Donald Trump Archives - Page 8 of 294 - Florida Politics

Grand jury hears from lobbyist in Trump Tower chat

A grand jury used by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has heard secret testimony from a Russian-American lobbyist who attended a June 2016 meeting with President Donald Trump’s eldest son, The Associated Press has learned.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed to the AP that Rinat Akhmetshin had appeared before Mueller’s grand jury in recent weeks. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret proceedings.

The revelation is the clearest indication yet that Mueller and his team of investigators view the meeting, which came weeks after Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination, as a relevant inquiry point in their broader probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The meeting included Donald Trump Jr.; the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Emails released by Trump Jr. show he took the meeting expecting that he would be receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of what was described to him as a Russian government effort to aid the Trump campaign.

The Financial Times first reported Akhmetshin’s grand jury appearance. Reached by the AP, Akhmetshin declined comment. Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, also declined comment Wednesday night.

The confirmation of Akhmetshin’s grand jury testimony comes after he spoke at length about his involvement in the Trump Tower meeting in an interview with the AP last month.

Akhmetshin, a former Soviet military officer who served in a counterintelligence unit, is also a well-known Washington lobbyist. He has been representing Russian interests trying to undermine the story of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison and is the namesake of a U.S. sanctions law.

Akhmetshin has been reported to have ties to Russian intelligence but he has denied that, calling the allegations a “smear campaign.”

Mueller and his team first signaled their interest in the Trump Tower gathering last month by contacting an attorney for at least some of the Russians who attended.

The meeting at issue was disclosed earlier this year to Congress and first revealed by The New York Times.

Trump Jr. has offered evolving explanations for the circumstances of the meeting, initially saying that the purpose was to discuss adoption and later acknowledging that he anticipated receiving information that he thought could be damaging to Clinton.

In addition to Akhmetshin, other attendees at the meeting included Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, music publicist Rob Goldstone — who helped arrange the gathering — and a translator. Ike Kaveladze, who also goes by the name Irakly Kaveladze, also attended the meeting. Kaveladze works for a Russian developer who partnered with Trump on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.

An email exchange posted to Twitter by Trump Jr. showed him conversing with Goldstone, who wanted him to meet with someone he described as a “Russian government attorney,” who supposedly had dirt on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. wrote in one email response.

Another contact between Trump associates and Russia was revealed this week when Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, acknowledged that the Trump Organization was pursuing a Trump Tower real estate complex in Moscow in 2015. Cohen said he had reached out to a press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin about approvals.

In a letter this month to the House intelligence committee, Stephen Ryan, a lawyer for Cohen, dismissed as “false” and “wholly unsubstantiated” claims about Cohen included in a dossier of salacious allegations about the president’s connections with Russia.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump order undermines rebuilding better for future floods

Two weeks before Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed much of Houston, President Donald Trump quietly rolled back an order by his predecessor that would have made it easier for storm-ravaged communities to use federal emergency aid to rebuild bridges, roads and other structures so they can better withstand future disasters.

Now, with much of the nation’s fourth-largest city underwater, Trump’s move has new resonance. Critics note the president’s order could force Houston and other cities to rebuild hospitals and highways in the same way and in the same flood-prone areas.

“Rebuilding while ignoring future flood events is like treating someone for lung cancer and then giving him a carton of cigarettes on the way out the door,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental and climate change law at Columbia University. “If you’re going to rebuild after a bad event, you don’t want to expose yourself to the same thing all over again.”

Trump’s action is one of several ways the president, who has called climate change a hoax, has tried to wipe away former President Barack Obama’s efforts to make the United States more resilient to threats posed by the changing climate.

President Donald Trump says “all of America” is grieving with those who lost loved ones because of Hurricane Harvey. And he told victims of the storm, the nation will be with them. (Aug. 30)

The order Trump revoked would have permitted the rebuilding to take into account climate scientists’ predictions of stronger storms and more frequent flooding.

Bridges and highways, for example, could be rebuilt higher, or with better drainage. The foundation of a new fire station or hospital might be elevated an extra 3 feet.

While scientists caution against blaming specific weather events like Harvey on climate change, warmer air and warmer water linked to global warming have long been projected to make such storms wetter and more intense. Houston, for example, has experienced three floods in three years that statistically were once considered 1-in-500-year events.

The government was still in the process of implementing Obama’s 2015 order when it was rescinded. That means the old standard — rebuilding storm-ravaged facilities in the same way they had been built before — is still in place.

Trump revoked Obama’s order as part of an executive order of his own that he touted at an Aug. 15 news conference at Trump Tower. That news conference was supposed to focus on infrastructure, but it was dominated by Trump’s comments on the previous weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump didn’t specifically mention the revocation, but he said he was making the federal permitting process for the construction of transportation and other infrastructure projects faster and more cost-efficient without harming the environment.

“It’s going to be quick, it’s going to be a very streamlined process,” Trump said.

Asked about the revocation, the White House said in a statement that Obama’s order didn’t consider potential impacts on the economy and was “applied broadly to the whole country, leaving little room or flexibility for designers to exercise professional judgment or incorporate the particular context” of a project’s location.

Obama’s now-defunct order also revamped Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, calling for tighter restrictions on new construction in flood-prone areas. Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, opposed the measure, saying it would impede land development and economic growth.

Revoking that order was only the latest step by Trump to undo Obama’s actions on climate change.

In March, Trump rescinded a 2013 order that directed federal agencies to encourage states and local communities to build new infrastructure and facilities “smarter and stronger” in anticipation of more frequent extreme weather.

Trump revoked a 2015 Obama memo directing agencies developing national security policies to consider the potential impact of climate change.

The president also disbanded two advisory groups created by Obama: the interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Obama’s 2015 order was prompted in part by concerns raised by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper after severe flooding in his state two years earlier. Hickenlooper was dismayed to learn that federal disaster aid rules were preventing state officials from rebuilding “better and smarter than what we had built before.”

The “requirements essentially said you had to build it back exactly the way it was, that you couldn’t take into consideration improvements in resiliency,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said Tuesday. “We want to be more prepared for the next event, not less prepared.”

Bud Wright, the Federal Highway Administration’s executive director during George W. Bush’s administration, said this has long been a concern of federal officials.

He recalled a South Dakota road that was “almost perpetually flooded” but was repeatedly rebuilt to the same standard using federal aid because the state didn’t have the extra money to pay for enhancements.

“It seemed a little ridiculous that we kept doing that,” said Wright, now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ executive director.

But Kirk Steudle, director of Michigan’s Department of Transportation, said states can build more resilient infrastructure than what they had before a disaster by using state or non-emergency federal funds to make up the cost difference.

“That makes sense, otherwise FEMA would be the big checkbook,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Everybody would be hoping for some disaster so FEMA could come in and build them a brand-new road to the 2020 standard instead of the 1970 standard.”

Even though Obama’s order has been revoked, federal officials have some wiggle room that might allow them to rebuild to higher standards, said Jessica Grannis, who manages the adaptation program at the Georgetown Climate Center.

If local building codes in place before the storm call for new construction to be more resilient to flooding, then federal money can still be used to pay the additional costs.

For example, in Houston regulations require structures to be rebuilt 1 foot (30 centimeters) above the level designated for a 1-in-100-year storm. And in the wake of prior disasters, FEMA has moved to remap floodplains, setting the line for the 1-in-100-year flood higher than it was before.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Donald Trump link may have helped swing St. Pete race

A virtual tie between St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and challenger Rick Baker in a mayoral primary Tuesday has left Florida Democrats giddy and Republicans groping for ways to rebrand their candidate.

Baker, a Republican former mayor who remained wildly popular years after leaving office, led Kriseman in polls and fundraising throughout the campaign.

But Kriseman, who served in the Florida House prior to his 2013 election as mayor, wound up beating Baker by 69 votes, with both candidates garnering about 48 percent of the ballots in the nonpartisan race.

The dead heat, with neither candidate capturing more than 50 percent of the votes, forced a Nov. 7 runoff between the two politicians.

St. Petersburg is a swing area in which Democrat Hillary Clinton trounced President Donald Trump by a margin of 60 percent to 36 percent in November.

Baker’s campaign tried to link Kriseman to a variety of divisive local issues, including a kerfuffle over the replacement of an iconic waterfront pier, a massive sewage link and a pricey new police station.

While those issues may have resonated with many voters, Democratic and Republican political consultants maintained that what likely hurt Baker the most was the Kriseman team’s success in tying Baker to Trump.

Strategists cautioned against overstating the broader significance of Kriseman’s Tuesday comeback.

“But it should be a warning sign. It should be an alert signal. It should cause Republicans to ask themselves, how could a guy who was so beloved in this community (Baker) not be able to turn that on again,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.

Kriseman’s success could be a model for progressives and Democrats going into next year’s elections, Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferullo said.

“It’s going to validate that strategy going into 2018, to make Trump an anvil to hang around the neck of our opponents,” Ferullo, whose organization endorsed Kriseman, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

In contrast to many GOP politicians, Baker made inroads with black voters, especially those in St. Petersburg’s Midtown district, during his tenure as mayor from 2001 to 2010.

But the recent controversy about Trump’s remarks in response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – and Baker’s refusal to say whether he had voted for Trump – almost definitely hurt the Republican candidate.

“Rick Baker’s secret sauce was always that he could bring out African-Americans to vote for a Republican,” said Wilson, a harsh critic of Trump who was one of the founders of the “Never Trump” movement.

Baker’s performance in the mayoral election – especially in a city that has been rocked by racial strife in the past – may be a reflection of a growing racial divide nationally, Wilson said.

“There’s an association now among African-Americans that Donald Trump is leading a party of folks who are comfortable with racism. That doesn’t mean Rick Baker is racist. What it means is the association with the Republican Party’s brand and Donald Trump is having blowback effects down the ballot,” he said.

Baker’s support from the black community may have been overshadowed by an endorsement former President Barack Obama gave to Kriseman on Friday.

Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who led Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, credited Obama’s endorsement for helping Kriseman.

“This was definitely a #ThanksObama moment,” Schale said in a telephone interview.

Almost 70 percent of the votes in the mayoral primary were cast before election day, and nearly all of them before the Obama endorsement, Schale pointed out. And, when those votes were tallied, Baker was ahead in the absentee ballot count by more than 1,000 votes.

Just a fraction of the voters on election day, therefore, “cast a ballot with the knowledge of the Obama endorsement,” Schale said.

“There’s no question in my mind that the reason it got as close as it did was at some level the Trump brand and at the same level because of the popularity of Barack Obama,” Schale said.

In advance of the 2018 elections, Democrats are eyeing not only the St. Pete race but a key special election next month in Miami-Dade to replace former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican who was forced to resign in April after a profanity- and racially-tinged tirade at a private club near the Capitol.

“If they can win here and they win the Frank Artiles seat, the Florida Democrats are going to be a totally new party,” said Barry Edwards, a Democratic strategist and radio-show host who is active in St. Petersburg politics.

“The Democrats need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and if they see this light, then they’re going to be energized. Their donors are going to be energized. The activists are going to be energized. And it’s going to create the perception that they’re on a roll, and we know in politics, perception is reality,” he said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

John Rutherford seeks end to ‘arcane’ U.S. Senate cloture rule

Freshman U.S. Congressman John Rutherford has been in Congress since January. And he sees a lot of work ahead — with one primary obstruction being in the U.S. Senate.

Voters “still expect the Republican Party and Congress to get done the things we said we were going to get done: health care, tax reform, transportation, and infrastructure,” the first-term Jacksonville Republican said Wednesday.

Rutherford then clarified what he thought a major impediment to that was: the 60 vote cloture rule in the Senate.

“I think it’s so important that the Senate jettison this arcane 60 vote cloture rule,” Rutherford said, as that rule “subverts the will of the public, because the will of the public was we would have a Republican majority in the Senate.”

“That puts itself back in alignment with the will of the people,” Rutherford said, “and would allow us to pass health care, tax reform, transportation, and infrastructure, the way we told the American people we were going to.”

Rutherford also addressed a couple of other topics beyond a change in Senate rules, including President Donald Trump‘s Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller.

“One of the challenges you run into with these special prosecutors is that they can go anywhere they want. If they can’t find any collusion with the Russians, then they need to end their investigation.”

Rep. Ron DeSantis filed an amendment to a spending bill that would defund the prosecution 180 days after that bill became law, but Rutherford was not familiar with that amendment — and his position was less absolutist than that of DeSantis regarding the investigation.

“I wouldn’t put a time limit with regards to looking for Russian collusion with the Trump campaign,” Rutherford said. “In hacking or affecting the election, there shouldn’t be a time limit on that.”

“But once they’ve run down — they’ve pulled the thread on all the evidence they have or suspicion they have, then they need to wrap it up.”

Finally, Rutherford addressed the President’s Tweet gaffes, noting that Trump’s unclear communication only gave the media ammunition against him.

“The least favorite thing I have of what the President does is Tweet. Because I don’t think he’s able to communicate clearly and concisely enough through that process that a media that is bent on making him look bad is going to use that against him,” Rutherford said Wednesday.

When asked why the media is trying to make Trump look bad — the President’s agenda or his personality — Rutherford said it was a “little bit of both.”

St. Pete mayoral race goes into OT: Runoff election needed

St. Petersburg’s “battle of the two Ricks” is not over yet.

Voters have made their choice in the primary, advancing former two-term Mayor Rick Baker and first-term Mayor Rick Kriseman to the November election. 

Baker led for most of the evening Tuesday; but in the end, he slipped behind with 48.23 percent of the vote (27,253 ballots cast); Kriseman, the incumbent who trailed the race consistently in both fundraising and polling, took a slight lead with a much-better-than-anticipated 48.36 percent (27,322 votes).

With all 92 precincts reporting, just over 56,600 voters cast ballots, for a turnout of just over 33 percent.

Tuesday’s was a significant election, not only as the most expensive campaign in city history — a combined $2 million raised between campaigns and committees — but also as a contest between an incumbent and a popular former mayor, the only time since 1993, when St. Pete adopted its strong-mayor system.

But the battle of the two Ricks will perhaps be best remembered for its hyper-partisanship, something troubling many in a race for a traditionally nonpartisan job.

Receiving credit for Kriseman’s strong finish is the endorsement by former President Barack Obama, bolstered Kriseman’s support from African-American voters and Democratic voters still smarting from Donald Trump‘s surprise win in November.

On the campaign trail, state and national politics were everywhere, with substantial involvement by the Florida Democratic Party, which viewed the election as a bellwether, and President Donald Trump, who loomed large on both sides.

As for Baker, he railed against the mounting divisiveness, while helping to fuel criticism by not addressing whether he voted for Trump; his reticence was quickly branded as silence — and thereby supporting the president — by Democrats in ads and campaign mailers.

Baker rallied his supporters by telling them he would keeping fighting to the end, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“I know a lot of y’all were hoping we finish this up tonight,” said Baker. “But I have to tell you, not me. I’m having too much fun. I think that we have two more months and we’re going to run those two more months hard all the way to the finish line and we’re going to communicate to everybody in our community our message that St. Pete is going to be best if it’s brought together as one city.”

Kriseman, an unabashed progressive, enjoyed the backing of many local Democrats, including Council members Darden Rice, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Charlie Gerdes and Amy Foster. Republican Ed Montanari and Democrats Jim Kennedy and former 8-year Council member (now-state Rep.) Wengay Newton had backed Baker. Democrat Steve Kornell chose to stay out of the race entirely, citing the negativity from both sides.

The fight over St. Pete’s African-American community emerged as a major factor, as it has been for every mayoral race in recent memory. Many in St. Pete’s black neighborhoods saw Baker as attentive toward the community during his two terms, which further complicated Kriseman’s appeal to a typically Democratic voting bloc.

Blacks in St. Pete count for as much as 15 percent of the electorate; no one has ever won a mayoral race there without a majority of the black vote.

Also-rans in the primary included activists Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter and Anthony Cates III, Uhuru-backed candidate Jesse Nevel, and Paul “The Truth” Congemi — who briefly made national news when he suggested Uhurus “go back to Africa” at a candidate forum.

While each failed to garner more than a point — except for Nevel, who received just under 2  percent — the combined effect served to keep either Kriseman or Baker from a decisive primary victory (or loss).

Yet there was no bigger issue in St. Petersburg’s race for mayor than sewage, particularly in how the Kriseman administration handled the aftermath of tens of millions of gallons of partially treated wastewater dumped into local waterways during 2015-16.

As far back as 2001, St. Petersburg suffered from an aging and failing sewage system — while Baker was in office — but the problem reached its peak when the city dumped as much as 200 million gallons of waste after storms in 2015-16. Kriseman initially downplayed the issue (lied, some say), but later committed nearly $360 million for a fix.

In July, Kriseman’s campaign was dealt another blow with a 7-page state report blamed much of the wastewater problem on the mayor’s decision to close the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility, which remained closed during the sewage spills.

A higher-than-normal early vote-by-mail turnout suggested increased interest in the race, while rain in parts of St. Pete on Election Day threatened to keep voters away from the polls.

Ironically, the Tampa Bay Times reported St. Pete experienced a relatively small (1,000 gallon) sewage spill Monday night, due to heavy rain on the eve of the primary. The spill, at the city’s Southwest plant, was mainly contained and posed no risk to the public, Public Works department spokesman Bill Logan told the Times.

As Confederate monuments fall, group calls for restoration

After Confederate monument was taken down in Bradenton, a group that wants to preserve such monuments called Tuesday for it to be repaired and restored to its former place on the courthouse lawn.

Save Southern Heritage and other groups held a news conference in front of the Manatee County Courthouse to demand that the local government put the 93-year-old monument back on its pedestal in downtown Bradenton.

The county commission removed the monument Aug. 24, at a cost of $12,500, following an Aug. 21 protest that drew several hundred people who demanded its removal. The obelisk engraved with the names of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee is in storage until county leaders can figure out where to put it; some have recommended a local cemetery where Confederate soldiers are buried. The monument was damaged during the removal.

This is the latest skirmish over Confederate monuments in Florida.

Orlando removed a monument and St. Petersburg removed a marker. In Jacksonville recently, people packed City Hall to discuss Confederate monuments during a public comment portion of a meeting. In Hollywood, a city in South Florida, leaders will vote Wednesday on whether to rename streets named after Confederate generals, including one named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Critics have called such monuments symbols of white supremacy and racism. Supporters of such monuments say they are reminders of Southern heritage.

“History can’t be broken, divided or reversed to accommodate anyone’s political agenda,” said Bradenton resident Barbara Hemingway. She’s with the group America First – Team Manatee, a pro-President Donald Trump group that has come out against moving such monuments, as has Trump himself.

Hemingway spoke during Tuesday’s news conference and said that the opposition groups – Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and “anarchists” – are out-of-towners trying to “bully” the community.

The group called for the resignation of county leaders who voted to remove the monument, and said all such monuments in Florida should be protected.

Southern Heritage has also been involved in fighting the removal of a statue in downtown Tampa. Commissioners there ruled that the Confederate monument in front of that county’s courthouse would be moved if the community raised $140,000 to help defray the cost. Within 24 hours and aided by the city’s three professional sports teams, the community did, and the monument is set to be relocated in coming weeks to a private cemetery.

Save Southern Heritage drew criticism recently for sending out a “report” and spreadsheet that included the personal information, photos and “affiliation” of more than 100 people who spoke in favor of moving the monument at the July 19 County Commission meeting.

The Tampa Bay Times reports the listed affiliations include specific groups or movements, such as “Democrat” and “Black Lives Matter,” and more general descriptions such as “anti-Trump,” ”LGBT,” ”Muslim” and “resentful black man.” One man was described as being “anti-law enforcement.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Betsy DeVos says Florida education approach a `role model’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a supporter of voucher programs and charter schools, visited two Tallahassee schools, one a private religious school, the other a charter, for what she called a “learning” experience on Tuesday.

Democrats called the visit, which didn’t include traditional public schools, a “photo op” and “publicity stunt.”

After a tour of Holy Comforter Episcopal School, DeVos highlighted innovations she saw at the school while defending the educational approach of President Donald Trump.

“I think they’re examples of what a lot of schools should aspire to be and look for, opportunities to become more innovative,” DeVos told reporters. “I think that we need to recognize the fact that far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago. And the world today is much different. And we need to be acknowledging that and moving toward ways that really engage students and take their curiosity and really fire it up and stoke the curiosity to continue to learn.”

DeVos also toured Florida State University Schools, a charter school affiliated with the university’s College of Education.

She said she didn’t know how the schools were selected, but innovative programs, which include concentrations in science, technology, engineering and math, were probably a factor.

Peter Klekamp, the head of Holy Comforter, said he had been contacted by DeVos’ office about the trip.

“If we can offer what we do to someone at this level, we’re proud to do it,” Klekamp said.

DeVos read a Dr. Seuss book to kindergarteners and held a closed-door meeting with a small group of parents and school leaders at Holy Comforter.

She was greeted by about a dozen protesters outside the private school.

“Seeing that she’s coming to a school that is so specialized for people who are financially able to come to a private school, and not a wider representation of our community at a public school, is definitely not a good representation,” said Colleen Towey, an elementary education major at Florida State University who was among those protesting DeVos’ visit.

DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor from Michigan, has long advocated for alternatives to traditional public schools.

DeVos was narrowly confirmed by the Senate, 51-50, with Vice President right, in his role as presiding officer of the Senate, casting the first tie-breaking vote ever on a Cabinet nominee.

Her selection was backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime friend who is a leading advocate of vouchers. The American Federation of Teachers opposed the nomination, calling DeVos “the most ideological anti-public education nominee.”

Her trip came as the administration has offered a proposed education budget 13 percent lower than in the current year, a $9.2 billion reduction, while setting aside $1 billion that could be spread to states and school districts that establish school-choice programs.

Echoing Trump, DeVos said parents should have more opportunities to select their children’s schools while shrinking the role of the federal government.

“We should be focused on what students need as individuals, not on systems, not on buildings, not continue to focus sort of onhe infrastructure,” DeVos said. “Let’s focus on what individual students need and require to be able to learn and become everything that they can be.”

Prior to her appearance in Tallahassee, the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, criticized DeVos because of her support for private school vouchers.

“It’s no surprise that Betsy DeVos will be visiting a private school among her stops in Tallahassee,” Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a prepared statement. “She has long shown her opposition to public schools, her support for unfettered vouchers and for-profit charter school chains and her desire to privatize all education in this nation.”

DeVos’ critics, including Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gwen Graham and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, contend her priorities drain resources from public education.

In January, the Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal challenging the constitutionality of the state’s voucher-like “tax credit scholarship” program. The decision let stand a lower-court ruling that found the Florida Education Association and others who challenged the program didn’t have legal standing to bring the suit.

DeVos called Florida’s approach to education a “role model” for the nation.

“I think Florida has continued to be an innovator in approaching education and meeting the needs of students,” DeVos said.

The program allows corporations to claim tax credits for donations to organizations that then cover private-school tuition for mostly low-income students.

The number of students benefiting from the tax-credit scholarships has grown from 24,871 in the 2008-09 school year to an anticipated 101,869 during the 2017-18 school year, according to Step Up for Students, an organization that covers most of the students.

The growth follows repeated moves by the Legislature to expand eligibility and enrollment in the program.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Nancy Soderberg pans Ron DeSantis’ attempt to kill investigation of Pres. Trump

While much of the smart money asserts that U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis won’t run for re-election in North Florida’s 6th Congressional District, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg is running regardless — and Tuesday saw her issue a strong statement regarding the incumbent’s attempt to kill Robert Mueller‘s investigation of President Donald Trump.

“In an outrageous move,” Soderberg asserts, “Congressman DeSantis has filed a motion to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russian actors.”

“While DeSantis’ willingness to play politics with the integrity of our elections is nothing new, this move could set a dangerous partisan precedent and seriously undermine the future credibility of American elections,” Soderberg adds.

The “decision to inject partisanship into this investigation hurts [DeSantis’] credibility and does a disservice to our community and the American people. We have a right to know the facts,” Soderberg adds.

“As a former Deputy National Security Advisor, I know firsthand how dangerous DeSantis’ attempt to shut down this investigation is. If there was collusion between Russia and anyone in our government, it must be brought into the light,” Soderberg concludes.

Soderberg’s statement follows after DeSantis filed an amendment to a spending bill that would cut off funds for the Mueller investigation 180 days after the bill became law.

While it is by no means certain that the amendment will clear the bill in its final, bicameral form, DeSantis’ amendment is widely seen as an attempt to curry favor with President Trump, whose backing will be key in any statewide primary.

Donald Trump’s turn to face tricky politics of natural disasters

George W. Bush never recovered from his flyover of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Barack Obama got a bipartisan boost late in his re-election campaign for his handling of Superstorm Sandy.

Now, President Donald Trump confronts the political risks and potential gains that come with leading the federal government’s response to a deadly and destructive natural disaster. Hurricane Harvey, the massive storm that has dumped torrents of rain across Texas — flooding Houston and other cities — is the first major natural disaster of Trump’s presidency, and the yet-to-be-determined scope of the damage appears likely to require a years-long federal project.

Trump, who is suffering through a long stretch of low approval ratings, has been particularly eager to seize the moment. He will visit Texas Tuesday — and may return to the region again on Saturday. The White House announced the first visit even before Harvey made landfall. On Monday, Trump promised Texans will “have what you need” and that federal funding would come “fast.”

“We will come out stronger and believe me, we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before,” Trump said Monday during a White House news conference. Trump was scheduled to be briefed on relief efforts with local leaders and relief organizations during a stop in Corpus Christi, then touring the state emergency operations center in Austin and receiving a briefing on the storm before returning to Washington.

The president’s unconventional style has still oozed out. Trump sent about two dozen tweets about the storm since Friday, marveling at the size of the hurricane and cheering on emergency responders: “You are doing a great job — the world is watching!”

Indeed, he argued Monday he specifically timed his controversial pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to capitalize on all the viewers tuned into storm coverage. The Friday night pardon wasn’t an attempt to hide the news, he said: “I assumed the ratings would be higher.”

Trump advisers are well-aware that the hurricane poses a significant test for the White House, which has largely been mired in crises of its own making during Trump’s first seven months in office, including the president’s widely criticized response to white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump, who ran a real estate business and starred in a reality show before taking office, has no experience in the kinds of recovery efforts that will be required in Texas and has struggled at times to show competency in governing.

Administrations often tread carefully in planning visits to disaster-ravaged areas. Mobilizing a president, his staff and his security is an enormous logistical undertaking and can pull local law enforcement resources away from the disaster recovery efforts. But Trump hasn’t been cowed.

Aides said it was Trump who pushed for the White House to make his desire to travel to Texas known early. He won’t be visiting Houston, where flooding has wreaked havoc on the nation’s fourth-largest city. Instead, he is meeting with local leadership and relief organizations in Corpus Christi, then visiting the state’s emergency operations center in Austin.

“Conditions haven’t cleared in Houston yet so probably not appropriate for him to go up there, probably not safe for him to go up there,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. “But I do think having your own eyes on the devastation that I have seen is important.”

The optics of a president’s initial response to a natural disaster can be long-lasting.

Bush was haunted by his now-infamous declaration that then-FEMA Director Michael Brown was doing “a heckuva job” — a statement that appeared wildly off base after the full scope of the devastation became clear. Images of Bush peering down at the flooding in New Orleans from Air Force One also furthered the impression that he was detached from the horrific conditions on the ground.

“He understands why that picture became a metaphor,” said Dana Perino, who was serving as deputy White House spokeswoman at the time.

Trump has played storm politics before. During his campaign, he rushed to Louisiana, in his signature “Make America Great Again” hat, to view damage from massive flooding. Trump made it to the battered neighborhoods before Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and while President Barack Obama was vacationing.

“We’re glad you’re not playing golf at Martha’s Vineyard,” one woman told him, a jab at Obama.

“Somebody is, somebody is that shouldn’t be,” Trump replied.

Over the weekend, Trump offered a sunny assessment of the response efforts while the rain was still pouring down on Houston and other Texas towns. He cited the “great coordination between agencies at all levels of government” and declared, “We have an all-out effort going, and going well!”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has so far praised the federal response to Hurricane Harvey, which has been blamed for at least three confirmed deaths. But with nearly 2 more feet of rain expected, authorities worried whether the worst was yet to come.

On its own, a successful federal response to Hurricane Harvey is unlikely to reshape Trump’s presidency. But with his approval rating perilously low, it could help Trump convince some Americans that he has the capability to lead the nation through difficult moments.

Trump’s predecessors have also benefited from the political opportunities that can arise after natural disasters.

When Superstorm Sandy barreled across the East Coast days before the 2012 election, Obama paused his campaign to monitor the federal response from Washington. He traveled to hard-hit New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a strong supporter of the president’s rival, lavished praise on Obama.

Obama advisers said then that while they didn’t believe the president’s Sandy efforts were a deciding factor in the election, the praise he received from Republicans was helpful in the midst of a highly partisan campaign.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Darryl Paulson: Why I left the Republican Party

I have been a Republican all my life. I remember watching the Republican National Convention in 1956, when I was 8 years old, and seeing President Dwight Eisenhower nominated for a second term.

When I turned 21, I registered as a Republican and have voted for all but two of the Republican presidential candidates since 1972.

Growing up in the 1960s, the era of civil rights, the Vietnam War, the emerging environmental movement and the sexual revolution, most of my youthful colleagues were Democrats or something to the left of Democrats.

Why did I become a Republican?

First, the Republican Party was the anti-slavery and pro-union political party. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, remains as the greatest Republican president.

I was attracted to the Republican Party because it supported a strong military, but opposed big government. Big government, like big business, is something to be feared and controlled.

Finally, I became a Republican because my parents were Republicans. Like church affiliation, most individuals adopt the party identification of their parents. Although my parents were Republican, they were never activist nor straight-ticket Republicans.

My father was a policeman for over 30 years, and that influenced my partisan choice. During the 1960s, the police were perceived as the enemy by many political activists. They were the pigs.

In some cases, the police deserved their negative reputation. There is no doubt that many law enforcement officials in the south used violence against peaceful civil rights protestors.

In spite of these shortcomings, the police were often subjected to unfair criticism. They were expected to be lawyers, psychologists and social workers, in addition to enforcing the laws. They were always criticized and seldom supported.

I not only considered myself a Republican, but I was also a conservative. Whittaker Chambers, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan were my heroes. At this point, most readers are probably saying, “Whittaker who?” Chambers book, “Witness,” remains as the greatest but, most overlooked conservative book ever written.

I opposed the campaign of Donald Trump from the beginning. I believed he was neither a Republican nor a conservative. A look at his voter registration record shows he spent more time as a Democrat than a Republican. He was also registered as an independent and a member of the Reform Party. The last time he left the Republican Party, he called them “crazy right,” and he only rejoined the party about 18 months before seeking the Republican nomination.

His actions as president have reaffirmed my view that he is unfit to be president. As he did during the campaign, Trump frequently changes his positions or simply lies. Here is a short list of the lies and exaggerations of Donald Trump:

— Trump has not been able to pass one piece of significant legislation, but he argues that no president “has accomplished as much as the president in the first six or seven months.

— Trump has cozied up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians, although they remain one of the greatest threats to our nation. Trump continues to deny any Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, although every intelligence agency disputes that notion.

— When asked by Bill O’Reilly how he could defend a “killer” like Putin, Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers … You think our country is so innocent?”

— Another example of Trump’s moral equivalency was when Trump defended the Nazi, KKK and white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville by saying “there is blame on both sides,” and “some very fine people” participated in the rally. I have yet to find a “nice” Nazi, Klansman or white supremacist.

— Instead of attempting to unite the nation in times of crisis, as previous presidents have done, Trump is the Great Divider, pitting one side against another.

— Trump’s ego is so big that it is impossible for him to admit a mistake. It is always the fault of others. Evan though he sold himself as the “great dealmaker,” he was unable to make a deal to repeal and replace Obamacare. Instead, he blames Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Senator John McCain.

— A major campaign promise of Trump was to build a wall on the United States-Mexican border and guaranteed Mexico would pay for the wall. Now Trump is demanding that Congress pay for the wall or else Trump will shut down the government.

— Trump told the American people he selected the best people to advise him as president. A Jan. 28, 2017 photo showed Trump sitting in the Oval Office while talking on the phone to Putin. Trump was surrounded by his handpicked advisers Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Michael Flynn and Steve Brannon. All of Trump’s personally selected advisors have since been fired.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called Trump’s statement on Charlottesville “a moral disgrace.” The conservative magazine, The Economist, said “Donald Trump is politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for office.”

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a strong Trump supporter, now says that Trump “has not been able to demonstrate the stability nor the competence” needed to be president.

The most damning statement about the Trump presidency comes from former Republican Senator John Danforth of Missouri. Danforth, an ordained Presbyterian minister, wrote in The New York Times that Trump “stands in opposition to the founding principles of our party — that of a United country.” The first resolution passed at the first Republican National Convention was that “the union of the states must and shall be preserved.”

The motto of America is “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “out of many, one.” Under Trump, we have way too much Pluribus, and not enough Unum.

I will not rejoin the Republican Party until Donald Trump is no longer the leader of the party of Lincoln. That does not mean that I have joined the Democrats. They have their own problems which could be the subject of another editorial.

Where are the Republican leaders willing to stand up and denounce Trump for what he is? He is the bully in the room who gets away with his divisive tactics until enough people are willing to take him on and say, “enough is enough.”


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

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