Storm before the storm
The report from special counsel Robert Mueller is finally out.
Some will talk exoneration for President Donald Trump, while others still see evidence of collusion and obstruction of justice, with impeachment the only recourse.
Perhaps a story even as large as the release of the report was the firestorm leading up to the long-awaited event. Even before the redacted report was released, Democrats were in a frenzy.
Less than 24 hours before it became public came information that Justice Department officials had already briefed the White House days before. Democrats were even more livid when Attorney General William Barr announced he would hold a news conference with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein hours before anyone had a chance to see it.
The Justice Department indicated Barr and Rosenstein would be discussing the process. That did not stop Judiciary Committee Democrats from smelling a rat.
Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton tweeted:
Bill Barr may have the first word tomorrow, but Congress will have the last word. https://t.co/5hDQ5YYVSj
— Rep. Ted Deutch (@RepTedDeutch) April 18, 2019
Rep. Val Demings of Orlando said it was “Pretty convenient of the attorney general to take questions on the report before anyone has a chance to read the report.” She added in a tweet:
Attorney General Barr and President Trump are going to do everything possible to make sure you’re thinking about their spin and not the actual words of the report.
I know social media moves at a million miles an hour, but tomorrow, slow down, take your time, get it right. https://t.co/kGaz7S6YjB
— Rep. Val Demings (@RepValDemings) April 17, 2019
The third Democratic member of the committee, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami said the committee was “ready to take the necessary steps if we don’t get the information we have requested.” The committee has a subpoena ready for the full, unredacted report.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said “Release the Mueller report tomorrow morning and keep your mouth shut. You have ZERO credibility.”
Judiciary Committee Republicans Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, who was at the southern border this week (see below) and Greg Steube of Sarasota maintained radio silence leading up to the report’s release.
Despite indications that the briefing would focus on process, the Democrats’ fears were well-founded. During a presentation and fielding of questions that lasted 30 minutes, Barr repeatedly stressed no collusion was found by Mueller.
The Attorney General did not say much about his and Rosenstein’s determination that no obstruction of justice by Trump occurred. “I leave it to (Mueller’s) description in the report,” Barr said, giving a preview of what would follow later in the day.
“This morning, the attorney general of the United States told us there are at least 10 potential instances of obstruction of justice that were investigated,” Deutch tweeted shortly afterward:
This morning, the attorney general of the United States told us there are at least ten potential instances of obstruction of justice that were investigated.
We’ll take it from here, thanks.
— Rep. Ted Deutch (@RepTedDeutch) April 18, 2019
As the storm before the storm passed, more thunder and lightning was just ahead.
Dems pounce on report
As the Mueller report was being released on the day before Good Friday, narratives began to take shape. It gave most, but not all, Democrats a basis to move on from collusion and focus on obstruction of justice.
“It is clear to me that the President and his team worked with the Russians — or willingly accepted Moscow’s help and the President himself encouraged it — to allow a foreign enemy to influence our democracy,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at an afternoon news conference.
Trump took the opportunity to claim victory.
“I’m having a good day,” Trump said at a White House event for the Wounded Warrior Project. “It’s called no collusion, no obstruction.”
Demings strongly disagreed, jumping on the portion of the report that said “If the president did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state … we are unable to reach that judgment,” it read.
Page Two: "[if] the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgement.”
Put simply, Mueller found evidence of obstruction of justice. pic.twitter.com/2pmr6Ad9On
— Rep. Val Demings (@RepValDemings) April 18, 2019
“Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation concluded potential obstruction, but that is being brushed over by Attorney General Barr,” said Democratic Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee.
Barr gave his approval for Mueller to testify before Congressional committees. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler quickly had a letter to Mueller requesting his presence before May 23.
Steube, Demings’ fellow Judiciary Committee member, had a totally different view.
“Like the initial findings from Attorney General Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, and other top officials at the Department of Justice, the report confirms what we knew all along — there was no collusion and no obstruction,” the Sarasota Republican said. “It’s time to move forward.”
Panama City Republican Neal Dunn defended Barr and trolled Democrats for not moving on.
“By working directly with the Special Counsel on necessary redactions, I believe he has more than fulfilled his promise and it is time for Democrats in Congress to end their witch hunt and get back to work.”
Dunn and other Republicans are warning Democrats that investigations into FBI and Department of Justice conduct in launching the Trump investigations may change the narrative.
Scott versus Schumer
For about one month, Sen. Rick Scott has engaged in social media fights with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Both men are trying to say the other side is playing politics with relief for Puerto Rico as it relates to efforts to fund states damaged by natural disasters.
In the Senate, Democrats will not support a bill that contains funding for states that both sides agree upon but disagree on Puerto Rico. The House has already passed a measure that provides higher funding for the island commonwealth. Trump has agreed to the Senate Republicans’ funding levels for Puerto Rico.
Scott describes the impasse as “a great example of why people hate politics.” He went on to accuse Schumer of “lying” for saying Trump took Puerto Rico money out of the bill.
“We all know @realDonaldTrump took all aid for Puerto Rico but nutrition assistance out of the bill,” Schumer tweeted. “The bill has none of the long-term recovery & resilience aid PR has asked for repeatedly. Stop the bull. Stand up to the President. Help all communities rebuilding from disaster.”
Scott had a response within a couple of hours.
“I’m working with Rs, Ds, and the President to get a deal done,” Scott responded. “But it shouldn’t have taken this long. FL’s been waiting six months. The truth is, you’re more than happy to give Puerto Rico nothing if it helps prolong a political fight with Trump. That’s shameful.”
Republicans argue the Republican bill offered by Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama is the only one Trump will sign. The President has indicated he believes Puerto Rico is receiving more than their share at the expense of states like Florida, California and flood-ravaged states.
Florida Democrats attacked Scott after his feud with Schumer took a breather.
OK to sue Cuba
Almost six decades after Fidel Castro came to power and confiscated the property of Cuban citizens, their heirs will now have a right to seek redress. The Trump administration will cease suspending a portion of the Libertad Act that will now allow American citizens, including naturalized Cubans, to sue companies and subsidiaries in Cuba that benefited from the confiscated property.
The decision is a victory for Florida Republicans who have sought a tougher stance against Cuba and have tried to cripple Cuba’s assistance to the Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro. “By no longer suspending Title III of the Libertad Act, the Trump administration is ending decades of impunity by the Castro regime,” said Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement. “The United States is opening the door to justice and enabling victims of the Cuban dictatorship to rightfully sue their perpetrators.”
Title III of the Libertad Act allows U.S. citizens to sue for properties that were confiscated once Castro seized power in 1959 and are now valued at $8 billion.
Earlier in the week, Scott urged the President to go further by ending the suspension of Title IV, which denies visas for Cubans who benefited financially from the confiscated properties after 1996.
“I’m calling on the administration to fully implement Title III and IV of the Libertad Act to show Castro that his era of influence in Latin America is over,” he said in a statement.
Federal fundraising tidbits
Fundraising stories can be boring, but the most recent quarterly figures do provide a few things of interest. How are the freshman representatives doing or who is raising or storing up enough money to scare away any serious challenger?
On the Democratic side, first-term Rep. Mucarsel-Powell hauled in $450,000 during the first quarter — more than anyone in the delegation — and had $435,266 in the bank March 31. Her South Florida colleague, Rep. Donna Shalala of Coral Gables raised about half that much (with more than half coming through ActBlue) and had $228,914 cash on hand.
Republican freshman Michael Waltz of St. Augustine raised $223,651 and had $192,720 on hand for his re-election while Republican newcomer Greg Steube had enough to donate $35,000 to the RNCC (see Rutherford below). First-term Rep. Ross Spano reported $223,968 but is still mired in controversy over the status of loans during his successful 2018 campaign, something national Democrats were only too happy to point out.
Second-term GOP Rep. Francis Rooney reported the lowest fundraising total among the delegation with receipts of only $755, but he also sported $636,933 cash on hand, the most of any Republican. Democrat Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg hauled in more than $358,000 and has a staggering sum of $1.97 million cash on hand (see DCCC below).
Gaetz heads south
The cost of a border wall is the primary reason a 35-day government shutdown occurred earlier this year. An Arizona construction company claims they can build the war at far less cost, prompting Gaetz to join colleagues on the border to see for themselves.
Fisher Industries demonstrated how it can install 218 miles of border fence, paved roads, and technology on the southern border at a significantly lower cost and time frame.
Also on the trip with Gaetz and his fellow Republicans was former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is angling for an appointment as the next Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
I'm on the southern border of the United States in Arizona looking at the construction and infrastructure technology that allows workers to secure our border. #BuildTheWall @RepAndyBiggsAZ pic.twitter.com/i7OpfMyOfM
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) April 16, 2019
The barrier is proposed for four regions near Yuma, Arizona; El Paso, Tex.; El Centro, California; and Tucson, Arizona Each mile would cost $12.5 million, mobilization or startup costs are estimated to be around $200 million and a $360 million five-year warranty is included in the total proposed cost.
Rutherford, Steube help RNCC
During the 2018 election cycle, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (RNCC) was outraised by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) by 30 percent. The DCCC’s $296 million to $205 million advantage has Republicans looking for ways to close that gap in the 2020 cycle.
It appears the RNCC is looking to get early money by tapping some of its members in the first cycle. This includes some freshman with enough resources and a safe district to ante up.
Among those freshmen is Steube, who reported $27,371 in contributions, but also wrote a check to the RNCC for $35,000. He represents District 17, a safe Republican district and still reported $147,366 cash on hand.
District 4 Rep. John Rutherford is also in a safe district. He reported $50,800 in contributions during the first quarter, but helped the RNCC with $37,500, leaving him with $349,457 cash on hand.
The next reporting date for party committees is April 20.
Affordable housing cash
Last week, Central Florida Democrats announced a $3.25 million security grant for the Orlando region. This week, Demings, Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee and Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park are back with more federal dollars.
The trio announced a grant of $23.4 million to provide more housing opportunities for lower-income residents. The funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will be used to revitalize communities, reduce homelessness and help individuals with HIV/AIDS find suitable homes.
“Affordable housing and smart urban planning are crucial in our work to build a Central Florida that works for all of us,” Demings said in a joint release. “Every Central Floridian should be able to live in a safe, healthy, affordable neighborhood.”
The cities of Orlando and Sanford, along with Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties are the targeted recipients of the grants. Assistance is coming from the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG), the Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME), the Emergency Solutions Grants Program (ESG), and the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA).
“Along with another recently awarded HUD grant for $8 million, this new major $25 million federal grant will go a long way to assisting countless hardworking families in need of housing, especially in our most vulnerable communities,” Soto said
All targeted communities will receive CDBG funding, while HOPWA funds are targeted exclusively to Orlando. HOME and ESG funds go to all areas except for Sanford, which will benefit from funds going to Seminole County.
“While our region continues to attract new businesses, better-paying jobs and new economic opportunities, affordable housing has not kept pace with this growth,” Murphy said. “This is a serious challenge for central Florida, and we must tackle it head on so more hard-working people can afford a good home.”
Digital currency regs
Providing safe harbor from federal securities regulations over digital currencies and other blockchain-based products is the subject of new legislation on Capitol Hill. The Token Taxonomy Act was introduced by Soto and Ohio Republican Rep. Warren Davidson.
“It is time for the United States to step up and lead in blockchain technology,” said Soto. “This is an important first step to promoting innovation and maximizing the potential of virtual currencies for the U.S. economy, all while protecting customers and the financial well-being of investors.”
While there is broad support for the bill’s goal, some worry that it goes too far in its current form.
“I think it’s a laudable approach to try to provide some certainty and level the playing field,” said Matt Kluchenek, who is a securities law adviser. “So, credit goes to the representatives for trying to do that, but it is a large, large task.”
Just a week before the bill’s introduction, the Securities and Exchanges Commission issued 13 pages of guidance on when it would consider digital coins to be securities.
Soto goes on to say that the legislation has strong support from business and stakeholders and said it’s a “clear indication that our friendly, light-regulatory proposal will propel the United States to be at the forefront of this industry.”
DCCC taps Crist
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is seeking to continue its advantage over its Republican counterpart by naming five co-chairs for the 2020 cycle. Among those is St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist, who bring the right qualities and geography to the job.
The DCCC is choosing proven fundraisers from swing states to raise even more money and carry the party’s message in 2020. Joining Crist is Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean, Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, Texas Rep. Marc Veasey, and California Rep. Scott Peters.
“If we want to make meaningful progress on the kitchen table challenges facing families across America, we need to fortify and expand our Democratic Majority,” said Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, chair of the DCCC. I want to thank Reps. Dean, Crist, Moore, Veasey and Peters for stepping up and taking a leading role to get it done.
The DCCC is a bright spot for Capitol Hill Democrats. While the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was badly outraised by the Republican National Committee (RNC) during the 2018 cycle, the DCCC outraised the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (RNCC) $296 million to $206 million. Crist and his colleagues hope to continue that advantage.
“Democrats are laser-focused on getting real results for hardworking families across America,” Crist said in the DCCC release. “I’m proud to serve as a Regional Vice-Chair at the DCCC because I’m committed to working with our Frontline Members and re-electing our Democratic Majority in 2020 so we can continue getting the job done for all Americans.”
Crist has the well-earned reputation of being a prodigious fundraiser. With his district seemingly safe for him and Democrats, it does not hurt that he has $1.97 million cash on hand for his re-election, easily the best-funded member of the delegation, Republican or Democrat.
More solar needed
One of the tools to get Americans to reduce the use of fossil fuels is increasing the use of solar energy. Crist has introduced legislation designed to get more Americans to rely on solar.
He has announced the introduction of the Sunshine Forever Act, legislation that would add another 10 years of life to the Solar Investment Tax Credit. It would facilitate increased solar power generation and innovation across the country.
“Sunshine is Florida’s greatest renewable resource, and the solar tax credit makes it cheaper and easier to turn our God-given sunlight into clean, endless energy,” Crist said in a news release. “If Congress fails to act, the Solar Credit will begin to sunset next year, fading away completely for homeowners by 2023.”
The tax credit was established in 2006 to lower homeowners’ and businesses’ costs to install electricity-generating solar panels which acts as 30 percent off coupon paid for by the federal government.
According to Crist’s office, solar capacity generates 64 gigawatts of electricity, which is enough to power 12.3 million homes every year. This will offset 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, which is equal to planting 1.2 billion trees.
Save the elephants
Each year, poachers from around the world seeking profits or trophies slaughter iconic wildlife such as elephants. Rep. Vern Buchanan is joining a bipartisan group of lawmakers trying to save the elephants through the help of informants.
He is sponsoring the Rescuing Animals With Rewards (RAWR) Act that would create sizable financial incentives to expose and end illegal poaching and trafficking. The bill allows the State Department to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of wildlife traffickers around the globe.
Cersei Lannister wants those elephants and I do too. On Save the Elephant Day, I urge Congress to crack down on illegal poaching that has led to the slaughter of thousands of these majestic creatures. pic.twitter.com/4geiKRTUpm
— Rep. Vern Buchanan (@VernBuchanan) April 16, 2019
“The African elephant is one of the most intelligent and majestic creatures in the world — and it could be extinct by 2030 due to poaching and loss of habitat,” said Buchanan, co-chair of the Animal Protection Caucus. “We cannot stand by and let these magnificent creatures continue to be slaughtered.”
Crime related to illicit wildlife trafficking generates billions of dollars every year, much of which is funneled to terrorist groups. It is estimated that a kilogram of raw ivory can fetch as much as $2,100, while a kilogram of rhino horn is worth $65,000. Demand for ivory remains high even as more nations introduce or debate banning the ivory trade.
Joining Buchanan as an original co-sponsor is Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus. The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill last week.
Rooney, Trump meet on drilling
With reports the Trump administration is considering selling leases that could lead to offshore oil drilling, the delegation is again uniting in opposition. Two Florida Republicans, Gaetz and Rooney, are seeking some face time with the President to get him to drop the idea.
In a letter to Trump seeking the meeting, the lawmakers stressed the environmental and military readiness problems drilling can cause. They are trying to make a current moratorium permanent.
“Not extending the moratorium on offshore drilling will place Florida at risk as a premier tourist destination,” they wrote. “A fact which voters are keenly aware of.”
While both lawmakers represent districts with environmentally-sensitive coastlines, Gaetz represents an area with a significant military presence, a fact made prominent in the letter.
“The proximity to major military bases and its large scale make the Eastern Gulf of Mexico area a unique asset for national defense that cannot be replicated,” they added. “Additionally, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida’s military bases have over $70 billion in economic impact on our state.”
One year ago this week, protests against the socialist regime of Daniel Ortega erupted. A year of marches, rallies and retaliation against them by the Ortega regime leaves the dictator clinging to power.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami hosted a group of local residents originally from Nicaragua to mark the occasion. They shared stories of what is happening in their homeland.
“On the anniversary of these protests, I was honored to meet with members of our Southern Florida Nicaraguan community to discuss ways to tighten pressure on the Ortega regime and promote democracy in Nicaragua,” Diaz-Balart said in a news release.
“Since the protests began, some reports indicate that at least 425 people have been killed, more than 4,000 injured, and more than 500 political prisoners have been imprisoned. Today we demand the release of all political prisoners, respect for human rights and free, fair and multiparty elections.”
The veteran Republican lawmaker praised the approach of the Trump administration designed to bring liberty to the Central American nation.
“I support the Trump administration’s tough sanctions on the Ortega regime, including (this week’s) sanction on Ortega’s ‘slush fund’ BANCORP,” Diaz-Balart added. “I also strongly supported the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act of 2018, a bill to prohibit loans to prop up the Ortega dictatorship, which became law last year.”
On this day
April 19, 1993 — More than 80 people, including two dozen children, were killed when the Branch Davidian sect set fire to their Waco, Texas compound. They chose to take their own lives after Attorney General Janet Reno ordered an FBI assault on the compound after a 51-day standoff.
“I made the decision. I am accountable. The buck stops with me,” Reno said at a news conference. “Obviously, if I had thought that the chances were great for mass suicide, I would never have approved the plan.”
April 19, 2007 — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about his firing of 8 U.S. Attorneys. Gonzales frustrated Senators from both parties when he said 71 times he could not recall specific details.
South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham described the reasons for the removals as a “stretch.” Graham’s fellow Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, described Gonzalez’s memory lapses as “troubling.”