Sri Lanka tragedy
While these horrors are a time when politics should give way to careful reflection, even that is sometimes impossible. Still, some poignant messages came through.
President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences offering help “to the great people of Sri Lanka.” The original tweet said “138 million” victims instead of 138 (which was the known total at the time), which energized trolls and the media before it was taken down and replaced.
Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama, offered to “pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka.” Obama described the events as “attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers” which invigorated trolls on the other side to castigate him for not describing victims as “Christians” instead of “Easter worshippers.”
Several members of the delegation responded to the tragedy. The prominent theme linking the responses was the understanding that terrorist attacks are one thing, but targeting Christians or those of any faith, on holy days in their houses of worship is the height of evil.
“Targeting innocent people who are coming together to worship on this holy day is just evil. It’s pure evil,” tweeted Sen. Rick Scott. Sen. Marco Rubio called it a “cowardly and despicable terror attack.
“That this attack would occur on Easter, when families and children are gathered for worship, is horrifying,” said Democratic Rep. Val Demings of Orlando. Her Democratic colleague, Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, said, “The U.S. stands with the people of Sri Lanka against violence and terrorism.”
Republican Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville tweeted:
Heartbreaking news out of Sri Lanka as bombings killed over 200, including Christians gathered for Easter Sunday.
This targeted attack is a reminder that we must combat evil, hatred, and bigotry at every turn. My prayers are with the victims and their families. #SriLankaAttacks
— Rep. John Rutherford (@RepRutherfordFL) April 21, 2019
In these divided times, there were no doubt those wondering what the two Muslim House members had to say. They sounded like everyone else.
Describing the events as “these horrible attacks,” Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar tweeted “No person, of any faith, should be fearful in their house of worship.” Her Democratic colleague, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan called them “cowardice attacks” and saying “When evil attacks human life in our places of worship it shakes our core.”
Thankfully, most of America spoke with one voice, siding with victims and condemning pure evil.
Focused on Russia
The Mueller investigation, as well as Senate and House investigators, may have found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but that does not mean the threats are over. Rubio warns that Russian President Vladimir Putin will always look for ways to meddle in U.S. elections.
Rubio offered a veiled criticism of Democrats and Trump. The second term Republican tweaked Democrats for focusing too much on attacking Trump through the investigation, while the President’s constant “witch hunt” diatribes against the investigation often minimized or doubted what the Russians were trying to do.
“That Putin attempted to interfere in our elections should no longer be doubted by anyone, and the fact that those efforts were not in coordination with our president should elicit a sense of relief from all,” Rubio said in a statement following release of the Mueller report.
“Sadly, there remain fringe voices that continue to deny what Putin did, and sadly, instead of relief, too many of my colleagues appear disappointed that the president was not a part of Putin’s efforts.”
Rubio warned that Putin, and the Russians, had no interest in stopping the meddling.
“Putin’s efforts to sow political discord in our country did not end in 2016 and he will attempt to interfere in future elections, which is why I will continue to focus on bipartisan efforts such as the DETER Act that aim to protect the integrity of our elections and democracy from future foreign interference and influence campaigns.”
Was Nelson right?
During his 2018 campaign against then-Gov. Rick Scott, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson claimed Russia had “already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.” Scott turned the statement into a campaign issue and demanded Nelson provide proof.
The recently released Mueller report included an item saying Russians had gained access to one Florida county in 2016 prompting Nelson to claim vindication and Scott demanding the information from the FBI backing up Mueller’s claim.
Nelson reminded Floridians he and Rubio sent warnings to all 67 elections supervisors and “the Mueller Report makes clear why we had to take that important step as well as my verbal warnings thereafter,” Nelson said in a statement.
Scott wants to see the proof, writing to FBI Director Christopher Wray for more details. He quoted from the Mueller report.
“We understand the FBI believes that this operation enabled the (Russian military) to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government,” the report said. “The Office (of Special Counsel) did not independently verify that belief, and, as explained above, did not undertake the investigative steps that would have been necessary to do so.”
Scott asked for evidence to back up that claim and also seeks to know to which county the special counsel was referring. The Florida Department of State and election supervisors insist their systems were not “penetrated.”
With most of the Mueller report in hand, Democrats are publicly united in demanding the full unredacted report, despite prohibitions on releasing grand jury material. There is far less unity on what to do with what they have.
With the Justice Department declining to prosecute Trump for obstruction, the President is out of legal jeopardy with impeachment by the House remaining as a possibility. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are all in on impeachment, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are recommending against it.”
Floridians have not explicitly used the term, but several are leading up to it.
Rep. Val Demings of Orlando said, “We deserve far more from our president than a non-indictment,” saying the Mueller report laid out “criminal behavior.” Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee said he wishes “to make certain that our leaders at the highest level are held accountable.”
One of Trump’s leading antagonists, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, still talks about “collusion in plain sight,” but took a more measured tone when the talk turned to impeachment.
“That’s a very tough question, and I think is one we ought not to make overnight,” he said.
Two delegation Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, who would draft any articles of impeachment, appear to favor such action, but did not step over the line.
“It’s clear from this Mueller report that the next step is for Congress to show that the rule of law actually means something in America and that we pick up this investigation and go full speed ahead,” Deutch told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami at a news conference last week said, “The administration must be held accountable for acts that have bordered on criminality.”
Military action in Venezuela?
Two weeks ago, Scott made news when he expressed support for using the U.S. military to ensure delivery of humanitarian aid in Venezuela. With dictator Nicolás Maduro still clinging to power, more are speaking of using the armed forces, perhaps to even hasten regime change.
“Military action is never the first choice,” Scott spokeswoman Sarah Schwirian said. “But this is the time to rid Venezuela of Maduro and his regime, and Sen. Scott won’t give up the fight for freedom in Venezuela.”
Rubio may be warming up to the idea. His spokeswoman pointed to comments he made in January when he said, “the United States always has the option of protecting Americans and our interests, using everything at our disposal, that includes military forces, if necessary.”
Democratic Rep. Darren Soto also sees a possibility of military intervention, but not when U.S. forces would take unilateral action. He calls for a united front.
“However, (Democrats) would support a United Nations or other multinational-led coalition to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid,” Soto said. “It is also critical for the future of Venezuela’s democracy to have peaceful, fair elections now.”
More than 40 countries have publicly supported Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. A recent survey shows one-third of Venezuelans are eating only one meal per day.
RNC rolling in dough
The Republican National Committee (RNC) continued their active fundraising with a solid haul over the past month. The party raised $15.5 million during March bringing their 2019 total to nearly $46 million.
At the same time, the Trump campaign reported raising $30 million for the quarter and has more than $40 million in the bank. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) reported raising $8.2 million in March, bringing their total to $20.9 million for the first three months.
The RNC spent $13.5 million with nearly $6 million going to expenses related to fundraising. They reported $33.1 million cash on hand and zero debt.
“The success of our fundraising is a testament to the continued enthusiasm and support for President Donald Trump, his policies, and the litany of promises he has fulfilled for the American people,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. “The RNC is already investing these donations into our expansive, permanent, data-driven field program to put President Donald Trump and Republicans in prime-position for another historic election night in 2020.”
The DNC reported $9.3 million cash on hand and a leftover debt of $6.6 million. The RNC outraised the DNC during the 2018 election cycle $325 million to $177 million.
As the Trump administration was announcing a new policy allowing Cuban-Americans to sue the regime for past property confiscations, other sanctions were also revealed. During remarks in Coral Gables last week, National Security Adviser John Bolton said “nonfamily” travel to Cuba would be restricted as would remittances to Cuba, limiting those to just $1,000 per quarter.
Cuban exiles responded favorably to the action. Rafael Usa Torres, a member of a unit taking part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs attacks, said it was “a big day” but said he was sad because there were “too many years waiting.”
With Republicans in support of the administration action, some delegation Democrats blasted the move as harmful to the Cuban people.
“Trump’s harsh policy will do nothing but bring pain to families, hurt the growing Cuban private sector, alienate our closest allies and diminish our ability to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba,” said Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor in a news release.
“Unfortunately, the Trump administration has once again doubled down on its return to Cold War policies that have failed for the past 60 years and have done nothing to help the Cuban people.”
Mucarsel-Powell added support for putting the pressure on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but “I strongly believe we should not do so by punishing the Cuban people.”
Mueller’s ‘ghost indictments’
Democrats say they have learned a great deal from the Mueller report, but Republicans, especially Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz, claim to have learned nothing new. Despite the 37 indictments from the Mueller team, several members of Congress were already in the loop.
“The Mueller report doesn’t create some new set of revelations among those on the Intelligence Committee, Armed Services Committee or Judiciary Committee about how Russia engages,” Gaetz told CNN’s Michael Smerconish. “We actually have that information.”
Gaetz is a member of both the Armed Services and the Judiciary Committee.
Smerconish pushed back by noting the charges, but Gaetz described them as “ghost indictments.”
“None of those 37 people will ever face justice,” Gaetz said. “God forbid they showed up and tried to use our criminal process to try and uncover sources and methods our intelligence community uses,” he said.
While more than a dozen of those charged includes Russian nationals who will likely not return to the U.S., it also includes Roger Stone, who is linked to the WikiLeaks portion of the investigation.
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of several felonies, none of which were related to Trump or the campaign.
Aid still on hold
Last week, Scott and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer got into a tit-for-tat over Twitter involving an emergency aid package that would aid states who were victims of recent natural disasters. Scott blamed Schumer and Democrats for holding up the funding.
Soto and every Florida Democrat in the House joined the fight. The lawmakers wrote to Scott urging him to support the Democrats’ relief package for Florida, Puerto Rico, and other areas affected by a disaster.
“It is time for the Senate to prioritize Americans struggling to recover and provide disaster assistance that meets the needs of all disaster survivors,” they wrote.
Both sides agree on the funding for the states, but Democrats seek more for Puerto Rico. Soto and his colleagues call for Scott and Senate Republicans to pass the House bill.
Schumer and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont have an amendment that mirrors the House bill. Republicans call for $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, but Trump is not supporting Democratic calls for more aid to the island commonwealth.
Without an agreement, neither the states nor Puerto Rico receive anything further.
“Without these federal funds, Florida and other areas throughout the country will not have the resources needed to recover from catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes and other natural disasters,” they added.
Targeting robo scams
The number of robocalls continues to increase and so does the number of scam calls. Rep. Vern Buchanan is getting behind legislation designed to clamp down on the avalanche of unwanted automatic calls.
The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act would penalize scammers with fines up to $10,000 per call. It would also require cellular providers to upgrade ID systems and alert customers if the call is actually coming from a legitimate number.
“Too many Floridians continue to be harassed by the nationwide onslaught of illegal robocalls,” the Longboat Key Republican said. “These are more than just a minor inconvenience — phone scams can defraud innocent Americans out of their life savings — especially vulnerable seniors.”
Information provided by Buchanan said robocalls increased by 46 percent last year as nearly 48 billion were placed in the U.S. Most consumer complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relate to unwanted calls, many of which maliciously hide or disguise the caller’s identity and location.
“Nearly one in five Americans over 65 have been victimized by fraud,” Buchanan continued. “Congress has a real opportunity to address this serious issue by passing this bill.”
New Lake O rules: ire, confidence
When it comes to Lake Okeechobee, Rooney and another South Florida Republican, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, offered sharply contrasting attitudes Monday toward the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to come up with a new water discharge policy.
That new policy was mandated by Mast, who got a provision written into the Water Resources and Development Act of 2018 requiring the corps to weigh the impacts on Florida’s east coast, in Mast’s Congressional District 18, and west coast, in Rooney’s Congressional District 19. Algae blooms have ravaged both sides, blamed in large part on the high-nutrient water flowing there from the Lake Okeechobee discharges. Both congressmen submitted their public comments to the corps Monday.
Mast ripped the corps’s previous policy as “a total and absolute disaster” and urged the corps to abandon what he said was “false pretense of ‘shared adversity.’” Mast threw in a 26-page report his office compiled on the damaging impacts on the coasts, and then tacked on public comments from more than 1,000 of his constituents.
“My constituents have seen their animals killed, their personal health put at severe risk, their surrounding environment destroyed and their businesses decimated — in large part due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s deeply flawed operations system,” Mast wrote.
Rooney took another tack. He commended new Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander Col. Andrew Kelly for undertaking the policy change and expressed confidence that the corps will come up with a good plan.
He offered no criticism of past practices, no mention of the coastal algae blooms, and no comments from constituents.
“I believe with your leadership, the new LOSOM [Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual] can be more flexible, more responsive to real-world conditions, and better consider how the Lake is regulated in conjunction with the entire Everglades ecosystem,” Rooney wrote.
Climate change sea change?
Opinions on climate change seem to be evolving among Republicans, but Democrats do not believe a “sea change” has occurred. A significant number of previous GOP voices would use the term “climate change hoax,” but increasing numbers are now convinced climate change is occurring with the role of humans remaining as an area of disagreement.
“I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness to evaluate new science, new information and new tech, and come to different conclusions,” said Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, who introduced the Green Real Deal legislation earlier this month. The Gaetz bill provides measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without strict government controls.
Democrats are well-known for their advocacy for addressing climate change through conservation and government action such as a carbon tax on industry. While a growing number of Republicans are coming closer to Democratic positions, their colleagues on the other side do not see a mass shifting of views.
“I don’t know if there’s a shift as a party, but I do know that there are some [Republican] members who are really interested,” Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton said. “Congressman (Francis) Rooney is a good example of someone who is really interested in working together.”
Earlier this year, the Naples Republican came out in favor of a carbon tax. Rooney was chosen as co-chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus after former Rep. Carlos Curbelo was defeated in November.
A new poll commissioned by NPR found that 66 percent of Republicans believe climate change should be taught in school, while 49 percent of those believe the impacts should also be taught. Among Democrats, 81 percent believe climate change and its effects should be part of the curriculum.
Deutch is the other co-chair of the climate caucus, while Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor is the chair of the new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Six Republicans are on that committee, but Gaetz feels his party needs to further commit to addressing the issue.
He says history will deal with Republicans “harshly” if they continue to deny climate science. While a vocal majority of the GOP caucus has not yet come forward, more are coming around.
On this day
April 23, 2000 — The controversy over the raid and seizure of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez by heavily armed FBI agents. Sen. Bob Graham said President Bill Clinton assured him three weeks before that Elian would not be taken at night “there was an insensitivity and crudeness … to do it in the middle of the night.”
“If there are to be Congressional hearings, I hope I am the first witness who will be called to testify,” said Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Because I will get up there and very loudly talk about what those agents did, exactly what our legal basis was for taking the action we did.”
April 23, 2015 — Former CIA Director David Petraeus was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $100,000 for giving his biographer classified information while she was working on her book. Judge David Kessler said the retired U.S. Army general committed a “grave and uncharacteristic error in judgment.”
“I now look forward to moving on to the next phase of my life,” Petraeus said in a brief statement after the sentencing. Prosecutors said afterward Petraeus compounded his problems by “lying to the FBI.”