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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.

James Comey in middle of political fray over Donald Trump and Russians

FBI Director James Comey is again in a familiar spot these days – the middle of political tumult.

As a high-ranking Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, he clashed with the White House over a secret surveillance program. Years later as head of the FBI, he incurred the ire of Hillary Clinton supporters for public statements on an investigation into her emails. Now, Comey is facing new political pressure as White House officials are encouraging him to follow their lead by publicly recounting private FBI conversations in an attempt to dispute reports about connections between the Trump administration and Russia.

It’s an unusual position for a crime-fighting organization with a vaunted reputation for independence and political neutrality. Yet Comey, the former top federal prosecutor in Manhattan who later became deputy attorney general of the United States, is known for an unshaking faith in his own moral compass.

“I’m not detecting a loss of confidence in him, a loss of confidence in him by him,” said retired FBI assistant director Ron Hosko, noting the broad recognition that “these are very tumultuous, polarized, angry, angry times.”

The latest flare-up occurred Friday, when White House officials told reporters that chief of staff Reince Priebus had asked top FBI officials to dispute media reports that Donald Trump‘s campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election. The officials said the FBI first raised concerns about New York Times reporting but told Priebus the bureau could not weigh in publicly on the matter. The officials said Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Comey instead gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly, something the FBI has not confirmed.

As the FBI declined to discuss the matter, pressure mounted on Comey to either counter or affirm the White House’s account. Even the Trump administration urged him to come forward, which as of Friday was not happening.

“Politicized assertions by White House chief of staff Priebus about what may or may not be the findings of an FBI investigation are exactly the wrong way for the public to hear about an issue that is of grave consequence to our democracy,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The American people deserve real transparency, which means Director Comey needs to come forward, in an open hearing, and answer questions.”

The push on Comey to publicly discuss the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is especially acute given his statements in the run-up to Nov. 8 that many Democrats believe cost Clinton the election. He detailed the results of the FBI’s investigation at an unusual July news conference, testified on it for hours on Capitol Hill and alerted Congress less than two weeks before Election Day that the FBI would be reviewing new emails potentially connected to the case.

But it’s not clear that Comey, now in the fourth year of a 10-year term, will be swayed by any public hand-wringing. People who have worked with the FBI director describe him as holding strong personal convictions.

As deputy attorney general, he confronted White House officials in the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in an effort to quash the reauthorization of a counterterrorism surveillance program.

When nominating Comey for FBI director in 2013, President Barack Obama praised him for his “fierce independence and deep integrity.” Comey stood apart from the administration on a few occasions after that, including when he floated the possibility that police concerns over being recorded on video were causing officers to pull back and contributing to an uptick in homicides, a viewpoint the White House refused to endorse.

His decision to announce the FBI’s recommendation against criminal charges in the Clinton email case was made without any notice to the Justice Department, and his notification to Congress about the new emails was not supported by department leaders, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Decisions that reach the desk of the top leadership of the FBI are generally not easy, said Robert Anderson, a retired FBI executive assistant director.

“The director of the FBI is a hard job, even when it’s an easy day or nothing’s in the newspaper,” Anderson said. “By the time it makes it up to Jim, it’s all hard at that point.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Fear grips Latino communities in Florida as deportations increase

There is palpable fear amongst the undocumented community after the Department of Homeland Security issued new memos that gives U.S. officials sweeping latitude to target “removable aliens” for deportation, effectively making most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. priority targets.

Under Barack Obama, immigration officials were told to focus on convicted criminals instead of the broader undocumented population. The memos issued out this week by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly instruct agents to also prioritize undocumented immigrants who have been charged with a crime but not convicted of it, or committed an act that may be criminal offenses but haven’t been charged for it. Those categories mean that almost any brush with the American law-enforcement system could make an undocumented immigrant a target for removal.

“I’m very, very afraid,” says a St.Petersburg housekeeper who only wanted to be identified by her first name of Melissa.

A Brazilian native who has duel citizenship with Portugal, Melissa came to the U.S. last year with her Portuguese passport but has stayed past the three months she was legally able to. She keeps her two-year-old daughter in day care, and says she is terrified that if she gets picked up by local police she may never see her again.

“I’ll never call for some help, if I need the police here,” she says. “I’ll never call anyone to help me.”

There are approximately 610,000 undocumented people in Florida, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Daniel Barajas is the executive director with the Young American Dreamers, based in Auburndale. His organization has been hosting community forums this week, teaching the undocumented what to do if they’re confronted by immigration officers.

“We’re just trying to reassure the community by giving them the confidence in the means of learning their rights and keeping them organize, so when there’s actions where mobilizing the community would be strategic, we could do so,” he says.

Left untouched in the DHS directives is anything to do with DACA, an executive order imposed by President Obama  that provides 750,000 young undocumented immigrations a means to work and live in the U.S.

“We’re gonna show great heart,” Trump said in a news conference last week. “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you.”

“It’s not a security blanket, even though I do feel like I have a path to citizenship,” says Tampa resident Andrea Seabra, who is part of the DACA program. “It is what it is today, and I just hope every day that things get better.”

While big city mayors like Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman say that they will make sure that their police departments don’t go out of their way to detain undocumented immigrants, Edwin Enciso with Justicia Now says that isn’t the case in many other parts of Florida.

“The problem is that about 40 percent of the udocumented community live in rural counties and have sheriffs who have a history of cooperating with federal agents in this way, and so in those areas the undocumented community, especially farm workers, are more vulnerable,” he says.

Those sheriffs would include Polk County’s Grady Judd, who said at a news conference earlier this week that “our primary goal has got to be to get the illegal aliens committing felonies out of this country and keep them out.”

After the new directives were announced by DHS this week, Orlando area Democratic U.S. Representative Darren Soto held an emergency roundtable discussion, where he learned that students in Auburndale had been questioned by local school administrators about their immigration status. “Given the recent executive action and heated rhetoric on immigration, these unauthorized inquiries are deeply troubling to me and our constituents,” Soto said in a letter sent to Judd, Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings, Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson and more than 20 school board members.

“What we find disturbing is that he hasn’t even found time to sit down with the Hispanic community to discuss what their concerns are,” said Barajas of Judd, who he has worked with in the past. Barajas said DHS’ orders affects more than just the undocumented, since there are many Hispanic families with “mixed status,” that is, with some family members who are documented, others who aren’t or who have those who are on DACA.

Most Americans believe that cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes should be required to turn them over to federal authorities.

A survey from Harvard–Harris Poll published by the The Hill this week found that 80 percent of voters say local authorities should have to comply with the law by reporting to federal agents the illegal immigrants they come into contact with.

Seabra says she wonders whether President Trump has ever had the chance to sit down with DACA students or farm workers, and says such a meeting could have an impact on his viewpoint.

“I feel he was actually exposed to people that work for him, the people who clean his bathrooms, the people that built his building, maybe he’ll understand that we’re not here to destroy his country, but to make it better.”

Conservatives welcome Donald Trump with delight – and wariness

For the past eight years, thousands of conservative activists have descended on Washington each spring with dreams of putting a Republican in the White House.

This year, they’re learning reality can be complicated.

With Donald Trump‘s presidential victory, the future of the conservative movement has become entwined with an unconventional New York businessman better known for his deal-making than any ideological principles.

It’s an uneasy marriage of political convenience at best. Some conservatives worry whether they can trust their new president to follow decades of orthodoxy on issues like international affairs, small government, abortion and opposition to expanded legal protections for LGBT Americans — and what it means for their movement if he doesn’t.

“Donald Trump may have come to the Republican Party in an unconventional and circuitous route, but the fact is that we now need him to succeed lest the larger conservative project fails,” said evangelical leader Ralph Reed, who mobilized his organization to campaign for Trump during the campaign. “Our success is inextricably tied to his success.”

As conservatives filtered into their convention hall Wednesday for their annual gathering, many said they still have nagging doubts about Trump even as they cheer his early actions. A Wednesday night decision to reverse an Obama-era directive that said transgender students should be allowed to use public school bathrooms and locker rooms matching their chosen gender identity has thrilled social conservatives.

“He’s said that on multiple occasions that he’s not a conservative, especially socially,” said Zach Weidlich, a junior at the University of South Alabama, “but my mind-set was, give him a chance, especially now that he’s elected.'”

“He was the better of two evils given the choice,” added Timmy Finn. “I agree with his policies, however, I think he’s moving a little too fast.”

Trump has a somewhat tortured history with the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual convention that’s part ideological pep talk, part political boot camp for activists. Over the past six years, he’s been both booed and cheered. He’s rejected speaking slots and galvanized attendees with big promises of economic growth and electoral victory.

At times, he has seemed to delight in taunting them.

“I’m a conservative, but don’t forget: This is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party,” he said in a May interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, said Trump’s aggressive style is more important than ideological purity.

“Conservatives weren’t looking for somebody who knew how to explain all the philosophies. They were actually looking for somebody who would just fight,” he said. “Can you think of anybody in America who fits that bill more than Donald Trump?”

Trump is to address the group Friday morning. Vice President Mike Pence is to speak Thursday as are White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.

The tensions between Trump’s brand of populist politics and conservative ideology will be on full display at the three-day conference, which features panels like: “Conservatives: Where we come from, where we are and where we are going” and “The Alt-Right Ain’t Right At All.”

Along with Trump come his supporters, including the populists, party newcomers and nationalists that have long existed on the fringes of conservativism and have gotten new voice during the early days of his administration.

Pro-Brexit British politician Nigel Farage will speak a few hours after Trump.

Organizers invited provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters at the University of California at Berkeley protested to stop his appearance on campus. But the former editor at Breitbart News, the website previously run by Bannon, was disinvited this week after video clips surfaced in which he appeared to defend sexual relationships between men and boys as young as 13.

Trump “is giving rise to a conservative voice that for the first time in a long time unabashedly, unapologetically puts America first,” said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley. “That ‘America First’ moniker can very well shape this country, but also the electorate and the Republican Party and conservative movement for decades.”

Trump’s early moves — including a flurry of executive orders and his nomination of federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — have cheered conservatives. They’ve also applauded his Cabinet picks, which include some of the most conservative members of Congress. The ACU awarded his team a 91.52 percent conservative rating — 28 points higher than Ronald Reagan and well above George H.W. Bush who received a 78.15 rating.

But key items on the conservative wish list remain shrouded in uncertainty. The effort to repeal President Barack Obama‘s health care law is not moving as quickly as many hoped, and Republicans also have yet to coalesce around revamping the nation’s tax code.

No proposals have surfaced to pursue Trump’s campaign promises to build a border wall with Mexico that could cost $15 billion or more or to buttress the nation’s infrastructure with a $1 trillion plan. Conservatives fear that those plans could result in massive amounts of new spending and that Trump’s penchant for deal-making could leave them on the wrong side of the transaction.

“There is wariness,” said Tim Phillips, president of Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress, others believe there’s no way to lose.

“He sits in a room with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Is there a bad a deal to made with those three in the room?” asked veteran anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. “A deal between those three will, I think, always make me happy.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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