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House GOP health bill facing fresh House committee test

The White House and Republican leaders are talking to rank-and-file lawmakers about revising the GOP health care overhaul, hoping to keep a rebellion by conservatives and moderates from snowballing and imperiling the party’s showpiece legislation.

Four days after a congressional report projected the bill would pry coverage from millions of voters, signs of fraying GOP support for the legislation were showing. The measure would strike down much of former President Barack Obama‘s 2010 overhaul and reduce the federal role, including financing, for health care consumers and is opposed uniformly by Democrats.

In a fresh test of Republicans’ willingness to embrace the legislation, the House Budget Committee was considering the measure Thursday. Republicans expressed confidence the bill would be approved, but the vote could be tight. The panel can’t make significant changes but was expected to endorse non-binding, suggested changes to nail down votes.

The bill would eliminate the tax penalty that pressures people to buy coverage and the federal subsidies that let millions afford it, replacing them with tax credits that are bigger for older people. It would cut Medicaid, repeal the law’s tax increases on higher earning Americans and require 30 percent higher premiums for consumers who let coverage lapse.

Overt GOP opposition grew after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected Monday that the legislation would push 24 million Americans off coverage in a decade and shift out-of-pocket costs toward lower income, older people. Obama’s law has provided coverage to around 20 million additional people

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Wednesday that leaders could now make “some necessary improvements and refinements” to the legislation. But he declined to commit to bringing the measure to the House floor next week, a schedule Republican leaders have repeatedly said they intended to keep.

At a late rally in Nashville Wednesday, President Donald Trump said: “We’re going to arbitrate, we’re all going to get together, we’re going to get something done.”

Vice President Mike Pence met with House GOP lawmakers and pressed them to unite behind the legislation.

“‘It’s our job to get it out of here and get it to the Senate,'” Pence told Republicans, according to Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. That would let Trump pressure “Democrats in these red states to come on board,'” Ross said, referring to Republican-leaning states where Democratic senators face re-election next year.

But insurgents still abound.

Conservatives want to end Obama’s expansion of Medicaid to 11 million additional low-income people next year, not 2020 as the bill proposes. They say a GOP proposed tax credit to help people pay medical costs is too generous, and they want to terminate all of Obama’s insurance requirements, including mandatory coverage of specified services like drug counseling.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, continued pushing for changes. He claimed at least 21 members of his group would oppose the measure as written; the bill would fail if 22 Republicans join all Democrats in opposing it.

But underscoring the push-pull problem GOP leaders face in winning votes, moderates feel the tax credits are too stingy, especially for low earners and older people. They oppose accelerating the phase-out of the Medicaid expansion and are unhappy with long-term cuts the measure would inflict on the entire program.

Terminating the Medicaid expansion in 2020 and not 2018 “is sacrosanct to me,” said moderate Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J.

In a new complication, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the measure lacked the votes to pass in the Senate, where Republicans hold a precarious 52-48 majority. That left House members angry over being asked to take a politically risky vote for legislation likely to be altered.

Moderates “don’t like the idea of taking a vote in the House that may go nowhere in the Senate,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.

Amid the maneuvering, a federal report said more than 12 million people have signed up for coverage this year under the very statute that Republicans want to repeal. That figure underscored the potential political impact of the GOP’s next move.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump looking to Sarah Huckabee Sanders in tough moments

Faced with aggressive on-air questioning about the president’s wiretapping claims, Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t flinch, she went folksy.

Speaking to George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” she pulled out a version of an old line from President Lyndon Johnson: “If the president walked across the Potomac, the media would be reporting that he could not swim.”

The 34-year-old spokeswoman for President Donald Trump was schooled in hardscrabble politics — and down-home rhetoric — from a young age by her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Her way with a zinger — and her unshakable loyalty to an often unpredictable boss — are big reasons why the deputy press secretary is a rising star in Trump’s orbit.

In recent weeks, Sanders has taken on a notably more prominent role in selling Trump’s agenda, including on television and at White House press briefings. As White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s public profile has fluctuated in recent weeks amid criticism of his performance, Sanders has increasingly become a chief defender of Trump in some of his toughest moments.

Sanders’ rise has fueled speculation that she’s becoming the president’s favored articulator, a notion she disputes. “It’s hard for any one person to maintain a schedule of being the singular face all day every day,” she said. She argued that more than one press aide spoke for President Barack Obama.

“When Eric Schultz went on TV did anybody say Josh Earnest is getting fired?” Sanders asked. “Was that story ever written?”

Spicer echoed that message: “My goal is to use other key folks in the administration and the White House to do the shows.”

Indeed, speaking on behalf of this president is a challenging and consuming job.

Trump often presents his own thoughts directly on Twitter in the early hours of the morning and is known to closely follow his surrogates on television, assessing their performances. He has been happy with Sanders’ advocacy, said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president.

“She understands America. She understands the president. And she understands how to connect the two,” said Conway, who noted that Sanders had appeared on television throughout the campaign as well. “The president has a great deal of trust in Sarah.”

On some days recently Sanders has been the administration’s messenger of choice, even when news outlets aren’t thrilled. Last Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd said on-air that “Meet the Press” had sought a “senior administration official or a Cabinet secretary,” but that the “White House offered a deputy press secretary. And so we declined.”

Sanders credits her larger-than-life dad with helping her learn how to deliver a message. Huckabee, a frequent political commentator, has long been famed for his pithy rhetoric. The two speak most mornings before 6 a.m.

“I’ll call and say, ‘What do you think if I say this?’ He’ll say, ‘That’s really good. You might try to say it a little bit more like X,'” she said.

On advocating for the unconventional Trump, Sanders admits that even in the press office, they don’t always get a heads up before Trump tweets. But she says part of Trump’s appeal is that he “directly communicates with the American people on a regular basis.”

Arkansas-raised, Sanders moved her young family to Washington to be part of the administration. She is married to a Republican consultant and they have three young children. She joined the Trump campaign not long after her father’s second presidential bid — which she managed — fizzled out in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. She said she was drawn to Trump’s message of economic populism and his outsider attitude.

“One of the big things my dad was running on was changing Washington, breaking that cycle,” Sanders said. “I felt like the outsider component was important and I thought he had the ability to actually win and defeat Hillary.”

She also said she was drawn to the Trump family’s close involvement in the campaign, “having kind of been in the same scenario for my dad’s campaign.”

Being part of an effort to defeat Hillary Clinton had extra significance for Sanders, whose father entered the Arkansas governor’s mansion just a few years after Bill Clinton exited and who shared advisers and friends in the state. Sanders said at times it was difficult to be aggressive, but she “so disagreed” with Hillary Clinton’s policies, that she kept on.

Sanders entered politics young, helping with her father’s campaigns as a child and then working her way up the ranks until she had the top job in 2016. In 2007, she moved to Iowa to run her father’s operation in the leadoff caucus state, where he was the surprise winner. She has also served in the Education Department under President George W. Bush and worked on a number of Senate and presidential campaigns.

Mike Huckabee said his daughter was always a natural.

“When most kids at 7 or 8 are jumping rope, she’s sitting at the kitchen table listening to Dick Morris doing cross tabs on statewide polls,” said Huckabee, referring to the adviser-turned-adversary to President Bill Clinton.

Those Arkansas ties continue to hold strong. Sanders has consulted with friends from the state about her new role, including Mack McLarty, the former Clinton chief of staff, who she said counseled her to appreciate the “historic opportunity” to work in the White House.

Her rising profile has come with ups and downs. Sanders says she is turning off social media alerts because she has been flooded with criticism. For now, she has not been treated to a portrayal on “Saturday Night Live” — like Spicer and Conway. But her dad says that if that comes next, she should roll with it.

“One of the great honors of life is to be parodied,” Huckabee said. “It’s kind of an indication that you’ve arrived at a place of real power.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

About that unusually tense interview between Stephanopoulos, Trump aide

George Stephanopoulos‘ “Good Morning America” interview with White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday is an instant milestone in the hostile relationship between the Trump administration and the media.

In the discussion about President Donald Trump‘s weekend accusations — offered without proof — that former President Obama ordered Trump’s New York home wiretapped, Stephanopoulos repeatedly interrupted and stopped Sanders when he felt she veered from the truth. It was a crackling exchange unusual for the generally happy terrain of network morning television, and made Stephanopoulos a hero or villain depending on whose social media feed is followed.

It was also the second time in a month that the ABC anchor had a notably sharp interview with a Trump administration official. On “This Week” last month, he repeatedly pressed Trump aide Stephen Miller for evidence to back up the claim that there was massive voter fraud in the election.

Sanders was also interviewed on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday, while “CBS This Morning” turned down the White House’s offer to have her on. Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” brought presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway on to speak about Trump’s allegations, less than a day after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said there would be no further comment on the issue. It wasn’t clear what changed the administration’s strategy.

Stephanopoulos began his interview by asking Sanders whether Trump accepted reports that FBI director James Comey had denied there was any wiretapping of Trump. Sanders said she didn’t believe he did, and started talking about wiretapping reports in other media outlets.

“Sarah, I have got to stop you right there,” Stephanopoulos said. The stories she cited did not back up the president’s claims, he said. “What is the president’s evidence?” he asked.

Sanders said there was “wide reporting” suggesting that the administration could have ordered wiretapping. Stephanopoulos stopped her to note there was a report of a court-ordered wiretapping, although James Clapper, former director of national intelligence under Obama, had denied that.

Stephanopoulos stopped Sanders again when she noted that the unsubstantiated report of a wiretapping order came under the Obama administration and that “all we’re asking is that Congress be allowed to do its job.”

“Hold on a second,” he said. “There is a world of difference between a wiretap ordered by a president and a court-ordered wiretap by a federal judge.”

Noting that Obama’s representatives, Comey and Clapper had all said there was no wiretapping, Stephanopoulos asked, “is the president calling all three of these people liars?”

Sanders said that he wasn’t, but that it was a matter for congressional investigators to look into. She said she considered it a double standard that the media does not believe Trump when he says nothing untoward had happened between him and Russia, while reporters accept denials by the Obama administration on the wiretap accusation.

“If the president walked across the Potomac, the media would be reporting that he could not swim,” she said.

The interview illustrated the difficulties the media faces in trying to report on the president’s unsubstantiated tweets. There was a furious debate on the “Good Morning America” Facebook page on Monday afternoon between people who cheered the host, a one-time adviser to President Bill Clinton, for calling out untruths, and others who believed he was rude — even suggesting they would boycott ABC’s morning show because they were disgusted by the interview.

Many of Trump’s supporters are angered by aggressive questioning because they believe the media did not ask similar tough questions of the Obama administration, said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog.

“You have no right to tell us what the truth is,” Graham said.

At the same time, reporters face pressure from Trump opponents who give no quarter, as witnessed by last week’s backlash against television analysts who suggested Trump gave an effective speech before Congress. There are also some who believe the wiretap accusation itself is a way to distract people from the story about Russia, and the media effectively supports the strategy by reporting it.

Stephanopoulos said after the interview that his job is to elicit as much clarity as possible, and he believed his interview was an important opportunity to get the Trump administration on the record on these issues.

“If I hear something that I know to be untrue, then I think it’s my responsibility to point that out,” he said.

Sanders’ interview on “Today” was more peaceful, but still had some tense moments. Savannah Guthrie interrupted Sanders to ask a second time when she wouldn’t answer her question about whether the president had made his accusations solely after seeing media reports. She said she didn’t know.

Sanders later repeated the same line about the Potomac River.

Conway was given more time to talk on “Fox & Friends,” although she did face pushback on whether Trump associates who had conversations with Russian officials had hurt the president. She drew laughs when she said she wished she had $50 for every time Russia was mentioned in the news.

“A drinking game,” one of the Fox anchors joked off-screen.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

House GOP releases bill replacing Barack Obama health care overhaul

House Republicans on Monday released their long-awaited plan for unraveling former President Barack Obama‘s health care law, a package that would scale back the government’s role in health care and likely leave more Americans uninsured.

House committees planned to begin voting on the 123-page legislation Wednesday, launching what could be the year’s defining battle in Congress and capping a seven-year Republican effort to repeal the 2010 law. Though GOP leaders expect their measure to win the backing of the Trump administration, divisions remain and GOP success is by no means ensured.

The plan would repeal the statute’s unpopular fines on people who don’t carry health insurance. It would replace income-based subsidies the law provides to help millions of Americans pay premiums with age-based tax credits that may be less generous to people with low incomes. Those payments would phase out for higher-earning people.

The bill would continue Obama’s expansion of Medicaid to additional low-earning Americans until 2020. After that, states adding Medicaid recipients would no longer receive the additional federal funds the statute has provided.

More significantly, Republicans would overhaul the federal-state Medicaid program, changing its open-ended federal financing to a limit based on enrollment and costs in each state.

In perhaps their riskiest political gamble, the plan is expected to cover fewer than the 20 million people insured under Obama’s overhaul, including many residents of states carried by President Donald Trump in November’s election.

Republicans said they don’t have official estimates on those figures yet. But aides from both parties and nonpartisan analysts have said they expect coverage numbers to be lower.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the bill would “drive down costs, encourage competition, and give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance.” He added, “This unified Republican government will deliver relief and peace of mind to the millions of Americans suffering under Obamacare.”

But besides solid opposition from Democrats, there were signals galore that Republican leaders faced problems within their own party, including from conservatives complaining that the measure isn’t aggressive enough in repealing parts of Obama’s law.

“It still looks like Obamacare-lite to me,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., among three Senate conservatives who have criticized the emerging GOP bill. “It’s going to have to be better.”

The Republican tax credits — ranging from $2,000 to $14,000 for families — would be refundable, meaning even people with no tax liability would receive the payments. Conservatives have objected that that feature creates a new entitlement program the government cannot afford.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wouldn’t rule out changes in the measure by his chamber, where significant numbers of moderate Republicans have expressed concerns that the measure could leave too many voters without coverage.

“The House has the right to come up with what it wants to and present it to the Senate by passing it. And we have a right to look it over and see if we like it or don’t,” Hatch told reporters.

Underscoring those worries, four GOP senators released a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., shortly before the bill was unveiled.

They complained that an earlier, similar draft of the measure “does not provide stability and certainty for individuals and families in Medicaid expansion programs or the necessary flexibility for states.” Signing the letter were Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia opted to expand Medicaid coverage under the law and accept beefed-up federal spending for the program. Around half those states have GOP governors, who are largely reluctant to see that spending curtailed.

In another feature that could alienate moderate Republicans, the measure would block for one year federal payments to Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization long opposed by many in the party because it provides abortions. It also forbids people receiving tax credits to help pay premiums to buy coverage under a plan that provides abortions.

Republicans said they’d not yet received official cost estimates on the overall bill from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That office’s projections on the bill’s price tag and the number of people the measure would cover could be key in winning over recalcitrant Republicans, or making them even harder to win over.

A series of tax increases on higher-earning people, the insurance industry and others used to finance the Obama overhaul’s coverage expansion would be repealed as of 2018.

In a last-minute change to satisfy conservative lawmakers, business and unions, Republicans dropped a plan pushed by Ryan to impose a first-ever tax on the most generous employer-provided health plans.

Popular consumer protections in the Obama law would be retained, such as insurance safeguards for people with pre-existing medical problems, and parents’ ability to keep young adult children on their insurance until age 26.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

An angry weekend follows on heels of frustrations for Donald Trump

President Donald Trump started his weekend in Florida in a fit of anger over his young administration getting sidetracked just days after his most successful moment in office. He returned to the White House late Sunday derailed — again.

Trump’s frustration appeared to be both the symptom and the cause of his recent woes. Angry about leaks, errant messaging and his attorney general landing in hot water, he fired off a series of tweets that only ensured more distractions.

His staff had hoped to build on the momentum generated by his speech to Congress by rolling out his revamped travel ban and, potentially, unveiling his health care plan. Those efforts rapidly unraveled, sparking more staff infighting and enraging a president loath to publicly admit a mistake and eager to shift the blame onto others.

And now, as Trump begins one of the most pivotal weeks yet for his presidency, his staff is facing the fallout from another allegation of close ties to Russia and the president’s unsubstantiated claims that his predecessor ordered him wiretapped during the campaign.

Trump simmered all weekend in Florida before returning to Washington ahead of signing new immigration restrictions, according to associates who spoke to the president and, like others interviewed, requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. Those close to Trump said it was the angriest he’s been as president, his rage bursting to the surface at his senior staff Friday afternoon in the Oval Office.

Trump was furious about the negative impact of the flap over Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. He told one person he personally felt let down that his senior staff were unable to fight back against the story. He also suggested he felt that Sessions’ move to recuse himself from any investigation into administration links to Russia felt like an admission of defeat, said the person who spoke to the president over the weekend but declined to be named discussing private conversations.

Sessions’ decision particularly infuriated a president who promised repeatedly during the campaign that he’d “win so much the American people would be tired of winning” and he felt that it was a sign of weakness, the person said.

White House chief of staff Reince Preibus, scheduled to travel with Trump to his coastal Palm Beach estate, was told to stay behind. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon also remained in Washington but later flew to Mar-a-Lago.

Those close to Trump have said he has had his happiest days as president at Mar-a-Lago. He didn’t cool off there this weekend.

Many West Wing staffers who stayed behind in Washington awoke Saturday morning to the chiming of their cell phones. The president was tweeting just after dawn to hurl the extraordinary accusation that President Barack Obama had ordered Trump Tower to be wiretapped, a charge for which Trump provided no evidence.

Trump had stayed disciplined on Twitter for days surrounding his congressional speech, but no more. Staffers planning to spend the weekend preparing for the president’s new executive orders were instead sent scrambling to deal with the incendiary tweetstorm, their carefully laid plans again wrecked 140 characters at a time.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, an honored guest at Saturday night’s annual white-tie Gridiron Dinner, a night of witticisms delivered by reporters and politicos alike, spent most of the night with his head buried in his phone, missing many of the jokes, several at his expense. Sessions had been slated to attend the event but canceled after the revelations about his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The first travel ban, which was hastily written with little outside consultation, was struck down by a federal court. Weeks of planning and delays have gone into the second order, one that is also sure to face legal challenges and, were it to suffer a second legal defeat, could have a devastating political impact.

Some Trump allies have been frustrated by his conspiracy-mongering about the inauguration crowd size and claims of widespread voter fraud, believing those accusations had become distractions to their agenda. Afraid to upset the mercurial president, they scrambled to fulfill his request to probe the alleged wiretapping.

On Sunday, the White House asked Republicans in Congress to search for evidence. Obama’s intelligence chief would soon say no such action was ever carried out, and a U.S. official would confirm that the FBI had asked the Justice Department to dispute the allegation.

“I think the bigger thing is, let’s find out. Let’s have an investigation,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on ABC. “If they’re going to investigate Russia ties, let’s include this as part of it. And so that’s what we’re asking.”

Other Republicans seemed baffled by the charges, which could prove a distraction in the week ahead.

“The president put that out there, and now the White House will have to answer as to exactly what he was referring to,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on CNN.

But Trump told friends that he was certain he’d be vindicated.

“I spoke with the president twice yesterday about the wiretap story. I haven’t seen him this pissed off in a long time,” wrote Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend and head of NewsMax. “When I mentioned Obama ‘denials’ about the wiretaps, he shot back: ‘This will be investigated, it will all come out. I will be proven right.'”

The president, accustomed to a culture of corporate loyalty enforced by iron-clad nondisclosure agreements, also continued to rage about the leaks that have plagued his White House. He blames the leaks, rather than any of his own decisions, for his administration’s shaky start and is threatening to make changes if they continue, according to one person who spoke to him. That could include making the administration’s public case for policies, as he did in a lengthy news conference and his congressional speech, both performances praised by his backers.

Trump has been particularly incensed over the leaks about Russia ties, which have dogged him since his election. During the transition, he ripped the intelligence community for being behind the leaks and even compared them to Nazi propaganda. Lately, he has blamed Democrats, suggesting that they were using them as an excuse for Hillary Clinton‘s defeat.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Teed off: Critics say Donald Trump water rule helps his golf links

President Donald Trump‘s recent executive order calling for a review of a rule protecting small bodies of water from pollution and development is strongly supported by golf course owners who are wary of being forced into expensive cleanups on their fairways.

It just so happens that Trump’s business holdings include a dozen golf courses in the United States, and critics say his executive order is par for the course: yet another unseemly conflict of interest that would result in a benefit to Trump properties if it goes through.

“This conflict is disturbing and his failure to completely step away from his business raises questions about his White House actions,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight.

Trump’s order targets a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule — released under former President Barack Obama in 2015 — that designates many smaller creeks and wetlands as protected under the Clean Water Act of 1972. Environmentalists, and some hunting and fishing groups, say keeping those humble waterways intact and clean is essential to the larger downstream waters they feed.

Golf course owners like Trump oppose the Obama rules, arguing that water features on golf courses would be covered and thus subjected to costly controls and possible fines for violating pollution limits. Among the 17 golf courses Trump owns around the world, three are in Florida. He also owns golf properties in Scotland, Ireland, California and North Carolina.

Trump had railed against the Obama rule during his campaign, slamming it as an example of federal overreach. In signing the executive order on Feb. 28, Trump derided the Obama rule as a “very destructive and horrible rule” and an example of federal regulation that “has truly run amok.”

Bob Helland, a lobbyist for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said there are more than 161,000 acres of streams, ponds and wetlands on golf courses around the nation that he argues would be covered under the Obama administration rule. He said the cost of dealing with that is the group’s concern, and that he didn’t think Trump’s involvement was an issue.

“It’s not about the Trump administration doing something to benefit themselves,” Helland said. “We’ve been opposed to the rule from the start because we think every drainage area or pond would be subject to oversight.”

The administration did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press for this story.

Trump’s executive order is lifting the pro-business spirits of many, including builders, landowners, and farmers who opposed the Obama rule as too onerous. The American Farm Bureau contends the Obama rule would convert much of the nation’s farmlands to wetlands in the eyes of the law, opening a door for more intrusion from regulators.

John Duarte, a fourth-generation California farmer involved in a legal battle over Clean Water Act violations on one of his farms, applauded Trump’s decision to rescind the rule.

“I think the Trump directive is very promising, and hopefully points to a very broad redirection of the regulatory state and the Trump administration bringing it back to reality,” Duarte said.

Trump’s order to “rescind or revise” the rule could take years. The Obama rule is tied up in court and hasn’t even taken effect yet, and legal experts say the Trump administration will have to draft its rule while seeking to have the myriad court challenges against the existing rule thrown out.

Despite the legally tangled future of the Trump order, critics came out swinging after the president signed it.

Richard W. Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who served as President George W. Bush‘s chief White House lawyer on ethics, said if Trump were head of the EPA, the law would require him to sell his golf courses or recuse himself from participating in the rule making.

“So the boss is doing something that the head of the EPA cannot do. That’s going to look terrible when the EPA backs off on that rule and people will ask if there was White House influence.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump claims Barack Obama had phones wiretapped; Obama denies it

President Donald Trump on Saturday accused former President Barack Obama of having Trump Tower telephones “wire tapped” during last year’s election, a startling claim that Obama’s spokesman said was false.

Trump did not offer any evidence or details, or say what prompted him to make the allegation.

Trump, whose administration has been under siege over campaign contacts with Russian officials, said in a series of early morning tweets that he “just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!’

Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said a “cardinal rule” of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered in any Justice Department investigations, which are supposed to be conducted free of political influence.

“As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen,” Lewis said, adding that “any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”

The White House did not immediately reply to inquiries about what prompted the president’s tweets.

Trump, who used to speak of having a warm relationship with Obama, compared the alleged activity by his predecessor to behavior involving President Richard Nixon and the bugging of his political opponents.

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” he tweeted, misspelling ‘tap.’

Trump said the wiretapping occurred in October. He ran the presidential transition largely out of Trump Tower in New York, where he also maintains a residence.

Trump’s tweets came days after revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during his Senate confirmation hearing, didn’t disclose his own campaign-season contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Sessions, a U.S. senator at the time, was Trump’s earliest Senate supporter.

Trump’s opening tweet Saturday mentioned Sessions and claimed the first meeting Sessions had with the Russian diplomat was “set up by the Obama Administration under education program for 100 Ambs …”

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the campaign with the goal of helping elect Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton — findings that Trump has dismissed. The FBI has investigated Trump associates’ ties to Russian officials. Congress is also investigating.

Trump has blamed Democrats for leaks of information about the investigation and the contacts.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that Trump was making “the most outlandish and destructive claims without providing a scintilla of evidence to support them.”

Schiff added: “No matter how much we hope and pray that this president will grow into one who respects and understands the Constitution, separation of powers, role of a free press, responsibilities as the leader of the free world, or demonstrates even the most basic regard for the truth, we must now accept that President Trump will never become that man.”

It was unclear what prompted Trump’s new charge. The president often tweets about reports he reads on blogs and conservative-leaning websites.

The allegations may be related to anonymously sourced reports in British media and blogs, and on conservative-leaning U.S. websites, including Breitbart News. Those reports claimed that U.S. officials had obtained a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to review contacts between computers at a Russian bank and Trump’s New York headquarters.

The AP has not confirmed these contacts or the investigation into them. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, is a former executive chairman of Breitbart News.

FISA is a 1978 law that created a system to hear requests to surveil foreign intelligence agents. It differs from a regular criminal warrant because it does not require the government to provide probable cause that a crime has occurred. Instead, under FISA, the government must simply provide evidence that the target of an investigation is an agent of a foreign power.

Such targetable agents would include Russian diplomats such as Sergei Kislyak, the ambassador who spoke with a number of Trump aides. But a FISA warrant could also include others for whom investigators could muster probable cause, potentially including entities directly connected to Trump.

Obama could not order a FISA warrant. Obtaining one would require officials at the Justice Department to seek permission from the FISA court, which is shrouded in secrecy. Judges could order prosecutors to share FISA information with defendants if they deem it necessary for challenging a search’s legality, but courts have consistently agreed with the government that disclosing the material could expose sensitive intelligence secrets.

One exception to this practice is the president himself, who has the authority to declassify records. In Trump’s case, he could confirm any such surveillance of his campaign or business undertaken before he took office in January.

Trump is spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, his waterfront estate in Palm Beach, and he spent several hours at his golf club in nearby West Palm Beach on Saturday.

Trump also tweeted about Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s decision to leave “The New Celebrity Apprentice.” Schwarzenegger replaced Trump as host of the show while the president remained its executive producer.

Trump was scheduled to have dinner Saturday at Mar-a-Lago with Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has a home in Palm Beach, Bannon and other White House advisers.

The president planned to return to the White House late Sunday.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Kellyanne Conway kneels on Oval Office couch, sparks debate

Photos of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway kneeling on an Oval Office couch with her shoes on have sparked an online debate about decorum in the executive mansion.

Conway is seen perched on her knees on the couch with her feet behind her in photos taken Monday while President Donald Trump met with leaders of historically black colleges and universities.

Some Twitter users were quick to highlight the photos as evidence of a lack of respect for the office from Conway and the Trump administration. Other users have countered with numerous photos of former President Barack Obama resting his feet on the office’s famed Resolute desk at various times during his eight years in office.

Conway has yet to weigh in on the criticism.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Kathy Castor preferred Obama policy on deportations, acknowledges ‘we’re a country of laws’

For Kathy Castor, it’s simple: “We’re a country of laws, and if you’re in the country illegally, you are subject to deportation.”

However, perhaps acknowledging the sentiment among the American public, the Tampa Democratic congresswoman had little to say Monday about the recent directives from the Department of Homeland Security that expand the scope for law enforcement officials to deport undocumented immigrants.

Instead, Castor said the situation calls for a return to looking for a more comprehensive solution to the issue.

Castor prefers the priorities of the Obama administration, who directed federal agents to concentrate on deporting gang members and other violent and serious criminals, and left most other undocumented immigrants alone.

“What is missing from the dialogue is how we address folks who have overstayed a visa and simply want to work legally in the country,” she said, bemoaning the fact that there is no discussion on Capitol Hill to discuss finding a pathway to citizenship for those whose work skills are needed in the U.S.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week the president wants to “take the shackles off” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

On that subject, Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, pointed to a published report about ICE agents waiting in a Denver courthouse hallway without a warrant to apprehend an undocumented immigrant.

“When a president gives the green light to federal law enforcement agencies that target vulnerable immigrants and operate with impunity,” Sharry said Monday, “this is what you get: out of control police forces that declare open season on anyone they encounter.”

“This is not the America we aspire to be,” he added. “Both the policy and the implementation of the policy run counter to our self-proclaimed identity as a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees.”

“Our law enforcement does a very good job if someone is here illegally and they commit a crime. There’s a lot of cooperation between local law enforcement and federal agencies,” Castor said.

“But if we can’t address a legal pathway, then we’re not going to find a solution [for] immigration issues.”

Though there hasn’t been a whole lot of public polling on the issue, a McLaughlin & Associates survey published earlier this month showed that 69 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s executive order to make deportation of undocumented immigrants “who are criminals” a top priority.

That poll also showed the majority of voters support cutting off federal grants to sanctuary cities that refuse to turn in undocumented immigrants, 59 percent to 29 percent.

A Harvard–Harris Poll published last week found that 80 percent of voters say local authorities should have to comply with the law by reporting to federal agents the undocumented immigrants with whom they come into contact.

The poll showed that 52 percent said in that poll that they support Trump’s two executive orders allowing for the construction of a southern border wall, increasing the number of immigration officers by 10,000 and finding a way to revoke federal funds for sanctuary cities.

Castor is critical of an attempt to build a security wall on the Mexican border. Some estimates have show that it cost more than $20 billion.

President Donald Trump announced Monday he would boost Pentagon spending by $54 billion in his first budget proposal, slashing the same amount from non-defense spending, with that increase being funded partly by cuts to the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other non-defense programs.

“We also have to be very cognizant of the costs of all of this. Can America afford now to pay for this border wall, and a huge increase in border patrol agents?” Castor asked, adding that she believes government needs to invest in places that create jobs.

Groundhog Day for Democrats: Selecting the Party chair

Democrats in Florida and at the national level have a similar problem. In both cases, there are more Democratic voters than Republicans, but in both cases, the Republican candidates have trounced the Democrats.

Between 2009 and 2016, which coincides with the terms of Barack Obama as president, Democratic candidates suffered heavier casualties than many military divisions. Democrats lost 11 Senate seats (-16 percent), lost 62 House seats (-24 percent) and, in the biggest surprise, lost control of the White House.

It was even worse at the state level. The numbers of Democratic governors declined from 28 to 16 (-43 percent), and Democrats lost 959 seats in the state legislatures. The only good news for the Democrats is that it can’t get much worse. The seats they still hold are mostly in strong Democratic areas.

Democrats hope that a change in party leadership will be the first step in reversing party fortunes and helping to lead the party out of the political wilderness.

Florida Democrats held their contest for a new party chair at the end of 2016. Numerous candidates came forth to replace one-term party chair Allison Tant, who had just as much success as previous party chairs.

The two leading candidates were Dwight Bullard, a black state legislator representing the liberal reform wing of the party. Stephen Bittel, a wealthy developer and leading donor to the party was supported by the establishment forces.

Bittel was backed by the teachers’ union and Sen. Bill Nelson, the only Democrat currently elected to a statewide office. Nelson, up for election in 2018, argued that Bittel would bring “professionalism” to the party and “raise money.”

Bullard was backed by Bernie Sanders and his supporters. One Revolution, a Sanders organization, believed that Bullard would stop “an extremely wealthy donor” who wants to “buy his way to lead Florida’s Democratic Party. . .”

Bittel won the required votes and is now busy raising funds for the party and is attempting to reinvigorate party fortunes.

About the time Bittel was winning his election in Florida, the race for the Chair of the Democratic National Party was heating up. The early front-runner was Keith Ellison, a Black Muslim congressman from Minnesota, who represented the Sanders and reform wing of the party. Ellison quickly won the endorsements of liberal icon Elizabeth Warren, along with incoming Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

The race was actually pushed backed a month. Some argued that it was done in order to generate more debate about the candidates. Others argued that it was done to give opponents of Ellison additional time to overcome his lead.

Critics of Ellison pointed out that he was highly critical of Israel and had supported Black Muslim Louis Farrakhan, issues that might hurt the party in elections.

The Democratic establishment found its candidate in Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who was encouraged to run by both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Like Bittel in Florida, Perez represented the establishment and wealthy donors who were concerned that Ellison would push the party too far to the left.

On Feb. 25, 2017, Perez won the post of party chair by a vote of 235-200 on the second ballot. Ellison supporters shouted “Party for the people, not big money.” Many Ellison supporters walked out.

Perez quickly appointed Ellison as Deputy Party Chair in an attempt at party unity. Whether this placates Ellison supporters or irritates them remains to be seen. What duties, if any, will Ellison be given?

In both Florida and nationally, the race to head the Democratic Party pitted a white, establishment candidate representing the moneyed interests versus a black legislator representing the reform and liberal element of the party. In both cases, the white candidate defeated the black candidate, and money prevailed over “the people.”

It appears that it is not only Donald Trump and his supporters who have issues with race and Islamophobia.

Bernie Sanders fired a warning shot across the bow of the Democratic Party after Ellison’s loss. Sanders warned that it was “imperative that the same-old, same-old is not working and that we must open the doors of the party to working people and young people in a way that has never been done before.”

The Democrats have their new party leaders in both Florida and nationally. The question is whether the new leaders will improve the party’s electoral performance, or will it lead to further divisions between an already badly fractured Democratic Party?

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Darryl Paulson is Professor Emeritus of Government at USF St. Petersburg specializing in Florida Politics and elections.

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