Democrats press for gun votes as Trump tacks back toward the NRA

Published: Sunday, March 04, 2018 @ 3:24 PM

After watching President Donald Trump edge back toward the National Rifle Association soon after embracing a series of gun control proposals last week, Congressional Democrats on Sunday vowed to push for votes in the House and Senate in coming days on legislation to deter future school shootings.

“Americans are fed up with the unbending position of the NRA which is to do nothing now and always, no matter how many lives are lost,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer said on Twitter.

“So many incredible young voices have stepped up to demand action on gun violence, yet the NRA continues to reject bipartisan calls to pass reasonable gun safety laws,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).

With no school safety measures expected on the legislative schedule at this point, one Democrat mocked what the House would be doing on Monday – naming post offices – echoing what was once a frequent target for the GOP when Democrats were in charge of Congress.

As for what the President would support to deal with the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Florida high school last month, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the President still wants to see action on a bipartisan “Fix NICS” bill, which would funnel more information into the background check system for gun buyers.

“The background check system is something that he’s still very much interested in improving,” Sanders said to reporters on Friday, though she indicated that the President may not be as keen on a more comprehensive change to the system, as he had indicated at a Wednesday meeting with lawmakers.

“Not necessarily universal background checks, but certainly improving the background check system,” Sanders added. “Universal means something different to a lot of people.”

Any ideas that Democrats might have had about getting quick votes in Congress on guns – with the backing of President Trump – seemed to fade after a meeting Thursday night with top NRA officials.

“I had a great meeting,” said Chris Cox, the top lobbyist for the NRA, after he sat down in the Oval Office with both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“We all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people,” Cox added on Twitter, going over some of the subjects raised in a Wednesday meeting which saw the President veer away from familiar Republican stances on gun controls.

At that initial meeting with lawmakers – which was fully televised – the President expressed his interesting supporting the Manchin-Toomey background check plan, which had drawn stern opposition from many Republicans and the NRA back in 2013, when it was filibustered in the Senate.

But that interest only seemed to last for two days.

“No one should be surprised by Trump’s forthcoming pivot back to the embrace of the gun lobby,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA). “We’ve seen this movie too many times.”

“Like they do on every other hot button issue, the White House is going to bob and weave on guns,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who was also at that Wednesday meeting.

The White House said the President spoke Thursday with House Speaker Paul Ryan about legislative efforts to address school safety, as both parties remain apart on the best answers.

“He wants to help move the ball down the field, so he’s going to keep having calls with a number of different members on how we can do that,” Sanders said.

But while no votes legislative action on school safety or gun restrictionis may be on the schedule, Democrats still have a larger hurdle in the way of broader gun control measures – there is a strong majority in favor of gun rights in both the House and Senate.

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Russia investigation: Special counsel Mueller subpoenas Trump Organization

Published: Friday, March 16, 2018 @ 3:57 PM
Updated: Friday, March 16, 2018 @ 3:48 PM

Robert Mueller - Fast Facts


Special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its possible ties to President Donald Trump and his associates, according to multiple reports.

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The subpoena is the first directly connected to one of Trump’s businesses, The New York Times reported Thursday. The newspaper was the first to report on the subpoena, citing two unidentified sources briefed on the situation.

The breadth of the subpoena was not immediately clear, although some documents sought were related to Russia, the Times reported. According to the newspaper, the subpoena was served “in recent weeks.”

>> More on Robert Mueller's investigation

The Trump Organization has already provided investigators with a range of documents, most focused on the period between when Trump announced his candidacy for president, in June 2015, to his inauguration, in January 2017, CNN reported in January. Citing an unidentified source familiar with the situation, the news network reported that the recently issued subpoena was meant “to ‘clean up’ and to ensure that all related documents are handed over to the special counsel.”

In a statement released to several news outlets Thursday, Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing the Trump Organization, said reports of the subpoena were “old news.”

>> Related: Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates to plead guilty in Mueller investigation

“Since July 2017, we have advised the public that the Trump Organization is fully cooperative with all investigations, including the special counsel, and is responding to their requests,” Futerfas said. “This is old news and our assistance and cooperation with the various investigations remains the same today.”

The decision to subpoena the Trump Organization, which is owned by the president and managed by his children, appeared to mirror the strategy employed by Mueller with the Trump campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported. The newspaper noted that the campaign “voluntarily gave documents to the special counsel for months before receiving a subpoena in October.”

>> Related: Mueller indicts 13 Russians, 3 Russian entities in election meddling probe

Mueller, who headed the FBI from 2001 to 2013, was appointed by the Justice Department in May 2017 to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His investigation has thus far led to several indictments and a handful of guilty pleas from people connected to Trump.

Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities last month on accusations that they interfered with American elections and political processes, starting in 2014. On Twitter, Trump claimed that information in the indictments proved his innocence on allegations of colluding with Russia to win the election.

Five people have pleaded guilty to charges levied against them in Mueller's investigation. Most recently, former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleaded guilty to making false statements and conspiring against the United States.

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Ohio lawmaker wants military to assist Puerto Rico cleanup

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2018 @ 10:07 AM

            Volunteers are instructed on how to assess damaged trees in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, Jan. 17, 2018. Researchers are studying the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria to this lush, 28,000-acre tropical rainforest to better understand how forests could be changed permanently as the world continues to warm. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)
            ERIKA P. RODRIGUEZ
Volunteers are instructed on how to assess damaged trees in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, Jan. 17, 2018. Researchers are studying the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria to this lush, 28,000-acre tropical rainforest to better understand how forests could be changed permanently as the world continues to warm. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)(ERIKA P. RODRIGUEZ)

In the aftermath of a whirlwind two-day trip to Puerto Rico, Rep. Brad Wenstrup will push for but the active duty and reservists to help assist in the rebuilding of Puerto Rico.

Wenstrup, a Cincinnati Republican who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and who is an Army Reservist, flew into Puerto Rico last Sunday for a field hearing on the VA’s role in the recovery effort. Puerto Rico is still reeling from two back-to-back hurricanes that struck the island six months ago and 11 percent of the island is out of power.

RELATED: Puerto Rican community here still battling the ‘monster’

Wenstrup said the VA plays an outsize role in the island – 72 percent of military veterans there who are eligible for VA care use it – nearly double the usage on the mainland United States.

Along with Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, R-Puerto Rico, Wenstrup toured several VA clinics on the island and also met with representatives from Veterans Service Organizations. Their field hearing was aimed at determining how best to maximize VA resources in Puerto Rico.

RELATED: Ohio National Guard sends medical equipment to Puerto Rico

He said conditions on the island are still grim, with debris stockpiled along the roads and roofs still covered with tarps, but the people are working to recover. However, he said, a shortage of doctors is imperiling the recovery effort because the island’s lackluster economy has spurred many doctors to move away in order to seek better pay and opportunities.

Wenstrup, who chairs the VA Committee’s Health Subcommittee, said the island might be an ideal place for a reservist or guardsman who wants to practice his or her skills as well as provide a service. “This may be an opportunity for a win-win,” he said.

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No direct answer from White House on future of VA chief

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2018 @ 4:08 PM

The White House on Thursday refused to directly say if Veterans Secretary David Shulkin will stay in his post, as the VA chief tried to reassure lawmakers that he remains the right person to carry out Trump Administration plans to improve the quality of care at the VA.

“I’ve pubilcly acknowledged that the distraction that has happened is something I deeply regret,” Shulkin told a House panel on Thursday, as the first question at a budget hearing was about persistent news reports of palace intrigue at the VA.

“I do feel that I have to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who pressed Shulkin on reports that Shulkin’s own staffers were at times pitted against him in a fight with the White House over private care for veterans.

“I’ve come here for one reason, and that’s to improve the lives of veterans,” Shulkin said, saying ‘others’ were more interested in playing politics than getting the job done.

Both before the hearing on Capitol Hill – and after – Shulkin refused to answer questions from reporters about his future in the job.

When the question was posed to the White House a few hours later, there was not a direct answer on the VA Secretary’s job security.

“I don’t have any personnel announcements,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as she stressed that the Trump Administration was looking for the right mix of people and policies at the VA.

For much of the President’s first year in office, Mr. Trump was a very public fan of Shulkin, and his efforts to foster change at the VA.

“I’d like to begin by thanking Secretary David Shulkin for the incredible progress that he’s making at the VA, tremendous strides,” the President said in August of 2017 at a veterans event in the White House.

But in recent months behind the scenes, Shulkin – who was a top holdover from the Obama Administration – has been in a pitched battle with officials at the VA, even reportedly fighting with his chief spokesman, mainly over the direction that the VA should go in how much health care for veterans should be shifted away from VA facilities and to private doctors, what’s known as Veterans Choice.

Add to that, an internal watchdog report criticized Shulkin for how he got the VA to pick up some of the travel costs of his wife, who joined Shulkin on a 10-day government trip to Europe last summer.

The inspector general report also found that Shulkin wrongly accepted a gift of tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament, that a VA employee was basically used by Shulkin as a “personal travel concierge to plan tourist activities,” and that not enough documents were ever turned over to investigators to figure out the true cost of the trip to the VA.

In a mid-February hearing, Shulkin defended the trip but admitted, “I do recognize the optics of this are not good.”

For now, Shulkin is still the Veterans Secretary – but there wasn’t much in the way of a public vote of confidence in him from the White House in recent days.

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After new round of Russia sanctions, Congress presses Trump for more

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2018 @ 10:51 AM

While praising the Trump Administration’s move on Thursday to impose sanctions on 19 Russians who have been accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections, lawmakers in both parties said President Donald Trump needs to do even more to punish Moscow for election meddling, mainly to send a message that no type of repeat in the 2018 mid-term elections will be tolerated by the United States.

“We need to do more,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). “Interference in our elections and active measures to sow divisions and chaos inside our country must be met with swift and severe consequences.

The list of those targeted included the Internet Research Agency – the Russian troll farm included in a recent indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into 2016 election meddling.

“Today’s sanctions are welcome news,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who echoed Rubio in argued that the U.S. must show that election meddling is “unacceptable and will have consequences.”

“But more must be done,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as GOP leaders publicly said they were not pleased by the delay in issuing these new sanctions, over a month after a deadline which had been set by Congress.

“I have long argued Vladimir Putin is not – and has never been – America’s friend,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Those Republican voices were joined by Democrats, who also argued that the White House has only done the bare minimum when it comes to Russia.

“Trump may regard Mueller’s investigation as a hoax, but these sanctions show his own Treasury Department disagrees,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), referring to the Special Counsel’s probe, part of which is looking into any links between Russia and the Trump Campaign in 2016.

“With the midterm elections fast approaching, the Administration needs to step it up, now, if we have any hope of deterring Russian meddling in 2018,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), making the case for more economic penalties on Moscow.

The announcement of the new sanctions by the Treasury Department also came as the United States joined with British officials to condemn the attack on an ex-Russian spy with the use of nerve agent.

In the Oval Office, President Trump made his first public comment tying that attack to Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that a Russian government hacking operation had been targeting smaller U.S. companies in a variety of areas by using spear-phishing attacks, going after businesses in the water, aviation, construction, manufacturing and nuclear sectors.

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