Washington Roundup: Trump verdict reactions; Alito rejects recusal; FDA abortion drug research sought

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WASHINGTON (OSV News) — After former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was found guilty on all 34 counts by a Manhattan jury over falsified business records in paying hush money to an adult film actress in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, lawmakers alternately praised or expressed concern about the outcome.

In Washington the same week, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito rejected calls to recuse himself from cases concerning former President Donald Trump before the high court after media reports said flags of a controversial nature were flown at his properties. Chief Justice John Roberts on May 30 declined a request for a meeting with Democratic senators to discuss the reports.

Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers on May 29 said they sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration to inquire if that agency has conducted research on whether abortion-inducing drugs are harmful to the environment, particularly waterways.

Capitol Hill reacts to Trump’s conviction

Lawmakers alternately lauded or criticized Trump’s guilty verdict along party lines.

In a statement, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., called the outcome “a shameful day in American history.”

“Democrats cheered as they convicted the leader of the opposing party on ridiculous charges, predicated on the testimony of a disbarred, convicted felon,” he said. “This was a purely political exercise, not a legal one.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who was chairman of the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter, “Donald Trump is now a convicted felon, found guilty on all 34 counts.”

“If I haven’t said it enough, no one is above the law, and today, the rule of law has prevailed,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an on-again-off-again ally of Trump, wrote on X, “This verdict says more about the system than the allegations. It will be seen as politically motivated and unfair, and it will backfire tremendously on the political Left.”

He added, “I fear we have opened up Pandora’s box on the presidency itself.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s running mate in their unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid, wrote on X, “The Trump verdict is proof that no one is above the law in this country.”

“It’s also tragic in this way — Americans put the reins of leadership in the hands of a person whose character is so far beneath the office that no rational adult would ever encourage young people to emulate his behavior,” Kaine said. “Trump’s lack of character has caught up to him. And Americans — once again — have received a clear warning about a person who wants to seize leadership once again. I pray that we heed the warning.”

The conviction is historic, marking the first time in American history that a current or former president has been convicted on criminal charges. However various legal experts have told media outlets that Trump is more likely to face probation as a first-time convicted offender rather than jail time. Trump is expected to be sentenced July 11, four days before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

Roberts declines meeting senators over Alito controversy

The New York Times reported earlier in May that an upside-down flag had flown outside the Alitos’ home in Alexandria, Virginia, in mid-January 2021. Per U.S. flag etiquette, the U.S. flag should never be flown upside down unless there is an emergency. The Times report suggested that upside-down flags were symbols used by some who embraced false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

In a statement in that report, Alito said he “had no involvement whatsoever in the flying of the flag,” which he said was “placed by Mrs. Alito in response to a neighbor’s use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs.”

The Times then reported that an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, or the Pine Tree flag, was flown at the Alitos’ vacation home on Long Beach Island in New Jersey during the summer of 2023. The origins of that flag can be traced to the Revolutionary War in 1775; it was also reportedly carried by some rioters at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack. Amid the controversy, an identical flag was reportedly removed from the Pavilion of American Flags in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza after flying without controversy for decades.

Although Alito’s statement attributed the upside-down flag to his wife’s dispute with a neighbor, some argued it constituted a political statement, suggesting Alito embraced false claims of a stolen election, and called for the justice to recuse himself from cases related to the Jan. 6 riot and Trump before the high court.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of that committee, both called for Alito to recuse himself from cases related to the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack.

But Alito wrote in a letter responding to the senators, “I am confident that a reasonable person who is not motivated by political or ideological considerations or a desire to affect the outcome of Supreme Court cases would conclude that the events recounted above do not meet the applicable standard for recusal. I am therefore required to reject your request,” he wrote.

Alito added that his wife is “fond of flying flags” and she did so of her own volition.

Roberts, likewise, declined a request by Durbin and Whitehouse to meet with them, citing concerns about maintaining “separation of powers” and “preserving judicial independence.”

The move was expected, as such meetings between justices and legislators are not the norm.

Durbin, who is Catholic, called for “an enforceable code of conduct for Supreme Court justices” in a May 29 statement.

The Supreme Court said in November it would implement an ethics code for its justices, but it did not specify an enforcement mechanism to ensure adherence.

Alito, who is Catholic, wrote the high court’s majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the June 2022 opinion ultimately overturned the court’s previous abortion-related precedents in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Lawmakers seek information on abortion drugs’ environmental impact

In a May 29 letter, a group of Republican lawmakers including Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., and Rep. Josh Brecheen, Okla., sent an inquiry to the FDA about whether “the chemical abortion drug mifepristone and its potential negative environmental impact, including its effect on water systems in the United States.”

The letter stated, “Given the steadily increasing rate of at-home chemical abortions, it is vital that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ensure mifepristone, the drug’s active metabolites in blood and placenta tissue, and the fetal remains of unborn children — all of which are unbelievably being flushed into America’s wastewater system — do not pose a threat to the health and safety of humans and wildlife.”

The Biden administration previously eased restrictions on mifepristone, a pill commonly used for a chemical or medication abortion. The Supreme Court earlier this year heard a challenge to the loosened restrictions on that drug, its first major case involving abortion since the high court overturned its previous abortion precedent in 2022. A ruling in that case is still pending as of May 31.

A coalition of pro-life opponents of mifepristone sued the FDA over the new regulations, which included making the drug available by mail, arguing the government violated its own safety standards in doing so.

The FDA has argued the drug poses statistically little risk to the mother in the early weeks of pregnancy. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than half of the abortions performed in the U.S. are chemical or medical, rather than surgical.

In their letter, the lawmakers wrote, “Environmental protection efforts are necessary to counter the potential harm that chemical abortion drugs are creating for our people, wildlife, and ecosystems.

“The American people deserve to know the negative effects caused by chemical abortion drugs,” their letter said.

Lawmakers requested a response no later than July 15 from the FDA.

The inquiry is reminiscent of concerns raised by some critics of oral contraceptives — as well as some environmental researchers — who have suggested that synthetic estrogen in those drugs can hinder the reproduction of fish populations, and that modern water filtration systems are not equipped yet to filter out these compounds. However, others have noted the chemicals present in those waterways that can also be “endocrine disruptors” challenging modern filtration capabilities also come from agricultural and industrial sources.

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.