Delegation for 9.17.21: Hostile witness — muzzling — united — revolting — Nicki Minaj

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A hearing on Afghanistan gets contentious.

Heated testimony

A meeting between the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Secretary of State Antony Blinken turned hostile as Republican members questioned how a withdrawal from the country ended with an ISIS-K attack that killed more than a dozen American soldiers and more than 170 Afghan civilians.

Among the most prominent critics proved to be Rep. Brian Mast, who lost both legs while serving as a bomb engineer for the Army before his election to Congress. The Stuart Republican pressed the Secretary on communications between President Joe Biden and then-Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the nation as the U.S. withdrew forces and the Taliban took control. “Did President Biden work with the coward exile President to manipulate the intelligence about the Taliban?” Mast asked pointedly.

Blinken denied any accusations that Biden actively covered up a lack of capacity by the former government to resist invasion. “The issue was not whether Afghanistan had the capacity to withstand the Taliban,” Blinken responded. “It’s whether it had the will and the plan to do so.”

Anthony Blinken’s House testimony gets hostile over Afghanistan. Image via AP.

The response left Mast wanting, and he ultimately accused Blinken of lying to Congress. “I do not believe a word that you are saying on this,” Mast told Blinken. Further, he said the families of the 13 service members who lost their lives in airport bombings in Kabul amid the U.S. withdrawal deserve a better explanation. He read off the names of each fallen veteran with a short biography of their service.

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“Everybody looking for an explanation about what happened, and how everybody got it so wrong, how your administration got it so wrong, needs to look at that as the most likely explanation,” Mast said. “Asking the President to manipulate the intelligence of what was actually going on with the Taliban.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat and chair of the House Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee, proved a less hostile examiner during testimony. He still expressed some alarm at the prospect the Taliban may once again harbor terrorism forces, as occurred with al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

“It is true that we are not the world’s policeman. But we know that a strengthening ISIS-K or al-Qaida not only pose a threat to the U.S. homeland but Americans abroad, our interests abroad, and the region … We clearly can’t trust the Taliban to keep terrorists at bay,” Deutch said. “How is the administration planning to hold the Taliban to its commitment to ensure that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are unable to use Afghan soil to plan terrorist attacks.”

Blinken said the threat of terrorism is, in fact, more acute than it was 20 years ago on global targets. “The current assessment of the Intelligence community is that long ago, al-Qaida was so significantly degraded that it’s not in the position to conduct externally faced, externally directed attacks. But we will remain hypervigilant about any reemergence of that threat.”

Deutch thanked Blinken for the information, but Rep. Greg Steube considered it a whitewash. The Sarasota Republican said from the start of the hearing, Blinken wasn’t honest about the strength of enemies overseas.

“You state that by January 2021, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 9/11,” Steube said. “I’m pretty sure that their strongest military position has been during your entire administration, not prior to it … their strongest military position since the towers were hit in 2001 was this past Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary, all of which happened on your watch, not your predecessor’s.”

Muzzling Milley

The release of “Peril,” the new book from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency, left some members of the delegation seething. Based on revelations from the tome, Sen. Marco Rubio called on Biden to fire Gen. Mark Milley as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a letter to the President, Rubio said Milley’s actions while serving under Trump raise grave concerns. Peril alleges Milley took steps after Trump lost reelection to obstruct the outgoing President from launching a nuclear attack on another nation. Milley even contacted military leadership in China to assure them he would not allow any act of aggression.

Mark Milley’s actions in the waning days of the Donald Trump presidency are ‘insubordination,’ says Marco Rubio. Image via AP.

In Rubio’s eyes, that’s nothing short of insubordination.

“I write with grave concern regarding recent reporting that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worked to actively undermine the sitting Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces and contemplated a treasonous leak of classified information to the Chinese Communist Party in advance of a potential armed conflict with the People’s Republic of China,” the Miami Republican wrote. “These actions by General Milley demonstrate a clear lack of sound judgment, and I urge you to dismiss him immediately.”

Other members of the delegation shared their concerns. Rep. Dan Webster, a Clermont Republican, said he’s taking reporting with caution but wants Congress investigating Milley’s actions.

“I am very troubled by reported actions taken by General Milley last year. While I don’t jump to conclusions about quotes provided by anonymous sources to partisan media outlets — if true, the actions by Gen. Milley raise extremely serious questions,” Webster said. “The General is scheduled to testify before Congressional Committees next week. I encourage committee members to fully investigate this and the actions around withdrawal from Afghanistan. I have the greatest respect and appreciation for our military leaders, but if laws or our constitutional system were violated, there must be consequences.”

The matter becomes more politically sensitive considering the timing of Milley’s reported actions. The book suggests the General moved days after Congress certified Biden’s electoral win and rioters sieged the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the process. Notably, most Republicans in Florida’s delegation voted against certifying one or two Biden states based on unfounded accusations by Trump that the election was stolen.

Rubio, a Miami Republican, did not participate in any objection to the counting of votes and gave a speech on the floor on Jan. 6 in defense of democracy. It’s a similar belief in the institutions of civilian leadership over the military that make Milley’s actions concerning regardless of political circumstance, the Senator wrote.

“General Milley has attempted to rationalize his reckless behavior by arguing that what he perceived as the military’s judgment as more stable than its civilian commander,” Rubio wrote. “It is a dangerous precedent that could be asserted at any point in the future by General Milley or others. It threatens to tear apart our nation’s long-standing principle of civilian control of the military. You must immediately dismiss General Milley. America’s national security and ability to lead in the world are at stake.

Protest unity

Upon news China sentenced nine pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to prison time, Sen. Rick Scott demanded a tougher stance with the Eastern superpower. Reuters reports that the individuals, arrested last year at a vigil for those slain in Tiananmen Square in 1989, must go to prison for six to 10 months,

“As the world’s dictators continue their assaults on democracy, free speech and human rights, Joe Biden is silent,” Scott said.

Rick Scott shows his solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Image via AP.

“Once a thriving democracy, Hong Kong is now fully under the oppressive rule of General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Communist Chinese government. These unwarranted and unjustifiable arrests are just the latest proof of Hong Kong’s sad transformation. As the leader of the free world, Joe Biden should be the loudest voice condemning Communist China’s transgressions, but he is again missing in action. Instead of continuing his failed appeasement, it’s time for Biden to clearly and unapologetically stand for the rights of Hong Kongers and the protection of freedom and democracy around the world.”

Scott, a potential candidate for President in 2024, has similarly criticized Biden for not speaking up quickly enough in favor of protesters in Cuba. Of course, he’s shown a very different attitude about anti-government protesters in the U.S.

Revolting

Stephanie Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat and one of the most influential moderates in the House, announced she could not support Biden‘s cornerstone $3.5-trillion Build Back Better Act as written.

In a news release Wednesday, the Congresswoman said she liked much of the bill, including the “historic provisions to combat the existential threat of climate change.” But, she added, “there are spending and tax provisions that give me pause.” She did not offer specifics in the news release.

Stephanie Murphy is one of the moderates who cannot back Joe Biden’s full Build Back Better agenda. Image via AP.

“And so I cannot vote for the bill at this early stage,” Murphy said. “As this process moves forward, I remain optimistic that the comprehensive reconciliation package will be appropriately targeted and fiscally responsible — paid for by tax provisions that promote fairness but do not hurt working families.”

Murphy co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of Democrats generally conservative on fiscal issues. She has used that position and her growing influence to force negotiations with House leadership and the White House.

Protecting Varosha

A group of lawmakers wanted to ensure the U.S. kept an eye on disputes between Greece and Turkey.

As chair and co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, Gus Bilirakis joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to urge United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to stop attempts by the Turkish government to illegally resettle and reopen Varosha, an abandoned Cypriot city.

The Palm Harbor Republican joined New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney, who co-chairs the Hellenic Issues Caucus with Bilirakis, and New Hampshire Democrat Chris Pappas, a caucus member, in pressing the matter through a letter. The push comes amid Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot provocations on the Cyprus-owned territory in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Gus Bilirakis wants the U.S. to keep an eye on Greece and Turkey. Image via Facebook.

“We welcome the Security Council’s condemnation of this inadmissible change of status by Turkey and Turkish Cypriots, and we implore you to signal to Turkey that the United Nations will not stop at words if U.N. Security Council Resolutions over Varosha continue to be violated,” the letter reads.

“We want to especially encourage consideration of the Confidence Building Measures over Varosha that have long been put forth by (Cyprus) President (Nicos) Anastasiades. We understand that the parties seem further away from formal talks as a result of these illegal Turkish actions, but it is necessary that your efforts continue to advance a just dialogue and eventual peace.”

A total of 16 other House members signed the letter, including St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist.

Bilirakis grew up in Tarpon Springs, the most prominent Greek community in Florida, and still represents the community in Congress. That means his constituency includes many who previously lived or have families living in the West Mediterranean region. His father, former Congressman Mike Bilirakis, represented the community for years before as well.

Insta-slam

Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor wants greater accountability for social media platforms when it comes to protecting minors. Following an investigative report by The Wall Street Journal, she’s now one of the Democratic members of Congress demanding answers from Facebook on operating procedures at Instagram.

Castor joined with Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Lori Trahan, both of Massachusetts, in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that notes internal research Facebook reportedly had in hand showing 6% of teen Instagram users had suicidal thoughts connected to social media, and that the image-driven platform created body image problems for as many as one in three teen girls online.

Kathy Castor calls for Mark Zuckerberg to offer more protections for minors on Instagram. Image via AP.

“Children and teens are uniquely vulnerable populations online, and these findings paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people’s well-being,” the letter states.

“As the internet — and social media specifically — becomes increasingly ingrained in children and teens’ lives, we are deeply concerned that your company continues to fail in its obligation to protect young users and has yet to commit to halt its plans to launch new platforms targeting children and teens. The recently uncovered evidence published in The Wall Street Journal underscores Facebook’s responsibility to fundamentally change its approach to engaging with children and teens online. That starts with Facebook abandoning its plans to launch a new version of Instagram for kids.”

Castor tweeted her Kids PRIVCY Act, filed in January, should be passed as a policy response.

“It’s past time for online safeguards to be crafted with the mental health and safety of children in mind, and I’ll continue my work in Congress, including my Kids PRIVCY Act, to hold these companies accountable and codify common-sense, lifesaving online protections into law,” she posted.

For the children

Crist cheered the House Ways and Means Committee, clearing an extension of Child Tax Credit days after leading a Democratic letter championing the policy.

“Florida families won today,” Crist said. “The improved Child Tax Credit under the American Rescue plan is already working every month to strengthen families. That’s why I’ve been pushing to make this critical tax cut permanent. Under the Build Back Better Act that passed the House Ways and Means Committee today, parents will permanently enjoy a fully refundable Child Tax Credit. Plus, they’ll get the expanded amount through 2025. Since July, over three million Florida families have benefited from this historic tax cut, putting tax dollars right back into parents’ pockets and cutting child poverty in half. Stronger families equal a stronger Florida.”

Charlie Crist celebrates a win for Florida kids with the Child Tax Credit. Image via AP.

The Congressman separately stated his support of a Solar Investment Tax Credit also approved by the same committee. He has filed legislation to extend the credit to 2034 but praised the 10-year extension included as part of the Build Back Better Act. “Solar is key in our fight against the climate crisis, and this extension will help keep solar affordable for all Floridians,” Crist said. The credit, in place since 2006, allows individuals to write off 26% of solar installation costs from their federal taxes.

Crist plans next year to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reelection and potentially return to the Governor’s mansion himself after serving in Florida’s top post from 2007 to 2011.

Last week, his congressional office also calculated the impact just to Florida’s 13th Congressional District, estimated $25.1 million put in the pockets of Pinellas families due to the child tax credit.

The House and Ways Committee vote means the tax credits will be part of a budget conciliation package the House Budget Committee takes up next week.

Super-based

This week saw one member of Florida’s delegation siding with a rapper denouncing vaccines over a testicle anecdote as another denounced her words in an interview with cartoon characters.

Nicki Minaj, who once rapped she was “high as hell, I only took a half a pill,” discouraged individuals from taking the heavily researched COVID-19 vaccine based on a family anecdote. “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it and became impotent. His testicles became swollen,” Minaj tweeted. “His friend was weeks away from getting married; now the girl called off the wedding.”

This prompted rebukes, including a notable one from MSNBC host (and former Florida journalist) Joy-Ann Reid, who said: “You’ve got that platform. It’s a blessing that you got that, that people listen to you.”

But Naples Republican Byron Donalds, who has publicly stated he’s not vaccinated, spoke in defense of Minaj in a Fox News segment this week.

“To Nicky Minaj, the Queen, thanks for standing strong,” the Congressman said. “Thank you for doing what a lot of Americans, and frankly a lot of Black Americans, are having questions about. There’s a lot of people in the Black community who do have questions about the vaccine.” He blamed that hesitancy in part on Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Donalds notably contracted COVID-19 last year, but it’s unclear if he ever got sicker than that guy with a thing on his eye.

Meanwhile, Deutch renounced Minaj’s tweets — on an episode of the Stephen Colbert-produced Tooning Out the News.

“Instead of focusing on what Nicky Minaj is tweeting about, maybe we should listen to the scientists and the (Centers for Disease Control),” the Congressman told cartoon journalist Kylie Weaver. “If people get vaccinated, they are in a better position to not get sick, and if you’ve not been vaccinated and you get the virus, you are eleven times more likely to die. That should be reason enough to take this seriously.”

It’s unclear what the long-lasting repercussions will be from Minaj’s tweet — beyond her absence from the Met Gala — or whether the reach of an animated panel of experts on Paramount Plus can effectively counter disinformation already repudiated by officials in Trinidad and Tobago.

But the latest data from the Florida Department of Health does show vaccinations spiked in the last week as the delta variant savaged Florida worse than any other state. A cumulative 13.3 million are now vaccinated, or 69% of those eligible for the shot. Still, only 31% of Black Floridians eligible for vaccinations have received a dose.

The CDC reports more than 50,000 Floridians have now died with COVID-19.

Corps leadership

Col. James Booth has officially taken over at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, succeeding Col. Andrew Kelly. The new assignment holds substantial significance in the Florida political world when the corps considers an update to the discharge schedule as part of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual. Of course, that’s one of the countless environmental projects taking place in Florida that will involve the Corps.

“I have a lot to learn about the district operations, but I’m excited about the challenge and confident that I am in good hands,” Booth said. “I have been nothing less than impressed with your competence and professionalism. I consider it an incredible honor to be able to serve alongside every member of this great District Team.”

Mast, a Stuart Republican, issued a congratulatory tweet as Booth moved into a leadership position for the district following a lengthy transition. “I’m looking forward to working together to improve Florida’s waterways,” the Congressman tweeted.

Booth has already been preparing for the job and attended a town hall in Cape Coral hosted by Naples Republican Donalds in August. He will participate in another Donalds-organized tele-town hall on Sept. 21.

On this day

Sept. 7, 1787 — “U.S. Constitution signed in Philadelphia” via the National Constitution Center — A group of men gathered in a closed meeting room to sign the most significant vision of human freedom in history, the U.S. Constitution. It was Benjamin Franklin who made the motion to sign the document in his last great speech. The Constitutional Convention started in May 1787 in Pennsylvania’s Statehouse (now called Independence Hall). During four months of deliberations, the delegates drew up a plan for a new republican government that replaced a weak central government established by the Articles of Confederation. George Washington presided over the Convention, which featured many of the great minds of the day.

Sept. 17, 1976 — “NASA unveils first space shuttle, Enterprise” via Space.com — Americans got their first good look at a spaceship that would become a national icon. NASA’s prototype space shuttle Enterprise was rolled out of its assembly facility in Southern California and displayed before a crowd several thousand strong. Though Enterprise was a test vehicle that never reached space, its completion in some ways marked the true beginning of the space shuttle era. Various dignitaries were on hand to mark the occasion, including many cast members from the original “Star Trek” television series, which had debuted 10 years earlier. Their presence was appropriate, as the prototype shuttle took its name from the sleek starship commanded by the fictional Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

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Delegation is published by Peter Schorsch and compiled by Jacob Ogles, with contributions by Scott Powers.

Staff Reports



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