In this week's D.C. Update:
Comey Testifies Before Congress
It’s like watching an episode of Scandal.
Capitol Hill is taking a collective breather today after former FBI Director James Comey's damning testimony against President Donald Trump last Thursday. The former FBI chief accused the president of directing him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn, firing him to change the course of the Russia probe, and then said the White House lied "plain and simple" about why he was dismissed.
"I was honestly concerned that he might lie," Comey said when asked why he carefully documented his interactions with Trump, a practice he didn't do when working under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The reality is the dynamic of the Russia probe on Capitol Hill isn't likely to change publicly, at least anytime soon. Senate Intelligence Committee members on both sides of the aisle said Comey's testimony is just one piece of a much larger puzzle they're still working to put together. And there's no telling when the investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller will wrap up or release its conclusions.
Republicans are trying to publicly downplay the impact of Comey's testimony and keep the focus on the legislative agenda, even if many are privately alarmed by what he said during the hearing.
Coming next week: Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to testify before a Senate Appropriations panel Tuesday on Department of Justice’s fiscal 2018 budget. Sessions will no doubt face questions about Comey's testimony and the Russia probe. In a closed-door session after the public hearing, Comey told senators it's possible Sessions could have had a third meeting with the Russian ambassador that he didn't disclose, CNN reports
Sometime in June: The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to meet with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, on Russia later this month.
On Thursday House Republicans united to pass a comprehensive bill that would dismantle the landmark banking regulations enacted after the 2008 financial crisis. The legislation, approved without a single Democratic vote, represents the GOP's opening salvo in the debate over easing the rules on the financial system, a move sparked by the election of President Donald Trump and Republican control of Congress.
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White House to Congress: Address Health Care, Debt Ceiling By August
White House officials are pressing lawmakers to pass bills that would replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act and raise the debt ceiling before they leave for their August break, clearing the fall months for tax overhaul and government spending fights.
President Donald Trump intends to discuss a Republican “path forward” on a health care overhaul and his proposed tax package during a Tuesday afternoon meeting at the executive mansion, said Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director.
Short declined to take a position on House conservatives’ call that the debt ceiling measure be tied to federal funding cuts. He did, however, suggest Trump would settle for tax cuts if there’s insufficient consensus on Capitol Hill for a more sweeping tax policy overhaul. Lawmakers “need to raise [the] debt ceiling before they leave for the summer,” Short said last week Monday, adding White House officials have given such a timeline to senior members. Asked to clarify the White House’s preferred deadline, Short replied: “We’re looking at before they adjourn for the August recess.”
As often is the case inside Trump’s circle, top aides appear split over the shape of debt ceiling legislation. White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney have said they would consider attaching spending cuts and other GOP-favored provisions. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has called for a “clean” bill to raise the borrowing limit.
Short sidestepped a question about including spending cuts in a borrowing limit bill, saying only that he looks forward to working with lawmakers to find the “right vehicle” to raise the debt ceiling.
On the other issue the White House wants to see action on before August break, health care, Short used Trump-like language to describe the 2010 law passed by the Obama administration. He dubbed it an “unaffordable disaster” that has spawned a crisis with a shrinking number of insurance providers in many states and ever-rising costs. But he declined to discuss specifics, saying only that Tuesday’s meeting with GOP leaders is, in part, intended to chart a path on “how we end this nightmare.”
Should lawmakers complete work on the health care and debt ceiling bills before they depart Washington for a five-week summer sojourn, the White House wants leaders to turn to a tax bill and work on finishing fiscal 2018 spending bills. Notably, Trump’s promised $1 trillion measure to revamp the country’s infrastructure was not on the short list for the remainder of this calendar year, though he expects some work on it before 2017 ends.
On a tax measure, the Trump administration would prefer that it be revenue neutral, Short said. But if that or another issue should trip up a broad package on tax rates and policy, he signaled Trump would accept a bill featuring only lower rates because officials – including the president – believe what the economy needs to ramp up growth is to “get a tax cut.”
While the health care effort is a Republican-only lift, the White House expects some Democrats to come to the table on a tax bill. In fact, Short said meetings with Democratic groups like the House’s Blue Dog coalition of moderates already have begun. He expects that to continue, and for Trump himself to be “very engaged in working with Democrats” later this year. Short also was asked about Trump’s previous statements about Washington needing another government shutdown to alter its often-dysfunctional ways and whether the president might use that stance as leverage come the end of September, when government funding will expire.
“I don’t think anybody is in favor of a government shutdown,” Short said. “You will see him (Trump) very engaged this fall,” especially when it comes to advocating for two of his top spending priorities: increasing defense spending and securing more dollars for border security. The latter would, though Short did not mention it, possibly provide funds for Trump’s promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “He views it as all options for leverage are on the table,” Short told reporters. “But he doesn’t want a shutdown.
The early evening briefing also included discussion of how Trump began his Monday: a tweetstorm attacking his own Justice Department and the mayor of London. Short demurred, telling reporters that he finds the president “very effective” when he helps with discussions with members. The legislative affairs boss said it’s better for the administration’s agenda when Trump is directly engaging lawmakers. Asked whether Trump’s tweets about the Russia election-meddling scandal and other matters is a distraction to getting things done on the Hill, Short described Trump as a candidate who “won the election by being someone who’s not a conformist candidate” and who lacks “a conventional style.”
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Trump’s Ethics Waivers Grant Ex-Lobbyists Wide Influence
The batch of ethics waivers released by the White House offered more evidence of what everyone already knew: The Trump administration, despite pledges to “drain the swamp,” has embraced the revolving door between government and the private sector.
The waivers are more sweeping in scope than those of the Obama administration, and reveal that former lobbyists and other senior officials may freely take part in meetings and decisions that affect their former clients and onetime employers. Ethics watchdogs and even some lobbyists have decried the easy movement between K Street and the Trump administration. They say they worry that it could lead to government officials putting private interests ahead of the public and could also further erode public perception of what most lobbyists actually do.
“If they’re seen as catering to their former clients, then people are going to say, ‘It’s Washington for sale and it’s those damn lobbyists who are selling it,’” said Paul Miller, a lobbyist with Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, who serves as president of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics. “We are going to be the ones who are demonized.”
The White House’s list of waivers, released late Wednesday, included one for Michael Catanzaro, a special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy, whose former clients at the CGCN Group included Noble Energy and MasterCard Worldwide. His role and those of other former lobbyists were already well-known before this week’s disclosure. Shahira Knight, a former Ways and Means staffer and onetime lobbyist for Fidelity Investments, also received a waiver, as did other former lobbyists. Knight is now special assistant to the president for tax and retirement policy, and has been involved in meetings on Capitol Hill about a tax overhaul.
Other senior officials including Kellyanne Conway and Reince Priebus, who were not registered lobbyists before joining the administration, received waivers so they can weigh in on issues that affect their former clients or employers. Priebus, for example, is allowed take part in meetings and communications involving the Republican National Committee, where he was chairman.
The Trump administration also offered blanket exemptions for officials who previously worked at Jones Day, a law firm that was once the professional home for White House counsel Donald McGahn and other administration officials.
“The White House waivers late Wednesday permit an oil and gas lobbyist to help devise energy policy, insurance lobbyists to work on a range of retirement and financial regulatory matters, and corporate lawyers to engage with their former colleagues,” said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen. He noted that the raft of waivers “vastly exceeds the number issued in the early months of the Obama administration and, more importantly, authorizes conflicts not permitted” during the last administration. The waivers show an “utter disregard for ethical standards” in the Trump White House, Weissman said.
The waivers exempt officials from aspects of the Trump administration’s January 28 ethics executive order that kept intact many ethics obligations from the Obama administration. Obama granted a handful of waivers during his eight years in office to allow recently registered former lobbyists to serve in his administration. But the Trump team said it would not maintain that restriction. The Obama administration across all agencies granted some 70 ethics waivers total, according to The New York Times. The Trump White House alone, so far, has made public 14 ethics waivers, but some of those apply to multiple people – something the Obama administration did not do, said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen.
The batch of waivers released Wednesday did not include those for officials outside of the White House across executive branch agencies and departments, though the administration may make those public as soon as Thursday, a deadline set by the Office of Government Ethics. The Trump administration initially had pushed back on the OGE’s request but later decided to comply.
The purpose of such restrictions is to prevent “regulatory capture” of executive branch agencies that set the rules for industry players, Holman said. If government officials do favors for their former employers or clients, then that offers a way for businesses to “capture the regulatory agency and literally render it useless,” Holman added.
Miller and other K Street denizens have noted that the Trump administration is smart not to block recently registered lobbyists from joining, but still, they worry that lobbyists’ reputation will suffer if the White House flouts its own rules. “Over last few years, we’ve been doing a better job of portraying what lobbyists actually do, but these types of situations are going to throw us right back into the era of Jack Abramoff,” said Miller, referring to the mid-2000s scandal that led to an overhaul of lobbying laws.
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Special Election Roundup
California 34th District
State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez was elected as Los Angeles’ newest member of Congress on Tuesday, defeating attorney Robert Lee Ahn in a sharply contested battle for the 34th congressional district.
Gomez will take the seat vacated by Xavier Becerra, who became state attorney general earlier this year, and will represent one of the poorest, most immigrant-heavy districts in the state, where the effects of President Trump’s policies on immigration and healthcare will be acutely felt. His election continues a decades-old tradition of Democratic Latino representation in the district, which stretches from downtown Los Angeles to Boyle Heights and incorporates Highland Park, Eagle Rock and Koreatown. If Ahn had won, he would have become the second Korean American elected to the House and the first Korean American Democrat.
Shortly before Ahn called to concede, Gomez thanked hundreds of cheering supporters for their efforts to get him elected and pledged to represent all of his constituents after a hard-fought battle with fellow Democrat Ahn. “Today, our community said yes to California values, our progressive values,” Gomez said at his election party at his Highland Park campaign headquarters. “All of you here that helped me on this campaign, we are the resistance.”
The district, where median household income hovers around $35,000, is majority Latino and had one of the biggest declines in the uninsured population after the passage of Obamacare.
Becerra, who held the seat for more than two decades, was regarded as a fierce advocate for immigrants and the poor. He resigned the seat after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to replace now-Sen. Kamala Harris as California’s attorney general.
Georgia 6th District
Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel clashed on the debate stage for the first time Tuesday night, sparring face-to-face over their resumes, campaign financing and foreign policy after months of trading campaign attacks over the airwaves.
Ossoff and Handel, who are running against each other in a special election to fill the House seat vacated by new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in suburban Atlanta, stuck largely to the same lines of attack repeated in the flood of TV ads that have made their race the most expensive House contest ever.
Both of candidates also weighed in on President Donald Trump, with Handel advising the president to change his “Twitter policy.” “Sometimes you should just put down the computer, the phone and walk away,” Handel said. But Handel also accused Ossoff of not wanting the people of Georgia to “know that he is a liberal Democrat and he’s supported by the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party,” adding that he “rarely mentions that he’s a Democrat.”
Ossoff’s messaging has indeed taken a centrist tone, in an effort to cut into the large moderate Republican voting bloc in Georgia’s 6th District.
Ossoff hammered Handel on her record at the Susan G. Komen Foundation where she “led an effort to defund life saving breast screenings” in 2012, Ossoff said. Handel resigned after the group sparked uproar over cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood, and the episode has become a central line of attack in Ossoff's TV advertising currently blitzing the district's airwaves. Handel said she was “tasked by the CEO” to “develop options for how the organization could disengage from Planned Parenthood” and she will be “on the front line of fighting for women.” “I’m not going to be lectured by you, Jon,” Handel added.
The candidates traded some of their toughest shots on national security, a topic the 30-year-old Ossoff has leaned on as a key part of his resume, while Republicans have attacked him for inflating his credentials.
On the debate stage, Ossoff, who said he supported Trump’s targeted strike against Syria this year, went after Handel for her “inconsistent views” on a response to chemical weapons. “Why did you oppose the strikes when it was President Obama who was proposing them, but support them when it was President Trump proposing them?” Ossoff asked. “National security should not be about political party. It should be about the interests of the country.
Handel attacked Ossoff for his support of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, calling the country “one of the biggest threats.” When pressed on striking a nuclearized Iran, Ossoff said that with military force, “there are complexities involved that a hypothetical cannot fully encompass,” but if Iran poses an imminent threat, “then we should use force to prevent them from striking our allies.”
Ossoff, who’s raised more than $15 million for his campaign, mostly from out-of-state online donors, was accused by Handel of “being propelled by the most liberal of elements, from Nancy Pelosi to Jane Fonda to Hank Johnson to donors, a majority of which, are from California, Massachusetts and New York.” Ossoff said that “many more Georgians have contributed to my campaign than Secretary Handel’s campaign,” noting that his contributions average less than $50. “Your values are some 3,000 miles away in San Francisco,” Handel added.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with House GOP leadership, has echoed that line in its own TV ads. Both sides, fueled by campaign contributions and super PACs, have seen unprecedented spending in the race – more than $30 million reserved on TV ads alone.
Handel also addressed bubbling tension with the press, when she was asked about a fundraising email sent by Montana Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte, on behalf of the NRCC, that named her. Gianforte, who won the Montana special election last month, faces assault charges for allegedly attacking a reporter with The Guardian. Handel said “not a penny” went to her campaign and she didn’t condone the behavior. But she did share her own story when a “reporter supposedly representing some very liberal, Democratic organization almost literally accosted me” at a Memorial Day event. “Unfortunately, in the world of campaigning right now on both sides of the political aisle, individuals have become incredibly aggressive toward candidates,” Handel said.
While previous House special elections this year have been in pro-Trump districts in Kansas and Montana, the president barely won this district in Georgia. Ossoff, chasing moderate Republicans who once made the district a GOP stronghold, said he’d be willing to work with the president on some issues but would also “stand up” to him when he thought Trump was wrong.
“There’s no margin for error in Georgia’s 6th District and Karen Handel can’t survive a double digit swing like the races in Kansas and Montana,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in the state. “But this is largely being dictated by the national environment.”
Republican congressman-elect Greg Gianforte has filed an extension to push back the date he must appear in Gallatin County Justice Court on misdemeanor assault charges stemming from an election-eve altercation with a reporter.
The court document said "the parties are currently exploring a settlement'' of the case and that the extension was not opposed by the state. Gianforte has asked for another two weeks, and a specific court date has not been set
Justice Court Judge Rick West has not yet ruled on the motion. Bozeman technology entrepreneur Gianforte was cited for misdemeanor assault, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine, for an alleged attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs at a campaign event on May 24, about 24 hours before Gianforte was elected to the U.S. House. An audio recording from the altercation details Jacobs trying to ask Gianforte a question about a health care bill, then a scuffle, followed by Jacobs saying Gianforte “body-slammed” him and broke his glasses. Gianforte can be heard yelling “Get the hell out.” Jacobs’ description of what happened was confirmed by accounts of others in the room, including a reporter for Fox News who saw the altercation.
But just after it happened, the Gianforte campaign sent out a press release saying Jacobs grabbed Gianforte’s wrist and pushed both men to the ground, and made a point of calling Jacobs a “liberal journalist” with “aggressive behavior.” Gianforte refused repeatedly in an interview with MTN Friday to say why his campaign released what appears to be a false statement about the altercation.
Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist last month in the race to fill Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, vacated when Ryan Zinke became Secretary of the Interior.
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