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18M more Americans would be uninsured under 2016 GOP repeal

Insurance premiums would soar and some 18 million Americans would lose health coverage if Republicans partially repeal President Barack Obama‘s health care law without a replacement, Congress’ nonpartisan budget office estimated Tuesday.

The Congressional Budget Office analyzed a GOP 2016 repeal measure, which Republicans have cited as a starting point for their 2017 drive to dismantle and replace Obama’s health overhaul.

Premiums for policies bought from online marketplaces established by Obama’s law would rise up to 25 percent a year after enactment of repeal. They’d about double by 2026, the report estimated.

There’d also be 18 million more uninsured people a year after enactment and 32 million more by 2026, the report projected.

The numbers served as a flashing yellow light for this year’s effort by President-elect Donald Trump and congressional Republicans to annul Obama’s law and — in a more complex challenge — institute their own alternative. While Republicans have produced several outlines for how they’d recraft Obama’s 2010 statute, they’ve never united behind one plan despite years of trying and there are many unknowns about what will happen in insurance markets while the GOP effort is underway.

The report also became immediate political fodder for both sides in what is expected to be one of this year’s premier battles in Congress.

Trump seemed to complicate that fight over the weekend when he told The Washington Post that a forthcoming GOP plan would provide “insurance for everybody.” In contrast, some congressional Republicans have used a more modest description, saying the plan will offer “universal access.”

The 2016 bill that CBO analyzed did not replace Obama’s law with a GOP alternative, which Republicans have insisted will be an integral part of their health care drive this year.

Because of that omission, Donald Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the report “assumes a situation that simply doesn’t exist and that no one in Congress advocates.” AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the estimates “meaningless” because they ignored plans for legislation and regulatory actions by the incoming Trump administration aimed at revamping how people could obtain coverage.

Even so, Republicans have cited last year’s bill — which Obama vetoed — as a starting point for their 2017 drive to erase his law. Finding unity among Trump and GOP lawmakers on what a new plan should look like is expected to be a challenging task

Democrats used the report as ammunition to assail the Republican health-care push.

“Nonpartisan statistics don’t lie: it’s crystal clear that the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act will increase health care costs for millions of Americans and kick millions more off of their health insurance,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a written statement that used the law’s formal name.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Charlie Crist calls GOP Obamacare repeal without replacement ‘unacceptable’

With the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — already beginning to be phased out by Republicans in Washington this month, congressional Democrats took to the streets in Florida and around the country Sunday afternoon.

Congressional representatives held rallies and press events featuring regular citizens whose lives have benefited by Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

In South St. Petersburg, Charlie Crist held his own event, where he blasted congressional Republicans for having nearly seven years to provide an alternative to the ACA without doing so yet.

“In Washington D.C. I will do everything I can to prevent that from happening,” he said of the plans to repeal and replace.

And while that comment drew cheers from his supporters at the news conference held outside of Advantage Insurance Solutions on 22nd Street South, the fact is in the House at least, Republicans don’t necessarily need any Democrats to help them pass an alternative plan after they repeal the ACA.

“I think we need to keep it the way it is and try to improve it,” Crist said when asked if he would work with Republicans on a replacement.

“There are things that can be better about this act, no question about it,” he admitted, referring to ways to keep costs from escalating. But he said that repealing provisions of the law such as removing the ban on insurance companies being able to deny patients with pre-existing conditions was morally wrong.

“It would have to be something like Obamacare,” he said when asked by another reporter about what type of alternative he could stand behind. But the freshman Representative admitted that would be “challenging” considering that Republicans ran this fall on a platform of dismantling Obamacare.

“But anything worthwhile is not easy,” he said. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.”

Terry Donald is the owner of We Haul Florida, a hauling and cleanup service in Pinellas County.  He calls his family’s health history “a nightmare” with high blood pressure and heart disease present in several members of his clan. He related an anecdote about how he received a staph infection after cutting his leg while mowing his lawn. “Had I not sought treatment, I would have lost my life,” he said starkly, referring to how he was treated by his doctors with an aggressive course of IV antibiotics.

“People ask me why this coverage is so important and I tell them I had insurance,” he said. “I knew it would be covered. I knew I wouldn’t go bankrupt for receiving the care that I needed.”

Gloria Campbell writes insurance policies as the owner of Advantage Insurance Solutions. She says before the creation of the ACA, nine out of 10 health insurance policies that she drew up for her clients were rejected because of her client’s pre-existing health conditions, or their families’ poor medical history.

Campbell says many of those people now on the ACA had never previously seen a doctor because they didn’t know how insurance worked.

“Now they own their own health care,” she said. “They talk about what kind of outcomes they want. Now people don’t rely on getting sick, they rely on staying well.”

“We have the technology to restart a heart, to 3D print organs and tissue, to save people from Ebola, but we lack the moral fiber and legislative stones to ensure that the American taxpayer doesn’t face lifelong financial ruin for the crime of surviving,” charged Jhavavi Pathak, who currently attends MIT and is the founder of The War on Cancer Foundation.

She told the story of her father, Yogesh, who in 2004 was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer which ultimately spread to his spleen, pancreas, lungs, leg, brain and skull. He’s had 14 major surgeries, including four on his brain, and is somewhat miraculously still alive. In the fall of 2013, he signed up to get on the ACA. “Every one of us is a single mishap or accident away from lifelong financial ruin,” she declared.

“It used to be people didn’t survive a serious medical issue,” Pathak said. “We just didn’t have the medical treatments or the scientific know-how. But now in 21st Century America, people simply can’t afford to survive a serious medical attention.”

While she and the other public speakers blasted the GOP for not having a replacement plan ready to insert as they begin to repeal the law, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul announced Sunday that he does have a replacement ready to go.

“Replacement should be the same day,” Paul said on CNN’s State of The Union, reiterating his critique of fellow congressional Republicans’ “repeal and delay” idea. “Our goal is to insure the most amount of people, give access to the most amount of people at the least amount of cost.”

Paul praised the good intentions of the designers of the Affordable Care Act but said it includes too many mandates and has “broken the insurance model” in the individual market. Among other changes, his plan would remove some insurance coverage mandates that drive up premium costs to “legalize the sale of inexpensive insurance.”

 

Tale of 2 parties: Florida GOP high, Dems low ahead of 2018

The state Republican and Democratic parties met two miles from each other Saturday, their first meetings since Donald Trump carried Florida in November’s election, but the atmosphere and enthusiasm were worlds apart.

As both parties chose their leaders, it was easy to see which has more confidence heading into an election cycle when the governor’s office and all three Cabinet seats will be open. Republicans were aglow in victory after Trump stunned many political observers by winning the state Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Democrats held a contentious election to choose a new chairman with little talk about this past election.

“How good does this feel? We defied the mainstream media, we defied conventional wisdom, defied the pollsters,” Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told GOP county chairs. “Right across town, Democrats are having their election and they’re not feeling near as good.”

As both parties prepare for 2018, Republicans are focused on how to build off the momentum Trump built with voters who traditionally haven’t been part of the political process while Democrats elected wealthy real estate developer and major party donor Stephen Bittel as chairman in hopes of ending two decades of futility at the polls.

“Donald Trump got a lot of people off of the couch and got them involved. It is our job at the Republican Party of Florida to harness all of that passion, all of that energy, and keep them in the game,” said state GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who was easily re-elected. “And when we do, and mark my words we will do it, we will cripple the Democrat Party for a generation.”

After the Democrats elected Bittel, a group of protesters stood outside the meeting room holding signs that read, “SHAME,” ”This is not the party of the people” and “People over $$.”

Still, Bittel tried to paint the best picture of the party’s future.

“We have had an under-resourced operation in Florida for a long time. That changes, starting today, and we will build a different kind of party, I’m a different kind leader and we will change things,” Bittel said. “I grew up in Florida in an era when we won everything. I’m looking forward to that era again.”

But Bittel, 60, grew up more than four decades ago, and there’s a new generation of Democrats who have rarely seen victory.

Florida hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1994. They’ve lost 14 of the past 15 Cabinet races. And despite Democrats’ success in passing a ballot initiative that requires political districts to be drawn in a way that doesn’t favor parties or incumbents, Republicans maintain huge majorities in the Legislature and hold 16 of Florida’s 27 U.S. House seats.

Republicans appear better situated heading into a critical state election. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the three GOP Cabinet members, including Putnam, are leaving office because of term limits. Also in 2018, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is seeking a fourth term, and it’s widely thought Scott will challenge him in what could be Nelson’s toughest re-election yet.

But despite under-performing again in 2016, Democrats think 2018 can be different. Democratic strategist and former state party political director Christian Ulvert pointed at several pluses. First, Nelson, the one consistently successful Florida Democrat since 2000, will be on the ballot.

“This year, we have a potential for Bill Nelson setting the tone, to really set the stage from the top down,” Ulvert said.

He also said the party has a rich field of popular city mayors who could be on the ballot for statewide races, including Fort Lauderdale’s Jack Seiler, Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach’s Philip Levine, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum.

Putnam, who is likely to run for governor, warned Republicans that despite their successes, the party cannot become complacent.

“We can’t get arrogant and cocky and lose our way,” Putnam said. “We can’t take anything for granted.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Subcommittee accepts complaint against Alan Clendenin, but he remains eligible for Fla. Dem Chair

Blame it on the fog of internal byzantine party rules, but Alan Clendenin remains eligible for Florida Democratic Party chair.

Late Friday afternoon, this website reported that Clendenin was ineligible to compete in Saturday’s vote, after an FDP subcommittee voted to accept a complaint filed against him regarding his move last month from Hillsborough County to Bradford County to make himself eligible for the election.

However, the entire state committee will be asked to accept or reject the subcommittee’s vote on Saturday morning before they vote for party chair. The complaint that was approved on Friday approved nullifying Clendenin’s election as State Committeeman in Bradford County last month, where he had rented a mobile home. The vote was five members in favor, with two abstentions.

FDP officials initially did not relay that information to this reporter.

The party members can accept the vote of the subcommittee, and move on. Or they can disapprove the vote, and there are apparently a number of Democrats who aren’t even fans of Clendenin who believe that he still deserves an opportunity to run for party chair. After all, the man widely considered the top dog in the race, Miami area developer and fundraiser Stephen Bittel, was the subject of a second complaint that was also heard on Friday. The judicial subcommittee rejected the complaint filed against him, however, keeping him eligible.

That vote on Bittel is also up for a review by the state executive committee.

Nevertheless, the subcommittee vote was a huge blow to Clendenin’s candidacy. In 2013, he lost to Allison Tant in an intense, one-on-one battle to take over the reigns of the party, which at the time was relatively in high spirits, following Barack Obama’s narrow victory in Florida over Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. He was named vice chair at the time, but immediately set his eyes on the prize after Tant announced in November that she would be stepping down in January.

However, in order to be eligible to run for party chair according to the party’s bylaws, the candidate pool can only come from someone currently serving as a county party chair, or state committeeman or state committeewoman.

Clendenin needed to be elected to committeeman at the Hillsborough County’s December 6 re-organization meeting, but was defeated by Russ Patterson 52-40. The vote was considered extremely controversial, however, after Hillsborough DEC Chair Ione Townsend ruled that all locally elected officials in nonpartisan races (such as mayor, city council and school board) were ineligible to vote, setting off an ugly exchange at that meeting. Whether Clendenin would have won if those elected officials were allowed to vote remained questionable, it left a foul taste with many DEC members.

Clendenin laid low in the immediate aftermath, and then stunned the world when he appeared in Bradford County on December 20, where that local DEC had an opening for committeeman. At that December 20 meeting, Clendenin was elected to be Bradford County’s state committeeman, thus making him eligible once again for the party chairman election.

But then Bay County State Committeewoman Patricia Byrd filed a complaint with the FDP, challenging Clendenin’s residency in Bradford. In her complaint to party chair Tant, Byrd wrote that Clendenin had “disingenuously played a shell game with residences and homestead exemptions in total violation of state election laws and state homestead laws for the sole purpose of positioning himself to be eligible to run for the state party chairman.” To prove her point, she stated that Clendenin actually had two separate homestead exemptions on file for residences in Hillsborough and Manatee Counties, and thus truly wasn’t a resident in Bradford County.

Clendenin immediately labeled the complaint “baseless,“and said that the homestead exemption in Manatee County actually belonged to his partner, John Peccio, though tax records listed both men as co-owners of both houses. And he said that Byrd was a supporter of Stephen Bittel, one of his opponents in ther race.

“Like other candidates in this race, as well as the past four FDP Chairs, I qualified for this position within our current rules,” Clendenin said in response to the complaint at the time. “I know that these rules do not make sense to many people which is why I’m calling for them to be changed and will make this a top priority if elected. This complaint is nothing more than an unnecessary distraction from talking about how we move this party forward.”

Interestingly, a third candidate in the race, former state Senator Dwight Bullard, did the exact same thing as Clendenin did to remain viable in the election. After losing to Bittel for state committeeman in Miami-Dade in late December, Bullard relocated to Gadsden County, where he was elected as a committeeman there. But no one has filed a complaint against him.

The race remains between  Clendenin, Bittel, Bullard, Lisa King and Leah Carius. 

Charlie Crist pleads case of Michael Morgan, unjustly jailed for 23 years, to Barack Obama

Michael Morgan

Charlie Crist is calling on President Barack Obama to intervene on behalf of one of his constituents, a St. Petersburg man imprisoned for 23 years for a crime a growing number of people believe he did not commit.

On Friday, the freshman St. Petersburg Democrat sent a letter to the White House telling the story of Michael Morgan, who has been unjustly serving three life sentences for crimes that many — including reporters, a former Pinellas County Commissioner and even a juror who voted to convict — now say he is innocent.

More than two decades ago, Morgan, 18 years old at the time, was in St. Petersburg riding his bicycle home from school. After encountering a man with a large dog, who began yelling and chasing him, Morgan went to a neighbor’s house and called his mother, Vel Thompson, to help.

When Thompson arrived a few minutes later, police had Morgan in handcuffs.

That day, officers were looking for a black male suspected of the assault and attempted rape of Felicia Fuller 12 days earlier. Fuller’s father, Earnest Fuller, was an officer for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Felicia Fuller had been shot in the buttocks during what was described as a “drug deal gone wrong.” Cocaine was found at the scene. Fuller claimed that two African-American men assaulted her: one with a gold tooth and another who was clean-shaven.

Morgan had an alibi for Fuller’s attack — he was at a school dance with friends, something corroborated by multiple witnesses. He also did not fit the description of either man, having a full mustache and no gold tooth. Nevertheless, Morgan was arrested.

After going to trial three times, Morgan was ultimately convicted and sentenced to three life sentences and has been in prison for the past 23 years. Three years ago, supporters created a Change.org petition to request the Florida Clemency Board to consider his clemency request. The petition, which now has 337 signers, asks the Governor to waive the rule preventing the board from hearing Morgan’s request because of his life sentences.

In January 2015, WTSP’s Mike Deeson highlighted Morgan’s case in a nine-minute video summarizing the problems with both the case and his conviction, which came about without DNA or other physical evidence. The video, which is available on YouTube, also shows Morgan meeting with former Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche in the effort to gain clemency.

In Crist’s letter, he invoked Obama’s campaign for criminal justice reform, where the president granted clemency to more than 1,300 people over his two terms in office.

“I applaud your valiant efforts to reform our nation’s criminal justice system; ending juvenile solitary confinement, banning the box for federal employees, and reducing the use of federal private prisons,” Crist writes. “In that same vein, your support for people serving unjust or excessive sentences has brought justice and hope to thousands of nonviolent offenders and their families.”

Crist then related his time as Florida Governor, during which he worked to streamline the state’s clemency process.

However, Obama cannot just grant Morgan a pardon, since presidential commutation powers are restricted only to federal crimes. Any change in Morgan’s sentencing lies in the hands of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who would need the agreement from two cabinet members who are also statewide elected officials.

“I only wish Michael Morgan’s case fell within federal jurisdiction,” Crist writes. “Our Chief Executive in Florida has the power to grant clemency, but to date has not chosen to take action on this case.”

Now, Crist is asking for Obama to help — in his few days left as president — to right this injustice.

“Mr. President, your kind attention and willingness to lend your voice to this grave injustice would be incredibly helpful,” Crist writes. “Thank you again for all that you have done to improve our criminal justice system and restore the lives of the unjustly accused. It is my hope that your efforts lead to freedom for Americans, like Michael Morgan, who sit in prison today for crimes they clearly did not commit.”

Rick Scott: Barack Obama ‘turned his back’ on Cuba

The ongoing war of words between Florida Gov. Rick Scott and President Barack Obama is continuing until Obama’s last day.

Friday’s installment: a gubernatorial excoriation of Obama’s overtures to the Communist island nation, including this week’s cessation of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

Scott, predictably, sees this as yet another example of Obama’s failings.

“President Obama’s Cuba policy can be summed up this way: he has legitimized and coddled a bloodthirsty dictator and in the process, he has turned his back on those who have fought so hard for a free Cuba,” Scott said in a statement.

The governor notes that “people in Cuba are being persecuted and killed for their faith, for supporting democracy, for expressing their political views, and for simply desiring freedom.”

“With the President’s latest move,” Scott added, “it appears that he has consulted and negotiated with a foreign tyrant while completely ignoring the United States Congress. We have a number of great members of Congress in our Florida delegation of Cuban descent, but of course, the President did not involve them in his decision-making.”

Scott went on to say that Obama’s reforms came at the expense of human rights.

“Obama’s policies have not improved human rights in Cuba. In fact, things may be getting worse. We believe that the murderous regime made about 10,000 political arrests last year. Just this week, pro-democracy leader Dr. Oscar Biscet was arrested. Obama has betrayed America’s long-standing commitment to human rights and freedom in Cuba. We need a Cuba policy that respects the fundamental desire of the Cuban people to be free.”

Scott’s excoriation of the Obama era Cuba policy is well-timed, as the governor is rumored to be mulling a Senate run next year.

Ben Pollara: Stephen Bittel only choice to lead Florida Dems out of desolation, irrelevancy

I won’t be in Orlando this weekend to vote for the next chair of the Florida Democratic Party. I’m not a state committeeman, so I don’t even have a vote.

But I certainly have an opinion on who should lead the political party that I’ve been a member of, and heavily involved with, since I first registered to vote at 18.

Stephen Bittel is unequivocally the best candidate for the job and the only candidate capable of effecting the sort of change in the FDP that is so desperately needed.

Except for Leah Carius, I’ve known all the candidates for chair for some time. I’ve known Alan Clendenin for nearly two decades, having grown up in Tampa, and being friends with his two kids since high school.

I got to know Lisa King almost a decade ago when I worked for Hillary‘s first presidential campaign, and Lisa was part of a small group of committed supporters in a city whose Democratic power structure was mostly backing then-Senator Barack Obama.

And I have gotten to know Dwight Bullard over the years, as a champion for progressive values representing Miami, where I live, and as the chair of our local DEC. Finally, Stephen Bittel is my landlord, renting office space in his “Fortress of Democracy” to United for Care, and to the consulting firm that I helped found, LSN Partners.

I don’t have a negative thing to say about any of the candidates. These people are my friends, and they are good people. (I’m sure the same can be said of Ms. Carius, I just don’t know her.)

But being a good person, and a good Democrat, with good intentions and good plans, simply isn’t enough to make someone the right person for this job.

We capital “D” Democrats need to take a hard look in the mirror. We are borderline irrelevant in Tallahassee. The big, important fights in our state Capitol aren’t even partisan because we’re so firmly in the minority. The food fights over the direction of our government occur between House and Senate, legislative and executive branches, Conservatives and Libertarians.

We’re not even in the scrum.

Redistricting has brought some new Democratic members of Congress to the delegation, but its balance is nonetheless titled lopsidedly toward Republicans. Bill Nelson is all we’ve got to look toward as a true leader of the party and as proof that, YES!, we can actually win races statewide.

So, my fellow Democrats, look hard into the mirror. It’s ugly, Dorian Gray-type stuff. The decadence and decay of a once great political party should be nakedly obvious with even a passing glance.

Don’t look away. Don’t deny our entrenchment as a marginalized political force.

This is who and where we are as a party, unless we act to change our fate.

In the dogma of addiction and recovery, the most basic article of faith is that the journey to rehabilitation must begin with an acceptance that you have a problem.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Florida Democratic Party: We. Have. A. Problem.

Just as denying that essential truth is willfully ignorant, so too is believing that one man or woman can single-handedly solve the endemic issues plaguing the FDP as an organization and a party.

The road to recovery is long. The path itself isn’t yet clear. Further setbacks lay ahead.

But the road map to reinvention and reinvigoration begins with Stephen Bittel. We deny it (and him) at our own existential peril.

Stephen brings two qualities to the job that no FDP chair in my political lifetime has possessed to any substantial degree: executive, managerial expertise and nationwide fundraising prowess.

Bittel alone has the ability to make the sort of hard choices, to recruit the kind of experienced operatives, and to raise the money we need to reinvent the party organizationally, from the ground up.

His stated goals should be sweet music to the ears of any Florida Democrat: staff the party with the most talented people to be found; support the grassroots by funding local DECs; recruit candidates for office starting at dogcatcher and moving upward; and beat the bushes and twist arms to actually fund these grand plans.

I know Democrats want all these things because each of the candidates for chair has a pretty similar platform. But Bittel talks about his plans the most because, I believe, he doesn’t just have a plan, but a proven ability to put that plan into action; and because the other candidates have frankly spent more time trying to poison the grassroots against Bittel, rather than talk about what they would do, and how they’d do it.

Bittel is many things. He’s a rich guy, to be sure. He’s part of the “elite,” chattering class, political establishment. He’s got strong opinions, and he’s got an ego befitting the status he’s earned in business and in life.

Bittel is also a committed, lifelong Democrat. He’s a man of extraordinary compassion, who cares deeply about what is just and right. He’s hugely generous to the people, candidates, causes and charities that he believes in. He’s someone who knows how to hire and manage smart people, and how to run a large organization.

Stephen Bittel is not the best choice to lead the Florida Democratic Party out of the desolation and marginalization that plagues us. Stephen Bittel is the only choice.

Marco Rubio votes to repeal Affordable Care Act

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has cast his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Early Thursday morning, the Senate GOP took a first step towards a repeal of the law – which they’ve long said was a goal of theirs and which President-elect Donald Trump made a campaign promise to do. In a marathon voting session, they approved a budget resolution that would speed through the repeal of the law.

Rubio was right on board with that.

“ObamaCare has led to rising premiums, a collapse of the individual insurance market and fewer choices for patients,” Rubio said. “The law is an absolute failure, and its proponents insist it must be salvaged with a taxpayer-funded bailout of health insurance companies. We’ve now taken an important first step to repeal this law and replace ‎it with a patient-centered approach that expands access to providers and lowers costs of care.

“It is my hope and expectation that the transition to a replacement program can be done relatively seamlessly and minimize disruptions to patients.”

Opponents of the measure say a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be disastrous and leave many people without health care, as well as leaving people with pre-existing conditions unable to find coverage.

The GOP and Trump say they’ll work towards implementing a replacement for the law that will be better, though no details on what that plan will be have surfaced.

Donald Trump denounces ‘disgrace’ of reports of Russian ties to him

A defiant President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday adamantly denied reports that Russia had obtained compromising personal and financial information about him, calling it a “tremendous blot” on the record of the intelligence community if such material had been released.

The incoming president, in his first news conference since late July, firmly chided news organizations for publishing the material late Tuesday night. After weeks of scoffing at reports that Russians had interfered in the election, he conceded publicly for the first time that Russia was likely responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he said and quickly added that the United States is hacked by other countries as well, including China.

Trump’s extraordinary defense against the unsubstantiated intelligence report, just nine days before his inauguration, dominated a highly anticipated press conference in which he also announced a new Cabinet member, detailed his plans to disentangle himself from his sprawling global business empire, gave his outlook on the future of the “Obamacare” health care law and said he would soon nominate someone to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

“I think it’s a disgrace that information would be let out. I saw the information, I read the information outside of that meeting,” he said, a reference to a classified briefing he received from intelligence leaders. “It’s all fake news, it’s phony stuff, it didn’t happen,” Trump said in a news conference that saw him repeatedly joust with reporters. “It was gotten by opponents of ours.”

Asked about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump boasted that it is an improvement over what he called America’s current “horrible relationship with Russia” and did not criticize the Russian leader for any interference in the election.

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks, that’s called an asset not a liability. I don’t know if I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin — I hope I do — but there’s a good chance I won’t.”

Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer also denounced the report about Russia’s influence on Trump, and the incoming president said it never should have been released. He thanked some news organizations for showing restraint.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press on Tuesday night that intelligence officials had informed Trump last week about an unsubstantiated report that Russia had obtained compromising personal and financial information about him. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.

Trump and President Barack Obama were briefed on the intelligence community’s findings last week, the official said.

Media outlets reported on the document late Tuesday and Trump denounced it on Twitter before his news conference as “fake news,” suggesting he was being persecuted for defeating other GOP presidential hopefuls and Democrat Hillary Clinton in the election.

The dossier contains unproven information about close coordination between Trump’s inner circle and Russians about hacking into Democratic accounts as well as unproven claims about unusual sexual activities by Trump among other suggestions attributed to anonymous sources. The Associated Press has not authenticated any of the claims.

Only days from his inauguration as the nation’s 45th president, Trump announced that he would nominate David Shulkin to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, elevating him from his current role as VA undersecretary.

He promised that a replacement for the health care overhaul would be offered “essentially simultaneously” with the repeal of Obama’s signature health law — something that would be virtually impossible to quickly pass given the complexity of the policy changes. Republicans agree on repealing the law but nearly seven years after its passage have failed to reach agreement on its replacement.

Trump has repeatedly said that repealing and replacing “Obamacare” was a top priority, but has never fully explained how he plans to do it. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that the House would seek to take both steps “concurrently.”

Turning to his plans to build a border wall along the southern border, Trump said he would immediately begin negotiations with Mexico on funding his promised wall after he takes office. He again vowed that “Mexico will pay for the wall but it will be reimbursed.” Trump recommitted to his plans to impose a border tax on manufacturers who shut plants and move production abroad. While the tax policy could retain jobs, it would also carry the risk of increasing prices for consumers.

Trump also said he would probably name his choice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in about two weeks after the inauguration.

And he announced his plans for the future of the Trump Organization, bringing to the podium attorney Sheri Dillon of Morgan Lewis, who worked with the Trump Organization on the arrangement.

Dillon said the Trump Organization would continue to pursue deals in the U.S., though Trump will relinquish control of the company to his sons and an executive, put his business assets in a trust and take other steps to isolate himself from his business. She said Trump “should not be expected to destroy the company he built.”

The move appears to contradict a previous pledge by the president-elect. In a tweet last month, Trump vowed to do “no new deals” while in office.

The lawyer said Trump would donate all profits from foreign government payments to his hotels to the U.S. treasury.

And pushing back against some ethics experts, Dillon said the so-called emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to foreign payments to Trump’s company. While some ethics officials have said that foreign leaders who pay for rooms and services at his various hotels would run afoul of the constitutional ban on foreign gifts or payments to the president, Dillon referred to it as a “fair-value exchange.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

House freshmen to Pres. Obama: light the White House blue

Freshman Congress members, led by Rep. John Rutherford (a former Jacksonville sheriff), called for President Barack Obama to “light the White House blue” on Monday.

The significance is obvious: the blue light denotes support for law enforcement on National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, which is Monday.

This support is especially critical in the wake of the assassination of a police officer in Orlando on Monday.

“As newly-elected freshmen members of Congress, we urge you to join us and Americans across the nation in observing this day by lighting the White House blue.  Recent events across the country have drawn negative attention to law enforcement officers, and some have even resulted in targeted violence, making it harder for law enforcement to protect towns and cities across America.  Now more than ever, it is imperative that communities, leaders, and our government show support for the millions of public servants who risk their lives every day to keep our communities safe,” the letter begins.

“Each of us has seen and heard firsthand the tireless work by law enforcement officers to ensure the safety of their communities, all while putting their lives on the line.  They serve with little reward and at great personal risk.  It is our duty to support them and their families. We once again urge you to join us in supporting law enforcement officers on Monday by lighting the White House blue,” the letter concludes.

Many of the freshman signatories to the letter are from Florida, including Matt Gaetz, Val Demings, Charlie Crist, Brian Mast, and Francis Rooney.

Demings, a Democrat, is a former Orlando police chief.

Rutherford lauded the bipartisan support among those who signed on.

“Our law enforcement officers represent the best that our country has to offer, putting their lives and well-being on the line each day.  We witnessed yet another example of their daily heroism [Friday] as we watched public safety officers respond to the terrible attack in Ft. Lauderdale.  We owe our law enforcement officers a level of respect and support befitting of their commitment to us.  I thank my House freshman colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their willingness to stand up for law enforcement and hope the President will join us in that effort,” the Jacksonville Republican said.

No word yet from the White House as to whether the president will comply with the request.

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