Ex-US Justice Dept. Officials: Mueller Report Justifies Obstruction Charges vs Trump

Almost 500 former U.S. Justice Department officials said on Monday in a joint statement that the Mueller report’s findings would justify obstruction charges against President Donald Trump if he were not currently occupying the White House.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has said he found insufficient evidence in Mueller’s report to conclude that Trump obstructed justice. Special Counsel Robert Mueller himself made no formal finding one way or the other on that question.

“To look at these facts and say that a prosecutor could not probably sustain a conviction for obstruction of justice … runs counter to logic and our experience,” said the statement, signed by Justice Department lawyers who served Republican and Democratic presidents stretching back to the 1950s.

As of late Monday, 467 officials had signed the letter.

Mueller’s report unearthed numerous links between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and various Russians, but it concluded there was insufficient evidence to establish that the campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

It also described attempts by Trump to impede Mueller’s probe, but stopped short of declaring Trump committed a crime.

Under a long-standing Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel policy, a sitting president cannot be charged with criminal activity.

“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy … result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice,” the statement said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman referred to prior statements by Barr, in which he said Mueller had not provided enough evidence to bring a successful obstruction case.

A Mueller spokesman declined to comment.

Among signers of the statement were Donald Ayer, who was the Justice Department’s No. 2 official under Republican President George H.W. Bush, and Bill Weld, a former head of the Justice Department’s criminal division under Republican President Ronald Reagan. Weld is making a bid to challenge Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination.

Weld’s presidential campaign confirmed he signed the statement and Ayer said he also signed it.

The statement was coordinated by a non-profit, non-partisan group called Protect Democracy, which says it was formed “to prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The statement comes as House of Representatives Democrats are threatening to hold Barr in contempt for not giving them a full, unredacted version of the Mueller report.

Trump’s Former Lawyer: ‘There Still Remains Much to be Told’

A former personal lawyer of U.S. President Donald Trump started a three-year prison sentence on Monday for helping pay off two women to keep quiet about their alleged affairs with the president before the 2016 election and other wrongdoings. Michael Cohen has said he has violated law at Trump’s order. As he departed his apartment in New York City for the federal prison in Otisville, New York, Cohen said there is a lot more to be said. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Treasury Denies Democrats’ Request for Trump Tax Returns

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has made it official: The administration won’t be turning President Donald Trump’s tax returns over to the Democratic-controlled House.


Mnuchin told Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., in a Monday letter that the panel’s request “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose” as Supreme Court precedent requires.


In making that determination, Mnuchin said he relied on the advice of the Justice Department. He concluded that the Treasury Department is “not authorized to disclose the requested returns and return information.” He said the Justice Department will provide a more detailed legal justification soon.


The move, which was expected, is sure to set in motion a legal battle over Trump’s tax returns. The chief options available to Democrats are to subpoena the IRS for the returns or to file a lawsuit. Last week, Neal promised “we’ll be ready” to act soon after Monday’s deadline.

Treasury’s denial came the same day that the House Judiciary panel scheduled a vote for Wednesday on whether to find Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena for a full, unredacted copy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Fights with other House panels are ongoing.


“I will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response,” Neal said in a statement Monday.


Neal originally demanded access to Trump’s tax returns in early April under a law that says the IRS “shall furnish” the returns of any taxpayer to a handful of top lawmakers, including the chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. He maintains that the committee is looking into the effectiveness of IRS mandatory audits of tax returns of all sitting presidents, a way to justify his claim that the panel has a potential legislative purpose. Democrats are confident in their legal justification and say Trump is stalling in an attempt to punt the issue past the 2020 election.


The White House and the president’s attorneys declined to comment on the deadline to turn over Trump’s returns.


Mnuchin has said Neal’s request would potentially weaponize private tax returns for political purposes.

Trump has privately made clear he has no intention of turning over the much-coveted records. He is the first president since Watergate to decline to make his tax returns public, often claiming that he would release them if he was not under audit.


“What’s unprecedented is this secretary refusing to comply with our lawful … request. What’s unprecedented is a Justice Department that again sees its role as being bodyguard to the executive and not the rule of law,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J. “What’s unprecedented is an entire federal government working in concert to shield a corrupt president from legal accountability.”


But the president has told those close to him that the attempt to get his returns was an invasion of his privacy and a further example of what he calls the Democrat-led “witch hunt” — like Mueller’s Russia probe — meant to damage him.


Trump has repeatedly asked aides as to the status of the House request and has not signaled a willing to cooperate with Democrats, according to a White House official and two Republicans close to the White House.


He has linked the effort to the myriad House probes into his administration and has urged his team to stonewall all requests. He also has inquired about the “loyalty” of the top officials at the IRS, according to one of his advisers.


Trump has long told confidants that he was under audit and therefore could not release his taxes. But in recent weeks, he has added to the argument, telling advisers that the American people elected him once without seeing his taxes and would do so again, according to the three White House officials and Republicans, who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Microsoft’s Offers Software Tools to Secure Elections

Microsoft is announcing an ambitious effort intended to make U.S. voting more secure and verifiable.

The company will offer free open-source software that several top U.S. elections vendors say they will explore incorporating into their voting equipment.


The software kit is being developed with Oregon-based Galois, which is separately creating a secure voting system prototype under contract with the Pentagon’s advanced research agency, DARPA.


The Microsoft kit is dubbed “ElectionGuard.” It was announced Monday by CEO Satya Nadella at a Seattle developer’s conference.


Microsoft says the kit it will be available beginning this summer with prototypes ready to pilot for next year’s general elections.



Kamala Harris: AG Barr Representing President, Not US

Capping a week in which her testy exchange with Attorney General William Barr went viral, Sen. Kamala Harris on Sunday told a crowd of thousands gathered at a dinner hosted by the country’s oldest NAACP chapter that Barr “lied to Congress” and ” clearly more interested in representing the president than the American people.”


The Democratic presidential candidate was the keynote speaker Sunday at the Detroit NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund dinner, attended by a mostly black audience of nearly 10,000.


As of Sunday, 4.8 million people had watched the C-SPAN video circulating on Twitter of Harris questioning Barr, catapulting her into the spotlight amid the crowded field of more than 20 Democrats and hammering a campaign theme that she is the candidate to “prosecute the case against Trump.”

During her remarks, Harris also said her approach to the 2020 race is about challenging notions of electability and who can speak to Midwesterners.


“They usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative,” Harris said. “The conversation too often suggests certain voters will only vote for certain candidates regardless of whether their ideas will lift up all of our families. It’s short sighted. It’s wrong. And voters deserve better.”


Harris’s appearance in Detroit highlights an underappreciated variable in Democrats’ 2016 losses across the Great Lakes region: declining support from black voters.


Michigan gave President Donald Trump his closest winning margin of any state, with the Republican finishing 10,704 votes ahead of Hillary Clinton. Much of the narrative focused on Clinton losing ground from Barack Obama’s 2012 marks in many small-town and rural counties dominated by middle-class whites.


Biden has been leading the polls, with a majority saying he has the best chance to defeat Trump. A Quinnipiac poll from last week showed Biden leading among Democratic candidates with 38 percent, while Harris was fourth with eight percent.

Yet it was heavily African American Wayne County, home to Detroit, where Clinton saw her single largest and most consequential dropoff. She got 78,004 fewer votes in the county — the anchor of Democrats’ statewide coalition — than Obama received in 2012, meaning that her Wayne County deficit from Obama was more than seven times the statewide gap separating her from Trump and Michigan’s 16 electoral votes.


Harris told the largely African-American audience that as president, she plans to double the Justice Department’s civil rights division, hold accountable social media platforms disseminating misinformation and cyberwarfare and address economic inequality for families and teachers.

Called “the largest sit-down dinner in the country,” boasting 10,000 attendees, this year’s dinner comes amid an already busy primary season, as Democrats are eyeing the battleground state of Michigan. Fellow 2020 Democratic contender Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was last year’s keynote.


The Detroit NAACP chapter is the civil rights organization’s largest, and the city will host their national convention in July, where most 2020 Democrats are expected to appear. The Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit chapter president, said Sunday that “our very lives, our freedom” are riding on the 2020 election.


“This is about the soul of America,” Anthony said. “There’s some people that want to take us back 50 years. We ain’t going. They win when we don’t show up.”


Anthony said that while Harris’ appearance was not an endorsement, the energy at the dinner was “a signal to the nation that we are concerned about what’s happening in the country” and warned that “the stakes are too great for anybody to sit this out.”

Will Kirsten Gillibrand’s Cool Campaign Pay Off?

Her first shot landed short and her teammate’s bounced away. But Kirsten Gillibrand’s second ping pong ball splashed home and she threw both arms skyward while her opponents chugged, celebrating a beer pong victory in the most presidential way possible.


The scene on a rainy Friday night in a bar in Nashua, New Hampshire’s second-largest city, follows a pattern for the 52-year-old New York senator. She’s trailed better-known rivals in the packed Democratic 2020 presidential field in polling and fundraising, but she’s making a case for being the coolest candidate in the race.


Driving between New Hampshire events in February, she stopped to go sledding. She’s played foosball and baked cookies, arm wrestled and hung out with drag queens at an Iowa bar some call “Gay Cheers.”


Other candidates have also sought humanizing moments. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker played Pac Man at a New Hampshire video arcade, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren danced her way through the 2017 gay pride parade in Boston and, while visiting South Carolina in February, Sen. Kamala Harris of California was goaded into trying on, and eventually buying, a multicolored, sequined jacket.


“I’m aware it probably comes across as a gimmick, but in real life it came across as genuine,” said Shaye Weldon, Gillibrand’s beer pong teammate.


As state director of engagement for the New Hampshire Young Democrats, Weldon meets a lot of presidential candidates — but had never played beer pong with any.


“It’s a moment when I see she’s a real person,” she said of Gillibrand, who sipped most of the night from a glass of a craft, imperial ale called Imp IPA.

Such scenes can feature that most-valued political commodity: authenticity — at least to a point.


Gillibrand’s campaign turned the beer pong game into an online ad, freeze framing the candidate mid-toss and seeking donations:”If Kirsten makes this shot” before letting the scene roll to reveal that she does. And an Associated Press analysis of financial disclosures each candidate filed through March showed that Gillibrand spent nearly $840,000 on “communications consulting” services — more than any other Democratic 2020 presidential candidate who listed similar expenditures.


Spokesman Evan Lukaske said doing things presidential candidates don’t typically do comes naturally to Gillibrand — not as a result of paid advice. He noted that many of the non-traditional campaign moments came with little or no press around and got noticed organically via social media.


That’s been the case for other candidates as well. Beto O’Rourke first solidified his national standing in Democratic circles last summer, after a video of him defending NFL players’ national anthem protests was viewed by millions. But he also spent hundreds of previous hours livestreaming more mundane moments to minuscule audiences, which watched him getting his haircut, doing laundry and driving seemingly endless hours to campaign events as he ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Texas.

O’Rourke has shunned political consultants, but also had unscripted-moment missteps, like when he was mocked for posting part of his teeth cleaning online.


With 20-plus Democrats vying for the White House, getting noticed is difficult. Still, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said trying to catch fire doing non-presidential-candidate things isn’t as important as building support in the first two states that vote in the primary, Iowa and New Hampshire, because most voters elsewhere won’t really begin noticing until those races are over.


“There’s no point trying to run a media campaign now,” Murray said. “One, no one’s paying attention. And, two, if you bomb in Iowa and New Hampshire, everything you spent trying to build up a national image is worthless.”


As valuable as appearing effortlessly authentic can be, trying too hard to achieve it can backfire.


A rap song backing Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential bid tried rhyming his last name with “awesome,” Hillary Clinton’s 2015 Saturday Night Live appearance as Val the bartender fizzled and President Gerald Ford, while visiting San Antonio in 1976, took a bite out of a tamale without knowing to remove the corn husk first.


More recently, Warren faced criticism for attempting to seem overly down-homey when she declared on Instagram from her kitchen on New Years Eve, “I’m gonna get me a beer” before grabbing a Michelob Ultra.


“There’s always a risk … that the effort to show the candidate acting like a real person shows them not to be a real person because they’ve spent their entire life in politics,” said Adam Sheingate, author of “Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy.”


Sheingate, chairman of the political science department at Johns Hopkins University, said that U.S. elections are now heavily tied to candidate personality and “a lot of voters kind of know this, and so, as a result, these kinds of efforts that are overly crafted images can fall flat because it’s like, ‘Whatever. We know why they’re doing this.'”


“But candidates will do it anyway,” he added, “because they have to get their name out there.”

Buttigieg, Husband Attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School Class

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, joined the large crowd at former President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class in rural South Georgia.


At Carter’s invitation Buttigieg stood and read from the Bible as part of the lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains.


“You know him?” Carter had said earlier in reference to Buttigieg, drawing a laugh from the crowd.


Carter told the audience that two other Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, had previously attended his classes.


The South Bend, Indiana, mayor later tweeted: “I was humbled to meet with President Carter in Plains, Georgia today. He is a true public servant and America is blessed for his continuing leadership.” The Buttigieg campaign said in a statement that he had lunch with Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, and “enjoyed a conversation about topics ranging from faith to the rigors of the campaign trail.”

Scores of people arrived before dawn for a chance to hear Carter, 94, speak.


Entering when most people already were seated, Buttigieg’s unannounced visit elicited a murmur from the crowd.


“Who’s that?” asked a man seated in the back of the room.


“Mayor Pete, the guy running for president,” a woman answered.


Carter said he knew Buttigieg from working on a Habitat for Humanity project in Indiana where the mayor volunteered.


Many in the class greeted Buttigieg and took photos with him before Carter arrived in the sanctuary and took a seat in the front to teach.

China, Climate, Russia to Dominate Pompeo Europe Tour

The Trump administration is energizing its campaign to counter China’s growing global influence as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heads to Europe this week on a four-nation trip that will also highlight disputes with Russia over Venezuela and elsewhere as well as deep U.S. isolation on the cause and impact of climate change.


With China seeking a greater presence throughout the continent, U.S. officials said Pompeo will renew warnings over the use of advanced Chinese telecommunications technology as well as blunt Beijing’s aspirations to play a significant role in the Arctic, a region that is rapidly opening up to development and commerce as temperatures warm and sea ice melts. He departs on Sunday just hours after President Donald Trump threatened to boost tariffs on Chinese imports amid the slow pace of trade negotiations.


Despite an apparent internal administration disconnect over Russia’s role in the crisis in Venezuela, Pompeo plans to make Moscow’s support for embattled President Nicolas Maduro a major theme of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday in Finland, where they will both attend a meeting of the Arctic Council.

“I’ll certainly bring up Venezuela,” Pompeo said Sunday. “It will be one of many topics that Foreign Minister Lavrov and I speak about. Whether there is a particular deal that can be reached, only time will tell.”

The Arctic Council meeting itself is likely to be dominated by concerns about the Trump administration’s climate policies that many believe are focused solely on exploiting its resources and pushing back on Russia and China for strategic and security reasons at the expense of the region’s delicate environment.

Huawei Expansion


At his next stops in Germany and Britain, officials said Pompeo would sound the alarm over Chinese tech giant Huawei’s efforts to expand into Europe, reiterating U.S. concerns that China’s government could use the firm to get access to private personal and commercial data and compromise NATO and allied intelligence operations.


In Berlin in meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, the officials said he would again highlight opposition to Germany’s support for the Russian-backed NordStream 2 gas pipeline that Washington believes will increase Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.

In London, where British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt are struggling to grapple with an impasse over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Pompeo plans to deliver a speech extolling the virtues of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. Officials said he would also be laying the groundwork for Trump’s state visit to Britain this summer and renewing America’s interest in sealing a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement once Brexit has been completed.

Involvement in Venezuela


Pompeo will see Lavrov in Rovaniemi, Finland on Monday, following a week in which he and Trump national security adviser John Bolton ramped up criticism of Russia and Cuba for propping up Maduro in the face of a U.S.-backed challenge to his leadership from opposition leader Juan Guaido.


But the meeting also comes just three days after Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a lengthy telephone call about the state of relations following the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump has rejected any suggestion that his campaign colluded with Russia or tried to obstruct the investigation. But he also dialed back on Pompeo and Bolton’s Venezuela complaints, saying Putin didn’t want to get involved in Venezuela.

Pompeo disputed the apparent discrepancy in interviews with three morning television talk shows on Sunday, saying that both Cuba and Russia both need to leave Venezuela.

“No, no difference. No difference. The President has said … that the Russians must leave Venezuela,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We want everyone out, so that the Venezuelan people can get the democracy they deserve. That includes Mr. Maduro leaving.”


Other than Venezuela, U.S. officials said Pompeo would also raise with Lavrov Russia’s intervention in Syria and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, subjects of perennial discussion with Moscow.

Climate and the Arctic Council

On the Arctic, officials said Pompeo would stress the administration’s insistence on using the forum to promote U.S. economic growth despite risks to the region. Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate accord in one of his first foreign policy decisions as president and Pompeo acknowledged to ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that American negotiators had fought to remove references to the Paris agreement from the Arctic Council’s final communique that is to be released on Tuesday.


Officials said Pompeo would laud U.S. reductions in greenhouse gas emissions despite leaving the Paris agreement, although critics argue those reductions are the result of policies enacted before Trump took office and could be reversed. At the same time, officials said Pompeo would reject Chinese attempts to play any kind of decision-making role in the Arctic Council, a group that includes as full members only the eight nations that border the region. Chinese officials have recently begun referring to their country as a “near Arctic” state, a term that has alarmed Americans and others.


Arctic policy will also be a focus of Pompeo’s final stop of the trip, Greenland, where he will meet U.S.-funded scientists and others engaged in studying the impact of climate change in the region.

Prosecutors Refuse Final Meeting with Michael Cohen as Prison Looms

For months, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen tried — but failed — to position himself as a whistleblower in the vein of Watergate hero John Dean.


As the time ticked down toward his deadline to report to prison, Cohen also lost the interest of the one group of people who could help him out: the federal prosecutors he desperately hoped would ask a judge to shorten his sentence.


Since mid-March, prosecutors in New York have rebuffed Cohen’s repeated offers to provide more information about alleged wrongdoing by Trump and other people in his orbit, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis told The Associated Press on Friday.


“Why not see him?” Davis asked. “What’s the downside? He’s about to go to prison.”


Cohen’s legal team reached out to prosecutors in March asking for an opportunity to meet for a “frank discussion” about reducing his sentence, based on his cooperation. That meeting never happened.


That snub might be the best evidence yet that Cohen’s months-long campaign to sell himself as a potential witness hasn’t paid off.

Prison Term Starts Monday


Cohen is scheduled to report Monday to a federal prison 70 miles north of New York City to begin serving a three-year sentence for campaign-finance violations, tax evasion, bank fraud and lying to Congress.


In an apparent bid to maintain a semblance of normalcy before starting his sentence, Cohen left his Manhattan apartment building on Saturday with his son to go to a coffee shop and then to a barbershop, Eddie Arthur Salon. They both got haircuts. Cohen’s next stop was the pricy retailer Barneys New York, where he told journalists that he plans to hold a news conference Monday before heading to prison.


Cohen remains the only person charged in a scandal involving hush money payments to the porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, who were threatening during the presidential campaign to speak up about alleged affairs with Trump.


Cohen started to cast himself publicly as a whistleblower less than three months after the FBI raided his home and apartment.

He gave a series of tantalizing teases that there was “more to come,” starting with an interview last July in which he told ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos he was no longer loyal to Trump. More dribbled out over the next few weeks. Davis released a tape of Cohen and Trump discussing one of the hush-money payments.


That effort, though, has largely been met with an uncompromising approach by federal prosecutors.


New York investigators built their case for months without speaking with Cohen, then finally agreed to meet with him on a Saturday last August, just a few days before he would plead guilty.


At the meeting, they delivered an ultimatum: plead guilty or be indicted within days. Cohen also believed after the meeting that his wife could be charged with financial crimes if he didn’t cooperate.


“I love this woman, and I am not going to let her get dragged into the mud of this crap,” Cohen later told an acquaintance, the actor Tom Arnold, in a conversation that Arnold recorded and provided to The Wall Street Journal.


Cohen’s wife, Laura, filed taxes with her husband and made investments with Cohen in taxi medallions. She ultimately was not charged.


After pleading guilty in August, Cohen did meet with Manhattan-based prosecutors multiple times to discuss several issues. Those included Trump’s personal business dealings, the president’s personal involvement in attempts to pay off McDougal and Daniels, and his inaugural committee, which is now the subject of a criminal investigation centering on possible donations by foreign nationals and influence peddling.


Cohen also met with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators several times, culminating with a session just days before the former FBI director turned his report over to the Justice Department.


Still, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, in court filings before his sentencing, criticized what it described as Cohen’s unwillingness to cooperate fully and be debriefed “on other uncharged criminal conduct, if any, in his past.”


They didn’t ask the judge for a lenient sentence and have given no sign that they intend to file a so-called Rule 35 motion — a legal filing that could reduce Cohen’s punishment if his cooperation is deemed to be of substantial assistance. Cohen’s attorneys say they believe Cohen’s information supports several potential prosecutions.


A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Congressional Testimony


In February, Cohen testified before several Congressional panels about what he said was dishonesty by Trump in his business affairs. He also testified that a Trump Organization executive, Allen Weisselberg, and Trump’s son Donald Jr. were involved in reimbursing him for one of the hush money payments.

During that testimony, Cohen said a number of Trump-related topics were still being probed by New York prosecutors.

“I am currently working with them right now on several other issues of investigation that concerns them, that they’re looking at,” Cohen said.


Yet, within weeks, prosecutors were through speaking with him.

Davis, in the interview Friday, said he believes Cohen has been treated unfairly.


“The Southern District of New York was disproportionate in the sentence it asked for and appears to have targeted just Michael Cohen for reasons that I can’t understand,” Davis said.

Some States Trying to Close Marital Rape Laws Loopholes

Witches were still being burned at the stake when Sir Matthew Hale came up with his legal theory that rape could not happen within marriage. The 17th century English jurist declared it legally impossible because wedding vows implied a wife’s ongoing consent to sex.

Three and a half centuries later, vestiges of the so-called “marital rape exemption” or “spousal defense” still exist in most states, remnants of the English common law that helped inform American legal traditions. Legislative attempts to end or modify those exemptions have a mixed record but have received renewed attention in the #MeToo era.

Minnesota acts

The most recent efforts to roll back protections for spouses focus on rapes that happen when a partner is drugged, unconscious or otherwise incapacitated. Minnesota is the latest to take action. Its Legislature this week voted to eliminate the exemption, which had prevented prosecutions in those cases.

“No longer will this antiquated and shameful law be on our books,” Gov. Tim Walz said as he signed the bill into law Thursday. “The concept of a pre-existing relationship defense should have never been part of our criminal statutes.”

​A fight in Ohio

In Ohio, determined opponents plan to re-introduce a marital rape bill this month, after two earlier attempts failed.

Former lawmaker and prosecutor Greta Johnson was the first to introduce the Ohio legislation in 2015. She said having to address whether a woman was married to her attacker as part of sexual assault prosecutions struck her as “appalling and archaic.”

“Certainly, there was a marital exemption lifted years ago, but it was just for what in the prosecutorial world we call the force element — by force or threat of force,” she said. “You could still drug your spouse and have sex with them, and it’s not rape. You could commit sexual imposition against your spouse, and it’s not a crime. It was really troubling.”

All 50 states had laws making marital rape a crime by 1993, whether as a result of the two preceding decades of activism by women’s rights groups or because of a pivotal court ruling. Nearly 9% of women and 0.8% of men have been raped by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National surveys have placed the percentage of women raped within marriage between 10% and 14%.

Still, many states’ marital rape laws have loopholes, not only involving the victim’s capacity to consent, but related to age, relationship, use of force or the nature of the penetration. Some impose short timeframes for victims to report spousal rape.

Skeptical in Maryland

A recent Maryland bill sought to erase the marital exemption for all sex crimes.

During discussion of the bill, one skeptical male lawmaker wondered whether a spouse might be charged with sexual assault for “smacking the other’s behind” during an argument. Maryland Del. Frank Conaway Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, raised religious concerns.

“If your religion believes if you’re married, two are as one body, then what happens? Can you get a religious exemption?” he asked.

“No, I would actually say that the First Amendment would prevent the state from getting entangled in that sort of judgment,” replied Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “So you would have to rely on your faith and your commitment to that to not bring those charges. But that’s no place for the General Assembly.”

The bill died in March.

Common rationales

Professor D. Kelly Weisberg of the University of California Hastings College of the Law said the Maryland debate touched on some of the common rationales for the marital rape exemption over the centuries.

One is Hale’s premise from the 1670s that marriage implies irrevocable consent and even property rights by the husband over his wife and her body. Those ideas have never truly disappeared, said Weisberg, author of a new reference book on domestic violence law.

She said other arguments for such laws are that marital privacy is a constitutional right, as when spouses can’t be forced to testify against one another in court, that marital rape isn’t serious enough to criminalize and that it would be difficult to prove.

For those and other reasons, Weisberg said marital rape laws have not kept pace with other domestic violence laws. That means in some cases an unmarried domestic partner has more legal protections against attack than a spouse.

One woman’s story

Changing attitudes — and laws — about marital rape is what drove Jenny Teeson to go public this year with her story.

The 39-year-old from Andover, Minnesota, was going through a divorce in 2017 when she discovered a flash drive with videos taken by her husband. They showed him penetrating her with an object while she lay drugged and unconscious. In one, their 4-year-old lay next to her on the bed.

Teeson turned the videos over to the police. After an investigation, her husband was charged with third-degree criminal sexual assault against an incapacitated victim. Charges were brought in the morning, but dropped by afternoon because of the state’s marital rape exemption.

“I was beside myself,” she told The Associated Press.

Her ex-husband ultimately pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor charge of invading her privacy and served 30 days in the county jail. Still shocked that he could not be charged with a felony because of the state law, Teeson decided to take action.

“I thought if I can’t have the law be in place to keep myself, my kids and my community safe, I could wallow in it, or I could do something about it,” she said.

The AP does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but Teeson has shared her story publicly, including during testimony before legislative committees. Democratic state Sen. Karla Bigham credited Teeson’s advocacy for persuading lawmakers to pass the bill.

“She had to relive the trauma every time she shared her story,” Bigham told her colleagues during a debate in the Senate chamber this past week. “Her voice speaks loudly to those women who deserve justice. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s right this wrong.”

17 states

AEquitas, a resource for prosecutors, reported last month that 17 states still maintain some form of the exemption for spouses who rape partners when they are drugged or otherwise incapacitated: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington and Wyoming.

In Ohio, state Rep. Kristin Boggs, a Democrat, said she’s not optimistic the upcoming version of the marital rape bill will be any more successful in the Republican-controlled Legislature than it has been in the past.

But at least one past opponent — the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association — has evolved on the issue. Executive Director Lou Tobin said he expects the group will support a bill that seeks to eliminate the exemption.

“In the past, I know that there’s been some concern that these cases are difficult to prove; they can be a lot of he-said, she-said back and forth,” Tobin said. “But sorting through those things is what prosecutors are for.”

Boggs’ bill would again call for removing references to the marital exemption throughout Ohio’s criminal code. Her argument in favor of it is straightforward.

“Our rationale for introducing this legislation is simply that your legal relationship to another human being shouldn’t give you permission to rape them,” she said.

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