Here are the main events that occurred in Politics this week:
1. Robert Mueller Gives Sweeping Congressional Testimony Regarding Trump Campaign’s Connection to Russia
In his long-awaited Congressional testimony on July 24 Special Counsel Robert Mueller told Congress that his investigation into the 2016 Trump Campaign’s connections to Russia did not completely exonerate President Donald Trump of wrongdoing and found that Russia worked to boost his election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” as the former special counsel defended his nearly two-year probe. “It is not a witch hunt,” Robert Mueller said after Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) noted that President Trump had often condemned the probe as just that. Offering little new information, Robert Mueller declined to answer questions at least 200 times, according to an NBC News tally, and he would not read out loud from his report, as lawmakers requested, instead urging them to do it instead. He often said questions were beyond the “purview” of his probe and was wary of saying much that could be construed as opinion.
Robert Mueller’s highly anticipated testimony began with the Judiciary Committee when Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) asked the former special counsel if his investigation had indeed cleared Trump, as the President has often claimed. “No,” Mueller answered flatly. The former special counsel, who testified under oath, also detailed why his team did not decide if President Donald Trump could be criminally charged, despite some evidence that the White House might have attempted to obstruct the investigation. “Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the president committed a crime,” Mueller said.
Republicans followed President Donald Trump’s lead in trying to discredit Mueller’s probe and used their allotted questioning time during the hearing to sow doubts about the probe’s origins, alleging that the special counsel overreached and asserting anti-Trump bias among the investigators. Congressman Doug Collins (R-GA), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, used his opening statement to say the investigation was started based on “baseless gossip.” Additionally, President Donald Trump repeatedly attacked Mueller on Twitter and suggests Democrats backfired by putting so much stock in such a reluctant witness. ” I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing. Now, after 3 hours, Robert Mueller has to subject himself to #ShiftySchiff – an Embarrassment to our Country!,” said Trump in a Twitter post. Multiple sources familiar with President Trump’s thinking characterize him as annoyed but not overly enraged ahead of the former special counsel’s testimony. Trump, on one hand, sees the prospect of Democrats overreaching on impeachment post-Mueller as a political winner, but he still finds it “incredibly annoying” and would rather the page be turned on this chapter of his administration, the sources said.
Overall, the long-awaited Mueller hearings thus far have had little impact on public opinion regarding impeaching President Donald Trump.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 47% of Americans said hearing from Mueller made no difference regarding their opinion on impeachment. Although 48% of Democrats polled said they were more likely to support impeachment following Mueller’s testimony, just 3% of Republicans said the same. The testimony seemed to convince Republicans that grounds for impeachment do not exist; 42% of Republicans said Mueller’s words caused them to be less likely to support impeachment than they were ahead of the testimony. Only 8% of Democrats shared this view. A majority of Republicans (54%) said the hearings did not change their views on impeachment at all, however, as did 44% of Democrats.
2. Recent GDP Report Indicates Potential Slowdown in US Economy
US economic growth fell to a 2.1% annual rate in the second quarter, down from a ~3.0% pace in the first three months of 2019, the Commerce Department said in a July 26 report. But growth came in slightly stronger than many analysts had expected. President Donald Trump has targeted a growth rate of 3% or above, citing the Republican tax cuts passed in 2017. A 5.2% drop in exports, amid economic weakness in Europe and elsewhere as well as the US trade war with China and other countries, contributed to the slowdown. In addition to weaker exports, the Commerce Department cited a number of other factors for the slowdown, including drops in business investment and investments in commercial and residential real estate. But consumer spending jumped 4.3% in the second quarter and government spending surged 5%. The economic slowdown comes even as unemployment, at 3.7%, is at near 50-year lows. Over the past three months, employers have added an average of slightly less than 200,000 jobs per month.
President Donald Trump, whose administration has sought to boost the economy through a combination of massive tax cuts, government spending, and deregulation, downplayed the slowdown in growth and blamed the Federal Reserve for the loss of momentum “Not bad considering we have the very heavy weight of the Federal Reserve anchor wrapped around our neck,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Almost no inflation. USA is set to Zoom!” Revisions to growth data published by the government also confirmed the economy missed the White House’s 3.0% target in 2018, growing at a rate of 2.9%. When measured on a year-on-year basis the economy only expanded 2.5%, instead of 3.0% as previously estimated. President Trump, who likes to brag about the economy being one of the biggest successes of his first term, had highlighted the year-on-year growth figure as evidence of the effectiveness of his policies. Economists, who are forecasting growth this year around 2.5%, say the massive fiscal stimulus, which included a $1.5 trillion tax cut package, had no lasting impact on growth while driving up the country’s debt. “The data makes one thing clear, the tax cuts did not result in a permanent shift upward in the growth path of the US economy,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM in New York.
The July 26 GDP report is a key indicator ahead of the Federal Reserve’s expected interest rate cut in the coming weeks. “Today’s data provides more ammunition for those arguing that the Fed should cut interest rates at its next meeting,” Josh Bivens, research director at the Economic Policy Institute, said in a statement. “A growth slowdown is clearly happening.” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said the economy is not so weak that it needs the Fed to cut rates aggressively. “This economy is not broken, and it does not need Fed action to fix it,” he said in a statement. Shepherdson noted that economic growth averaged 2.6% in the first half of the year, topping the 2.4% average for the previous five years.
3. Nigerian Government Bans the Islamic Movement in Nigeria Organization, Launches Crackdown Against Shi’a Muslim Communities
A Nigerian court ruled on July 26, 2019 that activities of the Shi’a Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) amount to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the government to ban the religious group. Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, formally announced the ban on July 28. “The sweeping court ruling against the Shi’a movement threatens the basic human rights of all Nigerians,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should seek to reverse the ban, which prohibits the religious group’s members from exercising their right to meet and carry out peaceful activities.”
The Islamic Movement In Nigeria (IMN) is a Shi’a organization with close ties to Iran, operating mostly in northern Nigeria, where a majority of the Muslim population identifies as Shi’a. It was first formed in the early 1980s and is led by Sheik Ibrahim El Zakzaky, who was inspired by the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution due to his travels to Iran for religious study during the late 1970s. IMN has at least 4 million followers and has been known as a non-violent Islamic movement for decades. The movement has organized peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrations on an annual basis across Nigeria for over 33 years, primarily in the state of Kaduna, and has organized the annual Ashura ceremonies within Nigeria. The move to ban the group came less than a week after police violently cracked down on members of the Shi’a movement in Abuja, the capital, as they protested Zakzaky’s detention since 2015 and called for the authorities to allow him proper medical care. At least 15 protesters, a journalist, and a police officer were killed, while dozens of other protesters were wounded or arrested.
In its July 26 ruling, Nigeria’s solicitor general had brought a motion, called an ex parte application, before the court, seeking to have the group declared a terrorist organization and banned. The group’s representatives were not given an opportunity to participate in the hearing, as such an application is intended for emergency proceedings that do not require the opposing party to respond or be present. In announcing the ban on the movement, President Muhammadu Buhari stated that the government had “outlawed the criminality of the group,” which has engaged in terrorist activities, “including attacking soldiers, killing policemen and a youth corps member, destroying public property, consistently defying State authority.” The statement further specified that the ban was not against peaceful and law-abiding Shia Muslims in the country who are practicing their religion.
Overall, the reaction to the banning of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) has been mixed. The strongest condemnation of the ban came from Iran, who traditionally has had close ties with the Shi’a community in Nigeria. A group calling itself “students and seminary scholars of the world of Islam” held a protest in front of the Nigerian embassy in Tehran. Carrying banners, they demanded the release of Sheik Ibrahim El Zakzaky and called upon the Nigeria government to overturn the ban on IMN. Additionally, Sayyed Ammar Nakshawani, one of the worlds most well-known Shi’a scholars, similarly condemned the actions on the part of the Nigerian government and called on the international community to defend the rights of the Shi’a Muslim community in Nigeria. On the other hand, the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have thus far been silent regarding the Nigerian government’s crackdown on Shi’a organizations and the ongoing human rights abuses taking place against Shi’a Nigerians.
4. At The Urging of GOP Senators, The Trump Administration Considers Giving The Wealthiest Americans Another Tax Cut
A group of over 20 Republican senators on July 29 urged President Donald Trump’s Treasury Department to bypass Congress to unilaterally give the wealthiest Americans another massive tax cut. In a letter written by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the Republican senators called on Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to index capital gains to inflation, a move that would reward rich investors. According to Bloomberg News, the Trump White House is “developing a plan” to cut taxes for the rich by indexing capital gains to inflation. “Indexing capital gains would slash tax bills for investors when selling assets such as stock or real estate by adjusting the original purchase price so no tax is paid on appreciation tied to inflation,” Bloomberg reported last month. The Republican Senators called on Mnuchin to use his “authority to eliminate inflationary gains from the Department of the Treasury’s calculation of capital gains tax liability.”
Critics have questioned whether the Trump Administration has the authority to take such an action. As the New York Times reported last July, when President Donald Trump first considered going around Congress to index capital gains to inflation, senior Treasury Department officials from former presidential administrations determined the move “would be illegal.” Chye-Ching Huang, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that 86 percent of the benefits of indexing capital gains to inflation would go to the top one percent. “The GOP push for more tax cuts for the rich comes as the Trump administration is working to take food stamps from three million low-income Americans, Seth Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, noted on Twitter.
The Republicans sent their letter as mounting data shows Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut legislation, which took effect last year, has done virtually nothing for workers while further enriching wealthy Americans and large corporations. Earlier this month, a group of Democratic lawmakers led by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent their own letter pressing Mnuchin to “reject reported plans to use questionable authority to—yet again—lavish tax cuts upon our country’s wealthiest, while middle-class families and working people continue to see costs rise and wages stagnate.” The letter was signed by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and a dozen others. “We remain concerned this administration’s relentless preoccupation with cutting taxes for our country’s wealthiest taxpayers while leaving behind middle-class families and working people,” wrote the senators, “even to the extent that it would consider exceeding its legal authority to do so.”