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White House says Sinema defection ‘does not change Democratic Senate control’ – live | US politics


White House: Sinema defection ‘does not change Democratic Senate control’

And here we go… did Joe Biden get any heads-up from Kyrsten Sinema that she was about to defect from the Democratic party?

Jean-Pierre:

We do not discuss private conversations that we have with members of Congress.

[But] he sees, and we see, Senator Sinema as a key partner on some of the most historic pieces of legislation that you will all have covered in this administration.

When you look at the past 20 months, from the American rescue plan to the bipartisan infrastructure law, to the inflation reduction act, to the respect for marriage act and also the pact act, all of these pieces of legislation have been historic, and we have partnered with Senator Sinema

We understand her decision to register as an independent in Arizona. The way we see it and understand it, it does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate.

And we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work with her successfully.

Key events

Report: Russia wanted top spy in swap for Paul Whelan

Russia wouldn’t release Paul Whelan without the US setting free a former colonel from the country’s domestic spy organization currently in German custody, CNN reported on Friday, adding another twist to the Brittney Griner saga.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wouldn’t confirm the story at her afternoon press briefing, but the network says Russia wanted Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence for murder.

The report suggests the US floated the idea of an exchange of Krasikov for Griner and Whelan, who has been in jail in Russia for almost four years, back in the summer.

But any deal fell down, CNN says, when Germany refused to countenance his release. Krasikov assassinated a Georgian citizen in Berlin in 2019.

The US then offered other names to try to persuade them to include Whelan in the Griner trade for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer jailed in the US for 12 years. They included, CNN says, Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national extradited to the US in August for cybercrime, and Roman Seleznev, another convicted Russian cyber-criminal currently serving a 14-year sentence in the US.

But it became clear a week ago that Whelan was not going to be included, so the US pressed ahead with the Griner for Bout trade, which took place on Thursday.

“It was either Brittney Griner, one American or no American. That’s the very difficult decision that the president had to make,” Jean-Pierre told reporters earlier.

“[Russia was] not willing to negotiate in good faith for Paul Whelan.”

Biden seeks to make African Union a permanent G20 partner

Joe Biden plans to announce at next week’s US-Africa summit in Washington DC that he supports adding the African Union as a permanent member of the Group of 20 nations, the Associated Press reports, citing the White House.

The African Union represents the continent’s 54 countries. The G20 is composed of the world’s major industrial and emerging economies and represents more than 80% of the world’s gross domestic product. South Africa is currently the only African member of the G20.

“It’s past time Africa has permanent seats at the table in international organizations and initiatives,” Judd Devermont, senior director for African affairs on the national security council, said in a statement.

“We need more African voices in international conversations that concern the global economy, democracy and governance, climate change, health, and security.”

Biden has invited 49 African leaders to take part in the three-day Washington summit that starts Tuesday.

A judge in Michigan has dismissed criminal charges against former governor Rick Snyder in the Flint water crisis, the Associated Press reports.

Rick Snyder.
Rick Snyder. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It comes months after the state supreme court said indictments returned by a one-person grand jury were invalid.

Snyder, a Republican who left office in 2019, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of misconduct in office. He was the first person in state history to be charged for alleged crimes related to service as governor.

Snyder also is the eighth person to have a Flint water case thrown out after the supreme court’s unanimous June opinion. Read the full story:

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has taken a couple of questions on foreign policy, condemning a “draconian” crackdown on civilians by authorities in Iran.

“They should know that the world is watching,” she said when asked about Iran’s suppressing of dissenters, including its first-known execution of an anti-government protestor.

“The US is committed to supporting the Iranian people and imposing costs on those responsible for the brutal crackdown. We will stand with Iranian civilians as they are fighting for their basic freedom [and] basic human rights.”

A reporter also wondered if, now that gas prices are falling, the Biden administration still intended to follow through with its promise of consequences for Saudi Arabia for reducing its production of oil.

There has been, essentially, silence from the White House on the issue since October.

“We are assessing relations with Saudi Arabia with methodology and strategically as we have done over the last 18 years of this relationship in a bipartisan way,” was Jean-Pierre’s non-answer.

“We will judge the way forward based on their actions as well as our ongoing consultations with partners and allies, and also the new Congress.”

Karine Jean-Pierre is pushing back strongly against Republican criticism that the exchange of jailed basketball player Brittney Griner for convicted Russian arms trade Viktor Bout wasn’t much of a trade.

The White House press secretary told reporters:

When you have an American passport, that means something.

Brittney Griner is an American citizen who was being held unjustly.

She was being held unjustly under intolerable circumstances. That was what was happening to Brittney Griner. And so that means something to the president.

Republicans have continued to snipe at the exchange, Florida senator Marco Rubio suggesting it “incentivized the taking of more Americans”.

Karine Jean-Pierre briefs reporters at the White House on Friday.
Karine Jean-Pierre briefs reporters at the White House on Friday. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Jean-Pierre insisted Biden was still “working very hard” to secure the release of Paul Whelan, an American still held by Russia on espionage charges, but said Russia was “not negotiating in good faith”.

This was an opportunity to bring an American home. The Russians were willing to release Brittney Griner for Mr Bout. That was what was presented to us.

They were not willing to negotiate in good faith for Paul Whelan. And so it was either Brittney Griner, one American or no American. That’s the very difficult decision that the president had to make.

White House: Sinema defection ‘does not change Democratic Senate control’

And here we go… did Joe Biden get any heads-up from Kyrsten Sinema that she was about to defect from the Democratic party?

Jean-Pierre:

We do not discuss private conversations that we have with members of Congress.

[But] he sees, and we see, Senator Sinema as a key partner on some of the most historic pieces of legislation that you will all have covered in this administration.

When you look at the past 20 months, from the American rescue plan to the bipartisan infrastructure law, to the inflation reduction act, to the respect for marriage act and also the pact act, all of these pieces of legislation have been historic, and we have partnered with Senator Sinema

We understand her decision to register as an independent in Arizona. The way we see it and understand it, it does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate.

And we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work with her successfully.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is at the podium with her daily briefing.

She’s talking up a big week for Joe Biden, especially securing Brittney Griner’s release from Russia, and the just-announced $275m security assistance package for Ukraine (see previous post).

But you can sense that reporters in the room are just itching to ask her about Kyrsten Sinema. Stay tuned…

Here’s the latest Politics Weekly America podcast from the Guardian’s ace team.

With Raphael Warnock re-elected to represent Georgia in the US Senate for the next six years, Jonathan Freedland speaks to Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution about the significance for Democrats of having an absolute majority in the upper chamber of Congress, rather than a 50/50 split.

This episode was recorded before today’s dramatic announcement by Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema that she was renouncing the Democratic party to sit as an independent.

Joe Biden authorized a fresh infusion of $275 million in military aid for Ukraine offering new capabilities to defeat drones and strengthen air defenses, according to a memo released by the White House, Reuters reports.

The package also includes rockets for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers made by Lockheed Martin Corp, 80,000 155mm artillery rounds, Humvee military vehicles and about 150 generators, according to the memo.

This is the 27th use of Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) for Ukraine, which allows the United States to transfer defense articles and services from stocks quickly without congressional approval in response to an emergency.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House that the equipment was “on its way.”
But details were scant on two systems, “counter air defense capability” and “Counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems equipment,” which appear to be new capabilities for Ukraine.

Russia’s surge in missile strikes in Ukraine is partly designed to exhaust Kyiv’s supplies of air defenses and achieve dominance of the skies above the country, a senior Pentagon official said in November.

To counter these attacks, the United States has sent sophisticated anti-aircraft NASAMS systems to Ukraine which have been running for a few weeks.

Washington previously announced that it was sending four Avenger short-range air defense systems that use Stinger missiles, made by Raytheon Technologies Corp, and HAWK interceptor missiles. US allies have also been sending air defense systems.

You can follow the Guardian’s Ukraine war live blog here.

Interim summary

The White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is due to brief the media at 1pm ET in the west wing, as Washington and Arizona digest the news of Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s surprise news early today that she’s switching from the Democrats to be an independent.

Here’s where things stand:

  • Chuck Schumer, Senate majority leader, issued a brief statement on the decision by Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to sit in the chamber as an independent in future, saying she will keep her committee assignments and saying: “I believe she’s a good and effective senator.”

  • Republican criticism of Joe Biden for trading US basketball star and Olympic gold medallist Brittney Griner for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout continues.

  • The White House issued a statement via Jean-Pierre noting that it expects to ‘continue to work successfully’ with Senator Sinema.

  • Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced she would no longer represent the Democratic Party in congress and instead would become an independent. She expressed no intention to caucus with the Republicans but nor did she reassure Democrats that they can count on her vote, while saying her new status “won’t change my work” in the upper chamber.

Here’s a selection of reactions on Twitter to Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to renounce Democrats and sit as an independent.

Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki thinks the biggest question is whether Sinema runs for re-election in 2024 as an independent, and not whether she continues to support Democrats in the Senate:

so here’s the thing—If Sinema still votes for the most part with Ds and keeps her committee roles (because she will want that/also helps Dems by giving them majority on committees) the biggest q is not about the DC side–its about whether she will run as an independent

— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) December 9, 2022

Arizona congressman Ruben Gallego, who is now widely expected to seek the Democratic nomination for Arizona’s Senate seat in two years’ time, accused Sinema of putting her own interests ahead of those of voters:

Republican former strategist and Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson sees a different role in Sinema’s future, and calls her a “Karen”:

Republican firebrand Lauren Boebert seems to believe that Sinema has actually switched parties to join the opposition. Spoiler: she hasn’t.

Good to see @KyrstenSinema leaving the Democrat Party.

Just this year we’ve had @TulsiGabbard & Senator Sinema – both high profile Democrats – change parties.

Hope many more see the light!

— Lauren Boebert (@laurenboebert) December 9, 2022

Young progressives are not impressed. This from abortion rights activist Olivia Julianna:

From the Arizona Democratic party. Sinema has “fallen dramatically short leaving Arizonans behind”:

Toni Cani, Joe Biden’s 2020 election chief in Arizona, thinks Sinema’s decision follows a failed gamble that Republicans won the House and Senate in the midterms, pushed “something like a national abortion ban”, and Sinema could play the hero by blocking it:

One of my hottest takes was the only way Sinema survives 2024 reelect is if the GOP took the House & Senate in 2022 and she then used the filibuster to stop something like a national abortion ban. I even speculated she knew that and that was her exact gamble

— Tony Cani (@tcani) December 9, 2022

Senate majority leader praises “good and effective” Sinema

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, has issued a brief statement on the decision by Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to sit in the chamber as an independent.

He says she will keep her committee assignments, which he doesn’t really have a choice about if Democrats are to retain a semblance of control:

Senator Sinema informed me of her decision to change her affiliation to Independent. She asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed.

Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been. I believe she’s a good and effective Senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate.

We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.

Meanwhile, The Hill has been collating reports that the 6 January House panel looking into Donald Trump’s insurrection is also considering criminal referrals, for Trump and at least four of the ex-president’s team.

They are Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff; John Eastman, a conservative lawyer; Jeffrey Clark, a former justice department official; and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s one-time personal attorney.

Mark Meadows.
Mark Meadows. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

All four were involved in plotting or executing Trump’s scheme to try to overturn his defeat by Joe Biden, the panel believes, and is considering whether to recommend them to the justice department for criminal investigation or charges.

“The committee has not officially decided whom to refer for prosecution and for what offenses,” CNN reported, citing anonymous sources, and says others could also be considered.

The Guardian reported Tuesday that criminal referrals were imminent from the January 6 committee, but this is the first time these names have been reported. Representatives of the panel would not comment.

You can read The Hill’s report here.

While we’ve been occupied this morning with Kyrsten Sinema’s defection and Brittney Griner’s homecoming, we haven’t taken our eye off Donald Trump’s legal peril, and developments with the investigations into his insurrection and mishandling of classified documents. Here’s the Guardian’s Hugo Lowell on the latest:

The US justice department is seeking a top federal judge to hold Donald Trump’s political office in contempt of court for not fully complying with a grand jury subpoena issued in May demanding the return of all classified documents in its possession, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The department in recent weeks asked the chief US district court judge for the District of Columbia, Beryl Howell, to hold Trump’s office in contempt after prosecutors were unable to get the former president’s lawyers to designate a custodian of records to certify all records were returned.

New: Confirming that DOJ is seeking a federal judge to hold Trump’s office in contempt of court for not fully complying with May grand jury subpoena seeking return of classified docs, per source familiar — matching WaPo

— Hugo Lowell (@hugolowell) December 8, 2022

Howell has not ruled on the matter, which remains under seal. But the move, earlier reported by the Washington Post, significantly raises the stakes for Trump as he stares down a criminal investigation into unauthorized retention of national security information and obstruction of justice.

The issue is to do with the Trump legal team’s reluctance to designate a custodian of records to certify that Trump is no longer in possession of any documents marked classified and thus in compliance with the subpoena that demanded the return of all such government records, the source said.

If the Trump legal team could not find someone to certify under oath that all documents bearing classified markings had been returned, the department is said to have communicated, it would seek a judicial sanction.

The contempt action is understood to be focused on Trump’s office because the subpoena, issued on 11 May, sought the return of all documents and writings “in the custody of Donald J Trump and/or the Office of Donald J Trump” bearing classification markings.

Read the full story: