Trump paying tribute to Americans killed in Syrian attack

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. — President Donald Trump was paying tribute Saturday to the four Americans killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria this week as he set off to Dover Air Force Base for the return of their remains.

The trip was not listed on the president's public schedule that was released Friday night, but he tweeted the news before his Saturday morning departure from the White House.

"Will be leaving for Dover to be with the families of 4 very special people who lost their lives in service to our Country!" he wrote.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij that came about a month after Trump had declared that the militants had been defeated and that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from the country.

The attack highlighted the threat still posed by IS despite Trump's assertion and could complicate that withdrawal plan. Some of his senior advisers have disagreed with the decision and have offered an evolving timetable for the removal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops.

The bombing, which also wounded three U.S. troops, was the deadliest assault on U.S. forces in Syria since they went into the country in 2015.

At least 16 people were killed, and the dead were said to have included a number of fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have fought alongside the Americans against IS.

The Pentagon has identified three of the four Americans killed:

—Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida, who was based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

—Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent, 35, of Pine Plains, New York, and based at Fort Meade, Maryland.

—civilian Scott A. Wirtz from St. Louis.

The Pentagon hasn't identified the fourth casualty, a civilian contractor.

Trump has made one other visit to Dover during his presidency, soon after taking office. On Feb. 1, 2017, Trump honored the returning remains of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed in a raid in Yemen. Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, a 36-year-old from Peoria, Illinois, was the first known U.S. combat casualty since Trump became president.

Over the past month, Trump and others have appeared to adjust the Syria pullout timeline, and U.S. officials have suggested it will likely take several months to safely withdraw American forces from Syria.

In a Dec. 19 tweet announcing the withdrawal, Trump had said, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." He said the troops would begin coming home "now." That plan triggered immediate pushback from military leaders, including the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Manbij is the main town on the westernmost edge of Syrian territory held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey. Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from IS in 2016 with help from the U.S.-led coalition.

But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey, which views the main U.S. Kurdish ally, the YPG militia, as "terrorists" linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil.

Trump reinforced his withdrawal decision during a meeting with about a half-dozen GOP senators late Wednesday at the White House.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was at the meeting, told reporters on a conference call that the president remained "steadfast" in his decision not to stay in Syria - or Afghanistan - "forever." But the senator did not disclose the latest thinking on the withdrawal timeline.

Paul said Trump told the group, "We're not going to continue the way we've done it."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Beto O’Rourke’s road trip drives home his message

Beto O’Rourke is five states into his stream-of-consciousness road trip across the American Southwest, unaccompanied as he drops into a small-town diner for cobbler, washes his face in a lake and journals about the need to “clear my head.”

All of which is unfolding as the rest of the Democratic presidential field has broken into a sprint — Elizabeth Warren to New Hampshire, Kirsten Gillibrand to Iowa, and Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker to South Carolina.

O’Rourke’s potential rivals are courting donors, assembling staffs and scurrying to early primary states, while the former Texas congressman is at the Pancake House in Liberal, Kansas, some 500 miles from Des Moines.

His absence from the fray has been noted — and his introspective writing style has been mocked. But amid much snickering, there is also evidence to suggest that if he does run for president, it could help him politically, advancing his off-beat brand.

“Beto is able to drive his own message," said Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager. In a political environment where “the person is the message,” Mook said, “what makes him snacky for [the media] inevitably makes him refreshing and different for voters ... The press writes about what Beto decides to do on his own, not in the context of Trump. That's a big deal."

With his online following, O’Rourke remains close to the 2020 conversation regardless of his location. And in the span of several days, he has generated a torrent of media coverage that — unlike Democrats in more public settings — he alone can control.

Officials at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, in Goodwell, said they only learned about two hours beforehand that O’Rourke was coming to campus, when an aide called to alert them. The school prepared a room, and several dozen students turned out, said Ryan Blanton, the university’s vice president of outreach.

Blanton, busy with telephone calls after the visit, said, “It got a lot more attention than we were hoping.”

Yet to O'Rourke's benefit, there was no major media outlet on hand to cover the event in the moment — just as there were no reporters shouting questions at O’Rourke at the university or in Tucumcari, New Mexico, or at the Starbucks in Pueblo, Colo. The story has become whatever O’Rourke makes it — “Over-the-top, authentic, refreshing,” according to Slate. “Epic, rambling,” said Fox News.

The Denver Post, sniffing out O’Rourke’s turn into Colorado on Thursday, wrote simply, “Beto O’Rourke stopped by Pueblo on secret road trip across America.”

Even when the analysis has been critical — a sharp-edged CNN story Thursday asserted O’Rourke’s meandering trip “drips with white male privilege" — it is keeping O’Rourke in the news.

“Beto’s social media personality rivals cult-like status,” said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Sanders and Barack Obama. Instead of embarking on a book tour or visiting early nominating states, he said, O’Rourke has “mastered the art of anticipation to mitigate political risks and elevate his persona.”

And for O'Rourke, who has little traditional campaign infrastructure and will rely on a network of small donors, maintaining such attention is critical. Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California, said, “American politics is a Broadway show: You either get a lot of people on the second night, or the show’s closing. O’Rourke knows the show will close if he’s not putting out some kind of speculation.”

O’Rourke is leaning toward running for president, according to at least four sources who have spoken to him or his advisers, and his former advisers have been quietly sketching the outline of a potential presidential campaign. The former Texas congressman will participate in Oprah Winfrey’s “Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations from Times Square,” a live event on Feb. 5.

But O’Rourke tells his friends and people he meets on the road that he has not made up his mind, and his Medium posts — his preferred method of communicating from the road — reflect an emotional vulnerability that is rare for a top-tier presidential contender. O’Rourke writes that he has been “in and out of a funk” lately and that on his road trip, he is hoping to “break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”

Larry Smith, owner of the Motel Safari in Tucumcari, said that when he asked O’Rourke why he chose to stay at his motel, O’Rourke said “he was attracted to the fact it was a mom and pop business.”

Then, noting the winter rate of $59.95, Smith added, “He said he’s on a budget because, how did he put it, he’s in between jobs.”

For a politician who is already popular — but lacking an extensive record of governing experience — O’Rourke’s road trip runs the risk of accentuating his popularity, but not necessarily conveying him as presidential, said former Rep. Tony Coelho, who was chairman of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. And Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and DNC chairman, said logistics alone make O’Rourke’s road trip “insane.”

“I think some of his friends ought to look at a temporary commitment,” he said.

Most politicians have at least one junior staffer join them on trips to collect contact information from potential supporters or donors — and actually do the driving.

“If you get into a car crash, if somebody gets hurt, forget about running for senator or running for governor or running for mayor or whatever,” Rendell said. “That’s rule No. 1.”

If O’Rourke is not pre-campaigning, Rendell said, but genuinely reflecting, he suggested that O’Rourke stop posting about it online.

“He’s posting because obviously he wants people to know he’s doing this,” Rendell said. “He wants people to say, ‘Oh my God, that Beto, he’s so unusual, a common man.”

There is precedent for politicians taking to the road. Former Florida governor and Sen. “Walkin’” Lawton Chiles walked for months across Florida in his 1970 Senate campaign. In the last presidential election, Clinton saved her journey — a beefier spectacle, complete with her security detail — for after she announced her candidacy. “Road trip!” she wrote on Twitter before setting off in a van nicknamed “Scooby” from her home in New York to Iowa.

That trip was meant, in part, to persuade Americans that the candidate could be unscripted and relatable, with a stop at a Chipotle in Ohio that — after security footage confirmed her presence — resulted in a flurry of coverage.

For some politicians, the purpose of a road trip is “to kind of get out of the bubble, and just go out and meet real folks,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist who sent one of his candidates, Alex Seith, on a road trip across Illinois in his 1978 race for U.S. Senate.

The purpose, South said, was not to “impact voters in any kind of massive way,” but to help the candidate.

“What it did for the candidate was, it gave him great raw material to talk about on the stump. You know, ‘I met a woman the other day, on her doorstep, in such and such a town, and here’s what she said to me’ …. Politicians die for those kinds of stories.”

O’Rourke himself spent much of his closer-than-expected campaign against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last year traversing the roadways of Texas. Now that O’Rourke is mulling a presidential campaign, said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster, “I think it’s way too soon to say any of this is good, bad or indifferent.”

For any candidate at this still-early stage, he said, “I think the biggest thing is what it means to any of them personally … There is nothing quite like going out and being a candidate for national office.”

“If it’s good for him, then that’s a good thing,” Maslin said. “That’s the biggest thing, is how they themselves get ready to do this, because there isn’t a lot of margin for error.”

In O'Rourke's case, Mook said, "Unorthodox is a viable strategy."

"I think he's being really genuine," he said. "Going into the proverbial wilderness to figure out what his purpose is."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


When Congress debated border security without having a total meltdown

Yes, it seems a distant memory amid all the heated rhetoric over the government shutdown. But it wasn’t so long ago that Democrats and Republicans could have a reasoned debate over funding border security.

Indeed, to go back now and track the history of appropriations bills sheds new light on a battle that today seems divorced from reality and lacking proportion.

President Donald Trump bashes Democrats daily for obstructing his border wall. But the record shows that he received much of his request in 2018 and had already won bipartisan Senate support for $1.6 billion in 2019 when he effectively blew up the process by greatly escalating his demands going into the fall midterm elections.

At the same time, Democrats appear so repelled by the harsh symbolism of Trump’s wall that they find it hard to talk about their record of helping another Republican president — George W. Bush — build many of the barriers that already exist along the border.

“This is where it gets complicated,” admits Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who helped manage the annual Homeland Security appropriations bill under Bush. “Trump’s wall has become a symbol of a broader set of immigration policies that are just reprehensible. … It’s hard to escape the effect of it becoming a much more fraught debate than it might be, if we were just talking about matter-of-fact proposals about how you secure the border.”

Yet this very same history is all the more relevant now as the monthlong standoff seems to grow more personal between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The White House has sought to isolate Pelosi as an intractable ideologue after she described Trump’s wall as “immoral.” But this is a leader raised in the briar patch of House Appropriations Committee bargaining. And in her first tour as speaker, it was Pelosi who ran the House when Bush got billions for border security and barriers.

“There’s a substantial history where Democrats have supported physical barriers when they are effective,” said an aide to the speaker.

In the case of Trump’s wall, the appropriations record shows that his campaign vision of a massive 30-foot-high, sea-to-sea concrete barrier was pretty much dead on arrival. The 2017 omnibus spending bill — approved by a Republican Congress and signed by Trump soon after his inauguration — insisted that any new barriers follow “previously deployed and operationally effective designs” like steel bollards.

Democrats had a hand in adding this provision, for sure. But the same language became a fixture in 2018 and 2019 spending bills for the Department of Homeland Security. And Trump’s professional advisers soon found they could live with it.

Tests showed that concrete was more vulnerable than steel in the desert heat. As a practical matter, Border Patrol agents preferred to be able to see through the bollards — and not face a blank wall.

The end result was not so much a question of the White House acceding to Democrats as bowing to reality. In the same vein, Trump’s first two fiscal 2018 and 2019 budgets for the Department of Homeland Security — both when Republicans controlled Congress — were relatively restrained in their demands for funding.

For 2018, DHS asked for $1.6 billion in wall-related expenditures, about $1.53 billion of which was attributed to three barrier projects in the Rio Grande Valley and San Diego sectors. Of this sum, DHS received approximately $1.33 billion, a reduction of about 13 percent.

To be sure, there were concessions. To make the deal more palatable to Democrats, the bill dedicated $445 million to replace and strengthen existing barriers along the border, not build new ones. This investment is not insignificant since it will allow for taller steel bollards to replace much more modest vehicle barriers from the Bush era. But it certainly cut into the miles of new fencing requested by DHS and Trump for the Rio Grande Valley.

There, the department had envisioned constructing two increments of new barriers totaling nearly 60 miles. Funding for the larger of the two, $784 million for 32 miles of a new wall system, was effectively cut by three-quarters to $196 million. But $445 million was appropriated — almost the full request — for 25 miles of new pedestrian fencing along levees in the Valley.

As it happened, the omnibus 2018 spending bill, which Pelosi voted for last March and Trump signed into law, came weeks after DHS had already submitted its 2019 budget. But once again, the administration’s request for wall-related expenditures was no more than $1.6 billion. And that number still stood when the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up 2019 funding for DHS.

Compared with the madding crowd today, the committee markup back then was a display of earnest discourse. Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) waxed confidently of “momentum” building toward regular order. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R.-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the two bill managers, exchanged pleasantries about the “open collaborative” process. And with Trump’s wall money intact, the measure was reported out with just five dissenting Democratic votes.

A month later, on July 25, in the House Appropriations Committee, the mood was very different. Republicans, under pressure from Trump, upped the ante to provide almost $5 billion for wall-related funding in the DHS bill, a $3.3 billion increase over the Senate package.

Democrats were incensed. And the additional wall funding forced cuts elsewhere in the DHS budget, including all of the $750 million long sought by the Coast Guard. The Guard currently must make due with one vessel capable of breaking through heavy ice that’s been in use since Gerald Ford’s presidency. And given global warming, this is a growing security concern at a time when Russia and even China are building more such icebreakers given the potential resources opening up in the thawing Arctic.

But nothing about an ice breaker captures the political imagination like Trump’s wall and immigration rhetoric.

To no one’s surprise then, committee Republicans quickly rejected a Democratic bid to restore $750 million for the Coast Guard, a proposal that would still have left more than $4 billion for new border fencing. But the short debate still served as an important marker of sorts — a reminder that nothing is free about the added wall funding under the annual appropriations caps.

The bill’s manager, former Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) seemed mindful of this. Caught between Trump and a tough Democratic challenge back home — an election Yoder would ultimately lose—the Kansas conservative attached bill language to the $5 billion, freezing it in place until DHS had submitted an expenditure plan and won approval of that plan from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Critics would argue the legislative provision was more an exercise in political cover and could never be enforced in reality. But in less contentious times, it is the sort of two-step procedure that past Congresses and presidents have used to work out disputes.

Certainly it would require a level of trust that seems lost now. But, as a young member of Appropriations, Pelosi herself would sing the Rolling Stones lyric to comfort herself: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Shutdown squeezes every part of air travel

The government shutdown is fraying U.S. air travel in ways big and small, not just spawning long security lines at some airports but canceling some pilot training, delaying purchases of bag-scanning equipment and preventing some companies from adding new planes.

Those burdens, many invisible to the traveling public, are causing an enormous strain for the aviation system, which is expected to see a spike in passenger traffic during this three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. And they come as thousands of TSA agents, air traffic controllers and aircraft inspectors are working without pay, posing long-term worries about agencies’ ability to recruit and keep employees.

“When the government does reopen, there’s going to be a lot of catch-up work that has to get done,” said Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, an umbrella group for dozens of transportation unions, including pilots and flight attendants.

Absences by Transportation Security Administration screeners have been running at double the typical rate. The Federal Aviation Administration has postponed certifications for new drone pilots and delayed a major conference on drones. The National Transportation Safety Board, tasked with investigating transportation accidents, has been left with a skeleton crew and has opted not to launch investigators to 14 recent accidents, including 10 aviation incidents that killed 16 people.

Some current and former lawmakers have speculated that the aviation system could reach a breaking point — perhaps a strike that halts air traffic — that would pressure Congress and the White House to settle their differences. “If TSA agents don’t go to work, the shutdown is over tomorrow,” Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester told reporters this week. “I’m not advocating they do that, but you stop air traffic and this thing’s over with.”

But a strike is not about to happen, say the unions representing TSA screeners, air traffic controllers and other critical aviation workers, which note that it would be illegal for them to walk off the job.

On the other hand, nothing prevents unpaid employees from quitting outright. Already, many are simply calling in absent because they cannot afford to work without pay.

TSA estimates more than 8 million people will fly over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend — a 10.8 percent increase over last year. Meanwhile, about 6.4 percent of the agency's baggage screeners called out absent from work Thursday, compared with 3.8 percent for the same day in 2018.

Some agencies are trying to find ways to lessen the damage. TSA, for instance, has scraped together some money for its unpaid employees, but it’s a drop in the bucket — one day of missed pay out of almost 30, plus a $500 bonus. The FAA has also responded to worries about airline safety by bringing back in about 2,200 of its 3,000 previously furloughed safety inspectors, though it is not paying them.

Agencies are also deferring purchases and canceling training for their workers, expenses they’ll eventually have to make up. TSA said this week that it had canceled advanced training classes for screeners and other front-line employees, and it has postponed buying new 3D scanners.

The repercussions from the funding lapse are being felt throughout the aviation industry. Flight schools could be faced with canceling classes if their instructors can't be recertified, the National Air Transportation Association wrote in an alert to members.

"Companies that provide training for pilots require regular authorizations by the FAA to issue certificates; these training providers need certain qualifications which they may lose due to the shutdown, and this could halt pilot training and may prevent aircraft from having the necessary crews to operate," the association said.

The academy where air traffic controllers are trained is also halting classes, which could mean delays in replacing retiring controllers.

The shutdown is also hitting aviation manufacturers, including Airbus and Embraer, which haven't been able to deliver planes to airlines. In addition, corporate jet operator NetJets hasn't been able to add new aircraft to its fleet, Bloomberg reported.

NATA said one of its member companies has two aircraft stranded in Canada, where they were being painted and can't get FAA approval to be flown back to the United States. Another, working with a medical client, recently purchased two Cessna CJ3+ planes but can't get the FAA to sign off on flying them.

"According to the member company, the aircraft, once flying, will save at least one life almost every time they fly. The shutdown is preventing these aircraft from entering service and saving lives," NATA wrote.

The FAA has also stopped processing non-routine aircraft registrations, leaving those that need more than a rubber stamp to sit idle. And the drone industry has complained that the shutdown is hampering rulemakings and preventing FAA from granting waivers.

The sharpest reaction to the shutdown so far has come from the unions representing TSA agents and air traffic controllers, which have sued the government to demand relief for their members.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA baggage screeners, sought damages including pay of $14.50 an hour for the first 40 hours of work, plus overtime, for every employee forced to work during the shutdown. That could amount to millions of dollars owed for the first missed pay period alone, said Heidi Burakiewicz, the attorney representing the union.

AFGE won a similar suit filed after a 2013 government shutdown, though the case has been tied up in courts, delaying payments.

“I really think that the next case is going to move much faster because the question of whether the government is liable has already been litigated and shouldn’t have to be relitigated,” Burakiewicz said. “The government has a road map. They had to figure out how to do this once. They shouldn’t have to do it again.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has also filed suit, accusing the government of withholding controllers’ “hard-earned compensation without the requisite due process.” A federal judge turned down NATCA’s demand for a temporary restraining order this week, but a hearing on the union’s motion for a preliminary injunction has been set for Jan. 31.

Absent any immediate solutions to the shutdown, some current and former lawmakers have speculated that TSA agents and air traffic controllers are uniquely positioned to get Washington’s attention — if they choose to.

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) wrote in a recent op-ed that “Americans would be rightly outraged” if airport security lanes grew longer because TSA agents just stopped working, and predicted that public complaints to lawmakers and President Donald Trump would probably end the stalemate.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) agreed, telling POLITICO that “a significant absence” of agents “would create a serious crisis for the flying public that could very well put significant pressure on a lot of members of Congress.”

But the Transportation Trades Department's Willis said politicians in Washington are the ones who need to find a way out of the crisis.

“The responsibility to address the shutdown does not lie with federal workers taking actions that are contrary to law,” Willis said. “It is ultimately up to our elected leaders, and up to the president, who has significant responsibility here to resolve this issue and to reopen the federal government.”

AFGE has been careful to avoid issuing any statements that appear to encourage a strike. In its media notice for a rally on Thursday, the union noted that “participation is not in any official agency capacity.”

They have good reason to be reluctant to walk off the job. A series of laws bars federal workers from organizing strikes or boycotts, and former President Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers who went on strike in 1981.

“You learn from the lessons of the past,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi told POLITICO.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


MLK Day to the Super Bowl: Five events that could pressure Congress, Trump over shutdown

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are under pressure to find a way to reopen the federal government, and it’s only increasing as a series of high-profile events loom.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week threatened to cancel President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech later in the month, saying it would put too much strain on furloughed agencies to provide security for the event.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told people planning to attend the Super Bowl in her city in February to “get to the airport very early,” anticipating long waits as fewer TSA agents continue working without pay.

Meanwhile, despite heightened tensions, there has been no progress in negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over funding government agencies and ending the partial shutdown.

Here are some key dates that could draw public attention to the shutdown and create added pressure on Congress and the White House to reach a deal:

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the first federal holiday of the year, but many of Washington’s prominent attractions are closed due to the shutdown.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which includes collections centered on the civil rights movement, is closed. So are the Smithsonian Institution’s 18 other museums and galleries and the National Zoo.

Such closures on a three-day weekend that’s popular for travel could frustrate tourists and get politicians’ attention.

One prominent King landmark narrowly avoided closing Monday. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta will temporarily reopen Saturday due to a grant from the Delta Air Lines Foundation, in addition to revenue generated by the National Park Service recreation fees. Delta’s headquarters are in Atlanta.

The park includes the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized, ordained as a minister, and later became co-pastor with his father. King’s birth home is also in the park.

“These historic landmarks represent the strength of our community and should always be made available for the public to enjoy,” said Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO.

Tax filing season

Just because there’s a shutdown, that doesn’t mean Americans can put off filing their taxes. But it does mean a lot of headaches for IRS employees.

Tax season opens on Jan. 28, and as a result, 46,000 IRS employees nationwide were called back to their jobs starting this week. The employees, who are deemed “essential workers,” are working without pay until the government reopens.

Federal workers will get back pay eventually, but IRS employees are already frustrated about having to work without paychecks in the meantime, during a busy time of year.

The National Treasury Employees Union on Thursday delivered a petition to Congress that was signed by 17,820 federal employees calling for an end to the shutdown. The organization represents 150,000 employees, including 70,000 IRS workers.

“What I hope all members of Congress and those in the administration understand is that there are 800,000 American citizens — who are employees of the U.S. government — being seriously harmed by this shutdown,” Tony Reardon, the national president of the union, said in a statement. “They need to immediately be pulled out of this larger political battle. As nonpartisan public servants, they should not be put in this position.”

State of the Union

The state of our union is tense.

The annual address from the president to a joint session of Congress was scheduled for Jan. 29. Now, after Pelosi requested that Trump either postpone it or deliver the speech in writing, it might happen at a later date or at another location.

Pelosi cited security concerns, saying such speeches are designated as “national special security events,” which demand “the full resources of the Federal Government.”

So far, the gambit has not forced Trump to the negotiating table. Instead, Trump on Thursday canceled Pelosi’s planned trip to visit troops in Afghanistan, which was scheduled to use military aircraft.

Super Bowl

The nation's busiest airport could become only messier during one of the country’s most-watched events of the year.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is seeing security line waits up to 90 minutes as unpaid TSA agents call in sick or leave their jobs, and officials fear the Super Bowl weekend will be even worse.

Atlanta Mayor Bottoms anticipates about 110,000 passengers will depart the airport on Feb. 4, a day after the Super Bowl, according to The Associated Press. Typically, the airport screens 60,000 to 80,000 passengers before they depart.

“We are continuing to encourage people to get to the airport very early,” Bottoms said, according to the AP.

Massive security lines could prompt an outcry on social media or fuel news stories that might weigh on lawmakers and the White House.

But press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday sidestepped concerns about travel during Super Bowl weekend.

“If the Democrats have those types of concern, they should sit down at the table and negotiate with the president,” she told reporters outside the White House. “We’ve got an offer on the table. We made it clear that we’d like to make a deal.”

“The president wants to open the government as well, but he wants to make sure we’re protecting American citizens, and we have to secure our border in order to do that,” she said.

White House budget

The White House budget will likely see another delay this year.

The budget for fiscal year 2020 is supposed to be due on or before the first Monday in February, and releasing spending priorities for next year would certainly draw attention to the fact that swaths of the federal government are currently unfunded.

But it’s not clear whether the White House plans to meet that deadline this year. Last year, the budget was released on Feb. 12, a week later than planned, due to a three-day government shutdown.

Former President Barack Obama also submitted budget proposals late, with his fiscal 2017 proposal submitted on Feb. 9, 2016, the fiscal 2015 proposal released on March 4, 2014, and the fiscal 2014 proposal released on April 10, 2013.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Week 87: Did BuzzFeed Drop a Bombshell or Just Bomb?

Knocked out just last week by the informed speculation that Donald Trump might be a Russian spy or a dupe, Russia-scandal watchers received another cranial blow this week. In a story that caused everybody who quoted it to preface their remarks with the statement, “If true,” BuzzFeed reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier ignited impeachment passions by alleging late Thursday that President Donald Trump “personally instructed” his then-attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

The political and media frenzy detonated by the BuzzFeed story fizzled by Friday evening as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office, which almost never comments on news stories, took aim at BuzzFeed, issuing this statement: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”

Vacant on specifics, the Mueller statement was immediately parried by BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith, who asserted, “We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he's disputing.”

When the BuzzFeed story broke, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani responded almost immediately, “If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.” The president reprised that theme in the morning in a tweet that noted Cohen’s confession to perjury and fraud charges. Hogan Gidley, a White House deputy press secretary, likewise questioned Cohen’s veracity and BuzzFeed’s credibility in a Fox News segment, but declined to respond on three occasions if the allegation was true. The Trump universe was slow to actually deny the account, waiting until noon Friday for Giuliani to file a statement with reporters declaring “categorically false” the assertion that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress. (Cohen originally told Congress the project was shelved in January, but later admitted to Mueller in his guilty plea that Trump pursued it well into June.)

Again, Giuliani characterized Cohen as a criminal and liar. But Giuliani didn’t puncture the BuzzFeed account. To begin with, BuzzFeed didn’t source its knowledge directly to Cohen but to two anonymous federal law enforcement officers. It also claimed that special counsel Robert S. Mueller had learned of Trump’s instruction “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents,” in addition to Cohen’s interviews with the Mueller office.

Former federal prosecutor and current George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason surmised that BuzzFeed’s likely source was FBI agents working the Southern District of New York case against Cohen. For one thing, Mueller doesn’t leak and FBI agents, who have been known to leak, “would know about all things Cohen, including materials seized during search warrants at his home & office that may be some of ‘cache’ of supporting evidence,” Eliason tweeted. If Eliason is right, that might explain some of the confusion: The BuzzFeed story could be right about what the Southern District had concluded about Cohen’s behavior but have overshot what Mueller’s team thinks. Remember, the Friday evening statement from Mueller doesn’t say the BuzzFeed account is all wet, just that it’s inaccurate in its description of what the Mueller office has learned.

It goes without saying that the onus is on BuzzFeed to straighten out what has now become a very curvaceous story. Helping nobody corroborate anything, Cohen tendered a “no comment” to the story on Friday afternoon (before Mueller weighed in) via attorney Lanny Davis, who added, Cohen “had nothing to do with the writing of the story, he didn’t initiate the story. It was done by independent reporting. So, the story stands on its own.”

Earlier in the day on Capitol Hill, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-R.I.), tweeted that if true, Trump was guilty of criminal obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury, conspiracy, and “likely aiding and abetting perjury.” Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), completed Whitehorse’s thought, tweeting, “If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.” His brother, presidential candidate Julián Castro, seconded the thought on television, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) urged Congress to dig for more.

Riding accidental shotgun on the now-rolling impeachment stagecoach was none other than Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, who earlier this week answered in the affirmative at his confirmation hearing when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked, “If there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?” Said Barr, “Yes. Under an obstruction statute, yes.” And this is the guy Trump picked for the job.

Providing Trump with unexpected support was his usual critic, George Conway (Mr. Kellyanne Conway), who tweeted a critique to Jason Leopold’s assertion that he had seen and been briefed on documents in his reporting on the story. “What kind of documents? Who created them? What do they say? How do they prove subornation of perjury?” Conway asked. Excellent questions, and please add me to the very long list of people who would like to see them answered, and fast.

In a Friday evening broadcast, CNN correspondent Jessica Schneider triangulated the BuzzFeed report with Mueller’s sentencing memo for Cohen. Cohen, the sentencing memo said, “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it.” Likewise, the memo echoes BuzzFeed’s account of how Cohen planned a possible travel by Trump (aka “Individual 1”) to Russia.

Adam Serwer of the Atlantic, who urged Trump’s impeachment in a cover story just prior to the BuzzFeed scoop, reloaded his argument with the new ammunition. If true, Serwer wrote, the BuzzFeed story pales against the previous allegations of obstruction, which Trump previously explained away as being consistent with the Article II powers of the president (examples: telling FBI Director James B. Comey to take it easy on national security advisor Michael Flynn or firing of Comey when he refused). The BuzzFeed piece unambiguously has the president suborning perjury by telling Cohen to lie to Congress protect his potentially lucrative Moscow real-estate deal from scrutiny. In the words of one former federal prosecutor quoted by Serwer, Trump is left with “no wiggle room” if this is the case.

Trump’s troubles only cascade from there. BuzzFeed claims that Trump told Cohen to “plan a trip to Russia during the campaign, where the candidate could meet face-to-face with Putin,” which adds kindling to the argument that Trump was sucking up hard to the Russian for personal gain at the same time the Russians were monkeywrenching the election. In this formulation, obstruction of justice constitutes collusion, as a Lawfare headline put it before BuzzFeed went to press.

As usual, my former editor Garrett M. Graff puts it in Wired, the new report will allow Mueller to “paint a broader picture of Trump’s apparent years-long effort to hide the truth of his dealings with Russia, during the campaign, the transition, and even into the White House” where he routinely tut-tutted talk of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and treated Russian President Vladimir Putin as a more reliable source on the subject of meddling than his own intelligence corps.

The BuzzFeed piece also points a dagger at Trump’s family. Donald Trump Jr. told a Senate committee in 2017 that he was “peripherally aware” of the Trump Tower Moscow plans, but BuzzFeed claims multiple, detailed briefings from Cohen about the Moscow project’s progress with Junior and his sister, Ivanka Trump. Again, if true, Junior could face perjury prosecution. Ivanka’s jeopardy is lower because she hasn’t testified before Congress. That didn’t stop Peter Mirijanian, a spokesperson for Ivanka's attorney, from trying to put some extra daylight between her and the shadowy project. “Ms. Trump did not know about this proposal until after a non-binding letter of intent had been signed, never talked to anyone outside the Organization about the proposal, never visited the prospective project site and, even internally, was only minimally involved,” Mirijanian, told BuzzFeed News.

Another potential vulnerability of the BuzzFeed story was probed by CNN before Mueller’s office sounded off. The piece that charted the “checkered past” of one of the story’s co-authors, Jason Leopold. In 2002, Salon unpublished a Leopold story after determining it was “riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations.” In 2006, Leopold wrote in Truthout.org that Karl Rove’s indictment was “imminent” in the Valerie Plame case. The imminent moment never came. Leopold’s giant whiffs should count against him forever and a day, of course, but burying this story will require more from Trump world than citing Leopold’s faulty back pages. Leopold isn’t on trial. But Trump could be.


Is the best path to an impeachment beaten by a stagecoach, a bus, or a Snowcat? Send word via mail to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have drawn up articles of impeachment against my Twitter feed, which will be represented on the House floor by my RSS feed.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Cohen’s adviser presses lawmakers on safety concerns after Trump attacks

A legal representative for Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen expressed concern to congressional investigators this week about his clients’ safety and urged Republicans to rein in the president’s attacks on his former fixer.

Lanny Davis, Cohen’s legal adviser and spokesman, traveled to Capitol Hill in recent days to discuss security and other logistical issues in meetings with House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Democratic committee aides. He said he pressed Republicans on Trump’s repeated tweets about Cohen’s family — particularly his client’s father-in-law — urging them to get their party leader to tone down his rhetoric about Cohen.

“I’m very concerned about the president of the United States acting like a mobster,” Davis said in a short phone interview Friday, just before an MSNBC appearance. “It’d not be any difference if the ‘don’ called somebody telling the truth a ‘rat’ and attacked the family and sent the implicit message to beware.”

Minutes later, Davis went on MSNBC to reiterate that message: “Family is out of bounds. There is only one person in this country — one president in our history — that would threaten family as a tactic to make fear of somebody he calls a ‘rat’ by telling the truth. And that’s President Trump, and the Republicans should be holding him accountable.”

Oversight Democratic and Republicans aides declined to comment for this story. But Democratic sources and one lawmaker on the panel told POLITICO that Democratic investigators were thinking about ways to push back on Trump and ensure Cohen’s safety.

Davis’ meeting with Hill staff come amid reports that his client is getting cold feet about testifying before Congress on Feb. 7.

Last Saturday, Trump suggested on “Fox News” that Cohen’s father-in-law was in legal jeopardy, and that Cohen should flip on his dad to get a shorter prison sentence. (Cohen is going to jail on March 6 after he pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion and lying to Congress.)

"He should give information maybe on his father-in-law, because that's the one that people want to look at,” Trump said.

Despite push back from Hill Democrats, who called Trump’s remarks a veiled threat on the family members of their new star witness, Trump doubled-down Friday morning, accusing Cohen on twitter of “lying to reduce his jail time! Watch father-in-law!”

The tweet comes a few weeks after Trump initially called Cohen, who’s cooperating with the FBI and special counsel Robert Muellers’ Russia probe, a “rat,” language traditionally used by Hollywood mafia bosses before execution of a strayed group member.

Cohen has implicated the president in hush payments made to women during the 2016 presidential campaign alleging they had affairs with Trump. He’s also reportedly told prosecutors that Trump’s business dealings with Russia were much stronger than he claimed during the 2016 campaign.

On Thursday night, BuzzFeed reported that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about those Russia business ties. Mueller’s spokesman nearly 24 hours later issued a rare statement disputing several aspects of the media report. BuzzFeed responded to say it stood by its story. Davis said Cohen played no role in the BuzzFeed story and otherwise declined to comment on the article.

Davis also said Friday that no decision had been made yet on whether Cohen will indeed appear before Congress.

“I don’t know if we’re ready to cancel,” Davis said. “He’s very fearful.”

In the meantime, Davis is encouraging Congress to do something to rein in Trump’s attacks on his clients.

“The tweet today by Trump, something has to be done by both parties in Congress to say, ‘You’re out of bounds.’”

House Democrats plan to discuss their options for responding to Trump and protecting Cohen in the coming days. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a senior Oversight panel member, said his party should go back and review how Congress protected witnesses during a series of sensitive hearings they had in the 1960s on organized crime and the mafia.

“It’s not even a veiled attempt at intimidation of a witness and obstruction of the process of witnesses wanting to come forward to testify before the legislative branch of government,” the Virginia Democrat said Friday. “It’s a repugnant act on the part of the president who clearly is afraid of public testimony by Mr. Cohen under oath.”

Asked whether he thought his GOP counterparts on the committee might use their relationships with Trump to get him to back off—ranking Republican Jim Jordan and panel member Mark Meadows are close allies of the president—Connelly said no.

“Both of them have become such apologists for this president that I don’t think they would be impervious to those pleadings,” he said.

Davis said he’s spoken with Hill aides about the logistics of Cohen’s testimony, including keeping him protected that day.

“We’re certainly hoping to have security provided to him. Something will be done to help him get in and out,” Davis said.

But Cohen’s concerns aren’t limited to his appearance on Capitol Hill. Davis in his MSNBC appearance noted that there were Trump supporters all around as well as foreign actors who may want to do the bidding of the president, who have all but put a target on his client.

While it’s too early in the congressional oversight process for Democrats to bring Cohen in at the start of the new session, it makes sense logistically before the former Trump lawyer starts serving his sentence, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.

“It’s easier to bring him in now when he’s a public person who’s free to move about the country with limitations than it is to bring him in with a U.S. Marshall escort, the Bureau of Prisons and shackles,” he said. “Now is the time to get him in and lock him into testimony.”

Davis said he didn’t know yet if Cohen would also be appearing before the Senate Intelligence committee.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Mueller team disputes aspects of Buzzfeed report on Trump, Cohen

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office is denying aspects of a blockbuster BuzzFeed news report that President Donald Trump instructed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about dealings related to a Trump Tower Moscow project under consideration during the 2016 presidential election.

Mueller’s normally tight-lipped operation issued a statement Friday night indicating that the BuzzFeed report contained inaccuracies, at least with respect to its statements about the information gathered by the special counsel’s team.

“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” Mueller spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement. He did not elaborate.

Trump quickly took Twitter to react to the news, retweeting messages from supporters who’d expressed suspicion about the report.

“We called it. FAKE NEWS! ‘More Buzzfeed B.S.’” former Secret Service agent Don Bongino wrote in one message retweeted by the president.

Prior to Mueller’s office throwing cold water on the anonymously sourced report, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani had denied the BuzzFeed story as based on “made-up lies” from Cohen.

“Any suggestion – from any source – that the President counseled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false,” Giuliani said.

BuzzFeed added the statement to its report, but suggested that the comment from Mueller’s office was vague about what parts of the media outlet’s story were being denied.

“We stand by our reporting, and we are working to determine what exactly the Special Counsel is disputing,” BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said in an email to POLITICO. “Stay tuned.”

The BuzzFeed report posted Thursday said two unnamed federal law enforcement officials involved in probing Cohen’s statements about the Trump Tower Moscow project said Trump had told Cohen to lie to Congressional committees about the status of the project during the 2016 race.

BuzzFeed’s story said law enforcement sources confirmed that Cohen had given that account to Mueller’s office. The outlet also said its sources maintained that Cohen had at least ten face-to-face meetings with Trump about the project during the campaign, despite his repeated denials of business dealings with Russia.

In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to Congress for making inaccurate statements to House and Senate committees about the Moscow project. He's scheduled to testify publicly to the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 7.

The initial report drew an unusually grave reaction from many Democratic lawmakers and even some Republicans on Friday, who said that if the account was true it appeared to implicate Trump in a clear violation of laws prohibiting false and misleading statements to Congress.

Trump’s legal team embraced Mueller’s Friday evening denial.

“Exactly,” wrote Jay Sekulow, the Trump personal lawyer. He then added in a phone interview: "As far as [public] proclamations go from the special counsel’s office, we’re pleased with this one. We disputed this reporting from the outset.”

John Dowd, the former Trump lawyer who remains in touch with the president, wrote to POLITICO. “Bravo!”

“Bob Mueller rarely comments on news reports. When he does, it’s serious,” said Mark Corallo, a former Bush DOJ spokesman who also handled media in 2017 for the Trump legal team.

In an email to POLITICO earlier Friday, former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn described the report as extraordinarily serious trouble for the president, but emphasized that its accuracy was open to debate.

“The BuzzFeed story is HUGE. Obstruction charges require proof of a corrupt intent. Instructing a subordinate to lie under oath is manifestly a corrupt act -- it speaks for itself on the issue of intent,” Quinn wrote.

He emailed back 15 minutes later adding, “I qualify this with “IF TRUE...”

“It suggests to me that non-lawyers drew broad conclusions from evidence they saw but they failed to capture important nuance and ultimately mischaracterized the evidence as a result,” said former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.

Former White House attorney Ty Cobb told POLITICO, “It’s unfortunate that many people responded to the barely substantiated reporting and in a rabid partisan fashion. I hope people will just wait for Mueller to finish his work, as the attorney general nominee committed to Congress he will permit.”

Cobb also predicted Mueller’s statement would upend the Democratic House Oversight Committee’s hearing plans: “I don’t think you will be seeing Cohen testify in Congress.”

Last month, Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis said Trump and others at the White House knew what Cohen was saying to lawmakers was wrong, but Davis stopped short of claiming Cohen was actually told to lie by Trump or anyone else.

“Mr. Trump and the White House knew that Michael Cohen would be testifying falsely to Congress and did not tell him not to,” Davis told Bloomberg News.

Earlier Friday, Davis told POLITICO that Cohen was not involved in the BuzzFeed report. The attorney declined further comment.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


'Theater of the absurd': How the shutdown's bleakest week unfolded for Trump

President Donald Trump met with a group of House lawmakers on Wednesday to talk about ending the month-long government shutdown. But he was more focused on the two people who weren’t in the room: Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

“I don’t see how we’re going to come to a deal” without them, Trump told the mostly junior lawmakers gathered in the White House Situation Room. By then it had already been more than a week since the president had spoken with Pelosi, the House speaker, and Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader.

But Trump said he wasn’t in a hurry.

“I’ll wait them out,” he confided, according to a person present for the remarks.

Things looked bleak. And then they got even worse.

As the meeting unfolded, White House aides were still digesting a surprise letter from Pelosi requesting that Trump postpone the State of the Union address. After going over several options with his chief of staff in the presidential limousine en route to the Pentagon on Thursday afternoon, Trump retaliated by abruptly barring Pelosi and fellow Democrats from using military aircraft for a planned trip to Afghanistan. Stunned Democrats accused him of breaching protocol and even putting their safety at risk.

For all the drama, spectacle and public declarations, neither side budged from its negotiating position. Rather than pulling Trump and the Democrats closer to a resolution, the shutdown only seems to be pushing them farther apart.

“There’s a sense of the theater of the absurd,” said an exasperated Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia.

“We will most likely have a trade deal with China before this government reopens,” a former White House official said. “There is not an identified pathway forward and both sides are entrenched. The mood is not good.”

This account of the grim run-up to the shutdown’s one-month mark is based on interviews with more than a dozen White House officials, Trump allies, congressional aides and lawmakers. It shows how Trump’s ploy to excite his conservative base and keep his most sacred campaign promise — “build the wall” — has created a slow-motion crisis with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, some 800,000 federal workers will soon have gone a month without a paycheck. (Nine of 15 federal departments and dozens of agencies are shuttered.) Some are growing desperate, turning to part-time work and seeking financial help from friends and family.

They, along with Washington Democrats, will be watching to see what Trump says in an announcement he will make on Saturday afternoon “concerning the Humanitarian Crisis on our Southern Border, and the Shutdown,” as the president put it on Twitter.

The week began on a celebratory note for Trump, who hosted Clemson’s national champion football team for a Monday night dinner at the White House.

But even that ceremonial event was tangled in Washington’s political impasse.

Trump, an avowed fast-food lover, appeared delighted with himself. He beamed under a stoic portrait of Abraham Lincoln and repeatedly reminded reporters that he had paid for the spread of hamburgers, french fries and pizza out of his own pocket.

"The reason we did this is because of the shutdown,” Trump said.

The week ended on a much darker note. After Trump canceled Pelosi’s travel plans to Afghanistan — publicly revealing the previously secret trip — a top Pelosi lieutenant accused the Trump administration of leaking news that her delegation planned to salvage their trip by flying commercial. The Pelosi aide said the move threatened lawmakers’ security. The White House quickly punched back, calling the allegation a “flat out lie.”

All the while, federal workers weren’t getting a paycheck.

“It has not been a proud week for anybody,” a former senior White House official said.

Trump’s cancellation of Pelosi’s plane — announced in a White House letter seen by reporters before most Democrats — was all the more dramatic coming as it did after an unusual 24 hours of silence following her letter urging him to postpone the State of the Union.

The White House argued it canceled the trip to ensure that Pelosi and other top Democrats remained in Washington to negotiate a deal to end the shutdown. But the move doesn’t appear to have kept Pelosi in town. She was spotted boarding a plane to San Francisco on Friday afternoon, according to a person who saw her.

Conservatives cackled with glee when Trump nixed the Afghanistan trip. (“You’re Grounded,” blared the front page of the New York Post, over an image of Trump pointing at his Democratic nemesis.)

But some people close to the president worried that he appeared more concerned with scoring political points than reopening the government. They placed blame on acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who has endeared himself to the president by declining to check — and sometimes encouraging — his impulses.

“In the end, it looked childish and petty and stupid,” another former White House official said.

The White House declined to comment on the record for this story.

Mulvaney is among the advisers egging Trump on to keep up the fight for the border wall and he was among the handful of White House aides who laid plans for canceling Pelosi’s Afghanistan trip.

During Thursday’s presidential motorcade to the Pentagon, where Trump delivered a speech on missile defense, Mulvaney presented the president with several options for responding to Pelosi’s letter — including cancelling her congressional delegation’s overseas trip, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

Some people close to the president saw a missed opportunity: They argued that Trump could have claimed higher ground by allowing Pelosi and her colleagues to travel, then blasting them for leaving the country during the shutdown.

Others said that rather than send Pelosi a sarcastic personal letter saying she could fly to Afghanistan commercially, Trump might have allowed the Pentagon to release a more clinical statement, possibly avoiding the appearance that Trump was settling a personal score.

As the shutdown drags on, some White House aides are eager for a resolution and hope that Trump will compromise on his demand for more than $5 billion for the wall. Although some see hopeful signs in polling data, the overall picture it paints shows a president losing ground against Democrats.

Many of Trump’s outside advisers are counseling him against wavering, however, including some of the conservative talk radio hosts who visited Trump in the White House on Thursday. Among them was Sebastian Gorka, a bellicose former Trump White House adviser who was forced out in 2017, and who told Fox News last month that Trump is “never going to give up.”

“The president’s brand is to fight -- that’s his brand,” said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union.

In the fourth week of a shutdown that began on December 22, White House aides are feeling a personal toll from that fight. Top officials deemed “essential” report a growing sense of burnout, as they pick up slack from the roughly two-thirds of their colleagues who have been furloughed.

“They are operating on a shoestring, with a bunch of folks at home. The support is gone,” said one former administration official. “And the White House was already stretched staff-wise before the shutdown.”

In private, there are hints that Trump has doubts about his militant position. He has complained about negative press coverage in recent days, according to people who have spoken to him. And his 2020 campaign aides are growing alarmed about the effect the shutdown could have on his re-election campaign.

But there is little sign of motion: As of Friday night there were no plans for new meetings between Trump and Democratic leaders, who aren’t very eager to talk to the president either. Democrats say they don’t trust Trump to stick to his word.

Some White House aides, worried that the negotiations have reached a stalemate, have already begun making preparations for the shutdown to stretch into February, for at least two more weeks beyond the State of the Union address, according to a senior administration official.

Inside the White House, some Trump officials are focused on what they call a potential turning point. It begins on Tuesday, when thousands of federal workers will miss another paycheck. White House aides believe that unions and labor groups will begin to crank up pressure on Democrats to make a deal, even if it means moving toward Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

A former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House said Trump should target vulnerable Democrats by holding campaign rallies and urging voters to call members of Congress to push them to negotiate. “Any blue dogs or Democrats in states he won seem logical,” the person said.

Senior Trump officials believe such pressure could force some Democrats to distance themselves from Pelosi’s refusal to allocate a dollar for a border wall, which she calls “immoral.” Aides have compiled a list of potential targets, including centrist Democrats, those representing districts Trump won handily in 2016, and the 15 Democrats who voted against Pelosi as speaker.

It’s a longshot strategy, to say the least: So far, the White House’s efforts to woo moderates have failed. Democrats didn’t show up to a Tuesday meeting at the White House, and a similar meeting on Wednesday, which included Democratic members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, failed to result in a breakthrough.

Democrats meanwhile, see a president only destined to get weaker: While much of Washington was focused on the shutdown theatrics, BuzzFeed News published an explosive story alleging that Trump directed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about discussions to build a Trump Tower in Moscow — a revelation that, if confirmed, could form the basis for his impeachment by House Democrats.

Trump’s desire to declare a national emergency has cooled in recent days within the West Wing. Some White House aides fear the move could set a poor precedent for future presidents including Democrats, who could use such a maneuver declare a national emergency for gun control or climate change.

“It’s like the Senate and the nuclear option. Once you do it, there is no turning back,” said one Republican close to the White House.

Trump himself has often seemed unmoved by stories of the plight of federal workers, many of whom he has dismissed publicly and privately as Democrats.

”All these people are talking about how federal employees aren’t being paid — well, most of them are Democrats,” he said during Wednesday’s meeting with House lawmakers, according to the person who there, though, paradoxically, he also later insisted, “A lot of the people who aren’t being paid, they support me.”

Eliana Johnson, Heather Caygle, Daniel Lippman and Anita Kumar contributed to this story.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Ex-Chicago cop gets nearly 7 years in jail for shooting Laquan McDonald

The white Chicago police officer who gunned down a black teenager in 2014 was sentenced Friday to nearly seven years in prison, bringing an end to a historic case that centered on a shocking dashcam video and fueled the national debate over race and law enforcement.

Jason Van Dyke was convicted last year of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet he fired.

Moments before learning the sentence, Van Dyke acknowledged the black teenager’s death, telling the judge that “as a God-fearing man and father, I will have to live with this the rest of my life."

Earlier, several black motorists testified that he used a racial slur and excessive force during traffic stops in the years before the 2014 shooting.

One of those witnesses, Vidale Joy, said Van Dyke used a racial slur after pulling him over in 2005 and at one point put a gun to Joy’s head. He said Van Dyke “looked infuriated” and seemed “out of his mind.” Under cross examination, Joy acknowledged that he did not allege Van Dyke used a slur in his first accounts of the stop.

Another witness, Ed Nance, struggled to maintain his composure as he looked across the room to identify Van Dyke. Testifying about a 2007 traffic stop, he said the officer cursed and slammed him on the car’s hood, grabbed him by the arms and pulled him to the squad car.

Hours later, Van Dyke’s relatives tried to defend and humanize him, saying he’s a good father and husband who goes out of his way to help and who is not racist.

The issue of race has loomed over the case for more than four years, although it was rarely raised at trial. One of the only instances was during opening statements, when special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told jurors that Van Dyke saw “a black boy walking down the street” who had “the audacity to ignore the police.”

Friday’s testimony came a day after a different judge acquitted three officers accused of trying to conceal what happened to protect Van Dyke, who was the first Chicago officer found guilty in an on-duty shooting in a half century and probably the first ever in the shooting of an African-American.

At the sentencing, McDonald’s uncle read a letter written from the slain teen’s perspective, telling the court that Van Dyke killed him without provocation.

“I am a 17-year-old boy, and I am a victim of murder,” Marvin Hunter said. “I am unable to speak in my own voice” because an officer “thought he would become judge, jury and executioner.”

In asking for a long sentence, Hunter added: “Why should this person who ended my life forever ... who has never asked for forgiveness ... be free when I am dead for forever?”

Van Dyke’s wife said her life has been “a nightmare” since her husband was charged. She said she was denied a job and her daughter was not accepted into a dance group because of their last name.

If Van Dyke goes to prison, she said, her biggest fear is that “somebody will kill my husband for something he did as a police officer, something he was trained to do.”

She looked up over her shoulder and addressed the judge directly: “His life is over. Please, please. He has paid the price already ... I beg for the least amount of time.”

During her testimony, Van Dyke wiped his nose and eyes with a tissue while seated at the defense table in a yellow jail jumpsuit.

One of his daughters blamed the media for shaming police officers “for doing their jobs.”

Kaylee Van Dyke, also 17, said the media “twists events, making people create negative thoughts.” She said police officers don’t care about people’s color, “they care about your safety.” She also said she regrets all the times she didn’t hug her father.

Keith Thompson described his brother-in-law as a “gentle giant” and not a “monster.” Thompson, who is black and whose wife is the sister of Van Dyke’s wife, said he has never seen anything to indicate that Van Dyke is racist in the 13 years they’ve been acquainted.

Van Dyke’s sister, Heidi Kauffunger, told the court that her brother has been abandoned by family and friends since he was charged. She begged the court for mercy and said if her brother goes to prison the family “will lose everything.” She says Van Dyke’s two daughters have been bullied and that the older one even had the words “16 shots” written on her school desk.

Because Illinois judges are typically required to sentence defendants for the most serious crime of which they are convicted, attorneys made arguments about the severity of the offenses, as governed by the state’s complex guidelines. Judge Vincent Gaughan’s decision on that point will help determine the sentence.

The defense wants Van Dyke, 40, to be sentenced primarily for the second-degree murder charge, partly because it carries a shorter mandatory minimum prison term of four years. Prosecutors want the judge to focus on the 16 aggravated battery counts because each one carries a mandatory minimum prison term of six years, and sentences for each count may have to be served consecutively instead of at the same time.

On Thursday, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson cleared former officer Joseph Walsh, former detective David March and officer Thomas Gaffney on charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.

Stephenson accepted the argument that jurors in the Van Dyke case rejected: that the video that sparked protests and a federal investigation of the police force was just one perspective of the events that unfolded on the South Side.

The judge said the video showed only one viewpoint of the confrontation between Van Dyke and the teen armed with a small knife. She found no indication the officers tried to hide evidence or made little effort to talk to witnesses.

“The evidence shows just the opposite,” she said. She singled out how they preserved the graphic video at the heart of the case.

The judge in her ruling rejected prosecution arguments that the video demonstrated officers were lying when they described McDonald as moving even after he was shot.

“An officer could have reasonably believed an attack was imminent,” she said. “It was borne out in the video that McDonald continued to move after he fell to the ground” and refused to relinquish a knife.

The video appeared to show the teen collapsing in a heap after the first few shots and moving in large part because bullets kept striking his body for 10 more seconds.

The footage showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of getting out of his police SUV and continuing to shoot the teen while he was lying on the street. Police were responding to a report of a male who was breaking into trucks and stealing radios on the city’s South Side.

City Hall released the video to the public in November 2015 — 13 months after the shooting — and acted only because a judge ordered it to do so. The charges against Van Dyke were not announced until the day of the video’s release.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Rep. Jackson Lee refuses to step down from CBC Foundation amid retaliation allegations

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is refusing demands to step down as leader of the Congressional Black Caucus’ nonprofit arm amid claims she fired one of her congressional staffers over rape allegations.

Jackson Lee was told by the CBC Foundation’s board to resign during a lengthy call on Thursday night, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversation. Jackson Lee resisted those demands, and the call abruptly ended as other board members were trying to figure out how to continue the conversation without the Texas Democrat.

Jackson Lee has also been pressured by leadership within the CBC to step down from her position with the foundation, according to one of the sources. The foundation’s board was expected to have another emergency call Friday night to assess the situation.

Jackson Lee’s office declined to comment on the call, with her spokesman Robin Chand saying in an email, “I don’t know anything about this (as they’re separate entities).” A spokesperson for the CBC did not return POLITICO’s calls and emails Friday requesting a response.

“Yesterday’s board call was closed,” CJ Epps, a spokesman for the CBCF, said via email. “I’m not privy to their discussions and therefore can’t comment.”

Following Jackson Lee’s refusal to step aside, at least one board member stepped down, and sources with knowledge of the situation say more are expected to follow if Lee remains. Cathy Hughes, a media executive and entrepreneur, resigned from the board, according to the two sources. Hughes, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Several lawmakers are also on the board, including Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.).

A spokeswoman for Cleaver declined to comment. The other members’ offices did not immediately return requests for comment about whether they will remain on the board if Jackson Lee does not step aside.

According to the lawsuit at the center of the controversy, the former staffer, identified only as Jane Doe, alleges that she was fired from Jackson Lee’s office last year after she indicated that she wanted to pursue legal action against a man whom she says raped her when she was an intern for the CBCF. The man worked as intern coordinator for the CBCF at the time of the alleged incident.

Glenn Rushing, Jackson Lee’s chief of staff, told BuzzFeed News that the woman “was not wrongfully terminated.” Jackson Lee’s office said in a statement that it “adamantly denies the allegations that it retaliated against, or otherwise improperly treated, the plaintiff.”

The lawsuit was filed earlier this month, but the alleged rape occurred in October 2015. The woman says she reported the alleged incident to the police and told, among others, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.).

A spokesperson for Sewell called the lawsuit “incredibly troubling” in a statement but noted the Alabama Democrat is “not a party to the lawsuit, nor is she in a position to comment further on the underlying allegations.”

“The Congresswoman feels confident that she followed appropriate reporting protocol immediately upon being informed about the incident,” said spokeswoman Jackie McGuinness.

Jackson Lee has been a top proponent of the Violence Against Women Act, which lapsed amid the ongoing partial government shutdown. The landmark legislation funds resources for victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes against women. The 13-term Texas congresswoman, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, was also in line for a subcommittee gavel in the new Democratic majority.

Her refusal to bow to pressure to resign as chair of the CBCF board could jeopardize her efforts in both of those areas.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump to make 'major announcement' on border, government shutdown

President Donald Trump will make a "major announcement" Saturday afternoon on border security and what the administration has termed a "humanitarian crisis" on the U.S.-Mexico border, as the government shutdown enters its fifth week.

"I will be making a major announcement concerning the Humanitarian Crisis on our Southern Border, and the Shutdown, tomorrow afternoon at 3 P.M., live from the @WhiteHouse," Trump tweeted Friday evening.

It is unclear what the president will announce, although he has previously floated declaring a national emergency to help fund his border wall, a key campaign promise.

However, last week he indicated that he would instead wait for Congress to strike a deal.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged reporters' questions about whether Trump would declare a national emergency.

"I’m not going to get ahead of the president, but I can assure you that he’s going to continue fighting for border security," she said outside the White House. "He’s going to continue looking for the solution to end the humanitarian and national security crisis at the border."

Trump has demanded $5.7 billion to build a border wall, which Democrats have not supported. Negotiations between Republicans and Democrats remain at a standstill.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Exclusive: House Intel leader seeks retreat to repair bitterly divided panel

The House Intelligence Committee will hold its first bipartisan summit in years with leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, a move to repair deep partisan acrimony created by the panel’s Russia investigation and rebuild trust between Capitol Hill and the clandestine community.

The move represents a departure from the recent past of the influential committee, which is expected to renew its investigation into Russian election interference and promises to play a more critical role in overseeing the Trump administration’s sprawling national security apparatus.

While the now Democrat-controlled panel has yet to hold an organizational meeting, committee staff has told member offices to reserve March 4 and March 5 for an overnight “off-site” session at an intelligence community agency or another site capable of handling classified discussions, sources who requested anonymity to talk about the upcoming event told POLITICO.

The meeting would mark the first time since 2015, when Rep. Devin Nunes became chairman, the panel has made such a sojourn. It’s one of several changes newly appointed committee Chairman Adam Schiff intends to make after a tumultuous two years when partisan bickering dominated the panel.

Schiff said he wanted to resurrect the tradition “both so that members can get a deeper understanding of what the agencies do, but also it’s one of the best opportunities for members to get to know each other in a social setting.”

“One of my goals is to try, if we can, to restore some comity between the members of the committee,” Schiff told POLITICO. “I hope through opportunities like that, as well as committee CODELS, we can get the members working together.”

Typically, an “off-site” could mean anything from a witness interview or committee hearing to a briefing on various clandestine efforts or agency plans.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, for instance, has traveled at least twice as a group to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to review classified evidence on Russia’s involvement in the presidential election. The agency has also provided an office to the panel for use in its probe to save members and staffers the hassle of schlepping to and from the Hill with top-secret materials.

For the House panel, the summit traditionally featured a massive turnout from the clandestine community, with invitations to leaders of all intelligence community agencies and offices, including those within the armed service branches. Lawmakers notify attendees in advance about the topics they want more information on. Over a couple days and many meals together, department heads or the Director of National Intelligence present their own priorities and concerns to members.

It was a “getaway where you could really just focus on intelligence,” which helped the committee’s oversight and efforts to craft agency budgets, said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who served as the panel’s top Democrat from 2011 to 2015, recalling one meeting near the FBI academy in Quantico, Va.

The last known trip had been planned in early 2017 but was canceled for supposed logistical reasons. After it was canceled, Nunes made a secret visit to the White House grounds that March to view what he claimed was possible evidence of surveillance wrongdoing by the Obama administration. He briefed President Donald Trump on the material the next day, even though it came from high-level White House staffers who probably could have presented the information to the president themselves rather than first providing it to Nunes.

The behavior by Nunes and the White House only accelerated what would devolve into open partisan warfare over the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, including the possibility of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign. It effectively shattered the Intelligence Committee’s reputation for comity.

Nunes declined to answer questions from POLITICO about the upcoming and past meetings or why the 2017 summit was never rescheduled. His spokesperson, Jack Langer, said in a statement: “You’re seriously writing a story about this?”

The Russia probe — which Schiff has pledged to reopen and has reportedly begun to staff up for — “soaked up most all of the oxygen out of the system last time,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who led the investigation after Nunes temporarily stepped aside from the inquiry following his late night White House visit.

Conway, who was term-limited off the committee but hopes to receive a waiver to return, said “off-site” meetings are “terrific opportunities to learn some of the ins and outs” of the clandestine community. “It’s time well spent.”

In addition to the visit, Schiff said he is looking for other ways to make members bond.

Schiff said he had originally planned for the committee to travel overseas to the Munich Security Conference, but it conflicted with Democrats’ annual caucus retreat. Democrats would have had to meet Republicans overseas, flying from their home districts.

The “benefit of traveling together would have been lost," he said.

“We did an important job in keeping our oversight nonpartisan and apolitical throughout all of the Russia differences,” Schiff added. “But I would like to get to a more cordial footing … on all the issues of our jurisdiction. We’re going to do our best and hope that’s reciprocated.”

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) predicted Schiff is “going to do his best to bring the committee together and do everything he can to help people work together well because we still have the Russia investigation, but the purview of the Intelligence Committee is also much broader than that.”

The retreat could also help repair relations between Congress and the intelligence community that have been fraying in recent years with the president and his Capitol Hill allies attacking agencies over the Russia investigation.

“There is going to be a real transition period when they try to regain the trust of the IC,” said Michael Bahar, a former Democratic staff director on the panel. “I know that sounds strange, but everything breaks down without trust. “

Intelligence officials “have to know” that they are being overseen fairly, he told POLITICO. “The fairer they feel they’re being treated, the more effective our oversight is” and the “less likely they are to hide things.”

Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), the lone Democrat to join the panel in the last Congress, said the upcoming trip suggests a new sense of bipartisanship is returning to the panel.

“I don’t want to dwell on the past because I do see it as a constructive step forward, so let’s be forward-looking and forward-thinking about it,” he said. “It’s a good thing and we should consider it as such.”

However, Schiff’s vow to restart the Russia investigation and the barbs members have traded over the last two years have left some committee members skeptical.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who joined the panel in 2015, said the trip could be a “posturing of good faith.”

Wenstrup, who also serves on the Ways and Means Committee, noted that panel had a bipartisan dinner recently and the atmosphere gave him hope that members are committed to working together, despite deep political differences. He said that he and other members want the same kind of collegiality to return to the intelligence committee.

“I will tell you, my first term on the Intelligence committee was very much business at hand,” he told POLITICO. “And then it changed after Mr. Trump got elected. We’ll see.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


The 'I'm sorry' 2020 Democratic primary

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand regrets that, as a conservative-leaning Democratic congresswoman, she backed gun rights and held “callous” views on immigration.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is sorry for past “offensive and hurtful statements” about the LGBTQ community.

Bernie Sanders is sorry, too — he's repeatedly apologized the women who were revealed to be sexually mistreated while working on his last campaign for president, before the #MeToo movement.

Even before the 2020 Democratic presidential primary kicks into gear — and ahead of Sanders’ own decision about whether he’ll run again — the contours of the race are being shaped by an apology tour of sorts.

While White House aspirants have long sought to dispense with unflattering elements of their records, the velocity of the party’s leftward shift has Democratic hopefuls scrambling to catch up — making remorse an early staple of the campaign. The grueling, eight-minute segment Gillibrand endured on Rachel Maddow's show Wednesday night on her ideological transformation was probably only a taste of what's in store.

“People want answers to the questions [about candidates' records] right now,” said Jerry Skurnik, a Democratic consultant in New York. “But there’s also no question that a large proportion of the Democratic Party’s likely voters has moved further to the left.”

The number of candidates seeking repentance is expected to grow. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who served for decades in the Senate, will be forced to relive his push for the crime bill of 1994, which paid for more police patrols, prisons and border security, and his earlier efforts to establish mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Biden, former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has yet to apologize to Anita Hill for his handling of the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas.

“The longer you have been in public life, and the longer voting record you have, the more you’ll have to answer to things you did,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist and veteran of presidential campaigns. “The quality of your candidacy will be your ability to answer to it.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, who may enter the presidential race in the coming days, is already seeing her record dissected as a career line prosecutor, district attorney and then state attorney general. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, now exploring a run of her own, has faced questions about being a member of the Republican Party until her switch in 1996.

Gabbard issued her apology this week in a video after the past remarks resurfaced with her presidential ambitions. CNN published statements and reports from earlier in her career, including a 2002 quote in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin where she spoke about working against same-sex marriage with her father’s anti-LGBT organization. Also included was a Gabbard quote from her time as a state legislator, when she advocated that “as Democrats, we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists.”

“In my past, I said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, they were very hurtful to the people in the LGBTQ community and to their loved ones,” Gabbard said in the apology video.

Sanders’ apologies — first on cable TV, and later at the Capitol — came after POLITICO and others reported on allegations of sexual harassment and violence during his 2016 campaign. On Wednesday, the Vermont senator met with a group of staffers who aired their concerns, ahead of his trip to South Carolina to mark Martin Luther King Day.

Carol Fowler, a longtime party activist in South Carolina, said the revised positions and walk-backs have not dampened her enthusiasm about meeting the Democrats and hearing more about them.

“Most of these candidates are unknown to many of us and we would like to get to know them better before we say, ‘Oh, that’s not a real Democrat,’” Fowler told POLITICO. “Whatever a candidate did years ago, Democrats will look at their work since then. We would like to see if they actually have a record since that time which is more in line with Democratic thinking.”

For Gillibrand, who announced her plans to seek the White House Tuesday on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the questions she now faces trace back to her political rise in 2006. That year, she won an underdog challenge to Republican then-Rep. John Sweeney in a GOP-heavy, overwhelmingly white New York district.

In the House, Gillibrand earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association; opposed driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants; and, according to a CNN report, opposed “amnesty for illegal immigrants” and voted to increase funding for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to work with local law enforcement on deportations. Those and other past Gillibrand positions, including wanting to make English the official language of the U.S., were recounted in painstaking detail by Maddow.

The liberal host didn’t hold back in her introduction, referring to Gillibrand’s political “transformation.”

“She has been on her own party’s right,” the popular MSNBC host said. “She has been on her own party’s left.”

Gillibrand, for her part, said she came to realize the errors of her ways when she became a senator and met with the Brooklyn family of a slain teenager — a story she often cites to explain her shift on gun control. “And now, I’ve been a leader on these issues,” the senator added, noting her support for universal background checks and bans on assault rifles and large magazines.

Later, Maddow said she was struck to hear Gillibrand tell CBS’ “60 Minutes” that she was essentially embarrassed by her previous positions on immigrants.

“Well, I don't think it was driven from my heart. I was callous to the suffering of families who want to be with their loved ones, people who want to be reunited with their families,” Gillibrand said.

Looking back, she added, “I really regretted that I didn’t look beyond my district and talk about why this is an important part of the United States story, and why it’s an important part of our strength.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Memo shows DHS considered stepped-up family separations in 2017

Trump administration officials considered separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border as early as December 2017, according to a draft memo obtained by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

The memo was created by senior officials at the Homeland Security Department and the Justice Department, the senator said. Merkley first shared the document with NBC News on Thursday and later posted it to the website Medium.

The memo mentioned, among 16 policy actions, “Increase Prosecution of Family Unit Parents” and “Separate Family Units.”

The first of these items described what became the following spring the Justice Department’s zero-tolerance policy. The memo noted that “the increase in prosecutions would be reported by the media and it would have substantial deterrent effect.”

Under “Separate Family Units,” the memo said: “Announce that DHS is considering separating family units, placing the adults in adult detention, and placing the minors under the age of 18 in the custody of HHS as unaccompanied children.”

Merkley said the memo demonstrates that the Trump administration followed a “step-by-step process” to develop a family separation policy that would deter asylum seekers.

The memo “barely mentions violent gangs and drugs,” Merkley wrote on Medium. Instead, it focuses on “a detailed plan to expand detention by increasing prosecutions of asylum seekers.”

The Trump administration separated thousands of families under its “zero tolerance” border enforcement strategy, which ran from April through June.

An inspector general’s report released this week found the total number of children separated from a parent under the policy remains unknown. The Trump administration did not have a system to track separated families until after a federal judge’s court order in late June forced the administration to reunite families.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has repeatedly asserted that the Trump administration never instituted a policy that would separate families at the border.

DHS and DOJ officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


DeSantis suspends Democratic election chief, accepts resignation of another

TALLAHASSEE — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday dispatched two South Florida Democratic election chiefs that faced GOP scorn after overseeing botched 2018 election operations.

The move completes a Republican-led makeover of election oversight and administration in two of Florida's deepest-blue counties.

DeSantis suspended Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher Friday on the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Ertel. In a scathing letter, Ertel cited Bucher’s “combative incompetence.”

Separately, DeSantis also accepted the resignation of Broward County Supervisor Brenda Snipes. Snipes was suspended by former Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, after a slow counting of tens of thousands of ballots that cut into razor-thin leads held by GOP candidates after Election Day. Scott sued to impound Broward and Palm Beach voting machines, a move rejected by a Broward County Circuit Court judge.

Bucher was elected in 2008. Snipes was appointed Gov. Jeb Bush and was first reelected to the position in 2004.

Scott and other Republicans openly sparred with the two supervisors after Election Day as recounts engulfed races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner. As the recount raged, Scott asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the Broward and Palm Beach election offices. The agency found no reason to open an investigation, citing "no criminal allegations of fraud."

Snipes unsuccessfully fought her suspension in court. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker didn’t reinstate her but noted that Scott had “vilified” her in the weeks after election. She was replaced by Pete Antonacci, a longtime Scott loyalist who served in his administration in several capacities. The Republican attorney will now oversee the 2020 elections in one of Florida’s most Democratic-leaning counties.

Bucher‘s suspension, first reported by POLITICO, had Democrats assailing DeSantis for partisan overreach.

“In the United States, our elections are sacred and our elections supervisors are democratically elected — the Governor's recent power grab, removing Democrats from elected positions, including Susan Bucher, should be seen for what it is, a gross overreach and a politically motivated move to consolidate power and obstruct the will of the people,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo.

DeSantis replaced Bucher with Wendy Link, an attorney who was appointed by Scott to the State University System Board of Governors in 2013.

Ertel’s letter recommending Bucher’s suspension is notable for its direct and biting language.

“I can say without equivocation the issues with the Palm beach County Supervisor of Elections Office rest solely at the top of the organization, Susan Bucher,” Ertel wrote.

Bucher, a former Democratic member of the Florida House, told POLITICO in November that aged and broken voting machines, not incompetence, were to blame for the office’s election woes. Bucher did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

“We were trying to drive a ’65 Mustang to L.A. and back with a bad fan belt and we were hoping we wouldn’t break down,” she said at the time. “But we broke down.”

In his letter, Ertel blamed Bucher for the dilapidated infrastructure.

“[T]he fault is not with the equipment. Supervisor Bucher had years of foreknowledge that her county needed to buy new equipment, yet she chose not to,” Ertel wrote. “Supervisor Bucher’s supervision of staff is also a factor. It was noted by an observer the tabulation system had been modified with a paper clip permanently affixed to the ‘enter’ key, in effect forcing an overheating of the system.“

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


White House pushes long odds strategy for wall

The White House has a new, long-shot idea for getting President Donald Trump’s border wall: persuading the Senate to take up the president’s wall request to force a deal with the Democrats, then reopen the government.

As the government shutdown enters its fifth week, the White House wants the Senate to take up legislation that would provide $5.7 billion for a barrier along the southern border, among other options that have been discussed with GOP leaders. Vice President Mike Pence and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met Thursday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and one option batted around was for congressional committees to take up the border request and potentially amend it in committee, all while the government is shutdown, according to a person familiar with the talks.

But even Republicans on the Hill recognize the idea is a nonstarter. About 10 of them have been urging the White House to accept their proposal to open up the government for three weeks and allow a quick immigration and border debate, because Democrats are resisting any negotiations until government is reopened.

“If there’s not a short-term shutdown [solution] to give us the space to negotiate, the Democrats won’t negotiate,” said a GOP senator in contact with the White House. “We all know the Democrats are unwilling to talk at this point.”

The administration, the senator added, is not fully factoring in that the Senate’s 60-vote threshold will require Democratic support.

“Every time I talk to them. That’s the assumption, that they believe we can just do it,” the senator said.

The discussion among Pence, Kushner and the majority leader centered around the GOP-controlled Senate taking the lead on legislation, given that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unwilling to take up new border security funding until the government reopens. The White House, however, has opposed a short-term spending bill to do that.

And Democrats are refusing to entertain the White House’s ideas until the funding lapse ends.

In colorful terms, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) summed up the party’s stance toward Trump: “If a kid that is screaming for an ice cream, you can't give him an ice cream cone. Because if you give in, he’ll never eat his vegetables again.”

The lack of progress on shutdown negotiations prompted a bipartisan group of senators this week to organize a letter that asked Trump to end the shutdown for three weeks in exchange for a debate on immigration and border security. Among the senators leading the effort were Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.).

The letter’s organizers hoped to get 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans to sign on — but several Republicans declined to do so, stating that Trump would not open the government without a border wall. The letter could still be sent.

Senators from both parties voiced frustration with the shutdown on Friday. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has objected to the Senate adjourning, offered by unanimous consent to bring legislation passed by the House to temporarily fund the Department of Homeland Security. But Senate Republicans blocked that effort.

Ideas intended to break the impasse “seem to be pulled back by those that don’t want us to get out of the mess that we’re in,” groused Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “And I have a difficult time understanding that.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


White House puts formal nix on congressional trips after grounding Pelosi's flight

The White House put top department officials on notice today that they are not allowed to spend money or use planes to help lawmakers travel on congressional delegation trips.

In a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies, the White House's acting budget director said President Donald Trump asked him to convey that "under no circumstances during a government shutdown" will any federal funds or government aircraft — rented, owned or chartered — be used to support any congressional delegation "without the express written approval of the White House Chief of Staff."

Federal officials can still provide logistical and security support for those delegations, acting OMB Director Russell Vought wrote.

The guidance comes after Trump made a public show Thursday of stopping House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats from using military aircraft to fly to Afghanistan.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump exempts most tribes from Medicaid work rules

Most Native Americans enrolled in Medicaid in Arizona won't be forced to work to keep their health insurance under new rules the Trump administration approved for the state, a move that likely defuses a yearlong controversy over tribal sovereignty that had split HHS leadership and alarmed some members of Congress.

The administration's top Medicaid official described the decision to exempt members of federally recognized tribes as a compromise over an issue that nearly derailed Arizona's request to add Medicaid work requirements — a top priority for President Donald Trump's health department. However, some Native American populations who are not enrolled citizens of their tribes are still subject to new employment rules and could lose their coverage for not working.

The administration's approval Friday could also pave the way for other states to require some American Indian enrollees of the low-income health insurance program to work.

Arizona, like some other states seeking new work rules, asked federal Medicaid officials to exempt all American Indian populations from the requirement, citing tribal sovereignty. However, administration lawyers last year determined the tribes were a racial group and not separate governments, and that granting them an exemption from the work requirement would have amounted to an illegal racial preference.

The position raised concerns among some GOP lawmakers in rural states and alarmed the tribes, which argued it reversed centuries of protections enshrined in the Constitution and upheld by the Supreme Court.

“There were a lot of complex legal issues here,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in an interview. “I think that we were able to find a middle ground.”

Arizona and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could not say how many individuals not enrolled with tribes would have to comply with the work rules.

Under the Arizona waiver approved Friday, Medicaid enrollees between the ages of 19 and 49 who are not exempt will have to work at least 80 hours per month — or participate in other activities like job training or community service — to maintain their health coverage. The administration and state officials had been negotiating for months over the plan.

Verma suggested her agency’s approach was the most feasible path given the competing arguments from administration lawyers and tribal groups.

“We believe this narrower exemption is consistent with the unique status of tribal governments,” the agency wrote in a letter to Arizona on Friday.

Tribal leaders said the administration's decision largely satisfies their concerns, but they said the exemption doesn’t go far enough to ensure that all American Indian populations would not be subject to the new rules.

For example, in other states — including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina — not all tribal populations are recognized by the federal government. In Arizona alone, there are American Indian populations who are not enrolled in their tribes but are still eligible for care through Indian Health Service facilities, said Ron Allen, chairman of the CMS Tribal Technical Advisory Group.

“It satisfies us about 90 percent,” Allen said. “The threat was, it could have been worse."

Verma on Friday indicated that the Arizona decision would apply more broadly to other states seeking work rules and requesting exemptions for tribal populations.

“Once we do something for one state, we’re trying to be consistent,” she said.

With the approval in Arizona, the Trump administration has granted employment conditions for Medicaid benefits in eight states, even as lawsuits from enrollees are trying to overturn the requirements in Arkansas and Kentucky. In Arkansas, the first state where the work rules took effect, more than 18,000 Medicaid enrollees in four months have been removed from the program for failing to report enough hours.

The Arizona requirement is set to take effect in January 2020.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine