Updated: 1 min 35 sec ago

Justice Department filing contradicts Kushner's view of Russia threat

34 min 42 sec ago - [CET]

Jared Kushner, in his first public comments since the public release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report, on Tuesday downplayed the impact of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which saw his father-in-law win the Oval Office.

“You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads and trying to sow dissent. It’s a terrible thing,” Kushner, who is also one of President Donald Trump’s senior advisers, said at a Time magazine event in New York. “But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”

The Justice Department, however, is offering a starkly different assessment of the potential dangers of a Russian intelligence operation for U.S. national security — and argues that it doesn’t take a master spy to do serious harm.

In a little-noticed court filing on Friday, an expert witness for the government, Robert Anderson Jr., a former assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, outlined how the activities of the Russian gun-rights activist Maria Butina during the election contained all the hallmarks of a sophisticated intelligence operation.

Anderson’s declaration has spawned a new fight between the government and Butina’s lawyers, who countered that it was speculative and blurred the line between informal networking and clandestine intelligence operations.

But the filing also sheds new light on how the Justice Department views the ongoing threat of Russian attempts to influence American politics, and goes well beyond what Mueller’s team was able to say in its 448-page report.

Allowing Russia to “bypass formal channels of diplomacy, win concessions, and exert influence within the United States” by entertaining backchannel lines of communication could result in “commensurate harm to the United States, including harm to the integrity of the United States’ political processes and internal government dealings, as well as to U.S. foreign policy interests and national security,” Anderson wrote.

Butina created a plan called the “Diplomacy Project” in March 2015 aimed at cultivating Republican presidential candidates and their advisers and reporting her progress back to Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.

She also tried to connect members of the National Rifle Association with Kremlin officials in December 2015 during a trip to Moscow, prosecutors say, and held U.S.-Russia “friendship dinners” to “exert the speediest and most effective influence on the process of making decisions in the American establishment,” according to a document she wrote during the election.

Butina pleaded guilty in December to conspiring against the U.S, agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and is in jail awaiting sentencing.

Butina wasn’t the only Russian trying to make inroads outside of formal diplomatic structures during and after the election, however. And she was arguably the least successful.

Mueller confirmed in his report that Paul Manafort, the campaign’s chairman, discussed ways to forge a Russia-Ukraine “peace plan” that would bolster Moscow’s influence over Kiev; that the incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador before Trump even took office; that Kushner suggested using Russian Embassy facilities to discuss Syria policy during the transition period, thereby evading detection from the U.S. intelligence community; and that a two-page document outlining a U.S.-Russia reset made its way from the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The first half of Mueller’s report was laser-focused on answering the question of whether Trump or members of his campaign had engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia to hack into Democrats’ emails or influence the election through social media; it ultimately concluded that they had not.

Mueller had little to say about the broader national security implications of Russia’s efforts to cultivate Trump associates. But Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research on Russia and Eurasia, noted on Twitter on Monday that, seen against the backdrop of Anderson’s declaration, “it’s clear that the conduct outlined in Volume I of the Mueller Report created enormous damage to US national security.”

Because the U.S. is “Russia’s primary target “for malign and intrusive intelligence operations,” Anderson wrote, the Kremlin is not just looking for classified information or trade secrets. It’s looking for access points and opportunities to influence policy.

“In targeting the United States, Russia works … to collect any information that could, by itself or in conjunction with other efforts, assist the Russian government in increasing its geopolitical power or undermining and harming that of the United States,” he continued.

The special counsel’s counterintelligence findings could illuminate the extent to which people in Trump’s orbit — and the president himself — have been, or remain, compromised. But those findings were largely handed off to the FBI over the course of the 22-month probe and were not enumerated in the final report.

Butina’s lawyers, meanwhile, have argued that the broad theory Anderson put forward — that a foreign national may be acting as an “access agent” when hobnobbing with D.C. operatives and sending information about those dalliances back to their government — “effectively criminalizes all networking behavior if done by a foreign national.” Her lawyers said in another court filing on Tuesday that it could take “months” for them to respond to Anderson’s declaration if the judge declines to strike it, indefinitely delaying Butina’s sentencing hearing. The hearing had originally been set for April 26.

D.C. prosecutors have been aggressive in the Butina case, as evidenced by their assertion early on that she was trading sex for a position in a special-interest organization — an accusation that the government walked back after realizing that it had misinterpreted a piece of evidence.

Prosecutors also recommended an 18-month sentence for Butina, despite her lawyers’ expectation that they would not make a specific recommendation given the 10 months she’s already spent in jail.

Butina’s lawyers also feel the government blindsided them with the last-minute Anderson affidavit that made her look complicit in a Russian intelligence operation.

“The fact that the government used this filing — made late in the evening on Good Friday … less than a week before sentencing — to unveil a complete new theory of the government’s case creates additional due process issues,” they wrote in a motion to exclude and strike Anderson’s declaration.

Disputes over the government’s conduct aside, the Anderson declaration was a striking — and ominous — analysis of the Russian government’s intelligence-collection methods.

“Russia’s efforts targeting the United States take a myriad of forms — it is, in essence, a numbers game,” he wrote. “Not every intelligence campaign needs to be successful for Russia to have achieved its goals.”

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Trump showdown with House Democrats ignites into all-out war

1 hour 4 min ago - [CET]

The showdown between the Trump White House and House Democrats reached a new level of hostility this week, as several investigative disputes veered toward federal court amid scathing rhetoric on both sides.

Three dramatic clashes between White House lawyers and congressional Democrats over the past 36 hours have created an atmosphere of total war between the two sides, suggesting that even modest compromise may be impossible and that protracted court fights are likely inevitable.

House Democrats threatened Tuesday to hold in contempt a Trump official who oversaw security clearances after the White House instructed him not to cooperate with Congress. Later in the day, the Trump administration refused to turn over six years’ worth of President Donald Trump’s personal and business tax returns by a 5pm deadline, instead requesting more time to consult with the Justice Department.

Those moves came a day after Trump took the dramatic step of suing the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to block a subpoena for his financial records.

White House lawyers say they are guarding the executive branch’s prerogatives against what they call politically-motivated congressional inquests. But Democrats see an unprecedented—and indefensible—degree of White House defiance.

“It’s a pretty extraordinary and outlandish situation right now,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Oversight panel, said in an interview. “It’s like a curtain has fallen down over the White House.”

Since House Democrats took power in January, White House officials have resorted to a range of aggressive tactics — refusing to turn over documents, declining to send witnesses to testify, even going to federal court to protect Trump's financial records from congressional scrutiny.

“It’s putting forth a constitutional crisis about whether the Congress can effectively perform its oversight duties,” said Morton Rosenberg, who served as legal advisor to the House General Counsel.

Trump’s White House and personal lawyers have repeatedly counterpunched at Democrats in harsh and hostile terms, painting a portrait of a frantic White House under siege from an opposition party out to destroy the president.

“The Democrat Party, with its newfound control of the U.S. House of Representatives, has declared all-out political war against President Donald J. Trump,” Trump’s personal attorneys wrote in a court filing challenging a subpoena for his financial records from an accounting firm. “Democrat Party” is a term often used by conservatives that Democrats consider intentionally disrespectful.

“Instead of working with the president to pass bipartisan legislation that would actually benefit Americans, House Democrats are singularly obsessed with finding something they can use to damage the president politically,” added the attorneys, William Consovoy and Stefan Passantino.

Trump allies have echoed that partisan framing in their arguments that Democrats are making illegitimate requests.

“No one should be surprised that this White House is following a time-honored tradition of ignoring partisan subpoenas,” said a former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House.

In recent days, the White House has begun instructing White House officials, including its former White House personnel security director Carl Kline and former White House Counsel Don McGahn, to not cooperate with Congress, according to two people familiar with the plans.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) subpoenaed McGahn to appear before the panel May 21 as part of its obstruction of justice investigation into Trump. But lawmakers have raised questions about whether Trump is able to claim executive privilege on anything revealed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report because the report is now a public document. It includes detailed testimony from McGahn, they say, which is effectively an affirmative decision by Trump to waive the privilege.

"As such, the moment for the White House to assert some privilege to prevent this testimony from being heard has long since passed,” Nadler said in a statement Tuesday. “I suspect that President Trump and his attorneys know this to be true as a matter of law—and that this evening’s reports, if accurate, represent one more act of obstruction by an administration desperate to prevent the public from talking about the president’s behavior.”

Still, the White House says Democrats will never be satisfied with whatever they turn over.

“It’s going to be up the attorneys,” White House spokesman Hogan Gildley told reporters at the White House. “But it’s pretty clear what Jerry Nadler and the Democrats are up to. They don’t want to get to the truth....at this point, I don't know what Jerry Nadler thinks he’s going to get that Robert Mueller didn’t.”

Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said he would schedule a vote to hold Kline in contempt for refusing to comply with the committee’s subpoena for a deposition before the panel, which was scheduled for Tuesday.

Trump’s lawyers aren’t the only ones making their case in acerbic terms. Cummings released a scathing statement on Tuesday ripping the Trump administration for routinely shivving congressional oversight requests.

“It appears that the president believes that the Constitution does not apply to his White House, that he may order officials at will to violate their legal obligations, and that he may obstruct attempts by Congress to conduct oversight,” Cummings said. “It also appears that the White House believes that it may dictate to Congress — an independent and co-equal branch of government — the scope of its investigations and even the rules by which it conducts them.”

Kline is accused of overriding career national security officials to approve security clearances for officials whose applications were initially denied. The allegations against him were revealed to the committee by Tricia Newbold, a whistleblower who told the Oversight Committee that Kline and others put national security at risk by granting security clearances to more than two dozen officials.

“It’s true with all of the committees — the White House is fighting each and every one,” said Ed Passman, Newbold’s lawyer. “This is just another example. It’s really disappointing because my client has come forward at great personal risk.”

In addition to Nadler and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Cummings has emerged as a leadingpersona non grata in Trump world. And now, he’s become the latest in a long line of defendants in a Trump lawsuit.

“Elijah Cummings is a gentlemen who treats everybody with decency and respect,” Raskin added. “And it seems pretty shocking to me that the president has injected this kind of negative personal tone into the whole thing.”

A contempt vote against Kline, who now works at the Defense Department, would be the first since Trump took office. That could lead Congress to ask a judge to force the administration to cooperate. It could also lead the U.S. attorney in Washington to press charges, though that’s unlikely to happen.

“This is as close to anarchy as I have seen,” said Charles Tiefer, former solicitor and deputy general counsel of the House who is now a professor at the University of Baltimore. “The administrations seems to think it has floated off into space and no longer subject to oversight.”

White House deputy counsel Michael Purpura sent a letter Monday asking Kline not to answer questions because it “unconstitutionally encroaches on fundamental executive branch interests.”

Kline's attorney, Robert Driscoll, wrote a subsequent letter to the committee that Kline would not answer questions. “With two masters from two equal branches of government, we will follow the instructions of the one that employs him,” Driscoll wrote in the letter to the committee.

Democrats had hoped they would quickly receive documents and information about the Trump administration, but it has become clear that a long and frustrating fight with the president’s lawyers lies ahead. The fight could end up in court and could take several months, possibly stretching well into 2020 as the president runs for reelection.

Since 2007, Congress has held two officials in contempt — White House Counsel Harriet Miers during George W. Bush’s tenure and Attorney General Eric Holder during Barack Obama’s presidency — but still failed to receive all the information they’ve requested.

A lawyer who worked in Barack Obama’s White House said a White House requesting an official not cooperate is not unusual but it is unusual to do so without invoking executive privilege, which allows a president to shield certain communications from legislative and judicial branches. “It’s a very difficult situation unless they invoke executive privilege,” the lawyer said.

Nearly every House committee has launched investigations into the Trump administration, on everything from the easing of sanctions on businesses tied to a Russian oligarch to the federal government’s lease with the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

“When faced with choice of cooperation or confrontation, Chairman Cummings picked confrontation,” a spokesman for the Republican side of the Oversight panel said on Tuesday, slamming Cummings for his “insatiable quest to sully the White House.”

In total, the administration has at least 30 times refused or delayed turning over documents to 12 House committees, according to House Democrats. Half dozen officials refused to appear before five committees while two officials have refused to come in for interviews with two other committees, they say.

On Monday, Trump sued Cummings in an effort to block the Oversight Committee’s subpoena to accounting firm Mazars USA. The committee is seeking eight years of Trump’s financial records from the company.

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

Kyle Cheney and Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.

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Beer and cigarette makers join the pot lobbying parade

1 hour 7 min ago - [CET]

The push to legalize marijuana quickly transformed the cannabis industry into a multibillion dollar legal business. And now Fortune 500 companies and elite K Street lobbying firms have joined the green gold rush.

Altria, the tobacco giant better known for Marlboros, recently took a $1.8 billion stake in the cannabis company Cronos Group. Constellation Brands, which makes Corona beer, has spent money on cannabis lobbying after making a major investment in Canopy Growth, a Canadian marijuana company. On K Street, powerhouse firms like Holland & Knight — which has represented Comcast, Google and Dow Chemical — have taken on marijuana clients.

The arrival of corporate giants and K Street firms represents a tipping point for the mainstreaming of marijuana legalization in Washington, even while marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. And while there’s a long way to go before Congress goes the way of 30-plus states and legalizes medical or recreational sales, it’s clear that special interests think there’s money to be made trying to change federal drug policies.

There are already signs of progress — one bill loosening banking rules has already advanced out of a House committee — and the action is expected to heat up with Democrats in control of the House and Democratic presidential candidates backing marijuana legalization.

Cannabis companies spent $2.7 million on lobbying last year — a sixfold increase over just two years ago, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — and advocates believe the latest efforts could be enough to cement the burgeoning industry’s legal status, more than six years after Colorado and Washington launched the modern legalization movement by approving ballot initiatives authorizing recreational use.

“For the first time in my six years of doing this, you actually have a chamber of Congress that's willing to have an adult conversation about this,” said Michael Correia, director of government relations at the National Cannabis Industry Association, the most established pot business lobby. “That is definitely a sea change.”

There are now five different industry groups working to liberalize cannabis laws, including three formed within the last year. One of those fledgling groups — the Cannabis Trade Federation — boasts that it's capable of mobilizing two dozen lobbyists to twist arms on Capitol Hill if needed.

Their work is starting to reap dividends in the Democratic-controlled House. Last month, the Financial Services Committee overwhelmingly passed legislation that would shield banks and credit unions from federal regulatory penalties if they do business with cannabis companies legalized at the state level, with 11 Republicans joining all of the Democrats present in backing the bill.

“It's definitely better than it was last year, it's better than two years ago, and I think we're going to be even stronger next year,” said Andrew Smith, senior vice president of external affairs for Surterra Wellness, which operates 23 medical marijuana dispensaries in Florida.

Cannabis companies argue that legalization bolsters economic growth through tax collections and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. Cowen analysts project sales could hit $80 billion by 2030. Cannabis interests further emphasize that the potential therapeutic benefits of their products have been suppressed by federal restrictions that hinder medical research.

But major hurdles remain, starting in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown no signs of warming to the legalization push and powerful chairmen like Judiciary’s Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Finance’s Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) aren’t seen as allies of the industry.

“It makes it hard to see the path forward for cannabis legislation in this Congress,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Marijuana: A Short History."

The legalization debate also is freighted with racial and economic justice issues stemming from the decades-long war on drugs. Advocates for overhauling drug laws want any legalization plan to clear the records of individuals with past convictions for marijuana possession and help minority groups that bore a disproportionate share of such convictions access funding to launch marijuana businesses.

“We can't trust that if we just push things through that at some point in the future we'll come back and do all this equity stuff,” said Shanita Penny, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. “It ain’t happening. The people in power aren’t going to let it happen.”

Despite the burst of activity, the cannabis industry remains a tiny K Street presence compared to powerhouses like the pharmaceutical and defense industries. In the first quarter of this year, cannabis companies spent just over $1 million on lobbying efforts, according to disclosure reports.

But that doesn’t include moneyed interests from other industries that have a growing stake in cannabis issues. Among the 84 entities that listed cannabis or marijuana on lobbying disclosure reports for the first quarter are Constellation Brands, Mastercard and the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions.

“The millions of dollars these companies are dumping into an army of tobacco-style lobbyists on Capitol Hill is a fraction of the billions these companies will rake in if marijuana is fully commercialized,” said Kevin Sabet, president of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, in a statement to POLITICO.

Nor are the growth prospects limited to the United States. Canada enacted full legalization last year, and Mexico appears close to embracing legal sales, raising the prospect of multinational pot concerns. Last week, Canopy Growth announced that it was acquiring U.S. cannabis company Acreage Holdings for $3.4 billion, contingent on federal legalization.

That rapidly changing landscape could sway holdout lawmakers. Ten states now legalize recreational and medical marijuana use, with voters in Michigan most recently backing recreational sales last November. In addition, 23 states have legalized medical marijuana, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, including deep-red states like Missouri and Utah.

Polling data indicates steadily climbing public support for medical and recreational sales. More than six in ten Americans now back marijuana legalization, according to the Pew Research Center, double the level in 2000.

Saphira Galoob, whose lobbying firm primarily works with cannabis companies, said she’s seen a corresponding change in perceptions about the industry on K Street.

“In the past, there was concern that if they took on a cannabis client it could undermine other larger clients,” said Galoob, who is a senior adviser to the National Cannabis Roundtable, another industry group. “And so they were very skittish about having a cannabis client as a part of their portfolio.”

Cannabis advocates point to last year’s passage of the First Step Act, which aims to help prisoners successfully transition to post-incarceration life, as evidence that the Senate could yet come around on marijuana legislation. The criminal justice overhaul — which was strongly backed by the White House — passed with overwhelming bipartisan support after McConnell agreed to let it come up for a vote.

“Sen. McConnell is nothing if not attuned to political forces,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the dean of marijuana legalization backers on Capitol Hill, told reporters last week. “Candidly, if I were in his shoes, and wanted to minimize my losses in the 2020 election, I wouldn’t make cannabis a target.”

The 2020 presidential contest could further shake up the dynamic. Almost all Democratic presidential contenders have not only embraced legalization, but are framing it as a criminal and economic justice issue.

The Trump administration has given mixed signals about where it stands. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent tremors through the industry by rescinding a memo stating that federal authorities wouldn’t crack down on states with legal cannabis markets. But his successor, William Barr, suggested during congressional testimony earlier this month that he would support legislation like the STATES Act, which sanctions medical and recreational sales in states where they’ve been authorized.

Sen. Cory Gardner, an embattled Republican incumbent from pot-loving Colorado, said Trump told him he would sign the STATES Act if it got to him.

Justin Strekal, political director for the veteran legalization advocacy group NORML, says the issue has appeal across the ideological spectrum. But he and other advocates argue that it’s not enough for lawmakers to simply address the concerns of industry. They must also tackle the thornier issues around racial and economic justice.

“When we lean in on framing this as a right of individual liberty, individual freedom and individual justice, that's where we have space to grow in support,” Strekal said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Why Facebook hired a Patriot Act author and privacy activist

1 hour 13 min ago - [CET]

Facebook's hiring spree in Washington is causing a serious case of whiplash.

The embattled company this week tapped both a Trump administration official known for helping to write the PATRIOT Act and a privacy advocate who vigorously opposed the law's expansion of government surveillance — sending mixed signals as it tries to reassure regulators and lawmakers about its handling of data on its more than 2 billion users.

The social networking giant on Monday brought on Jennifer Newstead, a Trump-appointed State Department official whose long record in Washington includes shepherding the George W. Bush-era PATRIOT Act through Congress. The law greatly expanded the government's ability to access records on Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — ushering in a sweeping surveillance regime that later came under fierce criticism from civil liberties groups.

On Tuesday, Kevin Bankston, the executive director of the left-leaning Open Technology Institute, joined Facebook as director of privacy policy. Bankston, a longtime privacy advocate, once called the PATRIOT Act a "tremendous blow" to Americans' civil liberties.

The hires highlight how Facebook — under fire for multiple controversies over its handling of user data, hate speech, misinformation and political content — is pursuing a two-track approach to Washington, tapping Republican insiders to deal with the Trump administration and GOP-controlled Senate, while scooping up privacy activists to help navigate the seemingly endless user data scandals surrounding the company.

It's part of a broader pattern of Facebook seeking experienced political and legal hands to deal with newly active regulators in Washington, Brussels and beyond. But the pairing of surveillance and privacy hawks provides a jarring juxtaposition at a time when Facebook is trying to articulate a coherent privacy-focused vision for its future.

Privacy advocates were quick to point out the awkwardness of the Newstead hire, given her association with surveillance at a time when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has outlined a "shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure."

“It’s almost as if we’re living in some bizarro world where the company does exactly the opposite of what Zuckerberg states publicly,” said Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission.

But others view the new general counsel as an encouraging sign that the company, known for its mantra of "move fast and break things," is taking government oversight seriously.

"She seems to be an adult and these companies need adults," said one tech company veteran, arguing that the industry has been woefully lacking in a broader understanding of the technology it builds. "If you can steal talent like that to make these companies be adults, that's only a good thing."

“Jennifer has a distinguished record of public service,” said a Facebook spokesperson, who pointed out that Newstead was part of a “large team” that worked on the PATRIOT Act's passage.

Newstead — whose legal career has included a Supreme Court clerkship, various positions in the George W. Bush White House, the Justice Department and private practice — was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as legal adviser at the State Department in 2017 and confirmed later that year.

She's the latest Bush administration veteran to join Facebook's D.C. office. Fellow Bush alum Joel Kaplan is the company's vice president of global public policy, and Bush-era FCC Chairman Kevin Martin also serves in a policy role for the company. Facebook has shown a penchant for stocking its Washington leadership with Republicans who have connections with White House officials and GOP leadership in Congress, even as Trump and conservatives accuse of the company of bias.

Despite the Democratic takeover of the House, the company hasn't given any signs of shaking up its Republican ranks, at least yet. Kaplan — who earned Facebook unwelcome attention last fall when he sat prominently behind his friend Brett Kavanaugh as the Supreme Court nominee faced a Senate grilling over sexual assault allegations — is still in place.

Newstead's experience advising senior State Department officials on the legality of U.S. policy abroad is likely to come in handy as Facebook wrestles with governments around the world that are skeptical of the company's data collection practices to impact on competition. Facebook last year hired former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg as head of policy and communications in another move to expand its global connections.

But Newstead's work on the PATRIOT Act could give pause to some privacy-minded lawmakers — not to mention Facebook workers who bristle at the idea of government online surveillance.

John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush administration, has credited Newstead as the "day-to-day manager of the Patriot Act in Congress." Yoo wrote in his book, "She was a quick study and an effective advocate — she went from zero to sixty on terrorism in the days after 9/11."

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the PATRIOT Act passed with broad bipartisan support, with a 98-to-1 vote in the Senate and 357-to-66 vote in the House. But as time passed, it came in for intense criticism from privacy advocates and others, who saw it has vastly expanding the federal government's ability to spy on American citizens with minimal oversight.

Those critics included Bankston, Facebook's newly named privacy policy lead. While senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bankston wrote in 2005 that a Senate filibuster temporarily blocking the renewal of the PATRIOT Act was "the best holiday gift any civil libertarian could hope for."

Bankston has also been critical of Facebook, he acknowledged in a goodbye note Tuesday. But he argued that "despite the scandals of the past few years," the company "still has the potential to radically transform the world for the better."

“We think it’s important to bring in people with new perspectives, including people who can look at our products, policies and processes with a critical eye," Facebook deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman said in a statement provided to POLITICO. "We’re excited to bring Kevin on board.”

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.

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Pelosi, Schumer to meet with Trump on infrastructure next week

1 hour 39 min ago - [CET]

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will meet with President Donald Trump next week to discuss infrastructure.

The meeting will take place on Tuesday, April 30 at 10:30 a.m., according to a senior Democratic aide. The aide said that Pelosi spoke with Trump by phone April 4 and requested the meeting.

Pelosi first announced the meeting earlier Tuesday at an event hosted by TIME Magazine in New York City.

"We'll be meeting with the president next week when we come back to talk about what the prospect is for the size in terms of resources and scope of what that might be," she said, noting that infrastructure and prescription drug prices are two policy areas where Democrats could find common ground and pass legislation with the White House.

Although the White House and Democrats have pointed to infrastructure as a possible area for working together, how to pay for an overhaul of the country’s roads and bridges has remained a persistent question.

Pelosi, Schumer and Trump met in December to discuss averting a government shutdown, but the trio clashed as television cameras captured the entire awkward exchange.

John Bresnahan contributed to this story.

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U.S. Navy drafting new guidelines for reporting UFOs

2 hours 5 min ago - [CET]

The U.S. Navy is drafting new guidelines for pilots and other personnel to report encounters with "unidentified aircraft," a significant new step in creating a formal process to collect and analyze the unexplained sightings — and destigmatize them.

The previously unreported move is in response to a series of sightings of unknown, highly advanced aircraft intruding on Navy strike groups and other sensitive military formations and facilities, the service says.

"There have been a number of reports of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft entering various military-controlled ranges and designated air space in recent years," the Navy said in a statement in response to questions from POLITICO. "For safety and security concerns, the Navy and the [U.S. Air Force] takes these reports very seriously and investigates each and every report.

"As part of this effort," it added, "the Navy is updating and formalizing the process by which reports of any such suspected incursions can be made to the cognizant authorities. A new message to the fleet that will detail the steps for reporting is in draft."

To be clear, the Navy isn’t endorsing the idea that its sailors have encountered alien spacecraft. But it is acknowledging there have been enough strange aerial sightings by credible and highly trained military personnel that they need to be recorded in the official record and studied — rather than dismissed as some kooky phenomena from the realm of science-fiction.

Chris Mellon, a former Pentagon intelligence official and ex-staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said establishing a more formal means of reporting what the military now calls "unexplained aerial phenomena" — rather than "unidentified flying objects" — would be a “sea change.”

“Right now, we have situation in which UFOs and UAPs are treated as anomalies to be ignored rather than anomalies to be explored,” he said. “We have systems that exclude that information and dump it.”

For example, Mellon said “in a lot of cases [military personnel] don’t know what to do with that information — like satellite data or a radar that sees something going Mach 3. They will dump [the data] because that is not a traditional aircraft or missile.”

The development comes amid growing interest from members of Congress following revelations by POLITICO and the New York Times in late 2017 that the Pentagon established a dedicated office inside the Defense Intelligence Agency to study UAPs at the urging of several senators who secretly set aside appropriations for the effort.

That office spent some $25 million conducting a series of technical studies and evaluating numerous unexplained incursions, including one that lasted several days involving the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in 2004. In that case, Navy fighter jets were outmaneuvered by unidentified aircraft that flew in ways that appeared to defy the laws of known physics.

Raytheon, a leading defense contractor, used the reports and official Defense Department video of the sightings off the coast of California to hail one of its radar systems for capturing the phenomena.

The Pentagon's UFO research office, known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Intelligence Program, was officially wound down in 2012 when the congressional earmark ran out.

But more lawmakers are now asking questions, the Navy also reports.

"In response to requests for information from Congressional members and staff, Navy officials have provided a series of briefings by senior Naval Intelligence officials as well as aviators who reported hazards to aviation safety," the service said in its statement to POLITICO.

The Navy declined to identify who has been briefed, nor would it provide more details on the guidelines for reporting that are being drafted for the fleet. The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Advocates for treating such sightings as a potential national security threat have long criticized military leaders for giving the phenomenon relatively little attention and for encouraging a culture in which personnel feel that speaking up about it could hurt their career.

Luis Elizondo, the former Pentagon official who ran the so-called AATIP office, complained after he retired from government service that the Pentagon's approach to these unidentified aircraft has been far too blasé.

"If you are in a busy airport and see something you are supposed to say something," Elizondo said. "With our own military members it is kind of the opposite: 'If you do see something, don't say something.'"

He added that because these mysterious aircraft "don't have a tail number or a flag — in some cases not even a tail — it's crickets. What happens in five years if it turns out these are extremely advanced Russian aircraft?"

Elizondo will be featured in an upcoming documentary series about the Pentagon UFO research he oversaw. He said the six-part series will reveal more recent sightings of UAPs by dozens of military pilots.

Both Elizondo and Mellon are involved with the To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences, which supports research into explaining the technical advances these reported UAPs demonstrate.

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Months later, Trump closes in on U.N. nomination

2 hours 9 min ago - [CET]

President Donald Trump is expected to formally nominate Kelly Knight Craft next week to be the new United States ambassador to the United Nations, a position that has remained unfilled for months at a time of global concerns that president is not committed to such diplomatic institutions.

But Craft, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, faces a tough Senate confirmation process for the same reasons believed to have held up her nomination since Trump first tweeted his intent to pick her two months ago: There are questions about her family’s extensive business interests and her dearth of knowledge about international issues at a time when the U.S. faces numerous geopolitical challenges, including from Russia and a fast-rising China. Her husband, Joe Craft, is a billionaire coal executive with close ties to the White House.

As America’s top diplomat in Canada, Craft has an important but relatively easy diplomatic position compared to the U.N. role, which former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley held until the end of 2018. Craft’s nomination would follow Trump’s botched attempt to place former State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in the U.N. role, an effort that stalled for two months before she withdrew from consideration. The position is almost certain to be less powerful than under Haley, given indications that Trump, a skeptic of multilateral international organizations, will take it out of the Cabinet.

Although Craft has staunch backing from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian, suggesting she will ultimately be confirmed, Senate Democrats say they will show no mercy during the process.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, told POLITICO days after Craft’s tweet-nod from Trump that her upcoming confirmation hearing is sure to differ from her previous one. Craft largely sailed through that earlier hearing, though she stumbled over a question from Menendez on whether she believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying “that it looks as if yes,” but that she’d “have to investigate this further or learn more points on this.”

The U.N. ambassador “is one of the most senior diplomatic positions we have,” Menendez said. “She got a fairly easy pass because she was nominated to Canada. That’s not the type of pass she’ll get for this nomination.”

Democrats are sure to press Craft on Russia, China, human rights issues and climate change, Menendez said. The U.N. helps manage the global Paris climate pact, which Trump said the U.S. will withdraw from in 2020. And Craft briefly became an internet sensation in October 2017, when she told a CBC News reporter that there are “sciences … on both sides that are accurate.”

Despite her previous vetting, Craft and her husband’s financial situations will also probably face renewed scrutiny from Democrats — particularly given that the U.N.’s climate change efforts could directly impact Joe Craft’s line of work.

Kelly Craft can expect a warmer reception from several Foreign Relations committee Republicans, many of whom have received campaign contributions from her and her billionaire husband. At least half of the GOP members of the panel have gotten financial infusions from Kelly or Joe Craft since the 2012 cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records reviewed by POLITICO. The review was limited to candidates' campaign committees and leadership PACs.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whom the Crafts backed in the 2016 presidential race before fundraising for Trump, told POLITICO he’d support her nomination. “She’d do a good job,” he said. “I know her well.”

Canadian officials and lawmakers describe Craft as accessible and helpful in relaying messages to high-level contacts in Washington — a lengthy list that includes Trump, McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence. That built goodwill in a foreign capital otherwise simmering in anger at Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Canada in part over his hard-nosed approach to trade.

Craft was in the middle of hosting reporters for a happy hour in September at her Ottawa residence when Trump berated Canada during a news conference. Craft answered pointed questions about the president defended Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland after Trump said Freeland "hates America."

Two people familiar with the matter said Craft expects her nomination will be sent to the Senate next week, though one warned that the White House often changes course at the last minute. She plans to meet members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee soon after the nomination is submitted. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Craft has received regular briefings on international issues ever since Trump tweeted on Feb. 22 that she was his choice for the role, two people familiar with the issue said. The briefings have been held via secure conference lines and in-person in Ottawa, they said. Craft did make a trip to Dallas earlier this month to the Bush Center’s 2019 Forum on Leadership.

The delay in Craft’s nomination has raised feelings of déjà vu as well as worries that her nomination, like Nauert’s, could be scuttled, people familiar with the matter said. Trump initially announced Nauert as his U.N. choice on Dec. 7. But the nomination was scrapped in mid-February, ostensibly over Nauert’s previous employment of a nanny who lacked a proper work permit.

There also may be more potential financial conflicts of interest for Craft at the U.N. than for her current post, particularly given her husband’s coal industry work.

“Observers underestimate the amount of time it takes to fill out the financial disclosure forms,” a person familiar with the process told POLITICO. “Every holding must be disclosed and explained. The Office of Government Ethics comes back with multiple questions that have to be answered to their satisfaction.”

The United Nations faces any number of challenges in the coming weeks and months, including the potential for an all-out civil war in Libya that could further exacerbate the global migration crisis. Getting nominations through the Senate can take months, but Trump will probably want his new ambassador in place before world leaders gather for the annual U.N. General Assembly in September.

At the U.S. mission to the U.N., staffers have been sanguine about the recent turbulence in their leadership ranks.

Haley was well-regarded among the career staffers in the mission, who said she treated them well. Nauert’s scuttled nomination caused some internal consternation at the U.N., but a staffer told POLITICO that the acting chief, Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, is managing well despite being short-handed.

“It’s fine,” the staffer said about the overall mood. That said, Cohen's recent nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Egypt was recently submitted to the Senate, adding unease about yet another U.N. leader departing and an urgency to get Craft confirmed, two people with knowledge of the process said.

The U.S. mission to the U.N. has drawn attention this week after reports that it threatened to veto a U.N. Security Council Resolution against rape in conflict zones over objections to language referring to “sexual and reproductive health.” Some Trump administration political appointees believe that such phrases are actually coded references to abortion.

One reality U.N. staffers are preparing for is that their leader will likely no longer be considered a Cabinet-level position whenever Haley’s replacement is confirmed. That means the U.S. mission will have to coordinate more closely with the State Department. Under Haley, whom Trump included in his Cabinet, tensions flared at times between State and the U.S. mission.

There’s also the sense among staffers that Craft will have even less independence than Haley, who closely guarded her relationship with Trump, because of the presence of John Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser. Bolton previously served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and he’s long been skeptical about the world body’s value and competence.

“What to watch for is less guidance from State and it’s more to what extent does John Bolton become the primary decision-maker,” another person familiar with the nomination process said.

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Bob Corker: Trump primary challenger would be 'good thing for our country'

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 23:19 - [CET]

Former Republican Sen. Bob Corker said Tuesday that the country would benefit from a formidable primary challenger to President Donald Trump.

“You could look at it and say that it would be a good thing for our country should that occur,” Corker said in an interview at the TIME 100 Summit. “If you had a real primary, where you had someone that was really being listened to, and of substance, things that we were talking about — and I could go through a list of them — they would actually be debated in a real way.”

But Corker warned that if Trump faced a less threatening opponent, no one would pay attention. So far, only former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld has mounted a primary challenge against Trump.

The former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who retired earlier this year, was one of the most vocal Republican critics of Trump in the Senate. Trump also repeatedly attacked him on Twitter, at one point calling him “Liddle Bob Corker.” In his interview with TIME, Corker criticized Trump for dividing the country further.

“Typically, to unite people, you have to wish to do so, and I think that currently, the president has not found that to his benefit or to his liking,” Corker said.

When asked about his own political future at the TIME event, Corker replied: “I have no thoughts about future public service. As far as what is next, I truly don’t know. I’m trying to discern that.”

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Administration misses second deadline on congressional request for Trump’s tax returns

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 23:18 - [CET]

The Trump administration missed a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to turn over the president’s tax returns to House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, intensifying a standoff that will likely wind up in court.

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Trump met with Twitter CEO amid bias complaints

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 23:10 - [CET]

President Donald Trump met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at the White House today, hours after he took to Twitter to accuse the company of discriminating against him.

Ahead of the meeting, Trump, a prolific Twitter user, repeated allegations that his favorite social media platform stifles conservative speech, accusing it of playing “political games."

“They don’t treat me well as a Republican. Very discriminatory, hard for people to sign on. Constantly taking people off list,” Trump said in a pair of tweets, adding: “No wonder Congress wants to get involved - and they should. Must be more, and fairer, companies to get out the WORD!”

Those comments echo complaints by a number of Republicans, who've alleged that Twitter and other top tech firms routinely stifle conservative content. The companies deny any political bias.

Trump later tweeted that he had a "Great meeting" with Dorsey, writing, "Lots of subjects discussed regarding their platform, and the world of social media in general. Look forward to keeping an open dialogue!"

Motherboard, which first reported the meeting, said the pair were slated to discuss "the health of the public conversation on Twitter."

Twitter didn't immediately comment.

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Bipartisan lawmakers push for new criminal justice reform effort

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 21:45 - [CET]

An unlikely pair of House members are making a push for a so-called “second chance” law for people convicted of certain low-level federal offenses, with hopes to repeat Congress’s unexpected victory on criminal justice reform last year.

Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, and Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from Pennsylvania, introduced their Clean Slate Act on Tuesday, which would automatically seal a person’s record if they’ve been convicted of simple possession of marijuana. It would also allow individuals to petition U.S. courts to seal records for other nonviolent crimes, including other drug offenses.

The intention, they say, is to eliminate barriers to employment, education and housing that are common for individuals convicted of crimes.

“I’ve seen so many stories of people who, because of a minor offense, it has stuck with them for the rest of their lives,” Blunt Rochester said in an interview Tuesday, calling her bill the “next logical step” after last year’s landmark package of sentencing and prison reform.

The bill has won support from what Rochester described as “strange bedfellows” — the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative FreedomWorks.

“We are still in the early stages for this bill, but I believe the prospects are good for strong, bipartisan support, especially given the White House’s continued push for criminal justice reform,” Reschenthaler, a former district judge, said in a statement.

The newly unveiled legislation resembles a push in Pennsylvania, which recently became the first in the nation with a “clean slate” law for certain nonviolent offenses — a bill that Reschenthaler helped pass as a state legislator last year.

That bill would seal records after a decade, while the Blunt Rochester and Reschenthaler’s bill allows individuals to petition the courts to do so after one year. Certain crimes, such as sex-based or national security offenses, would not be sealed.

The bipartisan interest in criminal justice reform 2.0 is a stark shift from recent decades, when Republican and Democratic leaders fought to prove that they were tougher on crime than their opponents.

Both lawmakers said they hopes the bill can be a rare area of common ground in the coming weeks at a time when Senate GOP leaders have flatly rejected most bills sent to them by House Democrats. Blunt Rochester said she’s spoken with House Democratic leaders, and is optimistic about a future floor vote.

The Delaware Democrats also introduced a similar version of the bill last year, which had 20 cosponsors, but no Republicans.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) plans to introduce a similar bill on the Senate side, and is in talks with Republicans to become a cosponsor.

The idea has picked up traction across the country, from Utah to Idaho, and Blunt Rochester said she hopes it will fuel more interest.

“We’re looking to really create a movement,” she said.

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Jared Kushner dismisses Russia's interference in the 2016 election

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 21:41 - [CET]
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Acting DHS chief says family separation 'not worth it'

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 20:58 - [CET]

The interim head of the Department of Homeland Security asserted on Tuesday that the Trump administration wasn’t looking to revive its divisive policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, telling NBC news the controversy was “not worth it” from an enforcement standpoint.

Sitting for his first interview since DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned and President Donald Trump named him acting head of the department, Kevin McAleenan defended the policy even while pledging that the president had no interest in bringing it back.

“I think the president has been clear that family separation is not on the table," McAleenan, the former Customs and Border Protection commissioner, told NBC’s Lester Holt when asked whether he would reconsider the policy, before falling back on the administration’s defense of the issue.

“And again, this was a zero-tolerance prosecution initiative that was targeted at adults violating the law,” he said. “They were always intended to be reunited.”

The Trump administration faced widespread condemnation over the policy, which was meant to serve as a deterrent for migrants before Trump signed an executive order bringing the practice to an end last summer, but not before separating thousands of migrant children from their parents.

Though McAleenan said the administration always planned to reunite separated families, officials struggled to meet a court-ordered deadline to do so last year. But McAleenan argued that although the policy might have been useful as a deterrent, the public outcry over separations doomed it and was ultimately more trouble than it was worth.

“So prosecuting violations of the law does have a consequence and it does deter behavior, but it did not work if you lose the public trust,” he said. He added that from “an enforcement perspective, it’s not worth it.”

McAleenan repeated the Trump’s insistence that Congress strike a deal on the so-called Flores agreement, a court settlement that placed regulations on how long minors could remain detained. He also called for lawmakers to amend immigration policy to allow for a more efficient immigration court system and address the enormous backlog of immigration cases.

“Really a better system, as I’ve said many times, would allow us to detain families together during fair and expeditious immigration proceedings and getting actual immigration results from the court,” McAleenan said. “So that’s what’s missing from the current situation.”

Trump reignited the issue earlier this month following the resignation of Nielsen as secretary and after pulling his nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement amid rumors he was looking to restart the policy, though he told reporters that was untrue.

But even as both the president and McAleenan denied that family separations could begin again, aides have said the White House is considering another policy that could ultimately do just that, though it would give migrant parents the choice to be separated from their children or be detained indefinitely as a family.

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Clinton says Trump only escaped indictment because of DOJ policy

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 20:56 - [CET]

Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that Donald Trump only escaped obstruction of justice charges because of the Justice Department rule barring the indictment of a sitting president.

"I think there’s enough there that any other person who had engaged in those acts would certainly have been indicted," Clinton said at a TIME Magazine event. "But because of the rule in the Justice Department that you can’t indict a sitting president, the whole matter of obstruction was very directly sent directly to the Congress."

Clinton's 2016 electoral defeat was once again thrust in the spotlight last Thursday after the publication of special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report, which detailed the 22-month probe into Russian interference in the presidential election.

The report said the special counsel found evidence of Russian meddling in the election but said there was insufficient evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Mueller also did not take a stance on whether the president obstructed justice, citing a Watergate-era policy in the Justice Department not to indict a sitting president. Such action would leave the president with no legal recourse to clear his name or protections normally afforded to criminal defendants, according to the report. But in his report, Mueller detailed 10 incidents in which Trump tried to interfere with the Russia probe.

“Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought,” the report says.

Clinton also called for the release of an unredacted version of Mueller's report to allow lawmakers the information necessary to move forward with a thorough investigation of the president's behavior.

She added that she approves of the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed the prospect of impeaching the president. Such a drastic move should not be fueled by "partisan political purposes," said Clinton, who emphasized the need for a "careful" approach.

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Trump orders boycott of White House Correspondents' Dinner

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 19:21 - [CET]

The White House on Tuesday ordered administration officials to boycott the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an annual fundraising gala attended by the White House press corps and scheduled for this Saturday.

The message was conveyed to agency chiefs of staff on Tuesday morning by White House Cabinet Secretary Bill McGinley, who indicated that the order was coming from the president himself. Trump has already announced he will be holding a political rally in Green Bay, Wisc., Saturday night, calling the dinner “so boring and so negative.”

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Mueller report exposes diminishing power of Trump denials

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 19:17 - [CET]

President Donald Trump wants New York Times journalists to beg for forgiveness on their knees, and White House aides say they’re ready to accept apologies from the press corps at large.

They’re in for a long wait.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s bombshell 448-page report has unleashed a very different kind of reckoning among Washington reporters and media watchdogs.

The report detailed multiple efforts by Trump and his senior aides to mislead journalists and the public, reigniting a long-running media debate about how to cover such an unprecedented presidency — and when, if ever, to accept White House denials at face value.

The repeated public rejections of key aspects of the report in the face of sworn, on-the-record statements from his own advisers have diminished the power of a denial from the president of the United States — something that once carried a huge amount of weight.

“Reporters have to start assuming that this White House is going to continue to lie and manipulate the media,” Columbia Journalism Review editor Kyle Pope said in an interview. Pope, who said some news organizations were too slow to challenge official White House statements, added: “The dealings with the White House have to be reframed given what we now know about them.”

Pope even questioned the value of quoting or interviewing Trump’s principal spokesperson, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who admitted to Mueller’s investigators that she made unfounded claims that the ousted FBI director James Comey’s had lost support among his rank and file agents. Sanders later tried to defend her statement, saying the “sentiment” was accurate without offering any proof to support her claim.

“I don’t think Sanders has any credibility whatsoever,” he said.

Sanders did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But she and other White House officials have denounced the media for focusing so much of their attention on the Russia investigation, with some calling on them to apologize. Trump bashed The New York Times on Twitter today, calling on them to “get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness.”

Trump and his staffers have responded to the Mueller report with nearly simultaneous claims of vindication and frustration. The president’s delight that Mueller was unable to establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election has been quickly replaced with rage.

After initially claiming “total exoneration,” the president now calls some of the report’s findings “total bullshit,” and he has bashed ex-staffers who supplied detailed notes about crucial behind-the-scenes moments at the White House. Trump is particularly furious with former White House counsel Don McGahn, who told investigators that Trump repeatedly told him to oust Mueller, a directive he ignored. The president denies McGahn’s assertion, although Mueller found ample evidence to substantiate it.

“Journalists shouldn't take anything said by any president at face value, but the Mueller report reminds us that this president in particular says so many things that are flatly untrue that we shouldn't trust anything without checking it,” said veteran New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker.

“And we didn't even need Mueller to tell us that,” Baker added. “Every White House reporter has experienced it over the last couple years. Time after time he has denied things that were confirmed elsewhere.”

Increasingly, White House reporters publish blockbuster stories in the face of denials from administration officials and the president himself, standing by their reporting when Trump complains on Twitter. Earlier this month, for example, Trump denied reports that he offered then-Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan a pardon if he were jailed for illegally blocking migrant from entering the country.

“I never offered Pardons to Homeland Security Officials, never ordered anyone to close our Southern Border (although I have the absolute right to do so, and may if Mexico does not apprehend the illegals coming to our Border), and am not ‘frustrated,’” Trump wrote on Twitter in response to the reports. “It is all Fake & Corrupt News!”

The news outlets that reported those stories continue to firmly stand behind their reporting.

Trump’s team also initially denied playing any role in the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougall. The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories on the payments anway, eventually reporting last year that Trump played a “central role” in the payments.

Privately, White House reporters said they felt vindicated by Mueller’s report, noting that it supported much of their reporting about the president over the last two years. They have no plans to apologize for their coverage.

But that hasn’t stopped Trump and his aides from calling for journalists to beg for forgiveness.

"We're accepting apologies today, too, for anybody who feels the grace in offering them,” Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump adviser, told reporters last week.

An increasingly agitated Trump let loose on Twitter on Tuesday morning, asserting that Democrats and the media “have gone totally insane!”

“I wonder if the New York Times will apologize to me a second time, as they did after the 2016 Election. But this one will have to be a far bigger & better apology,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. “On this one they will have to get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness-they are truly the Enemy of the People!” The New York Times has not apologized to the president for its 2016 coverage.

Some reporters reject the notion that their coverage of the president should be more aggressive in light of the revelations in the Mueller report, noting that reporters have already taken an adversarial approach to reporting on the White House.

Asked if reporters’ approach to White House coverage should change in the aftermath of the report, Bob Woodward said, “I don’t think so. I think, by and large, people have maintained their aggressive edge.”

Woodward, in an interview, added that reporters should focus less on allegations of Russian collusion and more on what he called the “governing crisis” created by the internal chaos in the White House. Issues like Trump’s policy toward Iran are deeply consequential and warrant deeper scrutiny from the press, he said.

The veteran Washington Post reporter noted that he was unable to uncover evidence that Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia while reporting his best-selling book about the president.

“People were applying the Watergate template, saying this is Watergate,” Woodward said. “Well, it’s not yet and it may not be.”

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POLITICO Playbook PM: Pence’s trip to tout trade

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 19:05 - [CET]
And Jared Kushner says the Russia investigation was more harmful to the U.S. than election interference.
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Kamala Harris says she supports adding third gender option to federal IDs

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 18:53 - [CET]

Sen. Kamala Harris said Tuesday that she supports placing a third gender option on federal identification cards and documents, bolstering her record on LGBT issues.

Harris was asked about adding a third gender option during an event at Keene State College in New Hampshire. “Sure,” she replied.

Harris — a product of San Francisco with a long record on LGBT rights, including refusing to defend a ban on same-sex marriage as attorney general of California — used the question to denounce what she described as rising hate in America.

At the town hall, she criticized the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict transgender troops, saying she approaches the issue from a human rights and civil rights perspective. “These are people who have decided they are willing to sacrifice and serve for the sake of our democracy and freedom, and you’re going to kick them out of the military?” she asked.

Harris is not the first 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to be asked about adding a non-binary gender marker to federal IDs and documents. In February, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said she supported moving toward a practice nationwide that’s already in place in states such as New Jersey and Oregon.

The question to Harris came from a self-identified member of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is flooding into presidential town halls across the country to get the field on the record on a long list of policy questions. On Friday in Rock Hill, South Carolina, an ACLU-aligned voter asked Harris whether she believed people who are currently incarcerated should have their voting rights restored. Harris said the United States should eventually get to that point, but she said she first wants to focus on restoring rights for felons who have served their time.

On her first trip to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Harris made news in similar fashion, telling a voter that she would back a federal renaming of Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

“Sign me up,” Harris said at the time.

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Larry Hogan derides Trump as ‘dear leader’

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 18:51 - [CET]

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan continued to needle President Donald Trump Tuesday, derisively referring to him in a New Hampshire speech as "dear leader," the sycophantic title given to Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Hogan, who’s weighing a challenge to Trump in the 2020 Republican primary, said he's unafraid to stand up to the president but is in no rush to jump into the race.

Contrasting himself with the nearly two-dozen Democrats running for president, Hogan said he's got plenty of time to decide on a 2020 bid. The deadline to get on the first-in-the-nation primary ballot in New Hampshire is in November, he pointed out.

"People have asked me to give this serious consideration and I think I owe it to people to do just that," Hogan said during a speech in Manchester on Tuesday. "I’ve been to 10 states in the past few months and I have 16 more on my schedule."

Hogan‘s New Hampshire visit follows on the heels of a March visit to Iowa, another early presidential voting state. And in February, Hogan slammed the Republican National Committee for trying to protect Trump from a primary challenge after the RNC passed a resolution giving the president its “undivided support” ahead of the 2020 election. The White House has kept careful watch on Hogan's moves for months as a result of his criticisms and heightened national profile.

The two-term governor opened his remarks by saying he wasn't at St. Anselm College to make any official announcements regarding a challenge to Trump, but nevertheless delivered a speech that criticized the president's leadership and called for more optimism and bipartisanship in politics.

“I still believe what unites us is greater than what divides us,” Hogan said. “My last four years have blessed me with optimism, not burdened me with dread."

Addressing special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Hogan said the redacted document revealed "unsavory stuff" about Trump that didn't make him proud of the president, and that the report "did not completely exonerate the president." But Hogan asserted Congress should not begin impeachment proceedings because they would not be productive. Hogan also contrasted himself with Republicans in Washington and across the country in their approach to Trump.

"There are a number of my colleagues, both governors and senators, members of the House, who will say privately that they're very concerned. They won't say it publicly and I think it's because they're afraid. There are no profiles in courage here. They're afraid of being primaried, they're afraid of being tweeted about. Very few of us are willing to stand up and do the right thing," Hogan said. "I don't think there should be Democratic overreach and I also don't think there should be a cover-up from the administration."

Acknowledging the difficulties of challenging a president who remains popular with the party base, Hogan said he would not run without proven support, and would not go up against Trump just to damage him.

"I’m not going to launch some kind of suicide mission," Hogan said. "I care about the future of my party, I care about the country but I would not run just to be a spoiler to the president. I've got a state to run."

If he does run, Hogan sees a path forward in states that hold open primaries, where Democrats and independent voters can cast whichever ballot they choose. The strategy is similar to the one pursued by GOP presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who hopes to garner support among independent voters rather than Republicans who staunchly support the president.

A day before his stop at St. Anselm College, Hogan had lunch with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, another blue-state Republican who is popular among independent and Democratic voters. Like Hogan, Baker has been critical of some Trump administration policies and did not vote for Trump in 2016. Both governors, who face considerable Democratic legislative majorities, have kept the national party at arms' length, calling instead for bipartisanship and a no-drama approach to governing

"We just had lunch. he gave me good advice, we're good friends," Hogan told reporters after the speech. "I don't want to discuss an exact private conversation with him." But asked whether they talked about the 2020 presidential race, Hogan said "a little bit."

Baker served as a cabinet secretary in the Weld administration in the 1990s.

“Bill Weld called me just before he announced," Hogan said. “I thanked Bill Weld for stepping up. I think others ought to consider it.”

Trump continues to hold strong support among Republican voters. In New Hampshire, the president has an 80 percent approval rating among Republicans likely to vote in the primary. He’s also raised $30 million in the first quarter of the year. Hogan said it'll take time to introduce himself to early state voters and get his poll numbers up, and pointed to polling that says even Republican voters want to see a primary challenge to the president.

"I'm pretty good at retail politics, and that's how I won my state with no money," Hogan said. "Who knows."

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Supreme Court divided on citizenship question for census

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 18:43 - [CET]

The Supreme Court seemed divided along ideological lines Tuesday as the justices heard arguments about the Trump administration’s move to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.

All of the court’s four liberals sounded highly skeptical about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision, which three federal judges have found illegal because it lacked a coherent explanation and could lead to a large undercount of non-citizens as well as Americans of Hispanic origin.

During the 90-minute court session, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most vocal critic of Ross’s action, saying it was fairly transparent that he wanted to add the citizenship question and then began fishing for a justification.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Sotomayor declared, blasting Ross’s approach as: “I got to find a problem that fits what I want to do.”

After Solicitor General Noel Francisco suggested that the courts should not meddle in Ross’s decision, Justice Stephen Breyer said there surely had to be some point at which a question is so bizarre that it would be unlawful to add it without proper justification.

“Suppose he says, ‘I’m going to have the whole survey in French?’” Breyer asked.

Most of the court’s conservatives appeared inclined to green light Ross’s move, with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito appearing most hostile to the legal challenges states and civil rights groups brought to the citizenship question.

Alito said he was convinced of deep flaws in estimates that adding the question could lead to about five percent fewer responses from non-citizens.

“I don’t think you to have to be much of a statistician to wonder about the legitimacy of concluding there will be a 5.1% less response rate,” Alito declared. He and Gorsuch said factors other than citizenship, such as income or socioeconomic status, might explain why non-citizens more frequently ignore census surveys.

Chief Justice John Roberts also seemed to be in the same camp as Gorsuch and Alito, but was somewhat less strident in his questions.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who directed probing questions to both sides, seemed to give less away about his views of the case.

Roberts and Kavanaugh got extra scrutiny from court-watchers Tuesday because last November, when the high court had the chance to head off the first trial on Ross's decision, they appeared to side with the court's liberals to let the trial go forward. Justices Alito, Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas said they would have halted the trial.

In one prickly moment towards the end of the argument, Sotomayor went after Francisco for suggesting that removing the citizenship question would allow groups to alter the census by “boycotting” any question they objected to. Americans who may object to the binary question on gender could try refusing to answer that query, he said.

“Are you suggesting Hispanics are boycotting the census? That they do not actually have a legitimate fear?” Sotomayor shot back.

“Not in the slightest,” Francisco replied, while insisting that the court would be setting a precedent permitting others to “knock off any question they found particularly objectionable.

While many of the court’s conservatives have railed against the use of foreign law in U.S. courts and the United Nations is often a focus of harsh criticism on the right, Gorusch and Kavanaugh both noted that the U.N. has recommended that countries ask a citizenship question on national censuses.

Federal judges in New York City, San Francisco and Greenbelt, Md., have blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census — rulings that set up a showdown at the Supreme Court.

Time after time, federal judges have halted Trump’s immigration policies, but the administration hopes to find a warmer reception at the right-leaning Supreme Court. Last June the high court upheld Trump’s travel ban in a 5-4 decision that fell along ideological lines.

The Trump administration in late January called on the justices swiftly to take up the dispute over the citizenship question, arguing that the standard appeals process would take too long. The Census Bureau must finalize printed questionnaires by June 30 to meet production deadlines, the Justice Department said in a court filing.

The justices will consider several key issues raised in the lower court rulings, including whether the Commerce Department violated federal regulatory law when it added the citizenship question and whether the question runs afoul of the Constitution's enumeration clause, which mandates a census every 10 years to determine the composition of the House.

The stakes are high, even beyond the question of political representation: by one estimate, the 2020 Census will affect the national distribution of at least $883 billion in federal funds.

The Supreme Court in November had previously agreed to hear arguments over whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other officials could be deposed in the New York case, but dropped that from the calendar. Plaintiffs in the case yielded in their demand to depose Ross after the judge in the case ruled in their favor.

The Trump administration argues that the citizenship question must be added to help enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination against voters. The Census Bureau already collects citizenship information through separate surveys, but the administration asserts that inclusion on the decennial census will improve accuracy.

Critics, however, contend that the administration’s true purpose is to strip immigrant communities of voting power and federal funding. Immigrant households will decline to answer the questionnaire, they say, which in turn will result in undercounts in immigrant communities.

In the first ruling against the question, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman dismissed the Voting Rights Act argument as a mere pretext. Furman said that evidence presented in the case — including emails sent by Ross and other officials — demonstrated that the secretary planned to add the question before the Justice Department requested that it do so in December, 2017. As a consequence, Furman ruled, the process violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

During a March 2018 House committee hearing, Ross denied discussing the citizenship question with White House officials. However, administration attorneys later acknowledged in court documents that Ross recalled a request from former White House strategist Steve Bannon to discuss the issue with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an immigration hard liner.

Kobach later sent Ross an email in July 2017 that offered possible language for the citizenship question — five months before DOJ asked the Census Bureau to add the question.

The other two federal judges similarly ruled that the question violated the APA. They also found that, in diminishing the Census’s accuracy, the question was at odds with the Constitution’s enumeration clause.

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Fox News announces town hall with Pete Buttigieg

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 18:43 - [CET]

Fox News will host a town hall with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the network announced Tuesday, making him the third Democrat to sit down with the network at length.

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace will moderate the town hall, which is set for May 19 and will be held in Claremont, N.H. Fox was slow to jump into the 2020 town hall game, hosting its first 2020 town hall earlier this month after ceding much of that territory to its cable rivals CNN and MSNBC, but has rolled out events with three Democratic candidates in the last three weeks.

Buttigieg has seen his star rise in recent weeks in the Democratic primary, and after officially entering the race last week, the South Bend, Ind., mayor is turning to building out his state operations and working to maintain his momentum in the polls.

Buttigieg’s town hall with Wallace will be Wallace’s first of the 2020 cycle. Wallace in 2016 became the first network personality to moderate a general election presidential debate, overseeing the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Fox anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum have co-hosted the network’s first Democratic town hall, a widely praised — and highly rated — event with Bernie Sanders, and the pair will moderate a town hall with Sen. Amy Klobuchar in two weeks.

The network also held a town hall with potential independent candidate and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz earlier this month.

The recent flurry of town hall announcements comes despite the DNC’s refusal to allow the channel to host an officially sanctioned primary debate, but three more candidates — Julian Castro and Reps. Eric Swalwell and Tim Ryan — are also either open to or in talks to follow in their rivals' footsteps. It also comes after President Donald Trump, a loyal Fox News viewer, offered rare criticism of the channel last week for its town hall with Sanders.

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White House escalating showdown with Democratic investigators

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 18:37 - [CET]

The White House instructed its former personnel security director to not answer questions by the House Oversight Committee Tuesday following allegations that the administration approved security clearances to those who should not have received them.

It's the latest in a series of aggressive responses from the Trump administration to House Democrats pressing multiple investigative threads, including a lawsuit the White House filed on Monday against a House committee chairman to protect Trump's financial records.

White House deputy counsel Michael Purpura sent a letter Monday asking the former security director, Carl Kline, not to answer questions because it “unconstitutionally encroaches on fundamental executive branch interests.”

Kline's attorney, Robert Driscoll wrote a subsequent letter to the committee that Kline would not answer questions. “With two masters from two equal branches of government, we will follow the instructions of the one that employs him,” Driscoll wrote in the letter to the committee.

The decision came after White House employee Tricia Newbold, a whistleblower told the committee that senior officials ignored national security concerns to approve security clearances for 25 individuals whose applications were initially denied. Newbold described a “systematic” pattern of abuses on the part of Kline.

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

On Monday the White House sued the House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman, Elijah Cummings, in response to a subpoena the committee issued to an accounting firm that has worked for Trump's business, the Trump Organization.

“The Democrat Party, with its newfound control of the U.S. House of Representatives, has declared all-out political war against President Donald J. Trump,” Trump's lawyers declared in a court filing. “Subpoenas are their weapon of choice.”

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Barr gets waiver on case linked to inquiry into Trump's inauguration fund

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 18:33 - [CET]

Attorney General William Barr has received a waiver from the Justice Department to participate in the investigation of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a Malaysian development company that has come under investigation by the FBI and DOJ for alleged money laundering.

The waiver, signed on April 16, allows Barr to participate in “the investigation and litigation of the 1MDB matter in which his former law firm represents an entity involved in the matter.”

Barr was previously a lawyer for the firm Kirkland & Ellis, whose senior partner Mark Filip now represents Goldman Sachs in the 1MDB investigation.

The waiver could also give Barr a window into an investigation in the Eastern District of New York that involves the Trump Victory committee, a political action committee dedicated to re-electing Trump in 2020.

As part of a wider probe into potentially illegal donations made by foreign nationals to Trump’s inaugural committee in 2017, the New York prosecutors are investigating whether Jho Low, a Malaysian fugitive accused of helping to steal around $4.5 billion from 1MDB, illegally donated $100,000 to the Trump Victory committee in December 2017.

Low was indicted in the Eastern District of New York in October 2018 on money laundering and bribery charges.

The donation itself was made by U.S. citizen Larry Davis, the co-owner of Hawaii investment company LNS Capital, but investigators are scrutinizing whether transfers totaling $1.5 million that originated with Low earlier that year were funneled to the Trump Victory committee, according to the Wall Street Journal. Low has denied the allegations.

Barr has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for his handling of the rollout of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which the attorney general characterized prior to its release with a 4-page memo and press conference that critics panned as public relations stunts for the president.

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Netanyahu calls for new Golan settlement named for Trump

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 18:01 - [CET]

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he wants to name a new settlement in the Golan Heights after President Donald Trump out of gratitude for the White House’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the territory.

Netanyahu was touring the Golan Heights on Tuesday and said there was a “need to express our appreciation” to the president. He says he will advance “a resolution calling for a new community on the Golan Heights named after President Donald J. Trump.”

Last month Trump officially recognized Israeli sovereignty over the territory it captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast War.

Israel annexed the mountain plateau in 1981, a move unrecognized by most of the international community. An estimated 20,000 Israelis live in Golan Heights settlements, which most of the international community considers illegal.

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Kushner: Mueller probe was 'more harmful' to U.S. than Russian election interference

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 17:58 - [CET]

Senior Trump administration adviser Jared Kushner said Tuesday that the 22-month Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller was “more harmful” to the United States than Russian election interference Mueller was charged with investigating.

Kushner, in his first public remarks since Mueller's report was released to the public last week, claimed Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 election to aid President Donald Trump amounted to "a couple Facebook ads."

“You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads and trying to sow dissent. It's a terrible thing,” Kushner, who is also the president's son-in-law, said in an on-stage interview at the TIME 100 Summit. “But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that's happened for the last two years has a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”

Despite Kushner's claims that the Kremlin's election interference efforts were little more than a handful of paid Facebook posts, the report submitted by Mueller detailed a multi-faceted operation that included social media posts written and targeted to sow division, as well as cyberattack efforts targeting 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as well as her campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The Russian government, which Mueller concluded acted because it felt it would benefit from a Trump presidency, later distributed hacked emails stolen from Clinton and others via the online publisher WikiLeaks and other outlets.

Kushner, though, downplayed the scope of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, in part because of the relatively light financial investment in Facebook ads.

“I think they said they spent $160,000. I spent $160,000 on Facebook every three hours during the campaign,” he said. “If you look at the magnitude of what they did, the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful.”

Kushner was one of the president's closest aides to sit for an interview with the special counsel. The redacted version of Mueller's report published last week revealed that investigators did not find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, but said the president's campaign was aware of the Kremlin's activities and knew it would benefit from them.

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DNC pledges not to use hacked materials, presses RNC to do the same

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 16:29 - [CET]

The head of the DNC pledged the committee wouldn't use hacked emails or stolen data for political gain ahead of the 2020 presidential election and pressed his RNC counterpart to make the same commitment.

"As the Mueller report just confirmed, a foreign adversary hacked and disseminated stolen information with the intention of disrupting our free and fair elections," Chairman Tom Perez wrote on Monday in an open letter to his Republican counterpart, Ronna McDaniel.

He urged McDaniel not to engage in the "weaponization of stolen private data in our electoral process."

The appeal came a day after President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani said it was OK for campaigns to accept information from Russia.

"There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians," Giuliani said Sunday during an interview on CNN’s "State of the Union."

Giuliani later added he "probably wouldn't" have taken such information. "I wasn't asked," he said. "I would have advised, just out of excess of caution, don't do it."

The remarks were, in part, a rebuttal of the findings of the special counsel Robert Mueller's report, which detailed several instances where Trump campaign aides, including Donald Trump Jr., appeared open to receiving damaging information on Hillary Clinton from officials with direct ties to the Kremlin.

The DNC pledge follows an effort by Democratic Party chairs in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to convince all 2020 candidates not to engage in information warfare in the campaigns.

In his open letter to McDaniel, Perez vowed the committee wouldn't "encourage the theft of private data, nor will we seek out or weaponize stolen private data for political gain. And I'm calling on you to put country above party and publicly pledge that the Republican National Committee will do the same."

"We are now rapidly approaching Election Day 2020," he warned. "In this age of cyber-warfare, we owe it to the American people to make sure that the election is decided by the will of the voters, not foreign governments."

The RNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier Monday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a 2020 presidential contender, promised not to use hacked materials from foreign adversaries in her White House bid. She called on other candidates to do the same.

"Russia is a foreign adversary of the US, and the Trump administration is refusing to stop them from attacking our elections again," she tweeted. "I pledge that my campaign won't use stolen or hacked information from foreign actors, and I urge 2020 candidates to join me."

Perez said that his DNC predecessor made a similar request of the RNC during the digital assault on the 2016 election but that McDaniel's predecessor "chose to ignore it." He also noted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pledged not to use stolen or hacked materials in the 2018 midterms, which was also ignored.

"This time can be different. This is not about red and blue. This is about red, white, and blue. It’s about our national security," according to Perez. "It’s about the future of our country and the integrity of our democracy. It’s about restoring people’s faith in our institutions and our election process."

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Hegar launches Texas Senate bid against Cornyn

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 15:53 - [CET]

Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran, launched her campaign against Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) Tuesday morning.

The former helicopter pilot is the first Democrat to join the race against Cornyn, but others are still considering running in the primary. Democrats believe Texas could be competitive in 2020 after former Rep. Beto O'Rourke lost narrowly to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz last year.

Hegar, who lost a House race in a Republican district in 2018, released a video launching her campaign. The video highlights similar themes as her viral launch video last year, which helped her raise more than $5 million for her failed bid against GOP Rep. John Carter.

Her new Senate ad features celebrity tweet endorsements, footage of O'Rourke from his Senate campaign, and Hegar explaining her personal history as helicopter pilot, including being shot down while fighting the Taliban.

"Texans deserve a senator who represents our values: strength, courage, independence, putting Texas first," Hegar said in the video. She referenced her campaign against Carter, which she lost by 3 percentage points in a district President Donald Trump carried by 13 points.

Hegar also took shots at Cornyn, including calling him "that tall guy lurking behind [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell" during press conferences and accusing him of "shrinking out of the way again" on protecting pre-existing conditions.

Cornyn's campaign responded by highlighting his work on relief for Hurricane Harvey and passing laws to help sexual assault victims — and also linking Hegar to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“MJ Hegar is Chuck Schumer’s handpicked candidate for good reason: She supports government run health care that would eliminate private insurance, crushing new taxes, and late-term abortion. Texans rejected her radical views once, and they will again," said John Jackson, Cornyn's campaign manager.

The Democratic primary to face Cornyn could become crowded. Rep. Joaquín Castro is seriously considering running, and Amanda Edwards, a city councilwoman in Houston, is also weighing a campaign. Some Democrats fear a crowded primary could hurt their chances to defeat Cornyn.

Cornyn, meanwhile, has acknowledged he faces a tough race and hit the ground running to prepare, hiring key staff and raising more money than any other Senate incumbent up for reelection next year. He had $7.4 million in the bank as of March 31.

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Defense Digital Service chief stepping down after 'nerd tour of duty'

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 15:20 - [CET]

Chris Lynch, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Digital Service, will step down this month after four years running his so-called “SWAT Team of Nerds.”

“When nerds like us have a seat at the table, a lot of amazing things can happen. Don’t forget that,” Lynch wrote today in an email to his team, according to a copy of the message obtained by POLITICO.

After serving with the U.S. Digital Service team at the Obama White House, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter recruited Lynch in 2015 to establish a small team of engineers and digital experts from places like Google and Facebook to untangle DoD’s most critical IT problems.

The team quickly made a name for itself with the 2016 “Hack the Pentagon” program — the federal government’s first bug bounty effort that uncovered nearly 140 previously unidentified flaws on some Pentagon websites.

“To say that this has been the greatest detour of my life would be an incredible understatement but starting this team and working with you has fundamentally changed my life, and I believe the lives of so many others as well,” wrote Lynch, who was a software entrepreneur in Seattle before coming to Washington.

“The impact our team is making all across the Department of Defense and for our service members is mind boggling and profound,” he added. “I think at the end of the day it’s because people like you and people like me have come to serve.”

Noted technologist Brett Goldstein will replace Lynch this week.

Goldstein began his career at OpenTable before joining the Chicago Police Department. There he earned the rank of commander, eventually becoming the city’s chief data officer. Since leaving government in 2013, Goldstein has run a venture capital fund, held fellowships at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and served on the board of the tech nonprofit Code for America. He most recently served as a special adviser to the U.S. Navy, where he’s worked with the DDS team.

“Although we will miss Chris, the unique startup culture he built and the talented team he recruited will continue to disrupt and transform technology at the DoD,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a statement.

Goldstein’s “public and private sector knowledge, technical expertise, and commitment to improving government through technology will be invaluable to a range of critical missions across the department,” added Shanahan, who recruited Goldstein to support the department’s IT, cyber and modernization efforts.

Goldstein will inherit an organization that has grown from roughly a dozen staffers a few years ago to almost 70 and has worked on nearly every facet of the DoD’s digital infrastructure.

Since “Hack the Pentagon,” DDS has gone on to help oversee more than a dozen such efforts throughout the armed services and even the Pentagon’s travel booking system.

In addition, the team has worked on building next-generation GPS, a new security clearance system and teamed up with Army Cyber Command to create a partnership program dubbed “Jyn Erso” (after the heroine of the movie Rogue One) to get tech solutions to the battlefield faster, including drone detection.

Based out of an office inside the Pentagon with a title on the door that says “Rebel Alliance,” DDS also helped create the agency’s “Vulnerability Disclosure Program,” which provides a legal avenue for security researchers to find and disclose weaknesses in any DoD public-facing system, and is currently shepherding the procurement of the $10 billion JEDI cloud project being bid on by Amazon and Microsoft.

“Also, let’s be honest, we’ve made Star Wars come to life at the f------ DoD,” according to Lynch, who often could be spotted walking the halls of the buttoned-up Pentagon in a Star Wars T-shirt and hoodie.

Lynch nor the Pentagon said where he was going after his role at DDS.

In his message marking the end of his “nerd tour of duty,” Lynch warned that the DDS mission is “forever dependent upon the flawless execution of technology, and our adversaries are quite good at software.”

“We have to bring other great technologists here,” he wrote. “We have to empower technical talent to make technical decisions alongside our DoD partners … Keep delivering. Keep getting shit done. Nothing else matters.”

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Trump to visit U.K. in June on queen's invitation

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 14:19 - [CET]
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How Trump factors into California's charter school wars

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 14:07 - [CET]

SACRAMENTO — It’s tough being a charter school advocate in California these days. Not only are the schools facing fierce opposition from the Democratic-controlled Legislature, teachers unions and a governor whom their backers spent millions trying to keep out of office, they also have the most politically toxic ally possible in California state politics: President Donald Trump.

It’s particularly frustrating for Democrats like Margaret Fortune, a former adviser to two California governors who now runs a group of charter schools in Sacramento. After years of success at expanding the privately managed schools, Fortune and her allies are facing an uphill battle against a union-backed legislative package that aims to prevent any new charters from opening in the state while tightening the regulation of the more than 1,300 that are already operating.

It’s made California — one of the first states to adopt a charter school law in the country — the biggest battleground in the fight over the future of the movement.

And unions, including the California Teachers Association, and other charter opponents are wielding the Trump administration’s support for charters and that of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as ammunition.

“Has it been damaging that Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos have given an unwelcome bear hug to charter schools? Absolutely,” Fortune told POLITICO as she paused to reflect on the euphoria of attending the Election Day party at Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters in 2016 — and then the next day, when she protested outside Trump Tower.

“Charter schools are a bipartisan issue, not a Republican issue,” she said. “I think that the California Teachers Association has taken advantage of the current political climate to characterize it in that way, but it’s not true.”

Many charter schools across the country are facing a reckoning. Earlier this year, teachers in West Virginia, one of the few states that does not permit charter schools, went on strike to protest legislation that would have allowed them. The legislation passed the Republican-controlled Senate before stalling when the governor vowed to veto it.

When teachers in Denver went on strike for the first time in 25 years, they cited concerns about the city’s many charter schools siphoning off funding as one of their major grievances.

As part of negotiations to end teacher strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland in recent months, districts vowed to fight against charter school growth — where unions put some of the blame for declining resources in their schools.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking a decidedly different tack than his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who vetoed a union-backed attempt to rein in charter schools just three years ago. While not anti-charter, Newsom has moved the Governor's Office closer to the position taken by the California Teachers Association, which says charters are taking away precious dollars from traditional schools while not adhering to the same rules.

“The industry knows that they've gotten away far too long with waste, fraud and abuse, and zero accountability and transparency,” said California Teachers Association spokesperson Claudia Briggs. “And right now you have legislators, taxpayers, educators who agree, along with the governor, that this has to stop now for the sake of our kids.”

The first non-budgetary bill that Newsom signed into law holds charter schools to the same transparency requirements as other schools and public agencies, but he’s been careful not to paint charters with a wide brush.

“I’ve long supported high-quality nonprofit charters. I’ve been an advocate, not just a supporter,” Newsom said at the bill signing in March. “And I’m very aware of the stresses, particularly as exampled in L.A. and Oakland, with issues related to charters.”

The California Charter Schools Association last year unsuccessfully spent millions against Newsom and new Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, in both cases favoring moderate Democratic candidates who embraced charter programs.

Thurmond, a former Democratic state legislator, defeated former charter school administrator Marshall Tuck in the most expensive state superintendent race in California history. The campaign attracted more than $50 million, with charter schools outspending teachers unions.

In the final weeks of the campaign, a Thurmond ad emphasized that he was backed by teachers unions and the California Democratic Party, while it claimed Tuck was backed by DeVos, complete with a photo of her and Trump behind a superimposed image of Tuck. Politifact California deemed that ad "false," noting that there was "zero evidence" to support the claim that DeVos supported Tuck.

In their push for a legislative package that would regulate the schools more than ever, Democrats have continued aligning the charter movement with DeVos and Trump this year. The legislation would cap how many charters are allowed to operate in the state; place a five-year moratorium on any new schools from opening and give school districts much more power in authorizing charter schools.

In the bills’ first hearing this month, the only Republican on the Assembly Education Committee — Kevin Kiley — was the lone “no” vote. When California Charter Schools Association President Myrna Castrejón criticized the bills, Assembly Education Chair Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat spearheading the legislation, said she was “spouting off like Donald Trump.”

But pro-charter groups are trying to distance themselves from the Trump administration. They say their mission has been unfairly maligned, pointing out that former Gov. Brown, a Democrat, opened charter schools of his own.

“Our opponents want people to believe that charter public schools stand behind an administration that focuses on division, instead of inclusion. But here’s the truth: California is different, and so are California’s charter public schools,” Castrejón said. “We were here long before President Trump took office. We stood together and fought against ICE raids that targeted our most vulnerable students, and we will be here, standing with our families after his term ends.”

Fresh off election victories in California last year, teachers unions have made charter schools a top target, arguing that the growth in charters has sapped nearby traditional schools of enrollment-and attendance-based funding.

But Fortune points to other factors that weigh against a school district’s budget, including higher pension and health care costs and a declining birth rate, which means falling enrollment. She called charter schools “a convenient scapegoat."

“With this package of bills, the legislators and the teachers unions who are backing them up are saying that the money these kids generate is more important than the kind of education they get,” she said. “It’s not only cynical, it’s wrong. Up until this point, the law has favored the academic performance of the student above all else.”

Charter schools are public, tuition-free and use taxpayer dollars like traditional schools, but don’t have to follow the same rules, particularly around teacher hiring.

Some charter schools are thriving so much they've become magnet programs drawing high-potential students from neighborhood schools. Proponents point to those examples as successes, especially at charters serving disadvantaged students who perform well. But critics say that has come at a cost to traditional programs that lose funds and academic diversity when students leave.

In other cases, charter schools have failed without proper oversight — or in the worst examples, engaged in alleged corruption. Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that a wealthy Beverly Hills couple had gamed charter policies to make millions off of the schools while leaving students to learn in poor classroom conditions.

“If you’re a good charter operator, there is nothing for you to worry about,” O’Donnell said. “Some charter schools have exploited every loophole in the law and this bill starts to close those loopholes. This bill supports kids.”

The refrain of labor unions has been to fight against “billionaire-backed” schools. In last year’s elections, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and philanthropist Eli Broad donated to the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association to defeat Newsom. The Walton family, heirs to Walmart, have championed charter school growth.

Charter supporters like Fortune say that it’s simple: the schools can benefit from philanthropy, and philanthropists are wealthy. But CTA says there’s too much room for influence.

“Somebody can say it’s philanthropic in nature but when you follow the money and see what the agenda is, you see the true intent, and that is to privatize public education,” Briggs said.

Perhaps the simplest argument comes from people like Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland): the charter law, created second only after Minnesota's in 1992, is old and needs updating. Bonta has co-authored bills that would give local school boards greater authority over charter approvals and the power to reject charters if they could hurt neighborhood campuses.

“Like anything, it’s highly doubtful that when that bill was passed in 1992 that they got it exactly right, that they nailed it and nothing needs to be changed,” he said. “We know that our school districts are hurting, that there is a massive financial impact on our traditional public schools.”

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Trump unleashes on the media in morning tweetstorm

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 13:53 - [CET]

President Donald Trump railed against the news media in a Tuesday morning burst on Twitter, complaining that he is subjected to an unprecedented level of press scrutiny and lashing out directly at The New York Times, CNN and others.

“Paul Krugman, of the Fake News New York Times, has lost all credibility, as has the Times itself, with his false and highly inaccurate writings on me,” Trump wrote in his first post of the day, attacking the economic columnist who is often critical of the White House. “He is obsessed with hatred, just as others are obsessed with how stupid he is. He said Market would crash, Only Record Highs!”

In a second tweet, the president added: “I wonder if the New York Times will apologize to me a second time, as they did after the 2016 Election. But this one will have to be a far bigger & better apology. On this one they will have to get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness-they are truly the Enemy of the People!”

In a letter to readers following the 2016 election, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Dean Baquet wondered whether Trump’s “sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters,” and pledged to rededicate itself to probing the driving forces of the election. But Trump has frequently claimed that the Times apologized to him for its coverage in the wake of his election, something the paper has repeatedly denied took place.

The president's ire came on the heels of last week's release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference, which cleared Trump on allegations of collusion but offered a damning view of his White House and nudged several high-profile Democrats to call for his impeachment.

Trump's screed also came hours before he was set to honor White House News Photographers Association award recipients in the Oval Office and days before the White House Correspondents’ Association hosts its annual dinner on Saturday night. Trump, in the midst of his Twitter flurry, broke from criticizing news outlets and personalities by name briefly to plug the rally he will hold in Wisconsin instead of attending the dinner.

Trump then turned his fire more generally to the rest of the media, accusing "totally insane" Democrats of colluding with the press to hamper his presidency, although he offered no evidence of such a conspiracy.

“I guess that means that the Republican agenda is working,” he wrote, teasing: “Stay tuned for more!”

He asserted, falsely, in yet another tweet that he was entitled to more positive coverage based on the strength of the economy, claiming that “in the ‘old days’ if you were President and you had a good economy, you were basically immune from criticism.”

He went on: “Today I have, as President, perhaps the greatest economy in history...and to the Mainstream Media, it means NOTHING. But it will!” He complained that the economy's strength under his administration should inoculate him against criticism that he has nonetheless been the subject of.

He continued his rant by offering up his thoughts on the three cable networks’ morning news shows, calling “Fox & Friends,” where he receives almost unflinchingly positive coverage, "by far the best of the morning political shows on television.” He ripped MSNBC's "Morning Joe," where he was once a frequent guest, and CNN's "New Day" as far inferior to their Fox News counterpart.

To “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough, Trump offered tongue-in-cheek thanks for helping "get me elected in 2016 by having me on (free) all the time.” The president said the MSNBC morning show, where he is the subject of near-constant criticism, “has nosedived, too Angry, Dumb and Sick.”

The president also mocked CNN for promoting former “New Day” host Chris Cuomo and giving him his own primetime show despite what Trump contended was “his massive failure in the morning.”

“Only on CNN!” he added.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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POLITICO Playbook: Which Biden will show up in 2020?

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:57 - [CET]
And Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushes back on impeachment talk.
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Joe Biden’s Toughest 2020 Opponent Is Joe Biden

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:32 - [CET]

As he prepares to enter the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden is carrying with him nearly a half a century in the major leagues of American politics. When Pete Buttigieg was born, Biden was had been a U.S. senator for almost nine years. He has cast votes on conflicts in Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the confirmation of 14 Supreme Court justices and the impeachment of a president. He’s served in office when opinions on crime, abortion, race and sexuality have changed root and branch. Perhaps Biden’s biggest challenge—apart from his age itself—will be to persuade Democratic voters not to view his past through the prism of the present.

It would likelier be a lot easier for Biden if he were a Republican. One of the signal features of the 2016 campaign was the capacity of GOP voters to sweep aside Donald Trump’s past, both his words and his deeds. The once “strongly pro-choice” Trump, the Trump who embraced a substantial wealth tax, who openly celebrated a sybaritic life style, became a heroic figure among supply-side economists and evangelical Christian leaders.

But Trump was far from the first Republican to be forgiven his past trespasses. Republicans chose John McCain in 2008 despite his apostasy on taxes and campaign finance reform in the early 2000s. In 2012, they forgave Mitt Romney for creating a health care plan in Massachusetts that helped provide a blueprint for Obamacare.

It’s not at all clear that Democrats, especially this year, view the past with such forbearance. A party far more diverse than it was when Biden entered the Senate in the 1970s has hard questions to ask about his opposition to the busing of schoolchildren to promote racial integration, his support for draconian crime legislation, and his performance as Judiciary Committee chairman when Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination was confronted with accusations of sexual harassment from Anita Hill. How Biden answers these questions may determine whether his current “first in the polls” status dissipates like those of Ed Muskie, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, and Hillary Clinton (2008), or whether he is as unstoppable as the front-running candidacies of George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton (2016).

As a general rule, there are three approaches a presidential candidate can use to handle a problematic past. One is to hope that tough questions simply do not arise. It sometimes even works. Al Gore in 2000 was never seriously pushed on his views, as a House member from Tennessee, on abortion and guns. In a time when a speech of decades ago is available on social media with the flick of a finger, that doesn’t seem like an option for Biden.

A second approach is contrition. About the Thomas confirmation, Biden has already said, “I wish I could have done something—I opposed Clarence Thomas’ nomination, and I voted against him … But I also realized that there was a real and perceived problem the committee faced: There were a bunch of white guys.” And he has apologized for crime bills he backed that punished crack cocaine more harshly than powder, a disparity that fell heavily on African-Americans. He told a Martin Luther King Day breakfast this year: “White America has to admit there’s still a systematic racism. And it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us.”

The third approach is both the most direct and the most difficult: to try to show voters what was happening years, even decades ago, that explains your actions. Busing school kids to achieve racial balance, for example, was a lot more complicated than a struggle to overcome the hostility of racist whites to integration—though that was surely part of the story. (This lengthy essay lays out come of those complexities, as well as some of the baleful consequences of the policy.)

Crime, like desegregation, looked very different decades ago. The rate began to rise in the 1960s, and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” message in 1968 made it a major national issue for the first time since the 1920s. Two decades later, George H.W. Bush turned Michael Dukakis into the emblematic “soft on crime” candidate by making the crime spree of a furloughed Massachusetts prisoner a top campaign issue. It was in response to this framework that Bill Clinton, four years after Dukakis lost, embraced a pro-death penalty, tough-on-crime agenda as a candidate—an agenda that he also enacted as president.

But beyond the politics, crime was a genuine concern; and nowhere more so than in inner-city black neighborhoods. When I worked in New York City’s City Hall at the end of the 1960s, one of the more persistent demands of black civic leaders was for more cops to stem a tide of violence that had mothers putting their small children to bed in bathtubs, the better to protect them from random gunfire.

None of this means that the policy responses to crime were the right ones. None of this can erase the flagrantly racial dimensions of the call by politicians for more “law and order” during the very same years that African Americans were demanding equality and integration. But it does remind all of us that the principal victims of crime do not live in gated communities and doorman-guarded apartments. The fact that homicides in New York City, which once hit 2,000 a year, are now below 300 annually has saved literally thousands of lives, most of them among the least-well off.

Can Biden make such an argument as a partial defense of what, as recently as this decade, he called “the 1994 Biden crime bill”? I’m skeptical. It simply asks too much of voters to put themselves into a past that is utterly alien to them. So perhaps his best chance to win the nomination is that enough older Democrats turn out in the primaries—Democrats for whom Biden’s history is also theirs.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Trump Isn’t Just Reversing Obama’s Foreign Policies. He’s Killing Them for Good.

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:08 - [CET]

Who says the Trump administration doesn’t know what it’s doing in the Middle East?

Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.

At the start of his presidency, it wasn’t clear what exactly President Donald Trump had planned for Iran and Israel, two of the most complicated points of tension in the Middle East. Attacking Obama for his Iranian nuclear deal and his criticism of Israel undoubtedly won points with Trump’s conservative, evangelical base. Still, there were moments on the campaign trail when Trump expressed interest in negotiating a better nuclear deal with Iran and brokering the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than killing prospects for both. Trump offered several times to meet with Iranian President Rouhani without preconditions to negotiate a new nuclear accord. And his unprecedented delegation of the Israeli-Palestinian file to his son-in-law hinted at a real commitment to a serious peace plan.

The administration has now done a complete about face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hardline advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NSA John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hell-bent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life-support.


Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.

No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.

The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hard core, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hardliners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hardliners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.

In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S. There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.

There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out US-Iranian reconciliation for many more years.


A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the longstanding policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Over the past year the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—closing the PLO office in Washington, withdrawing U.S. assistance from the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees and cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority. While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees and Palestinian statehood.

Since at least the mid 1990s, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been committed to a two-state solution with a return of the majority of the West Bank to the Palestiniansbased on borders from before Israel’s 1967 seizure of that territoryand a physically undivided Jerusalem hosting capitals of both states. But the Trump administration has reversed almost 20 years of U.S. policy by even refusing to unequivocally and consistently endorse the concept in principle of a two-state solution. Trump did support the idea in September 2018. But since then the administration has dropped the concept and, even worse, delegitimized it. Last week, the Washington Post reported that the words Palestinian state are unlikely to appear in the Kushner plan. Even more telling, testifying before Congress last week, Pompeo refused to endorse Palestinian statehood as the goal of U.S. policy.

Even if the words “two state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.

For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator, marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel. The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.

The other longstanding diplomatic assumption—that settlement activity would be constrained during the period of negotiations and that 70-80 percent of West Bank settlers who are in blocs close to the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel proper in exchange for ceding other land to Palestinians—has been undermined by an administration that has no intention of cutting a deal that would leave Palestinians in control of the majority of the West Bank. Indeed the administration has virtually erased the concept of the 1967 lines by enabling and greenlighting the expansion of settlement activity and unilateral Israeli actions on the ground without protest or the imposition of any redlines, not just on the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well. In March of 2017 Israel announced the creation of a new settlement in the West Bank, the first in decades. After an initial drop during 2017, settlement construction activity increased 20 percent in 2018.

There is zero chance that any Palestinian leader—let alone one as weak and constrained as Mahmoud Abbas—will accept these conditions on the ground as part of a deal. And speculation is even growing that Netanyahu could use Palestinian rejection of the Kushner plan to outright annex portions of the West Bank.

That’s another area where the administration has done major damage. The Trump administration’s announcement on the eve of the recent Israeli election that it recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—a decision that was untethered from any logic other than helping to reelect Prime Minister Netanyahu—could portend a U.S. decision to confer similar status on Israel’s possible decision to annex parts of the West Bank. The administration has refused to challenge Netanyahu’s statement that in a defensive war Israel can keep what it holds. And last week Pompeo, responding to a reporter’s question, refused to criticize Netanyahu’s statement about annexing West Bank settlements.

Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one state reality that is prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.

So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. “Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”

The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two state solution won’t rise from the dead.

Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.

Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging closed for the season signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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How nuclear plants are gaming climate-change rules

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:06 - [CET]

Climate change is underway—and with the U.S. government mostly sitting on its hands when it comes to climate policy, states have been stepping into the breach. For more than a decade, state officials have been adopting procurement mandates to grow the share of electricity needs supplied by solar, wind and other renewable technologies. Today, such laws are in force in 29 states. As renewable technologies have grown in scale, cost has declined. Indeed, these laws have been so effective at reducing the cost of renewables that it is not readily apparent that such mandates are a necessary driver for decarbonization. A recent report by Energy Innovation, an independent research firm, suggests three-quarters of the U.S. coal fleet could be replaced today by renewables solely for economic reasons.

Yet these laws remain on the books, and recently some of the nation’s largest energy producers have started to turn them to their own benefit. For the past several years, I’ve been researching clean-energy regulations at the state level, and a troubling pattern has begun to emerge: In numerous states, companies with large investments in nuclear energy — including Exelon, First Energy, Dominion and PSEG — have lobbied states to reconfigure their clean-power incentives to subsidize existing nuclear plants, rather than the emergent technologies that the laws were intended for.

The result is a contagion of subsidies to nuclear power plants that started in Democratic states like Illinois and New York in 2016, spread to Connecticut in 2017 and New Jersey in 2018. Bills to this effect are now being considered by Republican-led chambers in Ohio and Pennsylvania. If those measures pass, nuclear interests will have executed a clean sweep of the six northeastern states that have the largest quantities of nuclear generation.

The state nuclear-handout schemes are all slightly different. But they all take advantage of green-sounding energy incentives, and they share a basic outline intended to avoid the appearance of being a naked subsidy. For example, Illinois’ program creates a commodity called a “zero emission credit,” or ZEC. A ZEC may only be created by a “zero emission facility” — which makes it sound like they are available to any form of zero-carbon energy. But the law defines “zero emission facility” as being a power plant “fueled by nuclear power.” The law then creates an artificial demand for ZECs, requiring utilities to buy a certain quantity. The law sets this number at a level tellingly similar to the total expected output of the state’s nuclear power fleet. All of this is topped off with a requirement that a government commission pass through the costs of these ZECs to customers through a mandatory rate they have no choice (other than cutting the cord entirely) but to pay.

In short, the law seems to be creating a program that promotes adoption of all kinds of clean energy, but in fact creates a direct subsidy for nuclear power plants and guarantees them customers for years to come. Instead of spurring competition between emissions-reducing power sources, it locks in one energy supplier for the foreseeable future.

These state policies starkly differ from other carbon-reduction policies, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program. Those policies have the advantage of aiming directly at their target: carbon emissions. While potentially costly, either would circulate revenue back to consumers or taxpayers, or use that revenue on government spending intended to amplify the program’s core purpose.

THAT'S NOT THE case here. The nuclear subsidy schemes are an elaborate greenwashing that neither returns money to the public nor further reduces carbon emissions. And these are not cheap programs. Exelon booked $150 million in 2017 from the sale of ZECs produced by its six Illinois nuclear plants. New Jersey just last week gave final approval to a $300 million annual tranche of subsidies, over the objections of one utility regulator who called it a “disgrace.” Ohio’s has a similar tab, and would partially pay for it by repealing incentives for renewable technologies. Pennsylvania’s program, if enacted, would cost more than $500 million per year, all paid for by ratepayers. That is quadruple the cost of the state’s existing alternative-energy procurement mandate. In total, these state programs’ costs run into billions of dollars—in addition to what these nuclear generators are already being paid from the sale of their energy on the open market.

Supporters say directing subsidies to existing nuclear power plants is necessary to prevent their closure and a loss of jobs. They also say that supporting nuclear power would help ensure that emissions do not spike if nuclear units are replaced by abundant and cheap natural gas.

But the contention that nuclear facilities might close without subsidies is dubious. Indeed, the argument is contradicted by the most recent available market data. It is true that wholesale power prices have fallen 40 percent over roughly a decade in North America’s largest electricity market, known as PJM, from Illinois to Maryland. But Joe Bowring, PJM’s independent market monitor, the official appointed to conduct analysis independent of any financial participant, forecasts that for the 18 nuclear plants in the PJM market, only three are projected to be unprofitable between 2019 and 2021. The at-risk plants are older, smaller, single-unit facilities, like Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island.

It’s also important to keep sight of the big picture: Lower energy prices are a good thing for consumers, both private citizens and businesses. Lower prices are only a crisis for energy suppliers who can’t compete.

In my conversations with state officials, some have struggled to understand how this has emerged as a political issue if the nuclear fleet is not, in fact, facing an existential crisis. This is naïve. Executives at corporations that own nuclear power plants, watching as neighboring states hand out subsidies, have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to try to get it for themselves—whether or not their plants are already turning a profit. Debra Raggio, senior vice president for regulatory affairs for Talen Energy, admitted as much when she testified before a Pennsylvania legislative committee at an April 8 hearing, saying that if the state’s legislation featured a needs test to determine whether nuclear plants actually needed a subsidy to remain open, her company would oppose the bill. Bowring projects that the company’s only Pennsylvania nuclear plant, located along the Susquehanna River, will be profitable in each of the coming three years. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, the whole drama is unfolding on terms dictated by the nuclear plant owners, with utility corporations making threats to shut down certain facilities to force sweeping legislative action without the time for meaningful scrutiny.

BY PROPPING UP older technologies, these state bailouts actually risk doing harm to innovative technologies looking to break into the market. Pennsylvania provides a useful example. In 2004, the state Legislature set aside a relatively modest amount of consumer demand to be served by renewable and other technologies in its Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard. That program constitutes 18 percent of consumer demand. Under the current proposal, a whopping 50 percent would be carved out for existing nuclear plants. In other words, 68 percent of customer demand would be met by power plants preordained by government officials for that purpose. That leaves energy producers who don’t benefit from subsidies left to fight for the scraps. One cannot encourage innovation when the innovators have only one-third of the market share to compete for.

Sadly, these handouts are unraveling a successful state policy that has benefited customers and reduced carbon emissions in the process. Pennsylvania and the other nuclear battleground states adopted policies two decades ago to replace government planning and monopolies with competition between generators. The results have been significant. Customers in these so-called restructured states have seen their electricity costs drop an average of 8 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to a 2017 study by Phil O’Connor, the late chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission. Customers in states where legislatures, government commissions, and monopolies together select the “right” resource mix have seen prices rise 15 percent. Meanwhile, these competitive markets ensured that when the Marcellus natural gas shale supply boomed, that uneconomic coal plants did not hang around. Carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector have declined 3,855 million metric tons between 2005 and 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. The majority of those savings, 2,360 million metric tons, come from natural gas’ replacement of coal, and not zero-emission facilities. It’s deeply ironic that these competitive markets might become a victim of their own successes.

The necessity of acting on climate change is palpable in our politics today. But the answer is a genuine competition between low-emission producers through a market for carbon, not handouts to the nuclear industry. The legislation proposed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives plays footsie with this issue, suggesting that if a price of $15 per ton of carbon emissions were enacted, the nuclear handout would sunset. This is silly. After all, if you’ve got your subsidy, are you going to be willing to support a law that sets a more level playing field between clean-energy technologies—or where you might lose out to efficient gas generators? It would be next to impossible to obtain a comprehensive carbon policy if technology-specific handouts such as these continue to become law, because the political support that might have existed for a carbon policy would have been sapped.

Whatever your view of nuclear energy, it should compete fairly against other electricity sources. In the run-up to this year’s legislative session in Harrisburg, Exelon tripled its lobbying expenditures in Pennsylvania, to $1.7 million, which is a lot of money in state politics. But the company stands to obtain a large portion of the annual $500 million dole of the Pennsylvania nuclear program. That’s a good return on investment—and easier to earn than having to compete for it.

Travis Kavulla is director of energy and environment policy at the R Street Institute.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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What you missed in the Mueller report

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:05 - [CET]

Robert Mueller keeps on giving.

Dozens of overlooked nuggets are buried deep inside the special counsel’s 448-page report that raise yet more intriguing questions about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and shed new light on things that weren’t previously known.

That’s what happens when two-plus years of investigative work get distilled into a document consumed at the speed of Twitter — and where the sheer volume of news articles about the special counsel’s findings overloaded the most able multitaskers and the fastest speed-readers.

POLITICO dived back into the report and its 2,000-plus footnotes to unearth these details that have not gotten much attention:

Who didn’t get prosecuted

The special counsel made some of his biggest headlines when he brought charges against the likes of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. But Mueller’s report also showcases his under-the-radar decisions on potential indictments that were never brought.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions avoided a perjury prosecution over his Senate confirmation testimony when he memorably told lawmakers that he had no communications with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. It later came out that he had met with the Russian ambassador to the United States on multiple occasions during the campaign.

Mueller’s team looked at that January 2017 exchange and a pair of follow-up written responses before determining that the election-year meetings that Sessions did have weren’t “sufficient to prove” he gave knowingly false answers to lawmakers. Most notably, Mueller informed Sessions’ lawyers in March 2018 that he was in the clear — eight months before Trump pushed Sessions out of his job.

Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort all escaped prosecution for their role in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt about Hillary Clinton. Mueller’s report said the office looked into whether the senior campaign leaders should face charges for violating laws banning foreign campaign contributions. But ultimately they opted against pushing for indictments out of concern a conviction wasn’t a sure thing. The special counsel acknowledged lacking evidence to prove any of the three men acted with general knowledge of the crime they’d be committing and said that the promised opposition research wouldn’t necessarily qualify as an illegal donation since it was unclear the information was “a thing of value.”

On the hacking front, Mueller’s team also considered charging Russians with trafficking in stolen property, a reveal buried in a footnote. Prosecutors were contemplating bringing the additional charges — they did indict the Russians on conspiracy and identity theft charges — under the Depression-era National Stolen Property Act. Ultimately, however, the special counsel’s office found that hacked emails in electronic form wouldn’t qualify under the law’s almost century-old definition of “goods, wares or merchandise.”

Don Jr. dodges a voluntary Mueller interview

Donald Trump Jr. is quoted extensively in the Mueller report — from his Twitter feed to his text messages and interviews with the Senate Judiciary Committee and Sean Hannity.

But Mueller’s report doesn’t supply any fresh Trump Jr. quotes.

That may be because the special counsel didn’t get a chance to talk directly with Trump Jr. The Mueller report explicitly says the president’s oldest son turned down a request for a voluntary interview. What happened next is left to the imagination: Three lines of redacted text in the same sentence are blacked out for grand jury reasons.

Trump Jr.’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment asking whether his client faced down Mueller in a subpoena fight over the interview.

Annie Donaldson took devastating notes

Annie Donaldson, chief of staff to former White House counsel Don McGahn, appears throughout Mueller’s report in some of its most critical moments, often as the White House aide who took some of the most critical and contemporaneous notes.

Her memos document in vivid detail the chaos inside the West Wing as Trump raged about the Russia investigation.

"Just in the middle of another Russia Fiasco,” McGahn told Donaldson, according to a note she took on March 2, 2017, as Trump pressured Sessions not to recuse from the probe.

Donaldson also memorialized a White House counsel’s office meeting that day in which she described “serious concerns about obstruction” after referencing Sessions. And 10 days later, after FBI Director James Comey confirmed the existence of the Trump-Russia probe, she wrote "POTUS in panic/chaos ... Need binders to put in front of POTUS. All things related to Russia." She later said this commentary was based on discussions with other officials, not an eyewitness account.

On March 21, 2017, Donaldson similarly recalled that Trump himself said Comey had "made [him] look like a fool." But May 9 was the most devastating of all.

“Is this the beginning of the end?" Donaldson wrote, which Mueller indicated she said “because she was worried that the decision to terminate Comey and the manner in which it was carried out would be the end of the presidency.”

Mueller hampered by missing and deleted messages

The special counsel didn’t mince words in noting his work was stymied in part by missing messages and other communications.

Former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon and his associate Erik Prince, for example, gave conflicting accounts of their discussions about Prince’s post-election trip to the Seychelles, where Prince met with a high-level associate of the Kremlin. Both claimed they inadvertently lost all records of their communication.

A related problem hampered Mueller’s efforts to investigate Manafort because “in some instances, messages were sent using encryption applications.” In addition, Manafort deputy Rick Gates sent internal campaign polling data to a longtime associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, designed for sharing with Ukrainian oligarchs. But those messages were sent by the encrypted service WhatsApp, and “Gates then deleted the communications on a daily basis.”

Sekulow needed an attorney to deal with Mueller

Mueller’s report documented how even the president’s lawyer needed a lawyer — to address false statements made by yet another one of the president’s lawyers.

Here’s what happened.

Michael Cohen, the longtime Trump personal attorney, told Mueller’s prosecutors that he got help from other members of the president’s personal legal team as he prepared congressional testimony downplaying Trump’s interest in and awareness of efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign.

Cohen was ultimately charged with making a false statement to Congress over those September 2017 remarks, and during his cooperation sessions he singled out Trump personal counsel Jay Sekulow as helping edit and review the at-issue testimony.

In the Mueller report, the special counsel explained that Sekulow had a chance to add more details and context to Cohen’s description of how the whole event transpired. But Sekulow, through his own attorney, declined.

There was a second “scope memo”

Republicans attempting to understand the depth of Mueller’s probe had long ago fixated on surfacing a copy of the “scope memo” — an August 2017 document from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that explained the contours of the special counsel’s investigation.

Mueller’s team privately disclosed a version of the memo to the federal judge presiding over Manafort’s criminal trial in Alexandria, Va., last summer, frustrating GOP lawmakers who were thwarted in their own bid to see it.

It wasn’t the only scope memo, however. The Mueller report revealed that Rosenstein delivered an even more detailed version of the memo in October 2017 that cleared the way for investigations into Stone, Cohen, former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates and two other individuals whose names were redacted for “personal privacy.”

What’s more, the memo also authorized Mueller to specifically probe Cohen’s use of an LLC to “receive funds from Russian-backed entities” and separately approved investigations into individuals and entities who were considered in league with his original targets, including Manafort. Lastly, the second scope memo transferred to Mueller the FBI’s ongoing false statement investigation into Sessions.

The Mueller-FBI counterintelligence partnership — revealed

One of the most important mysteries of Mueller’s work is what would become of the significant intelligence findings he uncovered — the details that don’t lead to a criminal prosecution but inform the government about national security threats and whether any Americans became unwitting Kremlin tools.

That question is put to rest early in Mueller’s report when he describes a team of FBI embeds who worked to review his investigation’s results and sent written “summaries of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information to FBIHQ and FBI Field Offices.”

The special counsel also offered in at least one footnote a glimpse at what type of information the findings — which have not been released — could contain.

“The Office is aware of reports that other Russian entities” — not just the Kremlin’s social media “trolls” — “engaged in similar active measures operations targeting the United States. Some evidence collected by the Office corroborates those reports, and the Office has shared that evidence with other offices in the Department of Justice and FBI.”

It’s a brief glimpse into the bureau’s work, but it could open vast new chapters of Russia intrigue for Congress, where Democrats have demanded briefings on the classified counterintelligence findings of Mueller’s team and the FBI.

The mystery endures over what Carter Page was doing in Moscow

Carter Page — an American energy consultant whose Russia ties have aroused the FBI’s suspicions since at least 2013 — emailed the Trump campaign in January 2016 boasting that he could arrange a “direct meeting in Moscow” between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He criticized U.S. sanctions on Russia and touted high-level Kremlin contacts.

Less than two months later, the campaign tapped him as a foreign policy adviser.

What prompted Page’s initial outreach to the campaign hasn’t been completely explained. And after 22 months, Mueller’s team conceded in its report it still can’t “fully” answer what Page was doing in Moscow in July 2016, a few months after he joined the Trump campaign. The special counsel’s office said it had trouble getting additional evidence or testimony about Page’s trip. But the investigators also said they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Page had been acting as a foreign agent.

Mueller’s report acknowledges that some things about Page don’t add up. For example, he ostensibly traveled to Moscow in July 2016 to give the commencement address at Moscow’s new Economic School, even though the event typically featured high-profile speakers like Barack Obama. Putin’s top spokesman Dmitry Peskov was notified of Page’s visit, but decided not to meet with him privately.

Page initially denied having any significant meetings during his visit. But he acknowledged to Mueller that he met with Andrey Baranov, a former Gazprom employee who had become the head of investor relations at Russia’s biggest energy company, Rosneft. Page told Mueller “the possibility of a sale of a stake in Rosneft” may have been mentioned “in passing.”

Cohen mistakes Putin operative for Olympic weightlifter

Shortly after Cohen signed a letter of intent to pursue the Moscow real estate deal, Ivanka Trump received an email from a woman named Lana Erchova offering up her husband Dmitry Klokov’s services as someone who could be helpful to her father.

Ivanka Trump forwarded the email to Cohen, who believed incorrectly that Klokov was a former Russian Olympic weightlifter with the same name.

In fact, Klokov was the director of a large Russian electricity transmission company who’d previously been employed as an aide to Russia’s energy minister. Emails exchanged between Cohen and Klokov indicate that they were trying to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin — referred to by Klokov as “our person of interest” — as early as December 2015.

Mueller could not establish that Cohen told the campaign about his conversations with Klokov or that anyone connected with him at a later date. Cohen told Mueller that he let it go because he was already working on the Trump Tower Moscow project with Felix Sater, a Russia-born developer who claimed to have Kremlin connections of his own.

But on July 27, 2018, something else strange happened. Lana Erchova, Klokov’s then-ex wife, sent an “unsolicited email” to Mueller’s office claiming that Klokov had asked her to reach out to Ivanka Trump “on behalf of the Russian officials” who wanted to offer Trump “land in Crimea among other things and [an] unofficial meeting with Putin." Mueller’s office reached out to ask for more detail but never received a reply.

A little more is learned about the mysterious overseas professor

One of the most tantalizing — and still unresolved — subplots of the Russia investigation is the role a shadowy foreign professor played in the Kremlin’s election interference.

Joseph Mifsud, described by Mueller as “a Maltese national who worked as a professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy in London,” was the first to tell the Trump campaign that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. His disclosure came in April 2016, well before the hack on the Democratic National Committee was made public.

George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who met with Mifsud and learned of the “dirt,” described Mifsud as “a good friend” in emails to the campaign about their meetings. Since being arrested and later imprisoned for lying to the FBI about his communications with Mifsud, however, Papadopoulos has insisted that the professor is a Western intelligence asset who was setting him up.

But Mueller outlines in the report, for the first time, the “various Russian contacts” Mifsud maintained while living in London — which included a “one-time employee” of the Internet Research Agency, the company employing the Russia online trolls that Mueller charged in connection with the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign.

Portions of this section are redacted, but Mueller indicates another Mifsud connection to “an employee of the Russian Ministry of Defense,” which had “overlapping contacts with a group of Russian military-controlled Facebook accounts” that were used to promote the Russians’ release of hacked Democratic emails.

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Harris’ South Carolina strategy faces a big obstacle: Biden

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:02 - [CET]

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joe Biden has yet to formally declare his presidential bid, but he’s already complicating Kamala Harris' path to victory in a must-win state: South Carolina.

The pivotal early primary state is the linchpin of Harris' strategy to capture the Democratic nomination, yet the former vice president’s experience, pragmatism and close association with former President Barack Obama have given him a significant advantage here — even more so than in other states, according to more than two dozen interviews with state operatives and elected leaders, as well as public and private polling.

African-Americans and women make up strong majorities of Democratic primary voters here, and Harris aggressively courted local support last weekend in her fourth visit of the young campaign, which focused on rural areas. Biden, meanwhile, starts with broad across-the-board backing from an array of establishment Democrats to rank-and-file black voters. His overall early support skews toward older South Carolinians that form the most reliable voting bloc — and who are assembling to support Biden right away when he jumps into the race this week. State Rep. Jerry Govan, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, told POLITICO he expects Biden to receive “a warm welcome from a very diverse group of South Carolinians.”

“He has friends — a bunch of old friends,” added state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, the former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, who is helping Biden allies coordinate on the ground. Once he announces, “We’re going to be able to reveal a whole bunch of supporters.”

Biden’s close associations in the state include his former White House adviser Fran Person and former state director Trip King, along with Harpootlian, who has been leaning on elected leaders. Last week, when Biden gave the eulogy for Fritz Hollings, the longtime U.S. senator and former governor of South Carolina, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson marveled at his statesmanship.

“I thought to myself, I’m witnessing someone who has what it takes to make a great president,” he tweeted.

State Sen. David Mac, who for decades has hosted a radio program, said he’s lining up behind Biden, arguing he’s best positioned to galvanize voters not only in his state, but across the Rust Belt. “It’s my belief that to get out of this big mess we need someone like Joe Biden in there,” Mac said in an interview. “We need that person who could get things back on an even keel. We’re in a bad place right now.”

Others aren’t panicking — but representatives for each of their campaigns acknowledged Biden’s strengths. On Saturday, Harris indicated she isn’t worried about Biden’s command, saying “it’s early” when asked why he and Sen. Bernie Sanders — two white men in their late 70s — remain atop the primary polls.

“I actually wouldn’t hang my hat on that,” Harris said ahead of a small rally at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. She ended her thought with exclamation point: “Period.”

Indeed, Harris has a clear opening: While the 2020 field is larger and more diverse, Biden’s strong early footing reminds some of Hillary Clinton’s lead in 2008, before Obama’s campaign caught fire and he won the South Carolina primary. State Rep. Kambrell Garvin, who has talked to several 2020 candidates, but has yet to endorse anyone, recalled the “avalanche of change that happened closer to January 2008” in contending Biden still has work to do.

“He has barriers he is going to have to get over, including convincing younger folks that he’s the right candidate,” Garvin, the second-youngest member of the state’s General Assembly, told POLITICO.

Biden, meantime, will face fresh scrutiny for his handling of the Anita Hill testimony — and for his positions, such as his support for the crime bill and opposition to busing for school desegregation. Harris, too, has prompted questions relating to her record as a prosecutor and state attorney general.

“There are questions that should be asked and answered,” Garvin said of both of the candidates, though he’s been picking up considerable excitement around Harris’ campaign of late. “We as Democrats run the risk of looking for the perfect [candidate]. We’ve got to find somebody that speaks to our values — and somebody that can stand up to this president.”

Harris spent her latest weekend in South Carolina painting herself as a fresh voice and confronting President Donald Trump. She headlined a well-attended town hall at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, spoke to a church in Holly Hill and attended the Easter service at the Bible Way Church of Atlas Road. There, Pastor Darrell Jackson Sr. led his mostly black membership in chants of “make history.”

“We are praying for you — as you, once again, will make history,” Jackson, himself an influential state senator from Richland County, told Harris during the service.

At the Greater Target AME Church, members informed Harris’ campaign team she was the first presidential candidate to visit the rural house of worship, not just in 2019 — but in its 150-year history. When a woman asked Harris what sets her apart from the rest of the 2020 Democratic field, Harris pointed to her executive experience: “We need somebody on that stage who is a proven leader,” she said, citing her work on the foreclosure crisis and education taking on the big banks and for-profit colleges.

“This not as a criticism of anyone, but this a moment that is not just about pretty speeches. You got to know how to fight. I know how to fight,” Harris said. “I also believe this is going to be a moment in time where we need somebody on that stage who has a proven ability— and a real ability— to prosecute the case against the policies of this administration. And I know how to do that.”

Later, Harris and supporters leaned into her background: The senator’s father is from Jamaica and her late mother immigrated from India. She talked about being the daughter of civil rights activists in Oakland and finding strength in uniting people around the collective fight for equality and dignity — “we need that again,” she said.

“So, who has the ability to do that?” Harris asked, in an overt remark about her appeal. “To speak to young people, to speak to women — you can go through all of the demographics of how pollsters will talk about it.”

Harris’ return to South Carolina corresponded with a wave of focus from other candidates. Sanders spoke to an event in Spartanburg at a black church with the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus. Ahead of Biden’s entry, he and Sen. Cory Booker have been rolling out slates of local endorsements. On Monday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced that Lauren Harper, an adviser to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, would direct his operations in the state. Tyler Jones, who helped orchestrate Rep. Joe Cunningham’s victory and was part of the “Draft Beto” movement, joined O’Rourke as a senior adviser.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, is making a policy-focused play there ahead of her trip this week.

Former Gov. Jim Hodges said he’s already talked with several 2020 candidates and surveyed many politically active former constituents in the state. In an interview, Hodges said he doesn’t get the sense they’re holding out for Biden, though he is open to backing the former vice president.

“They are waiting on an epiphany of who to support,” said Hodges, who dined with Harris and her sister, campaign chair Maya Harris, during an earlier visit. “They are looking for a connection with a candidate. They are waiting for that moment to occur. I have said this for a long time, but I think it’s pretty wide open."

“The issue is there are a lot of different choices — and new political talent that people haven’t had time to evaluate," Hodges continued. "And what you’re seeing is that all of the people who have been around before are getting some heartburn over whether the message of the 2018 election is, ‘We want something new.’”

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Town hall marathon exposes not 'terribly many differences' in 2020 primary

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 07:06 - [CET]

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Building up to its five-hour, back-to-back installment of presidential town halls on Monday night, CNN promised a new opportunity to compare Democratic primary contenders to one another. Wolf Blitzer deemed it a “major moment” in the evolving 2020 campaign.

And when it was all over, what had the event delivered? A reminder, more than anything, of just how premature the Democratic primary campaign remains.

Despite their proximity and the promise of cable television’s reach, the five Democrats who filed onto a stage in New Hampshire largely sparred without partners. They disagreed about whether Congress should pursue impeachment of President Donald Trump. But to the extent that there are ideological distinctions between them — on health care, college education and climate change — they presented those differences as mere shades of a similar kind. And when presented with opportunities to criticize one another, they demurred.

"I really haven't studied it,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said when asked about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan. “But I think Elizabeth and I end up agreeing on a whole lot of issues. And what she understands and what I understand is we don't punish people for the crime of getting a higher education.”

"I don't think Elizabeth and I have terribly many differences on this,” Sanders said.

Later, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called Warren’s proposal “an important conversation to have.” She had a similar reaction when asked if felons should be allowed to vote while in prison, as Sanders had proposed.

“I think we should have that conversation,” Harris said.

Just not on Monday.

By the time midnight fell and “Law & Order” reruns were hitting their stride, the most significant moment CNN’s town hall marathon marked was not any culling of the 2020 field, but rather an extended period of non-aggression preceding the first Democratic primary debate in June.

Joe Biden, who is likely to announce his candidacy soon and whose polling numbers cast a shadow on the rest of the Democratic primary field, did not even warrant a mention. And former President Barack Obama drew only praise.

Warren, when asked how she diverges from Obama, instead told a story about how he helped her launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"He was the one who stood there when everyone else said in his administration, 'Throw that agency under the bus,'" Warren said. "And he said, 'No, I'm not going to let this crisis pass and not come away with a consumer agency that makes sure that families never get cheated again.' I will always be grateful to the president for that.”

In part, the lack of early confrontation in the 2020 primary was preordained. Despite town halls’ debate-like staging, candidates are prevented from appearing onstage together — a more contentious setting — before Democratic National Committee debates begin, according to DNC rules.

Instead, candidates seek out town halls for the large audience they offer and for the opportunity to clip memorable segments for use in fundraising appeals or online advertisements. Some use the venues to make news, as Harris did by pledging to take executive action if Congress does not enact major gun legislation within her first 100 days as president.

It is early campaign work — as are the logistics. In a press filing room several yards from the event auditorium, members of the media watched the town halls on an Apple TV that stopped working every hour or two.

For viewers searching for differences between the candidates, Monday’s forums did expose divergent approaches to the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia and the 2016 presidential campaign.

Hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected calls to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump, Warren broke with Pelosi, calling on members of Congress to vote on impeachment.

“There is no political-inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” Warren said. “They should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives.”

Harris, too, said Congress “should take the steps toward impeachment,” while Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota stopped short of calling for impeachment.

“What is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not reelected president, and I intend to do everything I can to make sure that doesn‘t happen,” Sanders said.

But for the most part, the candidates appeared to steer a common vessel. Early in the primary campaign, confrontations between candidates are not often yet direct. And differences between them are of degree, not vastly different ideologies.

Klobuchar, in a brief slight of Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan, said she wished she could “staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs.” But she focused more on expanding Pell Grants, allowing students to refinance loans and bringing back an Obama-era plan for free two-year community college programs.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., disagreed with Sanders about felons voting while in prison.

But after explaining the divergence, Buttigieg quickly pivoted back to a goal that Democrats broadly share: restoring felons' right to vote once their sentences are served.

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Biden, Beto falter in new progressive straw poll

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 06:01 - [CET]

Bernie Sanders has solidified his front-runner standing among members of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, while Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke have both fallen back sharply, according to the group’s latest straw poll.

Elizabeth Warren is now running second to Sanders in the DFA poll — though she trails the independent senator from Vermont by more than 30 percentage points, according to the survey released Tuesday and obtained first by POLITICO.

The straw poll, which is significant more as an indicator of activist support than a measure of public opinion, reflects the durability of support for Sanders and a shift in some left-flank enthusiasm for two rivals: O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, and Biden, the former vice president who is expected to announce his 2020 presidential campaign soon.

In DFA’s first 2020 straw poll, in December, Biden was running second to Sanders at 15 percent, followed by O’Rourke at 12 percent. By this month, Biden’s support had fallen to about 8 percent, while O’Rourke slid to about 3 percent.

Meanwhile, Sanders drew 42 percent support, up about 6 percentage points from December. Warren saw support for her candidacy tick up to about 11 percent, according to the poll, followed by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg at about 10 percent.

DFA said Buttigieg likely benefitted most from waning support for O’Rourke. Among members who participated in both the DFA’s December and April polls, about 23 percent of O’Rourke’s supporters shifted their support to Buttigieg, with another 16 percent moving to Sanders and about 12 percent shifting to Warren.

“While these new poll results show Bernie Sanders retaining and even strengthening his support among progressives, the big shifts in support for the broad field of candidate we’ve seen over the last three months make it clear that Democracy for America members are very open to changing their minds, discovering new candidates, and reevaluating potential nominees based on the campaign they run in the months ahead,” Democracy for America Chairman Charles Chamberlain said in a prepared statement.

DFA boasts more than 1 million members, and the group was instrumental in Sanders’ unsuccessful run for president in 2016. But its membership also has strong ties to Warren, the senator from Massachusetts. Founded by Howard Dean following his run for president in 2004, DFA helped organize an aggressive, ultimately unsuccessful effort to draft Warren into the 2016 presidential campaign.

Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Biden were followed in the latest straw poll by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), at about 7 percent support. Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska was just behind Harris, at about 6 percent.

DFA said members cast 94,641 votes in the poll, which ran April 1 through April 19. DFA is expected to run additional straw polls before any endorsement. The next poll will likely come after the first presidential debate this summer.

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Judge reveals secret legal battle in Greg Craig case

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 05:51 - [CET]
The issue concerns attorney-client privilege.
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Harris calls for impeachment

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 04:48 - [CET]

Democratic 2020 hopeful Kamala Harris wants the House to impeach President Donald Trump, but doesn’t necessarily expect it to be a successful effort.

"I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment. But I want to say this, because it doesn't end there," the California senator said on a CNN-hosted town hall Monday. "I'm also a realist. ... I have also witnessed folks in the United States Congress, and in particular in the GOP, who have been presented with many reasons to push back against this president and they have not."

Harris joined fellow Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in calling for Trump's impeachment following the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on the 2016 election. Impeachment has been a sensitive topic for Democrats, who have largely opted to say they would look into the president's actions rather than directly call for impeachment.

Warren (D-Mass.) broke away from that mold Friday when she said in a Twitter thread that she was convinced after reading the Mueller report that impeachment is necessary.

"The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty. That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States," Warren wrote.

Harris was not as quick to come to that conclusion.

Speaking to reporters Saturday in Orangeburg, S.C., Harris said she wanted "to see evidence," citing her background as a prosecutor.

“I believe that there is room for that conversation, but right now what I want is, I want Mueller to come before Congress to testify," Harris said at the time. "I want to be able to see the full, unredacted report, and, specifically, also the underlying evidence.”

Harris' call for impeachment Monday was a change in direction, but she still remains skeptical the Republican majority in the Senate would act on a impeachment from the Democrat-controlled House.

"The Republicans hold the majority [and] I've not seen any evidence to suggest that they will weigh on the facts instead of on partisan adherence to being protective of this president, and that's what concerns me and what will be the eventual outcome," Harris said. "So we have to be realistic about what might be the end result, but that does not mean the process should not take hold."

Christopher Cadelago contributed to this article.

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Kamala Harris proposes major executive actions to crack down on guns

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 04:17 - [CET]

Kamala Harris said Monday that she will take significant action to curb spiraling gun violence in America — an effort by the California senator and former career prosecutor to own the gun-control issue in a crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field.

Harris announced her plans during a CNN town hall, pledging that if Congress does not enact major gun legislation — including universal background checks, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” and repealing a law that prevents victims from holding gunmakers and firearms dealers liable for their losses — she would take executive action to do so in her first 100 days as president.

"There are people in Washington, D.C., supposed leaders, who have failed to have the courage to reject a false choice which says you're either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want to take everyone's guns away," Harris said

Bolstering gun-control has been a key point for Harris on the campaign trail, where gun-related portions of her remarks often generate some of the loudest applause. A former prosecutor who rose to become California's attorney general and who herself owns a gun for protection, Harris offers a unique background for a candidate trying to make the issue her own.

Some of Harris’ biggest moments early in her 2020 campaign have revolved around guns, including the impassioned plea she made in January, also in a town hall event on CNN, in which she invoked the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in which 20 children were killed in 2012.

“I think somebody should have required all those members of Congress to go in a room, in a locked room, no press, no one, nobody else, and look at the autopsy photographs of those babies,” Harris said at the time. “And then you can vote your conscience. This has become a political issue.”

Harris’ gun record contains elements that will appeal to progressive Democrats, as well as some that may give them pause.

As attorney general of California, she took on a 2014 ruling that deemed unconstitutional the state’s 10-day waiting period for gun purchases — and two years later, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Harris’ stance. Harris also supported California legislation to reinforce the assault weapons ban and close the “bullet button” loophole.

But as district attorney of San Francisco, she backed increased bail amounts for defendants facing gun-related charges, a move that could disproportionately impact people of color. Later, the California state auditor twice admonished Harris’ attorney general office administration — first for failing to identify thousands of mentally ill gun owners forbidden from having firearms; then two years later when a follow-up audit found that “delays in fully implementing certain recommendations result in continued risk to public safety.”

Harris’ state Department of Justice argued in a written response that an unforeseen loss of staff and continued high level of firearms sales had forced the department to redirect its resources to completing background checks on new gun purchases in the state.

Of the executive action Harris announced on Monday, her campaign said they would mandate near-universal background checks by requiring anyone who sells five or more guns a year to run a background check on all of their gun sales; rescind the licenses of gunmakers and dealers that break the law and take the “most egregious” offenders to court; reverse the Trump admiration’s change to the definition of “fugitive from justice” allowing fugitives with arrest warrants to buy guns; and close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” to prevent partners convicted of domestic violence charges from purchasing a gun.

Harris also would work to make gun trafficking a federal crime, ban high-capacity magazines, and outlaw those convicted of a federal hate crime from buying guns, the campaign said.

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Trump's Monday night retweeting blitz

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 04:06 - [CET]

President Donald Trump undertook a retweeting blitz on Monday night, surfacing 24 posts in about 30 minutes that went back as far as a year and covered topics from the Mueller report to Easter festivities at the White House.

The president is known for an almost stream of consciousness on his Twitter account, but the rapid-fire retweets stood out for their sheer number and range.

Among them were comments from Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, on Joe Biden’s election history; a series of posts from conservative commentator Tom Fitton decrying the Mueller investigation; and a message of condolence from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) for the victims of the Sunday terrorist attack in Sri Lanka.

Several of the tweets came from Republican members of Congress, including Meadows and Reps. Devin Nunes of California, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Louie Gohmert of Texas. Others came from conservative commentators or the official Republican Party account.

The most common topic, however, was special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. Trump has continued to denounce the probe as a partisan witch hunt, but since Attorney General William Barr released a redacted version of Mueller’s report last week, the president has increasingly portrayed himself as the victim of an illegal investigation.

“What I have accumulated here is absolutely shocking upon the realization that #Mueller’s disreputable, twisted history speaks to the character of the man placed in a position to attempt to legalize a coup against a lawfully-elected President,” read one tweet from Gohmert on April 25, 2018.

“Think about this: we had a President under a constant 2 year investigation for a fabricated collusion conspiracy, and yet America is still seeing a record economy, +3% growth, a soaring job market, and the lowest unemployment in half a century. @realDonaldTrump delivering anyway,” said another by Meadows.

Not all the posts were negative. Trump also retweeted first lady Melania Trump in thanking everyone for a successful Easter egg roll at the White House earlier Monday.

“Another wonderful Easter Egg roll!” the first lady wrote. “@POTUS and I enjoyed meeting everyone! Thank you to the many volunteers and vendors who worked so hard to help keep this @WhiteHouse tradition alive!!”

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From impeachment to getting ‘Hillary’d’: 2020 Democrats face off in town halls

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 03:48 - [CET]

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Five presidential hopefuls squared off in back-to-back televised town halls on Monday night, showing divides in how each Democratic candidate wants to address issues ranging from student debt to the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., took turns on the stage during the event, hosted by CNN, at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. The Democratic candidates are barred from appearing onstage together until the first 2020 debates this summer, according to Democratic National Committee rules.

The candidates courted millennial and Generation Z voters on Monday night, a bloc that’s growing in size and enthusiasm ahead of the 2020 election. Fifty-eight percent of Democratic voters ages 18 to 29 plan to participate in a primary or caucus in 2020 — a 14 percent increase over the 2016 election — according to a poll released by the Harvard Institute of Politics ahead of the town halls.

Following are some highlights, which will update through the final appearance ending at midnight.

On student debt: Klobuchar knocked Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan, saying that expanding Pell Grants, allowing students to refinance loans and bringing back an Obama-era plan for free two-year community college programs was a more realistic way to tackle student debt.

“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs, I do,” Klobuchar said to the crowd of several hundred college students. “Don’t look — it’s not there. I wish I could do that, but I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth. You deserve more than to be saddled with more and more debt. Everything I have proposed to you I have found ways to pay for it that I think makes sense, that I think can actually get done.”

Shots at Trump: Klobuchar took several shots at the president during her hour onstage, referring to Trump as “Mr. Umbrella Man” in response to his jokes about her 2020 campaign launch in a blizzard. This seemed to be a reference to a viral clip of the president opting not to close an umbrella when boarding a plane in October. When CNN host Chris Cuomo approached Klobuchar onstage while she was answering a question, she evoked Trump again. “I feel you creeping over my shoulder — not in a Trumpian manner,” Klobuchar said.

Getting “Hillary’d”: Warren was asked how she would avoid being “Hillary’d” in the 2020 race, meaning facing increased scrutiny because of sexism. “You stay after it every day — one might say you persist,” Warren said to applause. “You organize, you build a grassroots-movement, you fight for working people, and that’s how I’m going to be the first woman elected president of the United States.”

Impeaching the president: Warren put down a marker on impeachment based on her reading of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, breaking with House leaders who are reluctant to start proceedings to remove Trump from office. “There is no political-inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” Warren said, calling on members of Congress to vote on impeachment. “They should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives.”

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Inside Biden's battle plan

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 02:23 - [CET]

Joe Biden has led nearly every Democratic primary poll without doing anything. Now, the former vice president’s team is planning to solidify his frontrunner status with a wave of high-profile organizing, fundraising and endorsement news when he enters the race.

Biden’s campaign in waiting has ramped up over the last several weeks — calling donors across the country and tapping decades-old friendships to line up support from major Democratic Party figures, organized labor, members of Congress and elected officials from early presidential states, according to people with direct knowledge of Biden’s campaign strategy. POLITICO also spoke to donors who’ve received calls from Biden’s team, potential campaign aides who have been interviewed for jobs and stakeholders in early primary and caucus states who were asked to pitch in their support.

As Biden seeks on-the-ground labor support in early primary and caucus states, he has all but locked in the endorsement of the International Association of Firefighters, the union that helped boost John Kerry to the Democratic nomination in 2004. This year, union president Harold Schaitberger said, the 315,000-member union plans to quickly deploy an organized effort to boost Biden in the early-voting states.

“I have been in touch on a consistent basis with the campaign and the vice president,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters told POLITICO on Monday. Once Biden's announcement goes live, Schaitberger continued, “our executive board will be prepared to immediately meet and formally take a position on the primary and we’ll likely be prepared to make that announcement on the 29th.”

The early activity is fueled by Biden’s long relationships within the Democratic Party and the bonds he built as Barack Obama’s vice president, which vaulted him to the top of the primary pack this year without rushing into the race early. But Biden’s team sees an opportunity to generate something Biden hasn't yet had this year with a strong entrance: forward momentum, created by proving he has what it takes to compete in a historically large primary field before going toe-to-toe with President Donald Trump.

As Biden's team works to lock down national labor support, it is also chasing union backing in early states like Iowa, where his aides have already interviewed staff.

“I talked to his staff quite a bit,” said Betty Brim-Hunter, who was the state political director to Iowa’s AFL-CIO for 13 years. Asked if she will be with Biden: “100 percent. And I told his staff whatever I can do to help them — I just retired, they have my commitment.”

Former Nevada Democratic chairman Sam Lieberman said Biden has already won his endorsement and he expects "labor could be easily persuaded to support Joe Biden if he was in the mix."

"I have always supported him in the past and I would definitely support him now," Lieberman said. "I’m just concerned that it needs to happen fast because we in Nevada are getting inundated by all the candidates."

The long-awaited campaign is finally in the works: Biden’s team has planned for a video announcement this week. Several sources close to the campaign said previous media reports about timing and location of rallies were not accurate, though the campaign would not comment to clarify. Three people who talked to Biden or his team told POLITICO the announcement could come on Thursday, though the timing remained in flux as of late Monday.

Biden’s formal announcement is to be followed by related launch events, including a fundraiser in Philadelphia. An announcement on early presidential staffing would soon follow, and the campaign would then roll into a series of early-state visits.

“They’re going to launch strategically all over the country,” an operative with knowledge of Biden’s strategy said. “They’ll have people in place in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and roll out endorsements from elected officials all over the country, so when they come out they can have this show of force.”

In recent weeks, Biden’s team or Biden himself have reached out to donors around the country asking for commitments for a launch this week.

In Philadelphia, a group of donors were asking supporters to write checks even before the fundraiser slated to be held later this week, once Biden is officially in the race.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is helping organize the fundraiser, said he’s been in contact with Biden’s team and is still awaiting final word on timing for the event, which would follow Biden’s announcement. Rendell said the fundraiser was planned for Thursday as of that moment, but he also said it could be moved to next week.

“We’re doing it on the day they tell us,” Rendell told POLITICO. “They have told us tentatively Thursday but there’s nothing in stone about that.”

Stephen Cozen, an attorney and longtime Biden ally, said the fundraising effort aims “to demonstrate to others that he’s got this very broad band of support at the lowest level, not necessarily even at the highest level, where I’m sure — I know for a fact — there are people with a lot of money sitting out there waiting for Joe to get in. That’s not what we’re concentrating on. We’re concentrating on building the bottom.”

Biden’s call for donors comes as he’s expected to be outpaced on small-donor fundraising by others in the field, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, who so far has the most consistent, highest polling aside from Biden. Small-dollar donations have been a point of emphasis for most candidates, who have sought to portray themselves as outsiders not entangled with special interests.

“It’s not an emergency but it’s a need. He’s got a list. But it’s not a Bernie list,” said a Biden campaign surrogate. “We need to push checks up as early as possible.”

Holly Otterbein and Alex Thompson contributed to this report.

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Kim Jong Un to meet with Putin in Russia

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 01:28 - [CET]

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean state media says leader Kim Jong Un will visit Russia and meet with President Vladimir Putin.

The Korean Central News Agency released a statement Tuesday saying Kim would soon pay a visit to the Russian Federation at Putin’s invitation.

A date for the meeting was not immediately released.

The Kremlin said in a brief statement Thursday that Kim will visit Russia “in the second half of April,” but gave no further details.

Russia is interested in gaining broader access to North Korea’s mineral resources, including rare metals. Pyongyang needs Russia’s electricity supplies and wants to attract Russian investment to modernize the Soviet-built industrial plants, railways and other infrastructure.

The announcement comes as Pyongyang has upped its criticism of the United States as nuclear negotiations appear to be deadlocked.

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Warren’s student loan plan targets 42M borrowers

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 01:23 - [CET]

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s opening shot on a higher education plan raises the bar for 2020 candidates, moving far beyond free college and calling for sweeping loan forgiveness for millions of Americans likely to vote in the Democratic primaries.

Warren’s proposal to cancel a large swath of the $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt catapults an idea percolating on the edges of progressive politics since at least the Occupy Wall Street movement squarely into the mainstream of a Democratic presidential primary. The $640 billion student debt cancellation plan is the most ambitious higher education proposal yet from a 2020 presidential candidate.

The proposal, which was announced on Monday, injects a new idea into a Democratic primary field already debating progressive ideas on the Green New Deal and "Medicare for All." But Warren’s plan is also prompting charges from the right, and even some corners of the left, of a massive and unfair giveaway that would benefit students who racked up debt to attend expensive schools instead of those who saved for college or picked less pricey options.

The plan would provide direct relief to some 42 million student loan borrowers, most of whom would have their debt wiped away completely, according to Warren’s campaign. The one-time cancellation program would forgive $50,000 of debt for all borrowers earning less than $100,000, with proportionally less debt relief for those earning up to $250,000.

Warren told CNN on Monday that her plan “goes further” and is “certainly bigger” than Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill, to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities, of which she is a cosponsor.

“It certainly is an ambitious proposal,” said James Kvaal, a former Obama White House education adviser, who now runs The Institute for College Access and Success, a non-profit. He said the debt cancellation idea is a proposal for “redistribution of wealth more than it is a higher ed policy.”

“You’re going to see a group of candidates who are competing to articulate the most ambitious proposals on college affordability” during the Democratic primary, Kvaal said. “This plan is a strong opening bid in that auction, and I think there will be a second set of candidates trying to articulate a middle ground course.”

Several other 2020 contenders have already sought to distance themselves from calls for free college as a way to burnish their more moderate credentials. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for instance, has said she’s opposed to making four-year colleges free. And South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has also been critical of such plans.

Warren’s plan would aim debt cancellation at families making under $250,000, a move designed to blunt some of the criticism that widespread debt cancellation would disproportionately help relatively higher-income borrowers — those who take out large amounts of debt to enroll in graduate program programs in medicine, law and business, for instance, who go on to have high salaries.

But some critics weren’t impressed by those efforts to target the benefits.

“This is as radical as it sounds,” said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Aside from the “extremely expensive” price tag, Delisle said, the benefits would be distributed unfairly and arbitrarily.

The proposal would, for instance, reward students who took out large amounts of debt to attend expensive schools while providing less or no benefit to families who “scrimped and saved” for college and choose to attend a less expensive school to avoid debt, Delisle said. The benefits would be similarly uneven among students who took out the same amount of debt based on how far along they are in paying it back.

“I think the plan will engender a lot of anger and frustration, and rightfully so,” he said. “It’s treating similarly situated people very differently.”

Warren’s plan for debt cancellation was paired with a separate proposal to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities, increase funding for Pell Grants for low-income students, and create a new dedicated stream of funding for historically black colleges and universities.

Warren’s campaign framed the sweeping debt cancellation proposal as targeted at income inequality and racial disparities among student loan debtors. Warren’s campaign said the plan “substantially increases both Black and Latinx wealth, closes the racial wealth gap and boosts the economy.”

“If you’re going to tackle income inequality then we need to fundamentally rethink student debt and right the wrongs of the last decade that drove a trillion dollars of student debt,” said Seth Frotman, a Warren ally who was the top student loan official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Student debt is the kerosene on the fire for racial disparities and inequalities that are driving communities apart.”

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A threat in Trump’s back pocket: Shaking up the global oil industry

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 01:03 - [CET]

Taking a cue from President Donald Trump, U.S. lawmakers could soon have a new message to foreign oil producers: NO COLLUSION!

Trump regularly deploys his Twitter account to fight oil-price upticks, trying to browbeat the world’s oil-producing bloc — the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — into boosting production so prices will fall. His administration’s Monday announcement on ending sanctions waivers for buying Iranian oil risks pushing prices higher and could rev up congressional calls to push OPEC harder.

Now Trump’s saber-rattling on OPEC has oil producers and traders unnerved by the prospect he could back cartel-busting legislation that sends prices into a tailspin.

The No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, a bipartisan bill known as NOPEC, would allow the attorney general to bring an antitrust suit against the bloc — removing the sovereign immunity that currently protects OPEC countries. Lawmakers have been trying and failing to turn it into law for two decades.

Trump’s badgering of OPEC has breathed new life into the effort and renewed attention on it from Wall Street to Texas shale fields to OPEC’s Vienna headquarters.

“We are hostage to other countries’ decisions based on their national interests, not on ours,” retired Adm. Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence under Obama and a NOPEC proponent, said recently.

Long before he became president, Trump openly endorsed the idea in his 2011 book “Time to Get Tough.” Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who heads the Justice Department’s antitrust division, backed NOPEC in a 2008 op-ed. The DOJ, which would have the ultimate power to bring a suit, hasn’t taken a position on the bill and declined to comment.

Trump closely tracks oil prices — which are featured regularly on cable TV business programs — and has tweeted frustrations with OPEC nine times over the past year, usually whenever price spikes push the threat back into headlines. He’s tweeted another seven times about oil prices and production more broadly.

His oil fixation appears to come from a recognition of oil’s pivotal role in the economy: Rising gasoline prices, which can quickly burn through consumer pocketbooks, have been associated with most U.S. recessions since World War II. Yet two nations Trump has engaged with most — Russia and Saudi Arabia — are pivotal in pushing prices higher.

The Trump tweets are turning heads around the world. They’re often moving markets, at least for a day or two. And Trump has helped reanimate the OPEC bloc as one of American politicians’ favorite international boogeymen — in part a holdover from dynamics of the 1970s and ’80s that still underlie many of the president’s political instincts.

Oil experts are split over what happens next. They’re waiting to see if Trump will finally weigh in on NOPEC from the White House — particularly if prices rise much more over a short time period. Those two changes are “the matches that could set the thing afire,” said Bob McNally, president of consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group.

Heading into Trump’s re-election campaign, the national average price of gas currently sits under $3 per gallon. It’s been rising gradually through most of 2019, though oil prices are still below their most recent peak in early October. Crucial Midwestern swing states have seen some of the biggest hikes this year.

Some analysts predict that if it breaches the $3 threshold, pain at the pump will surge into political salience. Trump’s political team has been focused on touting the country’s extended economic expansion, on track to become the longest in history this summer, as a central reelection messaging plank.

Politicians have been happy to cast OPEC as the central culprit behind high gas prices for decades. Many still do.

But that might not reflect reality as cleanly as it once did. U.S. oil production has been surging during the Obama and Trump administrations, consistently breaking old records.

As the energy landscape has swung toward U.S. shale production, what’s best for American businesses and consumers isn’t as clear as it was during the 20th-century OPEC battles.

“The ideal oil price for the U.S. now may be a Goldilocks scenario of not too high, not too low,” said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Enter NOPEC. It’s a debate that scrambles the usual partisan battle lines and dances across nearly every foreign policy flashpoint.

Supporters view the bill as a fundamental free-market measure, applying the principle of fighting anti-competitive corporate collusion to countries that are acting like businesses. They say oil markets should be left to supply and demand — not manipulated by a group that has wielded significant control over prices for decades.

Even momentum toward passage could already be giving the U.S. leverage. “I think oil prices would be $10 higher but for the fact that this bill is threatening,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the program for energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations.

An array of NOPEC opponents — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, domestic oil interests and OPEC member nations — warn that the legislation would plunge the oil world into chaos, unsettling markets where OPEC has recently acted as a stabilizing force. Price spikes might follow, but so could a crash in prices not seen in decades.

That would ravage the growing U.S. oil industry, which last year leapt ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the largest producer of crude oil in the world and supports millions of jobs.

Opponents also worry that NOPEC would upend fragile diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other states in the bloc.

OPEC is signaling concern. The bloc reportedly has been considering its first-ever major influence campaign in the U.S. to try to improve its public image. OPEC officials have warned Wall Street about risks from NOPEC. Russia in December even cited the bill as one reason it didn’t want to pursue more formal integration with OPEC.

NOPEC has appeared to divide the Trump administration, which has been mulling it internally through an interagency review process for months.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry warned in February that the bill could have ramifications “way past its intended consequences.”

Many experts expect the ultimate decision could emerge in a Trump tweet. “That would be a pretty straightforward catalyst,” said Kevin Book, managing director for research at ClearView Energy. “This is a bill that’s going to be difficult for the Congress to stop.”

NOPEC sailed out of the House Judiciary Committee without objection in February — a rare occasion for bipartisan bonhomie, as Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) called it “a tool to speak softly and carry a big stick.”

“Ultimately this legislation allows us to fight back,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), the bill’s House sponsor.

But the bill has yet to come up for a vote on the House floor or in Senate committee. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) office declined to comment.

Several experts told POLITICO that vocal support from bands of Judiciary Committee members hasn’t historically extended up the ranks. And Trump’s predecessors consistently threatened vetoes. Even when NOPEC has progressed — it passed both chambers in 2007 — the bill never had presidential support.

“House and Senate leadership are not enthusiastic about this thing,” McNally said. But if Trump backed it, “is Mitch McConnell going to die on NOPEC Hill? I don’t think so.”

Some lawmakers who favor NOPEC view it as a way to punish Saudi Arabia if Trump won’t otherwise take on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is seen as a Trump administration ally.

But a tangled web of foreign policy considerations is at play. Dangling over the debate are two impending deadlines and several geopolitical crises, such as chaos in Libya.

The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iranian oil have tightened oil supplies, helping drive prices up. The announcement this week — ahead of an early May deadline — that the U.S. will end waivers for several countries that are still buying Iranian oil could nudge prices even higher. Iranian officials in return threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, which is crucial for moving oil.

Already, oil prices rose Monday on the news, though Trump tweeted a rare message of cooperation with OPEC to try to tamp down concerns: “Saudi Arabia and others in OPEC will more than make up the Oil Flow difference in our now Full Sanctions on Iranian Oil.” That coordination, if it pans out and tames prices, could spell bad news for boosters of the NOPEC legislation.

In June, OPEC and allies like Russia will convene in Vienna. There they’ll debate whether to continue supply cuts that reduced output by more than 1 million barrels a day.

Then there’s the crisis in Venezuela. The ongoing political tumult and massive humanitarian disaster under Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government had already shrunk oil output — and then the Trump administration’s sanctions, aimed at forcing Maduro out, hit.

Even as new foreign policy developments alter the NOPEC calculus daily, there’s plenty of skepticism that Trump will actually go out on a limb and endorse it — without which it might be difficult for backers to muscle the bill past congressional leaders.

In the administration, “the reticence is because of just how big of a market impact this [could] have,” said Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst on the Gulf states at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. It would be “unprecedented to strip the sovereign immunity that has guarded OPEC members” for six decades, she added.

And lawmakers might prefer other avenues to punish Saudi Arabia for its perpetuation of Yemen’s humanitarian disaster and the murder last year of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Both chambers recently tried to force Trump’s hand on support for the Yemen war.

But with ties to so many volatile countries and mercurial political actors, the NOPEC debate could bubble above the surface at any moment.

“In today’s world,” Jaffe said, “it’s very hard to predict what could blow up.”

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If You’re Reading This, You’re Probably Running for President

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 00:19 - [CET]

A mighty flutter of Democrats has flapped its wings into the presidential contest, like so many monarch butterflies making their migratory dash to Mexico. According to NPR’s running count, 19 candidates have announced and another six are Biden their time, exceeding the candidate counts for the famously mobbed 2016 Republican and 1976 Democratic races.

Senators are running for president. Mayors are running for president. Members of the House are running for president. So too are former members of the House and a former cabinet member. A governor and a former governor have announced. Even a spiritual guru and a tech entrepreneur have joined the race. One former vice president has all but announced his candidacy.

Booking town halls to full occupancy and making the hajj to Iowa, the candidates just keep on coming. What could possibly explain this upsurge? The delusion that you, too, could become president is nothing new. The syndrome has long plagued minor politicians, generals, and corporate leaders who can’t help but compare themselves to the person occupying the White House and then saying, “I could do that better than jerk.” But unless you were a genuine contender—had executive experience as a governor or political chits to trade or the muscle of a political machine backing you—nothing but mockery awaited the average egomaniac who chanced a run.

Times have changed. Also-ran presidential candidates who once faced being jeered whenever they left the house can now look forward to cable news contributor deals. Look at Rick Santorum! Two pathetic runs for the White House and he and his teeth shine regularly on CNN. Or Mike Huckabee, who has the same record and a Fox News Channel contract. In January, presidential loser John Kasich signed with a talent agency as he shopped for a spot on either CNN or MSNBC. In the modern world, you can be a political egomaniac who loses and still cashes in. Unless you think appearing on TV makes you vulnerable to shame and mockery—and I do—the old downside of embarrassing yourself with a weak run for the White House has all but vanished. If Julián Castro doesn’t have an agent yet, he will soon.

Experience—especially executive experience—is an ingredient that is no longer part of the successful presidential candidate recipe. The presidential sweepstakes is now an inclusive pro-am event, welcoming even people like Pete Buttigieg who couldn’t get elected treasurer in Indiana. For this, we can assign equal blame to Barack Obama, who parlayed six years in the Illinois Senate and 1,413 days in the U.S. Senate into a winning run, and Donald Trump, who never ran for office before his White House victory. As if fumigating the baseboards, the Obama and Trump successes have flushed implausible presidential candidates into the open who would have otherwise sat on their ambitions and incubated them for a future date.

Beto O’Rourke and Buttigieg obviously see Obama when they look into the mirror in the morning and compare their resumes to his. O’Rourke’s over-reliance on “hope” in his speeches speaks to his limited political imagination, while Buttigieg should start footnoting his speeches with nods to the 44th president if he hopes to avoid a copyright infringement suit. Candidates like Marianne Williamson and Tulsi Gabbard must see Trump’s shadow when looking in the mirror, too, thinking that like him they can ride a media rocket-sled to front-runner status first and build organizations last.

The woodwork squeaks with so many candidates this year compared to previous cycles in part because a strong frontrunner prevented the entry of weak candidates. Hillary Clinton ruled and intimidated in 2008 and again in 2016. John Kerry did it in 2004 (along with a post-9/11 belief that George W. Bush was invulnerable) and Al Gore cleared the field in 2000. So far, 2016 has produced no such bigfoot to stomp on the wannabees. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Joe Biden—both losers, by the way, and actuarially the worst candidates the party could possibly nominate—puncture anybody’s political self-esteem. Maybe we should count ourselves lucky that only 19 candidates have announced.

Some of the candidates moved into the presidential lane because 1) they’re bored longshots that don’t have anything better to do (Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper) or 2) they’re 112th in line for a higher office in their state (Eric Swalwell, John Delaney), or 3) they’re trapped in a red state that offers them no immediate advancement (O’Rourke, Buttigieg, Castro), or they’re the prisoner of muscle memory (Bernie Sanders, Biden). Some of the candidates—Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Biden come to mind—are running as a form of delayed penance for not running in 2016. They kick themselves daily for belatedly realizing that Clinton was beatable, and by running this year they’re getting their virtual rematch.

Changes in fundraising and the decline of both party discipline and political machines have also liberated ambitious candidates to throw the dice big. The gamble extracts no downside from novice politicians and little punishment from the party or the diminished machines. And if you fail in a successful way, you might get a place on the ticket and live to run again. So why not?

Politics is a form of entertainment, and its practitioners are entertainers. Every nightclub act, no matter how marginal, imagines itself playing to a stadium someday. And the presidential contest is beyond a stadium gig. It’s almost Coachella.


Only one in a 1,000 sea turtles lives to adulthood. A Democratic culling is coming. Who will get eaten first? Send predictions via email toShafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts want to know why Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar weren’t included in this hit job. My Twitter feed has the answer: They’ll get theirs later. My RSS feed wanted Mike Bloomberg to run just to see him spend his entire fortune.

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Poll: Trump approval sinks 5 points after Mueller report, tying all-time low

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 23:22 - [CET]

President Donald Trump’s approval rating has dropped 5 points, equaling his presidency’s low-water mark, since last week’s release of the special counsel report into the 2016 election, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.

Despite his sinking poll numbers, however, there is little support for removing Trump through the impeachment process, the poll shows.

Only 39 percent of voters surveyed in the new poll, which was conducted Friday through Sunday, approve of the job Trump is doing as president. That is down from 44 percent last week and ties Trump’s lowest-ever approval rating in POLITICO/Morning Consult polling — equaling a 39 percent rating in mid-August 2017, in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Nearly six in 10 voters, 57 percent, disapprove of the job Trump is doing.

But while views of Trump have tumbled following the publication of Robert Muller’s redacted report, so has support for impeaching him. Only 34 percent of voters believe Congress should begin impeachment proceedings to remove the president from office, down from 39 percent in January. Nearly half, 48 percent, say Congress should not begin impeachment proceedings.

The split decision in public opinion — a decline in views of Trump’s job performance but fewer voters wanting Congress to pursue impeachment — mirrors the report itself, which clears Trump and his campaign of criminally conspiring with the Russian government to boost his election but which documents numerous, embarrassing examples of Trump’s efforts to stymie the investigation.

“President Trump’s approval rating has dipped to its lowest point of his term in the immediate aftermath of the redacted Mueller report release,” said Tyler Sinclair, Morning Consult’s vice president. “This week, 57 percent of voters disapprove, and 39 percent approve of the president’s performance — a net approval rating of -18 percentage points, compared with 55 percent who disapproved and 42 percent who approved — a net approval rating of -13 percentage points — one month ago in the aftermath of Attorney General [William] Barr’s summary of the Mueller report to Congress.”

While the report is damaging to Trump in the short term — other post-report polls also show decreases in Trump’s approval rating — it could also paint Democrats into a corner on impeachment. Mueller seemingly kicks the obstruction of justice case on Trump to Congress, and the Democratic-led House is squeezed between a majority of Democratic voters who want impeachment, 59 percent, and slightly more than a third of the electorate that agrees.

For now, most Democrats are treading lightly. In a letter to her Democratic colleagues on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged that her conference’s positions “range from proceeding to investigate the findings of the Mueller report or proceeding directly to impeachment.” And most of the party’s presidential hopefuls have steered clear of impeachment, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) being the highest-profile candidate to take the impeachment plunge thus far.

While Democrats in Congress are split on impeachment, most party leaders, including Pelosi, are calling for the House to pull on some of the investigative threads in the Mueller report. Voters are split on whether Congress should continue to investigate whether Trump or his campaign associates and staffers obstructed the investigation: 43 percent say Congress should continue to investigate, while 41 percent say it should not.

Nearly three in four Democrats, 73 percent, want Congress to keep investigating, more than the 59 percent who want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings. Most notably, independents are split, 39 percent to 37 percent, on whether Congress should keep investigating — but just 31 percent of independents support beginning impeachment proceedings, compared with 44 percent who oppose impeachment.

As for the report itself, roughly a third of voters, 32 percent, say they have seen, read or heard “a lot about it,” while another third, 34 percent, have seen, read or heard “some” about it. The remaining 34 percent haven’t seen much about it or anything at all.

Among those voters who had seen, read or heard at least something about the release of the Mueller report, only 28 percent say they actually read any of the redacted report. Most of them, 73 percent, say they followed news coverage about it.

A plurality of voters, 46 percent, think the investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential election was handled fairly, while 29 percent think it was handled unfairly. There is rare partisan agreement on this question: 48 percent of Democratic voters, 46 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of independents say they think the investigation was handled fairly.

Despite positive grades for the Justice Department, Barr earns lower marks for his handling of the release of information from the Mueller-led investigation. Only three in 10 voters, 30 percent, approve of the way Barr handled the case — fewer than the 37 percent who disapprove.

Voters were also unsure whether Barr accurately described the contents of Mueller’s report before its release, with 32 percent saying Barr described it very or somewhat accurately, 32 percent saying he didn’t describe it accurately and 35 percent undecided.

Despite Mueller’s report, which “did not establish that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” voters are still split on the question. More than four in 10, 41 percent, say they think Trump’s campaign worked with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The same percentage, 41 percent, say they don’t think Trump’s campaign worked with Russia. The remaining 18 percent have no opinion.

The results on this question are little changed over the past six weeks. In mid-March, before Barr’s letter to Congress after he received the report, 43 percent thought Trump worked with Russia, while 37 percent did not. Three weeks ago, between Barr’s letter and the release of the report, the percentage of voters who thought Trump’s campaign worked with Russia had ticked down to 40 percent, while 43 percent did not think his campaign worked with Russia.

While voters are divided on whether Trump’s campaign worked with Russia, only 28 percent say they think Mueller found evidence that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia — though just a 43 percent plurality say Mueller did not find any evidence of coordination. Three in 10 voters are unsure.

There is greater agreement on whether Trump tried to impede or obstruct the investigation. A plurality, 47 percent, say he did, while just 34 percent say he didn’t. Nearly two in 10 voters, 18 percent, have no opinion.

But many voters appear confused about what Mueller found in his report. Two in 10, 20 percent, say Mueller found that Trump obstructed the investigation, while 16 percent say Mueller found that he didn’t. A plurality, 37 percent, say correctly that Mueller did not make a determination on whether Trump obstructed the investigation, but 27 percent are unsure.

The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll surveyed 1,992 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Morning Consult is a nonpartisan media and technology company that provides data-driven research and insights on politics, policy and business strategy.

More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents — Toplines: https://politi.co/2Prrf5R | Crosstabs: https://politi.co/2vgx8cK

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Facebook hires Trump State Department official as general counsel

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 23:13 - [CET]

Facebook has hired Jennifer Newstead, a President Donald Trump-appointed legal adviser at the State Department, as its new general counsel as the company faces scrutiny from governments around the world over how it manages content and data on its sprawling social network.

Newstead will be tasked with overseeing Facebook's legal matters worldwide and likely represent the company in Washington as her predecessor has repeatedly done. She will replace Colin Stretch, who announced plans to leave Facebook in July.

Newstead has advised the State Department on legal issues affecting U.S. foreign policy since receiving Senate confirmation in December 2017. She was previously an attorney in the Office of Management and Budget, Justice Department and White House under former President George W. Bush. She helped draft the Patriot Act in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Her hire reflects the increasingly global nature of Facebook's business and legal woes, most recently demonstrated when Sri Lanka shut down the social network after a series of terrorist attacks on Sunday. The company is also facing rising calls for regulation from countries across Europe and Asia in addition to the United States.

Facebook also announced Monday that John Pinette will replace Caryn Marooney as vice president of global communications. Pinette is currently the vice president of marketing and communications at Vulcan, the private company created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Pinette previously held communications roles at Gates Ventures, the private office of Bill Gates, as well as Google, Microsoft and Pershing Square Capital Management.

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Graham frets over Trump’s mixed signals on Libya

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 23:09 - [CET]

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump's voluble Capitol Hill defender, is worried that the president's chatter is undermining efforts to stop Libya from falling into an all-out civil war.

Trump recently held a call with Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar that blindsided U.S. diplomats and confused Arab and North African countries about where U.S. policy actually stands. A readout of the call appeared to endorse Haftar — whose militia is currently waging a bloody fight seemingly to oust the country's internationally recognized government — only weeks after the State Department denounced the leader's tactics.

The call “has created a sense of imbalance” among parties in the Libyan conflict, Graham said in an interview Monday. “We need to reinforce the message that we’re not picking one group over the others and we reject military force as the solution to the problems in Libya.”

Graham, who was in Tunisia when news broke of the call and witnessed the shock waves it created, also urged the Trump administration to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, saying it would give American diplomats more leverage in Libya.

Oil-rich Libya has descended into chaos since the 2011 Arab spring movements, which ousted its longtime dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. Militias, criminal gangs and Islamist groups operate with impunity in much of Libya, while regional powers strive for influence in what some call a proxy war. The U.S. has called for political negotiations to end the violence.

For more than two weeks, Haftar’s forces have been trying to capture the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in an apparent bid to depose the Government of National Accord, the ruling body that has been recognized internationally, including by the United States. More than 200 people are reported to have been killed in the fighting.

In a statement released Friday, the White House revealed that Trump had spoken earlier in the week with Haftar. The militia leader is in his 70s, previously lived in the U.S. and is thought to have cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies.

In phrasing that sounded like an endorsement, the White House said Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”

The announcement was particularly shocking given that, earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed Haftar’s military moves.

“We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Pompeo said on April 7. “A political solution is the only way to unify the country and provide a plan for security, stability and prosperity for all Libyans.”

Multiple people familiar with the issue said the Trump call with Haftar surprised top officials at the State Department, including several who deal directly with Libya. It was not clear if Pompeo was given a heads up, or much of one. State Department officials also have received virtually no guidance on what, if anything, it means policy-wise.

“A call is not yet policy,” said a U.S. official overseas.

The developments are, however, fairly typical for the Trump administration, in which the White House is often out of sync with the agencies. U.S. diplomats frequently grumble that under national security adviser John Bolton, the traditional inter-agency decision-making process is not being followed, leaving people out of the loop.

In this case, “our people on the ground are dealing with the fallout,” a State Department official told POLITICO.

Adding to the confusion internationally were reports last week that the United States had declined to support a British-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Libya. Media reports said the draft measure blamed Haftar for the rise in violence. Although the U.S. didn’t give a reason for not backing the resolution, its decision has fueled speculation that Washington is siding with Haftar.

Asked for comment Monday, the State Department appeared to try to cover multiple bases. In a statement, it urged “all involved parties” to “return to the political process.” The department also praised Haftar while noting that U.S. officials have met with other Libyan leaders.

“We continue to believe that General Haftar can be an important part of a political solution. We recognize his significant role in fighting terrorism and securing oil resources,” the statement said. “State Department officials have had regular meetings with a broad range of Libyan leaders, including Prime Minister [Fayez] al-Sarraj and General Haftar, as we press for stabilization in Tripoli and advance U.S. interests in Libya.”

It was not clear who arranged the call, which took place April 15. However, the conversation came just days after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Trump at the White House. Sisi is one of several authoritarian figures that Trump has praised, and Egypt has been increasingly supportive of Haftar.

White House officials did not immediately respond to questions about how the call was arranged or whether they were worried about leaving the impression of endorsing Haftar.

Graham said he did know how the call came about and that he had not yet spoken to the president about it, but that he will in the coming days.

The South Carolina senator stressed that Haftar did deserve some praise, especially for helping fight Islamist militants in Libya. But he urged the administration to make it abundantly clear that it still supports political negotiations among the various factions in the country.

“It is impossible, in my view for Haftar or anyone else to be a legitimate leader by military force,” Graham said. “It is impossible, in my view, for him to hold Tripoli and govern the country if he obtains Tripoli by force. There will be a flood of refugees if the war escalates, which will be a nightmare for Tunisia and the entire region.”

Graham, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also called on Trump to “let Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey know that the proxy war they’ve created in Libya is unacceptable.”

“If I were the president, I’d put a lot of pressure on these groups to knock it off,” he said, adding that a protracted war in Libya will “harden the different groups” and “radical Islam will be the biggest beneficiary.”

The senator also said that the U.S. should reopen its embassy in Libya instead of trying to monitor the country from Tunisia. U.S. Embassy operations in Libya were suspended in July 2014, because of ongoing violence among militias nearby, according to the State Department.

Asked whether he’s disappointed that Trump talked to Haftar, Graham said, “It’s not disappointment,” but he noted that because he was in the region he saw the uncertainty spawned by the news.

“It’s that I saw on the ground the effects,” he said.

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Democrats subpoena ex-White House counsel Don McGahn

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 23:04 - [CET]

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn as part of a House-led obstruction investigation into President Donald Trump.

The subpoena comes just days after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report revealed that McGahn witnessed and testified about potential obstruction of justice by Trump.

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Supreme Court leans toward restricting access to business data

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 19:09 - [CET]

The Supreme Court appears headed for a ruling that could dramatically restrict access to federal government records with details about private businesses.

Justices heard arguments on Monday in the case, which pits business groups against news organizations and open-government advocates.

The Trump administration has allied itself with the business groups seeking to overturn an appeals court precedent that has long allowed for the release of business-provided data for nearly half a century. Media outlets and transparency advocates have pushed back against the effort, warning that that reining in access to such information could eliminate public scrutiny of an untold number of federal databases and other records about highly-regulated, potentially dangerous industries.

The dispute is the first ever in which the justices have agreed to address the meaning of a Freedom of Information Act exemption used to decide when information businesses give the government is too sensitive to release.

In 1974, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an exemption for “confidential” business records did not apply to information that simply wasn’t public. The exemption, the judges said, could only be used in cases where the government would have trouble getting the information in the future or where release of the data would cause “substantial competitive harm.” The decision paved the way for greater public access to information about private businesses.

The Trump administration and business advocates have branded the longstanding decision as “atextual” — a description intended to be taken as a grave insult by the court’s conservative majority.

At least three members of that majority — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito — sounded hostile to the longstanding requirement in the D.C. Circuit ruling that companies show competitive harm before information they voluntarily provided to the government is released.

“The average person is supposed to have fair notice of the statute,” Gorsuch complained, suggesting that the D.C. Circuit read words into the law that simply aren’t there.

The case before the court began with a request the Argus Leader newspaper of Sioux Falls, S.D., sent to the Agriculture Department in 2011 for five years of store-level data on how much money was spent under the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” also known as the food-stamp program.

A lawyer for the paper, Robert Loeb, said information was being withheld where no competitive harm is shown to the business. He also noted that where businesses are billing the government, it’s not totally clear what information comes from the business and what simply shows where tax dollars are going.

“That would be a dramatic change of the way FOIA has been applied for 40 years,” Loeb said about the possibility of protecting all information businesses give the government. “How the government spends its own money is critical information that the press and public need to know.”

Loeb said that when Congress protected “confidential” business and financial information in 1974, it was incorporating the concept of harm to the business already existing under common law.

“These words didn’t just fall from the sky and randomly appear here,” he said. He also argued that Congress has “ratified” the D.C. Circuit ruling in nearly 30 provisions adopted in recent decades.

Evan Young, representing food retailers through the Food Marketing Institute, said having the court’s effort to assess harm to businesses has proven complicated. In the newspaper’s case, a judge ruled after a trial that the harm in releasing the retail data on food-stamp spending was too speculative to block disclosure.

“Harm is not part of the word ‘confidential,’” Young insisted.

Pressed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Young acknowledged that retailers see harm in releasing the data, but they don’t believe they were obligated to prove that in court. “Of course, our clients aren’t paying for us to pursue this to this level because they feel like it,” he said.

At least two of the court’s liberal members, Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, suggested that the arguments against the D.C. Circuit’s decision had some weight.

Kagan said the appeals court had imported language that “the statute at least does not immediately suggest.” However, at another point Kagan suggested that the law might require at least some effort on the businesses’ part to keep the information secret, rather than the mere fact it hasn’t been publicized.

Breyer said he wasn’t sure that businesses should have to show “competitive harm,” just some harm, like loss of business resulting from embarrassment.

Democratic-appointed Justices Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed more open to the newspaper’s arguments. Sotomayor accused the Justice Department of declining to appeal an earlier court ruling requiring disclosure of the data, then attempting “an end run” by “piggybacking” on the food retailers’ petition to the high court.

Justice Department attorney Anthony Yang said the Agriculture Department wants to keep the data private because retailers have expected that for decades. “The government is trying to keep its word,” he said.

However, Ginsburg said the Trump administration’s arguments seemed in tension with the motivation behind FOIA.

“The whole purpose of FOIA says: ‘Disclose,’” she said. “There have been cases of a captive agency. That the government can control this by making a promise not to disclose seems counter to the purpose of FOIA.”

Sotomayor also chimed in on that point, saying “Doesn’t that turn FOIA on its head?”

Chief Justice Roberts said little during the session, but on a couple occasions he sounded irritated that Sotomayor was pressing procedural questions without allowing the attorneys much time to delve into the substance of the fight over what the FOIA exemption means.

As usual, Justice Clarence Thomas asked no questions of the lawyers.

Attorneys pressing for more robust access to government records have noted that the Supreme Court has often said that FOIA exemptions are supposed to be read “narrowly” — an instruction that seems at odds with putting off limits nearly all business information in the hands of federal agencies.

Watchdog groups who monitor the tech industry and artificial-intelligence systems argued in an amicus brief filed earlier this year that in an era where more and more government functions are provided by contractors, putting any information obtained from a business off-limits could cripple efforts to monitor AI projects for racial bias and other harms.

“This degree of secrecy could pave the way toward an era of automated governmental decisionmaking that is largely inscrutable and unaccountable: errors will go unfixed, bias undetected, and individuals will be unable to understand or challenge the processes to which they are subject.”

One additional twist in the case: last December, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a farm bill that contained a provision the Justice Department says made clear Congress’s intent to deny public access to SNAP redemption data.

However, disclosure advocates say the provision does not put the data beyond the reach of FOIA.

Freedom of Information Act cases remain a relative rarity at the Supreme Court, with Monday’s arguments are the first FOIA-focused ones at the court in more than eight years.

In 2010-11 term, the high court heard a pair of FOIA cases. One involved telecom behemoth AT&T’s attempt to claim protection under one of the law’s personal privacy exemptions. The justices resoundingly rejected the company’s arguments in an 8-0 decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The other case stemmed from the Navy’s use of an exemption for internal agency policies and procedures to withhold records about explosive storage facilities in Washington state. The justices again issued a pro-disclosure ruling, voting 8-1 to reject a longstanding interpretation that allowed use of that exemption to cover records whose disclosure could frustrate an agency’s operations.

Writing for the court’s majority, Kagan said that if Congress wanted to protect such information it could, but there was no sign the internal-policies exemption was supposed to cover the maps at issue in the explosive-bunkers case.

In the food-stamp case, the Trump administration and business are pressing the justices to repeat what they did in the Navy explosives case, holding that a widely-accepted legal standard must be set aside when the words Congress put into law don’t support it.

“The Court should follow the same course here,” the Justice Department argued in its brief.

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Trump says kid at Easter egg roll told him to 'keep building that wall'

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 19:09 - [CET]

In between games of "Be Best" hopscotch and the namesake event at the White House's Easter egg roll, one of the children in attendance at Monday's annual event apparently couldn't pass up the chance to press President Donald Trump on one of his signature campaign promises.

As he colored cards for service members with children at the event on the White House's South Lawn Trump responded to a question from a one of the children alongside him.

“I will. Oh, It’s happening. It’s being built now," Trump told the child, before speaking up to share the conversation with reporters. "Here’s a young guy who said, ‘Keep building that wall.’ Can you believe that?”

“He’s going to be a conservative someday!” Trump continued.

Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has been among the most divisive of the president's policy goals since the day he announced his run for the White House in 2015. Lawmakers have thus far stymied his request by providing minimal funding for the kind of barrier Trump originally envisioned.

The standoff over his wall came to a head at the end of last year when Trump plunged parts of the government into the longest shutdown in history, refusing to fund the government unless lawmakers relented on his requests for a border wall.

During the shutdown, Trump said he’d heard from government workers urging him to stand his ground in the border wall fight even if that meant they went without paychecks.

“Many of those people that won't be receiving a paycheck, many of those people agree 100 percent with what I'm doing,” Trump told reporters then. In a news conference during the shutdown, he insisted that “[a] lot of people that you think are upset — and certainly they're not thrilled — but they say, ‘Sir, do the right thing. We need border security.’ And these are people that won't be getting paid.”

Trump in February declared a national emergency in order to circumvent Congress and unlock military funds for his wall; that effort has been tied up in the courts.

But the president has traveled to the border several times in recent weeks to talk up his signature campaign promise, heading to California several weeks ago to commemorate the first section of completed barrier of his administration, though it was a replacement fencing project that had been in the works since the Obama administration.

Trump has also repeatedly asserted that large portions of the wall across the border were already well underway, though no new sections of wall have been built.

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Trump: 'Nobody disobeys my orders'

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 18:46 - [CET]

President Donald Trump on Monday insisted that "nobody disobeys my orders," apparently disputing the assertion from special counsel Robert Mueller's report that that his former White House counsel twice refused to follow through on the president's order to dismiss Mueller.

Trump issued the declaration about his staff's willingness to follow through on his commands during a brief exchange with reporters at Monday's White House Easter egg roll. It was the first time the president has answered reporters' questions since Mueller released his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election — as well as allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin and obstruction of justice on the part of the president — last week.

Mueller’s 22-month probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election found no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin and did not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice. The redacted version of Mueller’s report, published Thursday, revealed damaging information about Trump’s attempts to fire the special counsel — efforts Mueller suggested were halted by top aides who refused to carry out the president’s most drastic orders.

Notably, the report said Trump twice asked former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, an order the lawyer refused to follow and was prepared to resign over. The president was enraged when news of his request, which had been previously reported by The New York Times, became public and privately berated McGahn, who refused to carry out his order, according to the Mueller report.

Another section of the report describing the decision-making process behind the dismissal of former FBI Director James Comey recounted an instance when Trump asked deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to take credit for Comey's dismissal. Rosenstein refused, “because if the press asked him, he would tell the truth that Comey’s firing was not his idea,” the report said.

These instances, and others in the 448-page report, have raised questions about potential obstruction of justice by the president that Democrats have pledged to continue investigating. Opponents of the president have insisted that the Mueller report falls well short of offering the president the "complete and total exoneration" that he has claimed in recent weeks.

Mueller left open the possibility that Trump could be prosecuted for crimes once he leaves office, but said making a decision about charges would have gone too far because of longstanding Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

“Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought,” Mueller's team wrote in its report, which added that charging a president would leave him with no legal recourse to clear his name or protections normally afforded to criminal defendants.

Despite the report’s revelations, Trump has publicly paraded the investigation’s results as a victory. Asked by a reporter on the White House lawn Monday, he said he was “not even a little bit” worried about impeachment, a possibility that some House Democrats have said remains on the table.

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POLITICO Playbook PM: Herman Cain out for the Fed

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 18:40 - [CET]
And President Donald Trump sues House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) over a financial records feud.
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Photos from the 141st Easter Egg Roll

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 18:37 - [CET]
Thousands of people were expected to join President Donald Trump and first lady Melania on the South Lawn on Monday for the annual Easter Egg Roll — a White House tradition that dates back to the 19th century.
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Trump says he won't nominate Herman Cain for Fed seat

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 18:24 - [CET]

President Donald Trump said Monday that he would not nominate Herman Cain to the Federal Reserve after the former GOP presidential candidate asked him not to.

Senate Republicans had warned the White House against naming the businessman and 2012 presidential hopeful to serve on the body's board of governors.

"My friend Herman Cain, a truly wonderful man, has asked me not to nominate him for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board," Trump tweeted. "I will respect his wishes. Herman is a great American who truly loves our Country!"

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Trump claims Democrats 'can't impeach' him

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 16:46 - [CET]

President Donald Trump on Monday berated calls for his impeachment ahead of House Democrats’ conference call to discuss the Mueller report, which makes damaging revelations about the president but has left many liberal lawmakers unconvinced that they should try to eject Trump from office.

“Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment. There were no crimes by me (No Collusion, No Obstruction), so you can’t impeach,” Trump said in a tweet. “It was the Democrats that committed the crimes, not your Republican President! Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!”

Despite Trump's claim, Democrats could still move forward with an impeachment effort, which is a political process, not a law enforcement one.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report details findings of the 22-month investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but did not find sufficient evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.

The report, however, also showed at least 10 instances where Trump may have obstructed justice, and Mueller ultimately did not reach a conclusion on whether the president committed a crime. Attorney General William Barr said in a letter to Congress last month that he would not pursue charges since it was clear it was not Trump’s “intent” to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, a call that has garnered fierce backlash from Democrats, claiming the nation’s top law enforcement officer was attempting to protect the president.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi will host a conference call Monday for House Democrats to plot their their strategy in the wake of the release of the Mueller report.

On Thursday, Democratic leaders ducked questions about impeachment, wary about the massive practical and political challenges such drastic action would pose. Some reportedly worry it could cost their party the House in 2020, presenting an electoral victory over Trump as a more practical goal.

Select Democrats, however, are bucking party leadership and making rallying cries to oust Trump. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Friday tweeted a call on Congress to launch impeachment proceedings, setting herself apart from other 2020 primary candidates who mostly demurred on questions about such efforts.

In general, Democrats are pushing to ramp up ongoing congressional investigations into the president's conduct. The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena for an unredacted version of Mueller’s report Friday and are in talks with the Justice Department about plans for the special counsel to testify before Congress next month.

Many Republicans, on the other hand, are echoing the “no collusion” mantra the president has reiterated in the wake of the report's release. With a GOP majority in the Senate, impeachment would require defections from 20 members of Trump’s own party — and almost all Republican lawmakers are calling for the government to simply move on now that the investigation is concluded.

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Dems wrestle with impeachment as Mueller report sinks in

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 16:35 - [CET]

House Democrats on Monday will discuss special counsel Robert Mueller's damning findings on the president's efforts to obstruct his investigation after days of skirting questions about impeaching President Donald Trump.

Though Mueller reached no official decision on whether Trump obstructed justice — a decision he ascribed to technical considerations set out in Justice Department policy — he laid out evidence that suggested the president satisfied all the elements of the crime in multiple instances. The decision leaves House Democrats, who control the impeachment process, with a momentous choice that their leaders have long sought to avoid.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) will lead a conference call with the members late Monday afternoon to discuss the Mueller report. And Democratic leaders will huddle on a separate call before the full caucus conference call.

On Sunday, top Democrats seesawed between describing Trump's conduct, as detailed by Mueller, in grave terms and insisting impeachment is not an immediate consideration.

"We may get to that. We may not. As I've said before, it is our job to go through all the evidence, all the information we can get," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is where any impeachment proceedings would begin.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, laid out the political calculus Democrats must make, knowing a Republican Senate is almost certain to derail impeachment, regardless of Mueller's obstruction evidence.

"That’s a very tough question, and I think is one we ought not to make overnight," he said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer doused talk of impeachment last week, shortly after the Mueller report was made public, saying he didn't think the process was "worthwhile." Instead, Democrats have demanded more hearings on Trump's conduct and to hear from Barr — who oversaw the release of Mueller's report and infuriated Democrats by painting a rosy picture of its findings for Trump. They also want to bring Mueller in to testify next month.

"The House Judiciary Committee doesn’t have a record. What we have is the redacted Mueller report, interesting reporting from media outlets and fascinating things from people on TV," said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) "What we need to do is interview people under oath. [We're] going to either clear Donald Trump and his associates or we won’t."

Democrats like Hoyer and Pelosi — who herself has downplayed the prospect of impeachment — are intimately familiar with the fraught politics of impeachment. They watched as Republicans' efforts to remove President Bill Clinton sharply polarized the nation and then backfired on GOP lawmakers, who lost seats in the 1998 election, despite holding a typical historical advantage. Democrats today are hoping to avoid the same fate.

Democrats also surged to the House majority in January on the strength of wins in districts previously held by Republicans, and leaders are concerned that any drive toward a party-line impeachment effort could endanger their hold on those districts and the House.

Any impeachment effort led by the House likely would fail, as Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate have indicated they have no desire to remove the president from office.

But over the weekend, progressives began to rally behind the idea, led most notably by Democratic presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who urged the House to begin the impeachment process as "a matter of principle."

Trump himself seemed to gird for the impeachment talk on Monday morning.

"Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment," Trump tweeted. "There were no crimes by me (No Collusion, No Obstruction), so you can’t impeach. It was the Democrats that committed the crimes, not your Republican President! Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!"

Republican have treated Mueller's report the same way Trump has: as total vindication for the president. They say Mueller's failure to establish a conspiracy between Trump and Russia — as well as his technical decision not to accuse him of obstruction of justice — amount to a declaration of Trump's innocence.

"Bob Mueller chose not to indict. That’s the bottom line," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said in a phone interview. "According to the folks in Washington, Bob Mueller is the greatest investigator in human history … and he chose not to indict."

But on the left, impeachment talk began bubbling Thursday and grew to a crescendo over the weekend. Progressives on and off Capitol Hill pointed to the voluminous evidence that Trump attempted to obstruct the Mueller probe — from ordering top officials to fire Mueller (only to be disobeyed) to pressuring former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to constrain the investigation. Mueller also found that Trump attempted to pressure witnesses to limit their cooperation with prosecutors.

They accuse leading Democrats of stalling by arguing for additional inquiries or to see a version of Mueller's report that doesn't contain any grand jury redactions.

"It's time for Congress to take a stand," tweeted Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) Monday. "I stand now where I stood on May 17, 2017 when I officially (on the congressional record) called for impeachment on the Floor of the Congress, after having unofficially called for it previously. Impeach Donald Trump."

"I have written previously about the dangers of impeachment talk," wrote Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe. "With the arrival of Mueller’s damning report, however, the time has now come."

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Moulton dings Dems right out the gate for single-payer health care push

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 16:22 - [CET]

Newly declared presidential candidate Seth Moulton criticized his Democratic competitors Monday for pushing the idea of single-payer health care, citing what he called an imperfect experience at the Veterans Affairs.

“I think I'm the only candidate who actually gets single-payer health care,” the Massachusetts congressman said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He qualified his statement by adding that, like his 18 opponents in the 2020 primary, “I think health care is a right. I think every American should have access to good affordable health care.”

But the Iraq War veteran said his experience with single-payer health care made him hesitant to back any plan that would boot Americans off of their private insurance plans.

“I made a commitment to continue getting my own health care at the VA when I was elected to Congress. That's single-payer, and I'll tell you — it's not perfect,” he said. “ So if I'm elected, I'm not going to force you off your private health care plan.”

The question of whether the U.S. should eliminate private insurers during any transition to a universal health care model has sparked a divide among Democrats running for president, and created an opening for Republicans to label the party as proponents of socialism. While some Democrats have embraced the idea of democratic socialism, more moderate Democrats have tried to shirk that label — which the GOP and President Donald Trump have sought to wield against the party in the 2020 elections — just as Moulton did Monday.

“I'm not a socialist. I'm a Democrat. And I want to make that clear,” he said, taking a shot at the leftward bent of the Democratic field. “And maybe that's a differentiator for me in this race.”

Moulton is not new to clashing with his party. He’s made a name for himself crusading against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership of the party, most recently mounting an unsuccessful push to oust her as the caucus leader after last November’s midterm elections.

Moulton launched his bid to unseat Trump on Monday, looking to make a splash in a packed primary field by championing issues like defense and national security that he dinged his party for shying away from.

The three-term congressman is the third Massachusetts politician to enter the race, joining Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the Democratic side and former Gov. Bill Weld on the Republican side.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Newsitem placed in category: POLITICAL NEWS UPDATED

Trump sues Oversight Committee chairman to block subpoena of financial records

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 16:03 - [CET]

President Donald Trump on Monday sued House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings to block a subpoena of the president's financial records from an accounting firm.

In a new court filing, Trump’s attorneys are seeking to block Cummings’ subpoena to Mazars USA. The Democratic lawmaker is attempting to obtain 10 years of the president’s financial records. Mazars had asked the committee for a so-called “friendly” subpoena so that it could comply with the request.

“We will not allow congressional presidential harassment to go unanswered,” Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said in a statement Monday.

The committee is investigating allegations from Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen that the president at times artificially inflated and deflated his assets for his personal benefit. Republicans have contended that the investigation is solely meant to embarrass Trump.

“The committee’s attempt to obtain years’ worth of confidential information from their accountants lacks any legitimate legislative purpose, is an abuse of power, and is just another example of overreach by the president’s political opponents. We look forward to vindicating our clients’ rights in this matter,” William Consovoy and Stefan Passantino, who are representing Trump in the suit, said in a statement.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Supreme Court to take up cases on gay and transgender rights in the workplace

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 15:49 - [CET]

The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a set of high-profile cases involving gay rights and the rights of transgender people in the workplace.

The justices announced Monday that they will consider whether existing federal law banning employment-related sex discrimination also prohibits discriminating against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or because they are transgender.

The Supreme Court said it will hear a pair of cases in which federal appeals courts split over whether gay and lesbian employees are protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The justices also accepted another case involving a transgender funeral home employee, saying they will consider whether transgender status is protected in itself or whether it falls within existing law against “sex stereotyping.”

The cases are expected to be argued in the fall.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Klobuchar makes more top hires as she ramps up her presidential bid

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 15:12 - [CET]

Amy Klobuchar rolled out additional top hires for her presidential bid, a sign of her intensifying effort in the sprawling 2020 field.

The Minnesota Democrat named five new staffers on Monday, as well as five senior advisers from a range of top consulting firms, according to a statement shared first with POLITICO.

Klobuchar, who raised just over $5 million in the first fundraising quarter, has hovered in the low single digits in national and early-state polling, after launching her presidential bid in Minneapolis in February. She’s cast herself as a no-nonsense pragmatist who can win in Trump country, as Minnesota trended toward Republicans in 2016. But she’s also rejected the sweeping policy proposals, like four-year free college, that have been popularized by the party’s left.

The campaign consulting team includes Pete Giangreco as a senior adviser and Fred Yang as a research adviser. Giangreco helped to elect Klobuchar in her first Senate campaign in 2006, then served on President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Yang is a prolific Democratic pollster, working on numerous House and Senate races.

A trio of media advisers, all hailing from GPS Impact, are also jumping on board — Roy Temple, Jay Howser and Andi Johnson. Temple, who co-founded the consulting firm, has worked on a range of Senate and gubernatorial races, including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. Howser and Johnson — both alums of Shorr Johnson Magnus, a Democratic ad-making firm — have also worked on a range of Senate, House and gubernatorial races.

The staff hires are Tim Hogan, communications director; Lucinda Ware, national political director; Anjan Mukherjee, research director; and Mike McLaughlin, national field director.

Before joining Klobuchar’s campaign, Hogan served as the national press secretary for The Hub Project, a coalition of progressive groups. Ware was a Democratic media consultant at SWAY, as well as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s outreach director during his DNC chairman’s race. Mukherjee was the research director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and McLaughlin managed Rep. Harley Rouda’s successful 2018 House race in Orange County, California.

The Klobuchar campaign also announced several in-state hires, including Kelsi Browning, who will serve as the campaign’s New Hampshire communications director.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Trump ratchets up pressure campaign on Iran

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 15:06 - [CET]

The Trump administration will no longer offer sanctions waivers to any countries that import oil from Iran, a decision that further ratchets up the U.S. pressure campaign on the Islamist regime in Tehran.

The administration had earlier granted eight waivers, including to countries such as China, India and Turkey. It was not immediately clear whether those countries would follow U.S. demands and reduce their Iranian oil imports to zero to avoid U.S. sanctions.

To avoid a shortage in oil markets, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have agreed to adjust their own production, the White House said in a statement Monday.

“This decision is intended to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero, denying the regime its principal source of revenue,” the White House said, adding that President Donald is determined to “expand the maximum economic pressure campaign against Iran to end the regime’s destabilizing activity.”

The waivers granted had been due to expire in early May.

Since taking office, Trump has pursued a sanctions-heavy strategy aimed at undermining the Islamist leaders in Iran. As part of that, Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal. He also recently designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization.

The Iranian government has denounced the sanctions. But, even as the sanctions have badly hurt its economy, Iran has stuck to its commitment under the nuclear deal to restrict its atomic activities, in the hopes that European partners can help it weather the U.S. blows.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Should authenticity matter in politics?

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 14:54 - [CET]

As the list of Democrats running in 2020 continues to grow, candidates will be trying all kinds of tricks to stand out. The idea authenticity always pops up during election cycles, in the age of social media, when voters want to get to know politicians on a more personal level, being authentic has gotten more intense.

“It’s a little hard to say what an authentic politician is,” said Richard Skinner. “Most of the time people just use it as a rationalization for liking or disliking a candidate.” Skinner has a PhD in American politics and has written about authenticity for the Brookings Institute and Vox.

Former President George W. Bush was able to create a relatable image as a regular Texas cowboy, despite the fact that he is the son of a president, grandson of a Senator and went to both Yale and Harvard universities. The term authentic is defined as being true to one’s own character, spirit or personality - and in politics people usually consider charismatic white men to be the most authentic, just look at the different attention Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received during the 2016 election

“There's a long history of female politicians being portrayed as calculated and stiff because the script that we have for politicians is a male script,” Skinner said. “Oftentimes woman candidates feel that they have to live up to expectations that were framed for men.”

As we watch 2020 candidates define their campaign messaging, you can count on seeing the usual photo-ops at New Hampshire diners, playing sports in a tie, awkward social media posts from home and their redefining of their authentic selves.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Appeals court turns down Manning appeal over contempt in WikiLeaks probe

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 14:41 - [CET]

A federal appeals court has turned down former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s bid to overturn a contempt order that led to her jailing for refusing to answer questions from a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.

Manning’s lawyers said a district court judge ignored her claims that she was subjected to illegal electronic surveillance following her conviction by a court martial in 2013 of leaking hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports to WikiLeaks.

However, in a brief, two-page order Monday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said it had no quibble with U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton’s decision last month to find Manning in contempt and send her to a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, after she refused to answer a series of questions in the ongoing probe of WikiLeaks.

“Upon consideration of the memorandum briefs filed on appeal and the record of proceedings in the district court, the court finds no error in the district court’s rulings and affirms its finding of civil contempt. The court also denies appellant’s motion for release on bail,” the appeals court’s order said.

Prosecutors appear to be pressing for Manning’s testimony in order to bolster their case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was expelled earlier this month from London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, where he’d been holed up for seven years.

After he was ousted from the embassy, Assange was arrested on a longstanding bail-skipping charge and prosecutors revealed that Assange was secretly indicted by a U.S. grand jury back in March 2018 on charges of conspiring with Manning to hack a password for a military computer system. He now faces extradition proceedings in England.

Many U.S. lawmakers have said they also want the Australian citizen and transparency activist prosecuted for conspiring with the Russians to hack Democratic Party emails in advance of the 2016 presidential election. However, adding those charges or others could complicate the extradition process and give Assange’s defense fresh arguments that he’s being accused of “political” crimes excluded from the extradition treaty between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The appeal was handled by Judge Allyson Duncan, an appointee of President George W. Bush; Judge Paul Niemeyer, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush; and Judge Robert King, an appointee of President Bill Clinton.

Manning could ask the full bench of the 4th Circuit to take up her appeal or she could ask for review by the Supreme Court. A lawyer for Manning did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Hilton’s order holding Manning in contempt directed that she be jailed for the life of the grand jury or until she agrees to answer prosecutors’ questions.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Warren proposes $640 billion student debt cancellation

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 14:00 - [CET]

Sen. Elizabeth Warren rolled out yet another ambitious policy proposal Monday morning as she called for canceling approximately $640 billion in outstanding student loan debt.

The Massachusetts Democrat laid out the policy in a lengthy Medium post ahead of a series of youth-centered CNN town halls Monday evening with fellow 2020 presidential candidates at Saint Anselm College.

“It’s a problem for all of us,” she said of the massive amount of debt carried by students, which has reached more than $1.5 trillion and affects more than 40 million Americans. “It’s reducing home ownership rates. It’s leading fewer people to start businesses. It’s forcing students to drop out of school before getting a degree.”

The plan would eliminate up to $50,000 in student loan debt for each person with less than $100,000 in household income. The $50,000 in relief would gradually diminish for people with household incomes between $100,000 and $250,000 ($1 less relief for every $3 earned). People with household incomes over $250,000 would not receive debt cancellation.

Warren couples the student debt forgiveness with a proposal to eliminate tuition and fees at all two-year and four-year public colleges. She presents the proposals as working in tandem: First, eliminate much of the student loan debt and then restructure the system to ensure that such debt doesn’t accumulate again.

“Once we’ve cleared out the debt that’s holding down an entire generation of Americans, we must ensure that we never have another student debt crisis again,” she wrote.

Warren’s Medium post — a spokesperson for her campaign did not respond when asked if the plan would soon be introduced as legislation — also proposed changes aimed at closing the racial wealth gap. That includes a prohibition on public colleges using an applicant’s criminal history or citizenship status in its admissions decisions and a $50 billion fund for historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

Her structural changes to tuition and fees are similar to free-college proposals that fellow presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran for the White House on in 2016. But Warren’s proposal on existing student loan debt goes beyond that of Sanders, whose 2017 College for All Act called for loan refinancing.

The call for canceling hundreds of billions of dollars in outstanding student debt is the latest instance of Warren finding spots to run to the left of Sanders and ways to potentially entice progressive voters who voted for the self-described democratic socialist in 2016. The Vermont senator, who will also participate in Monday night’s forum in New Hampshire, continues to easily lead Warren in the polls and fundraising.

In recent months, Warren distinguished herself from Sanders with calls to abolish the Senate filibuster and the Electoral College, as well as first endorsing a long-standing House bill to study reparations for slavery.

In January, she also called for an “ultramillionaire tax” that would annually tax wealth above $50 million an extra 2 percent with an additional 1 percent tax on wealth over $1 billion. Sanders has also called for taxing the wealthy but he has not called for a similar “wealth tax.” Warren intends to pay for her high-cost education proposals — which she estimates will cost $1.25 billion over the next decade — as well as a recent child care overhaul through this tax.

While Warren’s campaign has been in the middle of the pack in raising money and polling, she has set the pace on policy. Her steady clip of far-reaching overhauls on everything from trust-busting big tech companies to establishing a government agency to produce generic pharmaceutical drugs has been a centerpiece of the senator’s candidacy.

It is part of a pitch to convince voters that she is the most serious and prepared candidate to face off against President Donald Trump despite lingering concerns about electability after the handling of her past claims of Native American ancestry.

Warren has been trying to turn her biography into an asset instead, regularly interweaving it with her policy proposals. “Higher education opened a million doors for me,” she wrote in her Medium post. “It’s how the daughter of a janitor in a small town in Oklahoma got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a U.S. Senator, and eventually, a candidate for President of the United States.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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Seth Moulton announces 2020 bid

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 12:33 - [CET]

BOSTON — Rep. Seth Moulton announced he's running for president on Monday, vowing to engage young people and military veterans and becoming the third Massachusetts politician to throw a hat into the 2020 ring.

An Iraq veteran who led an unsuccessful effort to oust Nancy Pelosi from the House leadership last year, the 40-year-old Moulton has said he plans to run a campaign focused on national security and defense issues, which his campaign argues will make him a foil to President Donald Trump. Moulton was elected to Congress in 2014, after he upset former Democratic Rep. John Tierney in a primary fight. The Salem lawmaker is serving his third term.

"I'm running because we have to beat Donald Trump, and I want us to beat Donald Trump because I love this country. We've never been a country that gets everything right. But we're a country that, at our best, thinks that we might," Moulton, who will visit New Hampshire Tuesday, said in a campaign launch video.

Moulton's 2020 website went live on Monday morning, highlighting Moulton's positions on foreign policy and national security, jobs, health care, climate change and leadership. The website also has a store with T-shirts, hats and tote bags.

Moulton's announcement follows a number of developments signaling his 2020 ambitions. Last week, POLITICO reported that Moulton chose a campaign manager, drafted a new logo and used polling firm The Mellman Group for pre-campaign research. Moulton locked down co-working spaces in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., according to the Boston Globe. Moulton was also seen filming what appeared to be a campaign announcement video in a photo last week.

Moulton joins Massachusetts candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former GOP Gov. William Weld in seeking the presidency.

Moulton plans to visit all four early voting states this week, and will appear on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show on Monday night. Moulton will head to New Hampshire for events Tuesday, and on Wednesday will speak at Politics & Eggs — a popular stop among 2020 hopefuls in that state. Later Wednesday, Moulton will travel to South Carolina. On Thursday, the congressman will visit Iowa, then head to California on Friday and Nevada on Saturday. Moulton has visited each of the early primary and caucus states in recent months.

Despite being the 19th Democrat to announce a presidential run, Moulton's campaign sees the field as "wide open" at this point in the 2020 contest.

Moulton was last in the national spotlight in November, when he led a push to end Pelosi's tenure atop the House Democratic caucus after the 2018 midterms. Moulton argued the election was a referendum for new leadership, but was unable to put up a challenger to Pelosi. Critics accused Moulton of sexism and ageism during the flare-up.

Moulton also raised more than $2.3 million for his Serve America PAC during the 2018 cycle. Through the leadership PAC, Moulton traveled to more than a dozen states in battleground districts to support veteran candidates.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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