Holding Barr in contempt
Some serious issues are on the plate of President Donald Trump as well as those serving in the House and Senate. Serious trade negotiations with China, an escalating threat involving Iran, a crisis at the southern border and upheaval in Venezuela are sharing the news cycle with the drama involving Attorney General William Barr.
Even before this week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, it was clear Democratic members personally held Barr in contempt for refusing to testify and withholding the unredacted version of the Mueller report. Following a partisan committee vote of 24-16, the committee officially recommended Barr be found in contempt before the entire House.
Both sides spoke as passionate advocates for their points of view. One side’s “witch hunt” was the other side’s “constitutional crisis.”
By comprising roughly 20 percent of the committee’s membership, Floridians frequently play a significant role in hearings and bill markups. The contempt debate was no exception.
“Attorney General Barr has betrayed his oath to uphold the law and defend the Constitution, and today we are voting to hold him accountable for refusing to respond to a lawful subpoena,” said Orlando Democrat Val Demings.
Miami Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said, “Despite this clear threat to our democracy, the Attorney General … has chosen to work as the president’s personal defense counsel.”
One of the committee’s two Republicans, Greg Steube of Sarasota, blasted the Democratic majority and indicated Barr had no choice other than to ignore the subpoena.
“What we witnessed in today’s Judiciary Committee markup was a complete affront to this institution, our Constitution and democracy at-large,” he said in a statement after hearing. “Chairman (Jerry) Nadler and his Democratic colleagues on the committee chose partisan theater over public service and held an honorable man in contempt for simply following the law.”
The committee’s other Republican, Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach responded to a charge his colleagues were “hiding behind the rules” by answering “These are federal laws that indicate what the Attorney General can and cannot do.”
Trump claimed executive privilege over the entire Mueller report, prompting Democrat Ted Deutch to say, “Executive privilege is not a cloak of secrecy that drapes across our nation’s capital from the White House to the Justice Department.” He described the standoff as “the breakdown of the foundations of our nation’s constitutional order.”
The executive privilege claim will be part of the Democrats’ contempt resolution.
Hypocrisy watchers were in full force. The Tampa Bay Times reminded readers that Sen. Marco Rubio thought then-Attorney General Eric Holder should resign in 2012 after being found in contempt of a GOP-led Congress. Viewers of Fox News could see Democrats, including Pelosi, expressing outrage over Republicans taking similar action against Holder.
Nadler sees the situation as a constitutional crisis, but it will soon fade. Once the House approves the contempt resolution, it will be up to the Justice Department to prosecute.
The chances of that happening are equal to that of Holder prosecuting himself seven years ago. That did not happen, and neither will this.
Trump rallies in Panhandle
Heading into this week’s rally in Panama City, Trump reportedly was warned not to arrive in the Panhandle “empty-handed.” He showed up with Rubio, Sen. Rick Scott, Gaetz, Rep. Neal Dunn, Gov. Ron DeSantis and a few million dollars of desperately needed assistance for hurricane recovery.
Those hoping for a breakthrough on the large disaster relief funds were disappointed and instead must be satisfied with $448 million in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recovery funds. Before Trump spoke, Scott took the opportunity to blast Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for helping block a Senate Republican disaster recovery bill (Schumer backs a House bill that has more funding for Puerto Rico).
Trump announced the HUD funds during a campaign rally that had his take on the issues of the day and the 2020 campaign. Earlier he joined the Florida Republicans for a tour of devastated Tyndall Air Force Base before announcing at the rally it would be rebuilt. Dunn has introduced legislation calling for $4.5 billion to rebuild Tyndall by 2023.
Political rallies are designed to throw “red meat” to devoted followers, and the President tossed it around in dinosaur proportions. The Mueller investigation, Barr, and the 2020 Democratic field were just of few of the talking points that delighted supporters.
Before Trump’s arrival, Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Darren Soto were part of a conference call slamming Trump’s efforts on disaster relief and having an animus toward Puerto Rico.
“The bottom line is that the Florida Panhandle does not need a political rally,” said Wasserman Schultz. “It needs the Senate to pass and the president to sign some federal government relief.”
Soto accused Trump of being “willing to sacrifice Florida disaster relief to further his personal agenda against Puerto Rico.”
Gaetz was clearly on board with Trump’s comments on the developing investigation into how the Mueller probe began. Trump said, “we are going to investigate the investigators and lock them up.”
“And yes, if it takes it, we will lock them up,” Gaetz said.
Rubio OK with subpoena
Earlier in the week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed the Senate’s investigation of Trump for collusion is “closed.” Within 48 hours, the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, issued a subpoena to Donald Trump, Jr.
Many of Burr’s GOP colleagues were outraged, reminding Burr and the media that Trump, Jr. spent hours testifying on Capitol Hill. Rubio was not among those perturbed.
While not praising the subpoena, Rubio found nothing wrong with it. The two-term Republican, a member of the committee, said critics fail to comprehend the panel’s mission.
“We’re not prosecutors,” Rubio said. “We’re an oversight committee … and I think it’s important for us to finish the report.” He added the criticism extends from “a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Senate Intelligence Committee is all about.”
When hearing of Rubio’s remarks, conservative firebrand Mark Levin invited the Senator, or someone from his staff, to come on to his nationally-syndicated radio show to explain himself.
One of Burr’s Republican colleagues chose sarcasm to express his opposition.
“Apparently the Republican chair of the Senate Intel Committee didn’t get the memo from the Majority Leader that this case was closed …,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Scott suggests Cuban blockade
Scott is becoming a hawk when it comes to matters involving Venezuela and Cuba. The first term Republican previously called for military intervention in the South American nation and is now suggesting a blockade of Cuban oil imports from Venezuela.
Describing the arrangement as “oil for repression,” Scott laments that the current sanctions “aren’t working” and sees the possibility of more drastic action.
We need to take action NOW to capitalize on Maduro’s weakness & end his brutal regime. pic.twitter.com/JoqrTTQoCC
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) May 8, 2019
Scott is one of only a few advocating such escalated action. His counterpart, Rubio has been more measured in his comments, instead called for the strongest sanctions possible to force Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro from power.
Scott is undeterred.
“Cut off Cuba, and you cut off the political forces supporting genocide in Venezuela,” he said.
Iran deal withdrawal celebrated
This week marked the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. Rubio and a handful of Senate colleagues marked the occasion. The Senators introduced a resolution supporting Trump’s decision to take the controversial step.
The resolution highlights the shortcomings of the Iran nuclear agreement, reaffirms Congressional opposition to Iran ever acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, and rejects the reapplication of sanctions relief.
“Iran’s ongoing nuclear misbehavior underscores why the United States was absolutely right to withdraw from the flawed deal,” Rubio said. “The people of Iran deserve better as they continue to suffer under the Iranian regime’s criminal corruption, massive economic mismanagement and systemic human rights abuses, in addition to its support for terrorists and the murderous (Bashar) Assad regime, ballistic missile aggression, and nuclear misbehavior.”
With U.S. sanctions, restored after withdrawal from the agreement, harming their economy, the Iranians threatened to cease complying with parts of the deal and resume their nuclear program. In response, Trump piled more sanctions onto the regime.
“The Iranian regime blatantly cheated on the flawed nuclear deal by hiding its massive ‘Atomic Archive’ for covertly developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles from international inspectors, and it is now moving to violate the agreement’s modest and temporary limits on its nuclear program,” Rubio said.
Should Iran follow through on its vow to resume nuclear production, the resolution “reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States not to allow Iran to develop or otherwise acquire a nuclear weapons capability.”
FBI to brief delegation
With the revelation in the Mueller report that Russian hackers had penetrated the voting system of one Florida county, Scott, DeSantis, and Florida officials demanded to know more. Both asked FBI Director Christopher Wray for a detailed briefing, including the identity of the county affected.
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park and Republican Rep. Michael Waltz of St. Augustine requested a briefing for the entire delegation in a letter to Wray and Barr last week. Florida House members will receive that briefing late next week, while Scott will be updated just before that meeting.
Murphy said in a statement that Florida voters “have the right to know the extent to which foreign actors may have breached our state’s election security systems, and what the federal government is doing to prevent it from happening again.”
Waltz said the FBI “needs to brief the Florida delegation on exactly what Russia did and which counties were involved so we can protect our elections and the voters.”
Former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said last year that the Russians were already into Florida voting systems but did not provide any specifics. After the release of the Mueller report, Rubio then confirmed the penetration and knew about it months ago, but said he was limited in what he could say.
The consensus is that no votes were affected.
Bar investigating Gaetz tweet
This week, former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen reported to prison. Almost at the same time, the Florida Bar revealed it would move forward with an investigation into a February tweet Gaetz directed Cohen’s way.
The case is moving to what is called the Grievance Committee, whose job is to determine if there is probable cause that Gaetz, an attorney, violated Bar rules. If so, a complaint will be filed with the Florida Supreme Court.
The tweet came just before Cohen’s testimony before Congress. It was extensively criticized before Gaetz pulled it down, but not before some characterized it as witness intimidation.
“Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot …”
Gaetz apologized to Cohen saying, “It was never ever ever my intent to threaten you in any way.” Cohen publicly accepted the apology.
The Grievance Committee will assign an investigator to Gaetz’ case and make a recommendation to the panel after interviews and examining evidence. The entire process could take as long as six months.
Playing chicken with China
Trump and his trade negotiators are continuing to play hardball with China, accusing the most populous country in the world of reneging on verbal agreements that would be part of any trade deal. The President followed through on a threat to more than double tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports.
The main points of contention, according to U.S. officials, is China going back on agreements to police theft of trade secrets and intellectual property. The U.S. claimed the Chinese walked back as many as a dozen other verbal pledges.
Waltz says the Chinese have gamed the system for years, offering investments, but either requiring access to or stealing intellectual property.
“This is about the wholesale theft of American technology,” Waltz said on Fox Business Network. “The Chinese are stealing their way to the top. They’re forcing companies who want to do business in China to share their I.P. They’re investing wholesale in Silicon Valley and then stealing the technology.”
Trump is seeking to break the cycle; demanding China keep their commitments or more tariffs would go into place. The Chinese have threatened retaliation if the tariffs go into place.
“For 10 months, China has been paying Tariffs to the USA of 25% on 50 Billion Dollars of High Tech, and 10% on 200 Billion Dollars of other goods,” Trump tweeted over the previous weekend. “These payments are partially responsible for our great economic results. The 10% will go up to 25% on Friday.”
The President was roundly criticized for placing tariffs on the products of allies, but he is receiving bipartisan support to stand up to the Chinese. Among those is Schumer.
Hang tough on China, President @realDonaldTrump. Don’t back down.
Strength is the only way to win with China. https://t.co/pZqeR346ov
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) May 5, 2019
As the week drew to a close, top Chinese officials were in Washington to ostensibly salvage a deal.
‘Velvet Hammer’ profiled
Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park has probably been called a lot of things in her lifetime, but “Velvet Hammer” was perhaps not one of them. In a profile published this week in POLITICO, that was the nickname given to the first immigrant from Vietnam to serve in Congress.
The profile begins by recalling the moment Speaker Nancy Pelosi chastised Murphy and a few colleagues during a caucus meeting for breaking ranks on an immigration vote. Murphy has become one of the faces of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party through her leadership role in the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition.
“In just her second term, Murphy is suddenly a critical figure in the House as co-chief of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition,” reporter Sarah Ferris writes. “Once on the verge of extinction, the Blue Dogs nearly tripled their membership after the 2018 elections and now have 27 members.”
Murphy is becoming increasingly well-known for her rejection of socialism and instead reaffirming her standing as a capitalist. She put those views into a recent op-ed published in The Washington Post.
“I feel like my family didn’t escape socialist Vietnam, taking great risk to have the opportunity to grow up in America and live the American dream, for me to be serving in Congress to see this conversation about socialism grow as it did,” she told Ferris.
While at times being on the opposite side of an issue, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer admires how Murphy operates.
“She gives you a heads up to let you know what (the Blue Dogs) may be doing, or what she may be doing that might not be what the majority of the party will be doing,” Hoyer told Ferris. “The fact that she’s honest and straightforward about it really enhances her reputation, and the trust people have in her.”
Preventing youth suicide
As an alarming trend of suicides among young people continues to rise, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to act. Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor has joined with California Democratic Rep. Scott Peters to co-sponsor a bipartisan bill designed to prevent suicides through education and awareness.
The Suicide Threat Assessment Nationally Dedicated to Universal Prevention (STANDUP) Act, is designed to encourage schools to expand evidence-based suicide prevention training to students in grades 6 through 12.
It would also provide training for threat identification, triage and intervention, as well as guidance and protocol for coordinating with local law enforcement using established school threat assessment models.
“There is no higher priority than keeping our children safe,” Bilirakis said in a news release. “By providing high-quality screening and prevention training to school staff and peers, we can identify threats before they materialize, and ensure that those who are at risk get the mental health treatment they need.”
Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit founded by family members who lost loved ones in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, has endorsed the bill. Deutch joined Bilirakis as an original co-sponsor. saying he was getting behind the effort to “help teachers and administrators catch those warning signs and intervene before gun violence tragedies occur.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death of people ages 10-34. In 2017, there were more than twice as many deaths by suicide as there were homicides. In Florida, Pinellas and Pasco counties lead the state in the number of suicide deaths per capita.
Animal rights efforts cited
The Humane Society recently cited rep. Vern Buchanan as one of the top advocates in Congress for animals. He was presented with the “Legislative Leader” award during a ceremony in Washington for his voting record and leadership on key animal welfare issues.
Buchanan, a co-chair of the Animal Protection Caucus, received an “A” rating from the society for his leadership and votes in 2018. Some of the votes and initiatives cited by the group included legislation to stop the slaughter of American horses for human consumption, banning cosmetic testing on animals and protecting endangered species in Florida and across the globe.
Honored to receive the "Legislative Leader” award from @HSLegFund for my voting record and leadership on key animal welfare issues. I’m optimistic that many of our important priorities will win approval this year in Congress. pic.twitter.com/3zvrPBXNKj
— Rep. Vern Buchanan (@VernBuchanan) May 6, 2019
“Protecting endangered wildlife and preventing animal cruelty are bipartisan issues that should be important to all Americans,” the Longboat Key Republican said. “I’m optimistic that many of our important priorities will win approval this year in Congress.”
Presenting the award was Humane Society President Kitty Block and Humane Society Legislative Fund President Sara Amundson. Buchanan is a past recipient of the group’s “Legislator of the Year” award, the only Floridian to receive the honor.
“Rep. Buchanan is forging a path for a more humane future for all types of animals through his demonstrated leadership, and we thank him for his tremendous commitment,” said Amundson. “We — and the animals — are lucky to have him on our side.”
Last month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed Buchanan’s Rescuing Animals With Rewards Act (RAWR Act). The bill allows the State Department to offer rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of wildlife traffickers around the globe.
Men vs. women?
A recent controversy surfaced focusing on the issue of gender identification. In some states, biological males are permitted to compete in women’s sports, something Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota tried to outlaw.
He offered an amendment to the Equality Act, then being debated in the House Judiciary Committee. The larger bill deals with outlawing discrimination because of sex or those identifying as women.
“I’m offering this amendment today to ensure that our daughters are provided an equal playing field in sports for generations to come, and that female athletes are not competing against male athletes for athletic scholarships and Title IX funding,” he said.
Steube brought out instances of biological males competing against women and winning events or championships. He cited a Washington Post op-ed co-written by tennis legend Martina Navratilova urging passage of the Equality Act, but “don’t abandon Title IX.”
“I for one don’t think it’s fair — or equal — to make young, biological women compete against biological males,” Steube said. “That’s why I’m introducing this amendment.”
When it came time to vote, Steube’s amendment was defeated 22-10.
Voter suppression alleged
A U.S. House subcommittee held a field hearing in Ft. Lauderdale earlier this week with the main agenda focusing on voting. Broward County has been at the center of voting problems in previous elections, most recently in 2018, but the discussion centered on voter suppression.
“Florida has one of the most repressive disenfranchisement policies in the country and has made it extremely difficult for those convicted of a felony to have their voting rights restored,” said Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge, Chair of the Elections Subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration.
Fudge was referring to Florida’s clemency system that took years for felons to have their rights restored, if ever. A new law in response to a constitutional amendment restoring felons right to vote, with restrictions, was a hot topic as was shortening early voting days, removing inactive voters from the rolls.
Reps. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach joined with Deutch to reveal their new Protecting American Votes Act. The legislation responds to the situation last November where thousands of mail votes were not counted due to mismatching signatures.
“Unfortunately, Florida seems to be the place where we learn a lot of hard lessons about our elections,” Deutch said in a statement. “We can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes again.”
The bill provides a specific process that gives the voter ample opportunity to rectify any problem by requiring the state to notify the voter through multiple mediums. Voters would then have ten days to correct the problem.
“Given that voting is sacred and fundamental to the health of our democracy, the rejection of any legally cast ballot is extremely disturbing,” said Hastings. “Yet, across our country and in particular, in my home state of Florida, voters have been denied their right to vote because of penmanship,” Hastings said.
On this day
May 10, 2003 — After a year of noninvolvement, Secretary of State Colin Powell is again urging Israel and Palestinian leadership to get serious on a peace agreement. He called on the two sides to move quickly “without prolonged debate,” toward discussing a peace plan offered by the Bush administration.
“There is more than enough to get started,” Powell said. After meeting with Powell, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel would demand stiff terms before relaxing its military hold on the occupied territories. The plan calls for the Palestinians to disarm militant groups.
May 10, 2017 — Now that President Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey, Democrats are demanding the appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether Trump is trying to impede the investigation currently underway within the Department of Justice. They are also skeptical of any investigations underway in either the House or Senate.
“I do not have any faith that Mitch McConnell … will let a full investigation be done by the legislative committees controlled by his office,” said three-term Democratic Sen. Nelson. “I believe that’s why we need an independent special prosecutor.”