Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump abruptly ousted his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in what is the latest shakeup in his 14-month-old presidency. It is a move that could have serious ramifications for the U.S. economic and foreign policy.
According to The New York Times, Tillerson learned of his firing Tuesday morning when an aide showed him a tweet from Trump announcing the change. But an omen came Friday, after White House chief of staff John Kelly called the Secretary, telling him to cut short his African trip, warning “you may get a tweet.”
Replacing Tillerson will be CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a former Tea Party congressman close to the president. Some view Pompeo as more in step with Trump’s “America First” philosophy.
Good reasons to pay attention to Pennsylvania special election
The polls are open today in the 18th Congressional District in Pennsylvania. Normally this might be of little interest to Florida politicos, but in the current atmosphere, several eyes are watching this one.
District 18 represents another opportunity for Democrats to flip a seat currently held by a Republican. The incumbent, Tim Murphy, resigned after reports indicated he encouraged a woman with whom he was involved to seek an abortion. Murphy was an outspoken opponent of abortions.
Republicans should be expected to hold this seat in a district won by Trump by 20 points in 2016, but they are no better than even money this time. By most accounts, the Democrats have fielded a superior candidate in Conor Lamb, while the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, has struggled.
GOP incumbents in South Florida like Carlos Curbelo or Brian Mast are hoping Saccone can pull out a victory, slowing the Democratic momentum, and curbing some of the enthusiasm that is showing up around the country, if only for a while.
Trump tried to do his part with a Saturday campaign stop for Saccone in a Pittsburgh suburb. Donald Trump, Jr. was there on Sunday.
If a Republican could lose a Congressional seat while enjoying the vocal support of a president who won the district by a landslide, then another Republican could lose almost any remotely competitive district anywhere.
Making a potential GOP loss even more devastating is the fact Trump announced his tariffs last week just before visiting steel country. Adding to the mix was a new jobs report on Friday that revealed more than 300,000 new jobs were created in February.
There’s more. Western Pennsylvania is coal country and Trump kept a promise to District 18 voters he would be there with friendly policies for the coal miners and their families.
On Sunday, Trump unveiled his new school safety/gun proposals that stopped short of raising the age limit for purchasing a gun (see below). The NRA is not the boogeyman in Western Pennsylvania as it is in parts of the country.
So, with all that, a Democratic victory would point to a level of intensity for Democrats, and lack thereof for Republicans, that should concern Curbelo, Mast, and maybe even some incumbents whose vulnerability hasn’t yet returned a blip on the radar.
That would include Gov. Rick Scott. While his popularity is at its highest levels since he became governor, he would be forced to deal with a lack of enthusiasm or hatred for Trump should he ultimately choose to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
Lamb has outraised Saccone, leaving the Republicans to count on outside expenditures to stay on a level playing field. Saccone is clearly facing headwinds.
If Saccone loses, those winds could begin to blow harder in Florida. On the other hand, if Trump pushes him to a comfortable victory, talk of a November blue wave, might subside somewhat.
The spinmeisters are warming up.
(NOTE: The Delegation will take a long weekend beginning Friday. We will resume publishing with our next issue Tuesday, March 20.)
Rubio demands accountability for VA mistakes on HIV testing
Another day, another controversy for the U.S. Veterans Affairs. The latest comes from the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where leadership failed to take warnings about flawed HIV testing seriously.
After 8 individuals received negative tests for HIV, only to receive different results at an outside facility, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote to VA Secretary David Shulkin demanding accountability. A VA facility employee was trying to warn superiors about the unreliability of the tests.
“This is unacceptable and our nation’s veterans deserve better,” Rubio wrote. “I request that you initiate an investigation into the Miami VAMC’s response and hold the appropriate officials accountable.”
The findings were revealed by the Office of Special Counsel (not the one looking into Russian election meddling), which looks into noncompliance with laws or regulations by government employees or agencies. In this case, the Special Counsel offered harsh criticism of the VA.
“I am incredulous that compliance with (a directive requiring the use of the latest testing methods) and implementation of fourth generation HIV testing occurred only after (a whistleblower’s) disclosure’s and OSC’s intercession,” said Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner in a report of his findings.
After the latest testing was finally made available, two of the 8 veterans who were retested at the Miami facility were determined to be HIV positive and began treatment. The other 6 retested and again came up negative for HIV.
Nelson seeks assurance Venezuela is not skirting sanctions
When the subject turns to Venezuela, Rubio can often be heard railing against President Nicolas Maduro and his regime. This time, Florida’s senior Senator is writing letters to the Trump administration on the matter.
On Monday, Nelson sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asking what steps the Trump administration is taking to ensure Maduro is not sidestepping U.S. sanctions. Specifically, Nelson asks if Maduro is using methods to avoid the crippling measures imposed on the regime.
“What is the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) doing to prevent Maduro and other sanctioned entities from avoiding or undermining U.S. sanctions by using or creating cryptocurrencies?” Nelson asked. “What does the Department plan to do to crack down on rogue cryptocurrency exchanges that flaunt U.S. sanctions?”
Nelson feels that Maduro’s launched the cryptocurrency is a sign the sanctions are having their desired effect.
“Maduro must not be permitted to circumvent increasing economic sanctions. He is responsible for persistent human rights violations, political repression and the jailing of opponents, undermining democratic institutions, corruption, and widespread economic deprivation,” Nelson wrote.
Poll: Scott holds slight lead over Nelson
According to a new poll, Gov. Scott holds a slim two-point lead over incumbent Democratic Sen. Nelson. According to a Clearview Research poll of 750 likely voters, Scott was the choice of 43 percent, to 41 percent for Nelson. Another 15 percent were undecided.
This poll differs from other recent surveys because it relies on likely voters, while some others sample registered voters or sometimes “adults.” In the Clearview turnout model, Republicans made up 41 percent of the sample with 39 percent Democrats and no party or “others” make up the rest.
“A few recent polls released to the media have shown samples that seem to anticipate more Democrats voting than Republicans,” said Steve Vancore of Clearview Research. “While that could possibly be the case, we see little evidence for it at this time.”
In midterm elections, Florida Republicans often outperform Democrats, but some pundits and media analysts believe Democrats are sufficiently energized to make history. If the Democratic energy is there, Clearview points to new voter registrations, which show the GOP with more registrations than Democrats.
Nelson and his party are hoping the poll’s methodology is wrong.
Trump’s school safety and gun proposals receive mixed reviews
Two weeks ago, Trump held a “surreal” meeting in the White House to talk about guns and school safety. During that meeting, attended by 5 members of the Florida delegation, Trump talked about raising the age to buy firearms, expanded background checks, and taking guns away from those with mental health problems.
After chiding lawmakers about being afraid of the NRA, Trump met with the powerful group shortly afterward. On Sunday, the president released his suggestion for gun policy and keeping schools safe.
The proposal to raise the limit to buy guns was not part of that package. Instead, Trump would leave that up to the states to match what Florida did last with last week’s bill signed by Gov. Scott.
Trump also urged states to follow Florida’s lead and pass authority for “risk protection orders” that would allow courts to order law enforcement to confiscate firearms of individuals deemed a threat.
He did announce his support for two bills, including the Stop School Violence Act sponsored by Jacksonville Republican John Rutherford.
“Every child deserves to grow up in a safe community surrounded by a loving family and to have a future filled with opportunity and with hope,” Trump said in a prepared statement.
Predictably, the response to Trump’s proposal was mixed.
“I applaud the President for supporting many of the initiatives I have offered that will promote gun safety, including incentivizing states to adopt Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) and the Stop School Violence Act,” Republican Rubio said in a statement.
The Senate version of Rutherford’s bill, sponsored by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and Rubio, has not yet been scheduled for debate.
Democrat Nelson said even providing the authority for states to arm teachers is “a terrible idea.”
Parkland student survivor David Hogg, who is becoming the go-to source for banning assault weapons, accused Trump on CNN of being “no better than all of the other politicians because he’s owned by (the NRA) too.”
The House will take up Rutherford’s bill this week.
Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton will co-host a conference call to demand that GOP Sen. Marco Rubio withdraw his bill they say will eliminate nearly all the District of Columbia’s gun laws. Joining Deutch is Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. The briefing is 2 p.m.
Gaetz hosts Western Hemisphere Field Hearing
On Monday, the Republican Congressman from Fort Walton Beach hosted a forum on drug trafficking and terrorism. Joining Gaetz were policy experts, law enforcement, and local elected officials to discuss the roles of countries like Venezuela and terror organizations like Hezbollah in drug trafficking.
Gaetz’s goals are to identify main threats, receive recommendations to target those threats and to develop and execute a plan on how Congress can assist in combating and eliminating those threats.
The “Western Hemisphere Field Hearing” was held at the National Naval Aviation Museum on Naval Air Station Pensacola.
Lawson co-hosts small business hearing in Jacksonville
The first-term Democrat from Tallahassee was in the far eastern part of his district Monday talking about small businesses gaining access to capital. Specifically, women and minority-owned businesses.
Lawson was joined in Jacksonville by Kentucky Republican James Comer for a Congressional Field hearing to discuss discrepancies in access to capital. They discussed a variety of remedies.
“Capital is the lifeblood of any business,” Lawson said, noting that the average African-American startup is 18 percent less likely than white business owners to get help from the lending industry.
“Investors are predisposed to a preference to people who are similar to them,” Lawson added, and to that end, Monday’s hearing was intended to help women and minority-owned businesses voice their needs in the marketplace.
Presenters spoke of the difficulties facing women and minorities. While the Small Business Administration offers some assistance, local banks “tend to shy away” from providing capital.
This leads business owners to seek risky loans out of necessity.
The field hearing was hosted by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.
Soto nabs progressive group’s endorsement
The Congressional Progressive Caucus Political Action Committee has weighed in on the race for Congressional District 9. Last week, they gave their endorsement and support to first-term Democrat Darren Soto of Orlando.
“Darren Soto is a fighter for economic justice. He works tirelessly for working Americans, and he always has. He marches for civil rights and civil liberties — for Dreamers, for Muslims, for LGBTQ Americans,” Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC Co-Chair Mark Pecan said in a news release issued by Soto’s re-election campaign.
Soto’s Republican opponent, Wayne Liebnitzky, criticized Soto for working more for his party and not the citizens of the district.
“He has only done what party leader [Nancy] Pelosi directed him to do, instead of taking care of the area,” Liebnitzky said. “I guess I won’t lose any sleep tonight awaiting their endorsement.”
Soto defeated Liebnitzky in 2016.
T. Rooney disagrees with key finding of Intel Committee
Late Monday afternoon, the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee effectively ended their investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections. The GOP majority held that Russia tried to create chaos, but there was no collusion with, or specific help directed toward, Trump.
To no one’s surprise, Democrats slammed the committee’s decision. Among those with a different view of the majority was Okeechobee Republican Tom Rooney, a member of the committee, who said there was evidence the Russians sought to help Trump.
“I certainly think there is evidence of that. I don’t know that necessarily there was a full-fledged campaign to do everything that they could to help elect Donald Trump,” Rooney told host Erin Burnett on CNN’s “OutFront.” “I think that their goal was chaos.”
When Burnett pointed out that intelligence officials indicated a goal of Russia was “to hurt Hillary Clinton,” Rooney said he believed “there was evidence of everything you just said.”
At the same time, Rooney agreed with the decision to end the investigation, but for different reasons.
“We’ve gone completely off the rails and now we are just basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day’s news,” Rooney told Burnett. “We’ve lost all credibility and we are going to issue probably two different reports, unfortunately.”
With the fall elections approaching, Rooney believes any recommendations the committee might issue to prevent further Russian interference need to be issued quickly.
“If we don’t get any of these recommendations out before this cycle gets fully underway, then we have really just completely wasted a year of everybody’s time,” he said.
Mast introducing bill temporarily banning some assault weapons
Gun control advocates say any legislation that does not ban assault rifles does not go far enough. Palm City Republican Mast agrees with them — sort of.
This week, Mast is introducing legislation that calls for a 60-day “pause” on the sales of guns like the AR-15, which was the rifle used to murder 17 students and school personnel on February 14. The combat veteran and longtime member of the National Rifle Association started the conversation with a February 23 op-ed in The New York Times.
Mast is looking to establish a deadline, which he believes will create the urgency needed to bring sides together to develop comprehensive legislation. His op-ed explained that he is in favor of a permanent ban on “tactical weapons.”
He suggests his proposal will stir the pot and justifies it by saying “hey, we’re going to pause the sales of these gas-operated, semi-automatic rifles for 60 days, you can be sure there’s going to be a fire under the people here.”
Mast is speaking of his Republican colleagues, many of which are opposed to any sort of ban. One of Mast’s colleagues in the Florida delegation supports his efforts.
Retiring Okeechobee Republican Rooney praised Mast, but also said only Trump can take on the NRA and win. Rooney cautioned Mast about going too far unless he is certain he has Trump’s support.
“I don’t want him to get so far out there, and then the president leaves him at the alter,” Rooney told TCPalm/Treasure Coast Newspapers.
Mast says he is not thinking about political risks, only about bringing people together to solve problems.
“Whether we’re lifelong Democrats or lifelong Republicans, or lifelong NRA members, or never thought about the NRA in our life,” Mast said, “if we’re willing to say there’s a line, we’re not that far apart.
Deutch joins Nelson seeking federal involvement in state water rules
With the Florida Department of Environmental Protection tweaking the rules involving pollutants in state surface waters, some are calling for the federal Environmental Protection to get involved. Democrat Nelson and Democrat Deutch of Boca Raton wrote to EPA Administration Scott Pruitt calling on his agency to ensure Florida residents are protected from toxins in their water supply.
“We wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to express concern that DEP’s proposal did not adequately consider potential health impacts, especially for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly,” they wrote.
Nearly two years ago, the Environmental Regulation Commission voted 3-2 to revise state water quality standards that critics say endangers the public. The criticism from environmentalists was harsh and DEP ultimately withdrew the rule “to ensure the department is relying on the latest science.”
“DEP has identified an opportunity to partner with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes to gather additional data as we move forward to protect Florida’s water,” said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller. “Since these rules were not yet submitted to the EPA, Florida’s current water standards remain in place and we will keep fighting to protect our environment and ensure clean water for Florida families.”
“We sought EPA’s engagement as this process unfolded in 2016, since the chemical standards will ultimately require EPA approval,” the congressmen wrote. “In addition to monitoring the state’s use of inadequate standards and questionable methodology, we urge you to ensure there is sufficient transparency and opportunity for public engagement.”
Nelson and Deutch are asking EPA to keep a skeptical eye on state efforts.
“Lastly, we hope the new proposal better reflects science, including fish consumption levels for the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes, among others.”
Positive reports from Obama/Fugate era scrubbed from FEMA website
Under former President Barack Obama, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) faced disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes and weather-related catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately for all concerned, they did not have a Katrina-type storm, which defined the agency (rightly or wrongly) in the minds of the public during the era of President George W. Bush.
Some reports chronicling the good works of FEMA during the Obama era have now been scrubbed by the agency. FEMA’s Office of Inspector General removed 12 largely positive reports because “they may have not adequately answered objectives, and in some cases, may have lacked sufficient and appropriate evidence to support the conclusions.”
This has puzzled Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator during the Obama presidency. Fugate took over the leadership at FEMA in 2009 after serving as Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management from 2001-2009.
“For the life of me, I have no idea why they are rescinding them. I guess the Obama administration didn’t do anything right then,” he quipped.
FEMA spokesman Arlen Morales said FEMA has developed a new approach that provides real-time feedback to the agency as they battle the effects of an emergency. It was used during the multiple hurricane and wildfire disasters during the first year of the Trump administration.
If that is true, Fugate is fine with that approach instead of one that provides after the fact “punitive reports” or actions.
“If they’re moving to where (they give FEMA) a chance to address those as they see them, particularly in the disaster environments, that would be helpful,” he said.