Trump frees Stone
It is fair to question the candor of President Donald Trump as he talks about issues and policy. On the other hand, he regularly strives to keep campaign promises on policy, using tactics many of his opponents describe as “authoritarian.”
The President has scuttled the Iran nuclear deal, replaced trade deals, appointed originalist judges and used controversial funding means to build or enhance hundreds of miles of the border wall. Never mind billing Mexico.
Late on a Friday night, Trump followed through on an implicit pledge that confidant Roger Stone was not going to prison. Stone was arrested during the Robert Mueller investigation, charged and convicted of witness tampering, obstructing an official proceeding, and making false statements to Congress.
Trump commuted Stone’s 40-month sentence after an appeals court denied his request for a stay sought due to his age and a medical condition that made him a higher risk for incarceration during COVID-19. Following a denial of the stay, Trump acted.
“Roger Stone was sentenced to prison for an illegal cover-up of the pro-Trump Russian attack on our 2016 election,” tweeted Orlando Democrat Val Demings, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. “For the President to now commute his prison sentence is pure authoritarian corruption.”
Critics were mostly Democrats, but a few Republicans weighed in, including the only one to vote to convict the President after the impeachment trial earlier this year.
“Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president,” tweeted Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
Romney was far from alone in using the term “unprecedented,” prompting George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley to weigh in with an op-ed highlighting controversial commutations and pardons from previous presidents of both parties.
Attorney General William Barr described Stone’s prosecution as “righteous,” but his Justice Department intervened to reduce the requested sentencing recommendation from between seven to nine years down to three to four years. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey spoke of the “badly-flawed Russian collusions investigation” but said Trump’s commutation “is a mistake.”
“Let’s call it for what it is @realDonaldTrump is a Dictator in the making & DC Republicans are loyalists allowing it to happen #RogerStone,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee.
“Is Trump a ‘law and order’ President?” asked Democratic Rep. Darren Soto on Twitter. “He’s anything but that.”
Mostly forgotten was the incredible scene of Stone’s arrest in Ft. Lauderdale on January 25, 2019 as numerous fully-armed personnel swarmed Stone’s house in a predawn raid similar to taking a hardened criminal into custody. CNN was somehow on the scene as events unfolded.
Mueller took to the pages of The Washington Post to pen an op-ed defending his team’s investigation, pointing out that Stone lied to investigators and Congress. The former special counsel said Stone will not go to prison, “But his conviction stands.”
Yes it does, for now.
Last week, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council official who was a central witness in the Trump impeachment inquiry, retired after 21 years of service. According to his attorney, Vindman made the decision after months of “bullying, intimidation and retaliation.”
Concern over a lack of protection for a whistleblower circulated around Capitol Hill, prompting a statement of assurance each instance of a whistleblower coming forward has been and will continue to be, taken seriously. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the interim chair and the ranking member respectively, of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a joint statement pledging to protect whistleblowers.
“Consistent with its mandate to oversee the activities and programs of the Intelligence Community, the Committee takes seriously all complaints it receives pursuant to the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA),” they said. “The ICWPA is an essential channel for ensuring evidence of wrongdoing rising to the level of an urgent concern is brought to the Committee’s attention in a manner that is lawful and protective of classified information.”
The Trump investigation began when an individual without direct knowledge of the President’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reported the conversation to House Intelligence Committee staff and the Intelligence Community inspector general. Vindman, on the other hand, was listening to the call as it occurred, qualifying him as a whistleblower under the law.
“Without commenting on the specifics of any single instance, the American public can be assured that this Committee’s approach to ICWPA complaints is, and will remain, one defined by vigorous oversight, adherence to the law, and recognition of Congress’ constitutional obligations,” the Senators added.
Greater testing proposed
Calls for greater coronavirus testing echo around Capitol Hill as well as the states. Most are aware of the fact that a robust national testing system is the key to a safer reopening of the economy.
One idea to make testing more affordable is to include them as part of employer-based health plans. To that end, Sen. Rick Scott and Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally recently introduced the Affordable Coronavirus Testing Act.
“Widespread coronavirus testing is one of the best ways we can fight this virus and get our economy reopened,” Scott said in a news release. “Reports that some health insurers are limiting or denying coronavirus testing coverage are unacceptable and dangerous, and my Affordable Coronavirus Testing Act will make sure every American has access to affordable coronavirus detection and antibody tests when they need them.”
The bill is designed to ensure all Americans have access to affordable COVID-19 tests, that antibody tests are covered by insurance, and that testing information is efficiently shared among health care providers and public health officials.
It also requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reserve funds to cover testing for uninsured patients and funds a modernization of the health data system within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Scott said the ultimate goal is to make sure every American has access to a test when they need one, adding “By keeping Americans informed we can beat this virus and get our economy reopened.”
China sanctions Rubio
Rubio is no big fan of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the feeling is mutual. The interim chair of the Intelligence Committee and a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee is often calling out the threat China poses to its neighbors, Hong Kong, the U.S. and the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province.
Rubio has sought sanctions and sponsored legislation on behalf of the Uighurs. Last week, the U.S. sanctioned a handful of Chinese officials and their families, which prevents their entry into the U.S., over the human rights violations in Xinjiang.
This week, the Chinese government fired back with sanctions against Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and others for what the Chinese describe as interference in their internal affairs. They deny that camps housing hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are “re-education” camps.
He’s right about that. Rubio, Cruz and others sanctioned are not permitted to enter China.
Among those on the list of persona non grata are Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, U.S. Ambassador for religious freedom Sam Brownback, and members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which Rubio co-chairs. Among those serving on the bipartisan commission, which focuses on human rights, is GOP Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City.
Masking a problem
For months, Trump has been reluctant to wear a protective mask in public. He has pointed to the social distancing in which he engages as a response to calls to wear one. Those criticizing his reluctance point to his missing an opportunity to set an example for supporters and others to follow.
On July 10, the President was in South Florida visiting Southern Command (and raise campaign cash) to highlight enhanced drug interdiction efforts on the Southern border. While those efforts have borne fruit, the story quickly became the President visiting the nation’s biggest hotspot without a mask.
“Shocking, but not unsurprising, that Pres. Trump is in S.FL. — w/o wearing a mask — for a high-dollar fundraiser w/o addressing the crisis we’re facing in FL,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton. “We can’t look to the WH for leadership. The responsibility is on us to do our part to stop the spread & keep others safe.”
Traveling on Air Force One to Miami with the President was Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, the first member of Congress to contract and recover from COVID-19. He was asked about emerging from the plane, like Trump, without a mask.
“This whole (traveling) group was tested, and so remember, the reason for wearing masks is not to spread COVID; that’s the reason for it; it is not a religious thing,” he responded. “All of us were tested and therefore, we’re not spreading COVID. And by the way, I speak as one who suffered through it and take it very, very seriously.”
He concluded his response by chiding those questioning the lack of a mask in that situation as “a lack of common sense.”
Perhaps the event was a turning point for the President. The following day, Trump visited Walter Reed hospital and was shown wearing a mask in public for the first time.
This followed reports that aides had repeatedly urged him to wear one, especially after being seen in Florida, where the increase in infections is drawing significant concern. Is it a new approach, or just doing what is necessary in a hospital?
Panel clears Gaetz
In April, POLITICO reported that Rep. Matt Gaetz had leased office space from a longtime ally, committing $200,000 in taxpayer funds for the district office. The revelation subsequently led to an investigation from the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the independent ethics watchdog.
With a member doing public business with a friend and a donor, OCE was looking into whether taxpayer funds were used improperly in the transaction, especially if Gaetz was paying more than a fair amount. The Fort Walton Beach Republican strongly responded that everything was aboveboard and was recently informed by OCE staff director Omar Ashmawy that the review was now terminated.
“Every member of Congress has relationships with their donors,” Gaetz said in April. “The question is whether or not those relationships are improper or illegal.” He also noted that he was “never ever realizing personal financial gain as a consequence of elected office” and said the rent was “at or below” market value.
Members must seek leases for district offices “at fair market value” and “as the result of a bona fide, arms-length, marketplace transaction,” House rules specify. “The Lessor and Lessee certify that the parties are not relatives nor have had, or continue to have, a professional or legal relationship (except as a landlord and tenant),” the rules add.
“Update your stories,” Gaetz tweeted on July 9. “This was a BS smear by Politico, now debunked.”
POLITICO published a brief story on the review’s termination that same day.
Greater international development
In 2018 Rep. Ted Yoho, who was then Chairman of the U.S. House Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, introduced the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act that was subsequently signed into law. Yoho recently introduced legislation expanding on the law’s utilization.
The BUILD Act created the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which is the single entity inserted into a host of federal programs. The new bill, co-sponsored by Washington Democrat Adam Smith, seeks to ensure the DFC can utilize equity investments as intended by Congress.
“The BUILD Act of 2018 and the establishment of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) was a much-needed leap forward for the U.S. to regain its competitiveness for financing international development projects,” Yoho said in a news release. “It is imperative for this new and much-needed development finance tool to be funded as intended by Congress.”
“I look forward to seeing Congress pass this essential fix to ensure that the DFC is able to operate effectively and carry out its mission in developing nations worldwide,” he added.
The bill was sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a companion bill in the Senate has not yet emerged.
Intel sharing demanded
The fallout from the claims Russians paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan continues to reverberate around the country. Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Joe Cunningham from South Carolina have introduced legislation that would notify members of Congress if a member of a foreign government is deliberately seeking to severely injure or kill U.S. service members.
The Deadly Escalation by Foreign Entities Notification and Disclosure (DEFEND) Act would require the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to quickly provide a classified briefing to key members of Congress, including the intelligence and armed services committees of both houses of Congress. The DNI would provide this briefing within 14 days if there is a moderate or high degree of confidence in the accuracy of the intelligence.
“When our brave service members are targeted or threatened, it is our duty to protect them and hold the perpetrators accountable,” said Murphy, the bill’s sponsor and a former national security specialist at the Department of Defense under President George W. Bush.
“If the U.S. intelligence community has credible reasons to believe a foreign government is conducting or sponsoring lethal attacks against our service members, Congress should immediately be notified so we can take all appropriate steps — on a bipartisan basis — to protect our troops.”
Not only was Congress not briefed on the recent revelation, but national security officials also did not brief the President on the matter.
To trigger the briefings, how foreign entities are looking to harm U.S. soldiers can be either direct or indirect. Once the initial briefing is provided, the DNI would be required to provide updated congressional briefings every quarter until the DNI determines that the foreign government is no longer targeting service members.
“The safety and security of American service members is my top priority in Congress and should never be politicized,” Cunningham, the bill’s co-sponsor, said. “If American soldiers are being targeted abroad, we must work together in a nonpartisan manner to hold those responsible to account. This legislation will give Congress the information necessary to protect American lives.”
Space town hall
Earlier this week, more than 100 Pinellas County students, families, and teachers had the unique learning experience of hearing about the space program from those closely involved. Rep. Charlie Crist hosted a virtual town hall featuring astronaut Mike Fincke and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Students had the opportunity to learn about current developments on the Artemis program and Artemis Generation at NASA, which is set to return astronauts to the moon in 2024 as part of a larger mission to send the first humans to Mars.
“The mystery of what lies beyond our world has captured the American imagination for decades, and the members of the ‘Artemis Generation’ — the term coined by NASA for the middle and high school students of today — have the unique opportunity to reach farther into the unknown than any generation before,” the St. Petersburg Democrat said in a news release.
Students had the opportunity to pose questions to Bridenstine and Fincke on what it’s like to live in space, the search for life on Mars, and what challenges and opportunities NASA foresees for the future of space exploration.
“The students we spoke with today are some of Florida’s best and brightest, and part of the Artemis Generation of explorers and innovators who will take us to deep space,” Bridenstine said. “Encouraging STEM education is integral to NASA’s mission, and developing future science and technology leaders will provide NASA the talent we need 20 years from now.”
Reduce unemployment benefits
The extra $600 in unemployment compensation approved by Congress in the spring is set to expire at the end of July. Despite the reopening of the economy slowing in some states, including Florida, renewing the payments that come in addition to state unemployment is far from certain.
Scott is among those who have long argued that providing extra funding as structured made it more financially beneficial for workers not to work and collect payments. Rep. Greg Steube is among those agreeing with Scott and arguing against an extension.
Steube joined with 36 colleagues in signing a letter to Trump, urging him to oppose an extension. The letter, led by Texas Republican Chip Roy, said no program should pay Americans more to stay at home than to work.
“Small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges caused by COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns enacted by state and local governments,” they wrote. “There could not be a worse time for the federal government to create disincentives for returning to work.”
Denying the benefits would be a tough sell to many in Florida as tens of thousands remain in the queue to receive both their state and federal benefits. Despite this, nearly $8 billion in federal payments have passed through the system.
“The purpose of unemployment benefits is to temporarily support Americans during difficult times, not to provide a more lucrative alternative to going back to work,” Steube said in May upon the launch of legislation designed to limit payments to the amount of wages.
“With unemployment numbers skyrocketing, we should be creating incentives for businesses to open and bring employees back on payroll so people can support themselves instead of relying on the government.”
Less than three weeks remain before Congress recesses for the month of August.
Equality in Europe
Marches and protests for racial equality continue to seek greater action toward equality, prompting some members of Congress to prod European allies to do likewise. Delray Beach Democrat Alcee Hastings, Chairman of the Congressional Helsinki Commission, led a letter signed by 35 colleagues to President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission urging a plan of action by the European Parliament.
The Parliament issued a resolution on Juneteenth day supporting the American protests against racism and police brutality. The letter also urges an immediate inquiry into an altercation involving a Black member of the European Parliament and a Belgian police officer.
“As in the United States, the 15 million persons who make up populations of Black Europeans and People of African Descent in Europe, have been victims of police brutality and harassment, including unexplained deaths of individuals in police custody,” the members wrote.
“Moreover, the European Union’s own Fundamental Rights Agency in 2018 found almost a third of People of African Descent had experienced racial harassment in the five years before with the report claiming that racial discrimination is “commonplace” in the 12 European countries sampled.”
They also thanked Parliament for two resolutions, including “Anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd” and “The Fundamental Rights of People of African Descent” in 2019.
“Since convening the 2009 Black European Summit at the European Parliament, it is heartening to see the growing solidarity of this resolution and the opportunity it presents for joint U.S.-EU commitments to end systemic racism,” Hastings said.
Among those signing the letter were Democratic Reps. Deutch and Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens.
The Helsinki Commission is a bipartisan, bicameral policy arm of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Joining Hastings in the leadership is co-chairman Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
Foreign operations funding
The House Appropriations Committee has forwarded the funding bill covering the Department of State, foreign operations and related agencies. The bill calls for spending $68.87 billion during the fiscal year 2020-2021, an increase of $8.5 billion over the current year, and a whopping $21.2 billion over the President’s request.
Rep. Lois Frankel, a member of the subcommittee overseeing these policy areas, expressed strong support for the budget priorities forwarded, especially their potential effect on global women’s health and gender equality.
“When girls and women are better educated, healthier, and safer, their communities are safer and more prosperous,” the West Palm Beach Democrat said in a news release. “This bill will support gender equality, protect a woman’s full access to reproductive health care, invest in girls’ education, and combat gender-based violence.”
More than $6 billion is targeted to fight HIV/AIDS around the world and another $1.6 billion for maternal and child health, as well as reproductive health. Millions are committed to fighting human trafficking, gender-based violence, and $975 million for basic education with a focus on educating girls, who are forbidden to go to school in some countries.
More than $3 billion is committed toward security assistance to Israel and funds efforts to fight anti-Israel bias at the United Nations.
“Making sure Israel has the ability to defend itself is critical to our own national security,” Frankel added. “We must also continue to build on our shared values. This bill will expand the reach of our important partnership in international development and, at the same time, improve lives around the world.”
On this day
July 14, 1976 — Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter officially became the Democratic nominee for President at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. A packed Madison Square Garden erupted into thunderous cheers when the Ohio delegation put him over the top.
Watching the proceedings on television from his suite in the Americana Hotel, Carter hugged his eight-year-old daughter Amy Carter when he secured enough delegates to claim the nomination. Carter is said to be deciding on a running mate between Democratic Sens. Ed Muskie of Maine and Walter Mondale of Minnesota.
July 14, 2008 — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has announced new mortgage lending rules that crack down on a developing credit crisis. The rules, which go into effect next year, requires borrowers to assure lenders they can pay their loans for at least seven years, not just the low “teaser” rates that started the credit crisis.
A growing concern is centering around Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose shares fell 5.1% and 8.3%, respectively, in the previous day’s trading. The concern is becoming real as lawmakers seek to prevent the demise of both due to the significant impact it would have on the home loan market and the economy overall.
Greetings to Rep. Ross Spano (July 16)