With media coverage reminiscent of Watergate and the Clinton impeachment saga, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney was in the witness chair before a Congressional committee surrounded by cameras.
Before heading to prison for, among other things, lying to Congress, Michael Cohen spent three days on Capitol Hill telling various House committees Trump is a bad guy for multiple reasons.
Depending on one’s political point of view, Cohen either inflicted massive damage on the President or confirmed there was no basis for the accusations against him for colluding with Russia.
Even before Cohen appeared publicly before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, a firestorm started by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz consumed the lead-in to Cohen’s appearance. A Gaetz tweet perceived as a threat to Cohen, intimated details of extramarital affairs would soon become public.
After the backlash, Gaetz apologized and took down the tweet, but not before the Florida Bar revealed they were looking into the matter, while a Democratic House member wants the House Ethics Committee to review it. Following Cohen’s testimony, Gaetz revealed he had personally apologized and urged everyone to “leave the Cohen family alone.”
Two Floridians played a role in the questioning of Cohen. Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republican Rep. Greg Steube naturally treated Cohen quite differently.
Wasserman Schulz focused on the collusion angle. She asked Cohen whether “the whole Trump family could possibly be conflicted or compromised with a foreign adversary in the months before the 2016 election. He said yes.”
Steube referred to Cohen as a “convicted liar” with “zero credibility.” He said, “I don’t know a jury in America who would believe anything Mr. Cohen says given his past actions and lies.”
In his testimony, Cohen addressed a recent media leak that he would claim Trump asked him to lie before Congress. (Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the highly unusual step of debunking the leak.)
“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress,” Cohen said. He quickly added “That’s not how he operates” before proceeding to describe signals Trump would send to let Cohen know what he wanted him to either do or say.
Cohen provided copies of checks from Trump to Cohen for what he called reimbursements to him for paying off adult film star Stormy Daniels for her silence. These payments occurred while Trump was in the White House.
While telling Wasserman Schulz the President was capable of colluding with Russia, Cohen denied any knowledge of collusion. Suspicion of complicity served as the foundation for launching the Mueller investigation.
While collusion seems to be fading, Democrats latched on to a Cohen statement saying he was “personally aware” of investigations going on in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
They are also interested in pursuing a Cohen claim that Trump knew WikiLeaks had damaging emails from key Democrats and the Democratic National Committee, which was under the leadership of Wasserman Schultz at that time.
Expectations were low heading into the summit meeting between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and those expectations were met. Trump abruptly left the summit with no deal due to North Korea’s unwillingness to commit to total denuclearization and the refusal of the U.S. to ease sanctions before that happens.
“It was about the sanctions,” Trump said. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to de-nuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”
The North Koreans disputed Trump’s account. They claimed they wanted only a partial lifting of sanctions.
Along with disagreements on the facts, there was also a difference of opinion on the motives for the summit, as well as the Cohen hearings before Congress.
Despite the low expectations going in, Princeton law professor Julian Zeilizer was concerned Trump would sign a bad deal to distract from the Cohen hearing. On the other hand, former Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News judicial analyst, held the view it was Cohen seeking the distraction, saying the timing indicated he was there “to try to ruin the President’s trip to Vietnam.
With no deal, Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the President for walking away. Rubio said: “Thankfully (Trump) didn’t fall for a deal involving meaningless measures in exchange for meaningful U.S. concessions.”
Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were pleased Trump walked away from the deal.
Border wall big week
To no one’s surprise, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted to block Trump’s declaration of emergency to build a border wall. The vote was 245-182.
Those voting in favor were 232 Democrats and 13 Republicans. The only Florida Republican to buck Trump was Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples (see Rooney below).
Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee summed up the Democratic view.
“Americans deserve a leader who will respect the Constitution,” Lawson said in a statement. “The emergency declaration violates Congress’ exclusive power of the purse, and, if unchecked, would fundamentally alter the integrity and stability of our democracy.
The measure now moves to the Senate, where the likelihood of following the House action is growing each day. Nervous Republicans vented their frustration on Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week.
Trump has guaranteed a veto if the Senate follows the House’s lead.
A new wrinkle occurred this week when the Department of Defense appeared before the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee this week to discuss the Pentagon budget.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert McMahon told the subcommittee, chaired by Wasserman Schultz, that taking defense funds to build the wall will not significantly affect operations — provided Congress replaces the money.
“I’m not sure what kind of chumps you think my colleagues and I are,” the Weston Democrat told McMahon. “What you’re doing is circumventing Congress to get funding for the wall, which you couldn’t get during the conference process, and instead coming back and trying to get us to replace the funding during the appropriations cycle.”
Trump’s emergency declaration would tap from existing defense dollars and other programs. The Pentagon has at least $13.3 billion in unallocated funds already appropriated by Congress.
Rubio tweets draw hot buzz
Some backlash from Rubio’s recent tweets warning of a possible bloody ending for Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro is still coming in, especially one showing the gruesome end for former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Rubio also has those who fully support his message.
The two-term Republican is not likely to be bothered by anything coming from the Maduro regime, but a high-ranking member of the inner circle weighed in.
“Can this man represent the people of the United States, the people of Florida? Does the United States share those values?” asked Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza.
Rubio has his supporters, including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who said “All dictators ultimately meet their end. Often times they meet their end in a violent way.”
Holding a differing view was Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel–Powell of Miami, who was appalled.
“It is completely inappropriate for a senator to tweet those images,” the first-term Democrat said in a statement. “That’s not the way to find a peaceful resolution.”
Scott, Rubio back disaster relief
A bipartisan bill to provide hurricane relief for victims of recent hurricanes and other disasters is now working its way through Congress. The bill, which would provide $13.6 billion for relief, was launched by Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia and co-sponsored by seven others including Scott and Rubio.
The bill provides relief for Florida farmers whose crops were damaged or devastated, development grants for impacted communities, and assistance for veterans’ and military construction projects.
“As governor of Florida, I saw firsthand the destruction left behind by multiple devastating hurricanes,” Scott said in a release. “Following these storms, we worked nonstop to help our communities recover — but there is still a lot to do, especially when it comes to rebuilding Tyndall Air Force Base. Disaster funding should not be a political fight and needs to be brought to the floor of the Senate as quickly as possible.”
The bill also provides funding for the timber industry, restoration of highways and an additional $600 million in nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico. Rubio said past inactions makes this a must-pass bill.
“While Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly to help Florida communities devastated by Hurricane Michael earlier this year, Congress has repeatedly played politics with disaster funding at the expense of local communities still struggling to recover,” Rubio said. “Our communities should not have to suffer the consequences of Congress’s inaction any longer. It is time to act.”
Scott: TPS for Venezuelans
Democrats have been pushing Trump to immediate declare Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelans fleeing to the U.S. from their economically-collapsing country. This week, Scott joined the call to extend TPS protections.
“While I believe we need a long-term solution for the Temporary Protected Status program, the President should immediately extend Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans who came to the United States to escape Maduro’s regime,” the Republican senator said in a statement.
He joins Rubio, who began to advocate for TPS nearly one year ago in a letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami and Democratic Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee co-introduced the Venezuela TPS Act of 2019 in January.
Democrats have strongly urged Trump to make the declaration. Rep. Donna Shalala of Coral Gables urged Trump to either announce TPS protections during his recent visit to Miami or not come at all.
Trump has not publicly declared opposition to the move.
“I applaud the administration for implementing strong sanctions against the regime, and we must continue to do everything in our power to save Venezuela from this tyrannical dictator,” Scott said.
Veteran STEM bill advances
This week, legislation designed to help veterans build careers in the field of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) passed the House of Representatives. The Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act, sponsored by Rep. Neal Dunn, passed by a voice vote.
The bill instructs the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a veterans’ outreach plan to connect them with STEM job and education opportunities. It further charges the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to assess how to increase participation among veterans in career fields.
“In the next five years, between one and 1.5 million members of the U.S. Armed Forces will separate from the military, according to the Department of Defense,” the Panama City Republican said during remarks on the House floor.
“Many of these veterans will be seeking new careers, and by a great margin, veterans cite finding employment as their number-one need when separating from Active Duty Service,” Dunn said.
The legislation also passed the House during the last Congress but died in the Senate. This year, Rubio filed a companion bill in that chamber.
Crist: Fix MacDill housing
Recent revelations brought attention to substandard housing on military bases, especially MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The problems revealed severe problems such as mold in housing operated by private entities.
This week, Rep. Charlie Crist introduced legislation that would empower military base commanders to hold private companies managing on-base military housing accountable for the health, safety, and other concerns of service members and their families. In some cases, some had no recourse but to leave the Armed Forces.
“It’s shocking and unacceptable that our service members and their families are being trapped in living situations that put their health and safety at risk,” the Democrat from St. Petersburg said.
“Part of the issue stems from base commanders not having the authority necessary to police bad actors, holding private companies accountable for living conditions in the on-base housing they oversee.”
For current housing contracts, this legislation would allow military personnel to use the chain of command for a reprieve from an abusive private housing landlord. This, in turn, would expand the whistleblower’s protection from any possible retribution.
“It’s pretty simple — empower local base leadership to fix the problem, and give our soldiers and their families a clear voice in the process. I can’t believe things have gotten to the point that service members have had to quit the military to protect their families, but Congress has the power to put a stop to it — and we need to act without delay,” Crist said.
Castor touts appointments
Less than two months after her appointment as chair of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Rep. Kathy Castor announced the first two staff appointments. Castor announced Ana Unruh Cohen would serve as staff director and Alison Cassady as deputy staff director
Castor said both are experienced former Congressional staffers who bring a wealth of expertise on climate and clean energy issues to the Select Committee.
“Ana Unruh Cohen and Alison Cassady are experienced climate professionals who will launch the Select Committee’s work and build a dynamic staff to work with me and my colleagues to press for urgent action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build an equitable clean energy economy with a qualified workforce and a just transition,” the Tampa Democrat said in a news release.
Cohen comes to the committee from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) where she was the managing director for government affairs. Cassady was most recently with the Center for American Progress (CAP), where she was managing director of the Energy and Environment team and Director of Domestic Energy Policy since 2014.
Within the 245-182 majority in voting to block Trump’s declaration of emergency were 13 Republicans. Among the 13 was Rooney, who was later asked about his vote.
Rooney explained in terms associated with conservatives, arguing that Congress has a role in appropriating funds and the executive branch does not unilaterally spend money without authorization.
“I voted for the resolution because I believe in the rule of law and strict adherence to our Constitution,” he said. “We are, as John Adams said, ‘A nation of laws, not men.’ The ends cannot justify the means; that is exactly what the socialists want.”
Rooney further expounded saying border security is highly significant, but it is part of an overall long-term solution.
“We need to secure our border and control who enters the United States, but this emergency declaration is not the answer,” Rooney said, “fixing our broken immigration system is: adopting skill-based immigration, not family-based; policing visa overstays; ending the diversity lottery; making E-Verify required of all employers; and stopping asylum abuse by requiring that asylum claims can only be made at a legal point of entry to the United States.”
Deutch blasts migrant abuse
The well-being of unaccompanied children arriving at the Southern border has been an issue of heightened concern since an explosion of these undocumented minors began within the last five years. Recent allegations of sexual abuse against detained children were addressed during a meeting this week of the House Judiciary Committee.
According to documents released by Deutch as part of the hearing, more than 1,000 cases of abuse were reported during each of the past four years covering two administrations. Deutch spoke on these revelations, but only focused on the previous two years.
“With the number of allegations each year roughly breaking down to one sexual assault per week for the last three years, clearly this administration is not equipped to keep these children safe inside their facilities,” Deutch said in a statement.
During the hearing Deutch engaged with Commander Jonathan White of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who has overall responsibility for the well-being of those detained. White strongly objected to Deutch including HHS employees in the category of those accused of abuse, calling the statement false.
“I will make that clarification,” Deutch replied. “But it doesn’t make what happened any less horrific.”
Wilson wants schools hardened
The House Education and Labor Committee this week sent the Rebuild America’s Schools Act to the House floor. The committee added a provision proposed by Rep. Frederica Wilson calling for building designs that protect individuals from natural elements and human threats.
Wilson co-sponsored the bill which calls for a $100 billion investment to address several infrastructure problems in public schools.
“The nation’s public schools should be vibrant places that make children get up each morning anxious to absorb every bit of knowledge they can,” said the Miami Gardens Democrat in a news release. “A crumbling school building is an unsafe building. And if children don’t feel safe, how can they learn?”
According to Wilson, the bill would ensure equity in school facilities and digital infrastructure, strengthen the state role in creating safe and healthy schools, and improve regulations and data collection on those conditions. The legislation also is projected to generate more than 1.9 million well-paying jobs.
Some Republicans OK w/gun bill
With Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives, gun control measures was sure to pass out of that chamber for the first time in two decades. The first one passed this week as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 won approval by a vote of 240-190.
Democratic Rep. Deutch, an outspoken advocate for gun control, expressed his satisfaction in the House vote. The bill requires a background check for every gun purchase and repurchase.
“To every family who has endured loss due to gun violence. To every student who worries about being shot in school and every student who worries about being shot on the way to or from school. To everyone who carries the mental and/or physical scars of gunshots. Today was for you,” he said.
Gun control is not an issue near and dear to Republicans, but 8 of them joined with 232 Democrats to send the bill to Congress. Among the bill’s co-sponsors was Rep. Brian Mast, a Palm City Republican.
When it came time to vote, Mast was not alone among his fellow delegation Republicans. Also voting for approval was Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the bill was Steube, who spoke strongly against it and unleashed a midweek tweetstorm. Steube’s view was similar to those of most Republicans.
“Hey @HouseDemocrats — how about instead of creating new laws, we better apply the ones we already have on the books?” Steube tweeted. “What’s the value of a background check without quality and accurate data in the system?”
The bill now moves to the Senate, where it has an uncertain future.
Water needs addressed
Heading the agenda for the delegation’s first meeting of 2019 was red tide, oil drilling, and harmful algal blooms. The meeting was arranged by delegation co-chairs Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key and Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach.
Underscoring the importance water quality plays in the lives most Floridians, 16 members attended — more than half the state delegation.
“Few issues can unite our delegation like water quality, from clean oceans to the estuaries to the Everglades,” Buchanan said. “Florida is the only state on the mainland with two coastlines. My goal was to see if we could reach a consensus and it was obvious that we all agree we need to take swift action to keep our oceans and waterways clean.”
Attendees heard from several experts from the private sector as well as state and federal officials involved in Florida water issues.
“The devastation closed beaches, made Floridians sick, and harmed all aspects of our fishing, tourism and recreational industry,” Hastings said before the meeting. “It is critical that we reach across the partisan divide to truly solve this pressing problem.”
In 2018, Buchanan and Hastings backed a proposal ultimately signed by Trump to provide more than $100 million to combat harmful algal blooms like red tide. Last year, a Buchanan proposal to increase funding for red tide research was also signed into law.
On this day in the headlines
March 1, 1995 — The ax fell on communities nationwide with the Defense Department proposal to close 57 military installations in 12 states. This time, Florida is set to gain 4,500 additional defense-related jobs after losing 18,000 in previous rounds of base closures.
The Jacksonville area had been targeted for several cuts in the latest round, but those did not come to pass. “I’m just elated,” said Republican Rep. Tillie Fowler of Jacksonville.
March 1, 2003 — The rumors became official as Sen. Bob Graham filed papers to run for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Florida Democrats were thrilled with the news, but outside of the state, Graham will have a difficult road to win the right to take on President George W. Bush.
He is not well-known around the country, making him a long shot to win. New York City Democrat Hilda Classon said “his chances are nil to nothing. Nobody knows him.” Graham has never lost an election.