuing impeachment, with the Republican speaker of the state House urging restraint.
Fairfax is one of three top state Democrats engulfed by scandal this month. Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have also faced criticism after admitting they wore blackface in the 1980s.
Patrick Hope, a Democratic member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, said he believed Fairfax should have resigned already after two women accused him of sexual assault but added he would not move immediately on his weekend call for impeachment proceedings.
Adding to the pressure, much of the lieutenant governor’s staff have resigned since the second accuser came forward on Friday, according to his spokeswoman, Lauren Burke. They included his policy director and his scheduling director, as well as the executive director and a fundraiser at his political action committee, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper reported.
The accusations of racist behavior or sexual assault against the three men have rattled party leadership in a swing state that likely will play a pivotal role in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Democrats have been gaining power in the Southern state in the last few election years.
Party leaders in Virginia and across the nation have called for Northam and Fairfax to resign. They have been more forgiving toward Herring, largely because he came forward on his own to admit having performed in blackface at a 1980 college party, rather than waiting for someone to accuse him.
Northam and Herring are white; Fairfax is black.
Hope, the white Democratic lawmaker who had called for Fairfax’s impeachment, renewed his call for the lieutenant governor to resign while saying he was discussing whether impeachment was the best solution.
“Fairfax should have already resigned,” Hope said in a statement. “The message being sent to victims of sexual assault is chilling.” He said he believed Fairfax’s two accusers.
The scandals may cost the Democrats their chance to take over control of the legislature in November’s elections, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. He said the scandals have eroded voters’ faith in the party to put forward good candidates, and any perceived racial disparities in consequences may cause further harm.
“You’ve got three of them in trouble, and then potentially the African-American goes and the two whites stay,” he said in a telephone interview. “There could be complete justification for that, but it looks terrible.”
House Speaker Kirk Cox, the Republican who would become governor if all three Democrats resigned, said it was too soon to say whether he would support impeachment.
“We need to be very careful with the high standards of impeachment,” he told reporters. A majority of House members would have to vote to impeach for the proceedings to move to the Senate. A two-thirds majority in the upper chamber would be needed to remove someone from office.
Northam has insisted he would not resign over a 1984 medical school yearbook picture, which showed a person in blackface next to another wearing the robes and hood of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. Northam denied being in that picture but admitted to dressing in blackface for a social event that same year.
Blackface traces its history to 19th-century minstrel shows that mocked African-Americans, and is seen as offensive by many Americans – though its use continued in U.S. popular culture through to the early 21st century.
About 39 percent of white Americans say it is at least sometimes acceptable to don blackface for a Halloween costume, while 37 percent believed it was never acceptable, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted mostly before Northam’s admission and released on Monday. Only 18 percent of black Americans agreed it was at least sometimes acceptable, while 53 percent said it was never acceptable. (pewrsr.ch/2tgHl88)
Fairfax has said sexual encounters with both women were consensual.
Members of the legislature’s black caucus are also seeking an investigation that does not immediately involve impeachment.
“We don’t know how to do that yet,” Delegate Lamont Bagby, the caucus chairman, said in an interview.
Reporting by Gary Robertson, additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis
McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump’s a Russian asset
McCabe has said in the past that the FBI had a good reason to open up a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was working with Russia and a possible national security threat.
The former official was on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” when he was asked if he believes Trump may still be a Russian asset. He said he’s “anxious” to see the conclusion of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation.
He was also asked if he believes Trump is fit to serve and said it is not up to him to make the determination.
Gowdy challenges McCabe’s claim congressional leaders didn’t object to Russia counterintelligence probe
Former congressman and Fox News contributor Trey Gowdy disputed former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe’s claim Tuesday that congressional leaders didn’t object to the bureau’s counterintelligence investigation over President Trump’s Russia ties.
“The reason he’s doing it this way is that [Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.] and [former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.] are not allowed to discuss anything that’s said in a ‘Gang of Eight’ meeting and McCabe knows that,” Gowdy said on “The Story with Martha MacCallum.” “So he can level the accusation and Devin and Paul cannot refute him.” Nunes chaired the House Intelligence Committee from 2015-19.
McCabe, in an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday morning, said no members of the “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders, including Nunes and Ryan, objected to the investigation.
“I told Congress what we had done,” McCabe told Savannah Guthrie.
“Did anyone object?” Guthrie asked.
“That’s the important part here, Savannah,” McCabe replied. “No one objected. Not on legal grounds, not on constitutional grounds and not based on the facts.”
Gowdy, formerly a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he believed McCabe wasn’t telling the truth and that Nunes and Ryan did not know about a second investigation.
“There were three investigations into a duly elected president. The Peter Strzok one from July of 2016 and then McCabe started a counterintelligence [probe] and if he’s telling the truth, started a criminal probe into the president of the United States,” Gowdy told Martha MacCallum.
“I listened to Devin and Paul quiz the [Justice Department] and the FBI for hours on multiple occasions about the one counterintelligence investigation, we all knew about it. I find it stunning that they would know about a second one and not say a single solitary word.”
Gowdy also addressed former FBI Director James Comey’s May 2017 firing and McCabe’s belief that the president was trying to shut down the Russia investigation.
“If thinking that Jim Comey is not a good FBI director is tantamount to being an agent of Russia then just list all the people that are agents of Russia. [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein…,” Gowdy said.
Fox News’ Martha MacCallum contributed to this report.
Trump, Giuliani deny president tried obstructing Michael Cohen investigation
President Trump’s attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, denied a New York Times report that Trump asked then-Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker whether U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a presidential ally, could be put in charge of the investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Trump’s onetime personal attorney Michael Cohen.
“The president said today he had no such conversation with the acting AG, and I believe Mr. Whitaker issued a statement to the same effect,” Giuliani said in a statement late Tuesday. “The rest of the piece is just a regurgitation of previously refuted obstruction theories. They all fail as obstruction because as [Harvard Law] Professor [Alan] Dershowitz’s recent book and many other authorities make clear, all of the alleged actions were within the president’s sole discretion under Article II of the U.S. Constitution.”
The Times report said that Whitaker told Trump that he could not put Berman in charge of the Cohen investigation because he had already recused himself from that matter. The paper claimed that Trump “soured” on Whitaker and “complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.”
Trump denied the story at the White House Tuesday afternoon, referring to the Times report as “more fake news” and saying that he had a “very good” relationship with Whitaker, who was replaced last week by William Barr.
“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Whitaker. I think he’s done a great job,” Trump said. He said Whitaker was “a very fine man, and he should be given a lot of thanks by our nation.”
Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec referred to testimony Whitaker gave to the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.
“Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,'” Kupec said. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”
Berman was named acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in January 2018 by the AG at that time, Jeff Sessions. Berman was appointed to the position indefinitely by the panel’s judges three months later.
Prosecutors in the Southern District say Trump directed Cohen to make illegal hush-money payments to two women — adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — in order to keep them quiet about alleged sexual encounters with them dating back more than a decade and coming soon after he’d married his current wife, Melania. Cohen is scheduled to report to prison next month to begin a three-year sentence after pleading guilty this past August to campaign finance and other violations.
Cohen is also scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 28. His attorney, Lanny Davis, has said that Cohen also plans to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight Committee before the end of this month. In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Fox News’ John Roberts and Jake Gibson contributed to this report.
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