As Nate looms, cost of federal hurricane disaster relief grows

Published: Thursday, October 05, 2017 @ 9:04 PM

While President Donald Trump said this week that disaster aid efforts in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria were “throwing our budget a little of whack,” the reality is that the relief numbers are quickly growing overall as the feds help deliver aid to those hit hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, with Tropical Storm Nate now possibly ready to take aim at the Gulf Coast as well.

The White House on Wednesday sent Congress a $29 billion request for extra disaster relief funds, which GOP leaders say will be voted on in the House next week, as the Trump Administration acknowledged the cost is not small change.

“The Federal Government alone is obligating close to $200 million per day for
recovery activities,” White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney wrote in a letter to Congressional leaders, as he asked for almost $13 billion to go into FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.

But even as that was landing in the lap of lawmakers, leading elected officials in Texas asked the Congress to add in another $18.7 billion – just to deal with the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Lone Star State.

“Texas greatly appreciates the appropriations committees’ efforts to swiftly provide funds,” the Governor, both Senators and most lawmakers from the Texas Congressional delegation wrote in a joint letter.

“However, in light of the unprecedented damage from Hurricane Harvey and the historically epochal flooding of Houston, Beaumont and surrounding regions, we all recognize that the funding already appropriated is a small fraction of the federal resources needed to help rebuild Texas and reinvigorate the American economy,” they added.

The Texas-specific disaster aid request is for:

+ $10 billion to repair and rehab U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects, and damage to ports in the Lone Star State.

+ $7 billion for Community Development Block Grants, though the letter noted that Texas really needs “over $40 billion” in those funds.

+ $800 million in emergency aid to educational institutions.

+ $450 million in small business disaster loans.

+ $300 million in Economic Development Administration grants.

+ $150 million in money to help repair damaged infrastructure.

While the almost $19 billion request from the state of Texas might seem to be a lot of money, Governor Greg Abbott said a month ago that he felt his state would need more than $100 billion in aid from Uncle Sam.

While Republicans pressed the need for offsetting budget cuts to pay for disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, no such plans have been put forward this year by either the Trump Administration or GOP lawmakers in Congress.

That means – and this has been standard procedure for disaster aid – that the final tab is simply added to the federal deficit.

White House officials have made clear that the $29 billion request – which could be changed by the Congress – probably won’t be the last in 2017.

“It can take up to 90 days after a major hurricane to finalize recovery cost estimates, and the Administration is committed to properly quantifying the costs of the necessary permanent repair work as quickly as possible,” the White House budget chief wrote.

As for the aftermath of Maria, Vice President Mike Pence will be in Puerto Rico on Friday to review disaster relief efforts there.

Pence told an audience in Florida on Thursday evening that the Trump Administration will do all it can to help those hit by Hurricane Maria.

“Our message will be simple, we are with you, we stand with you and we will be with you every step of the way,” Pence said.

“This will be a long process, and this next round of funds certainly won’t be all that is needed,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

And that will cost billions as well.

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Digging into the details of the Democratic memo on Russia probe

Published: Sunday, February 25, 2018 @ 2:12 AM

President Donald Trump lobbed verbal barbs at his critics in Congress on Saturday night, blasting a rebuttal intelligence memo issued by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Democrats said the new details showed the FBI had done nothing wrong in its probe of Russian influence that had tentacles reaching to people in Mr. Trump’s orbit.

“FBI and DOJ officials did not “abuse” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign,” the Democratic memo states.

Republicans had the exact opposite view, both parties as both sides made claims and counter charges about what was in – or not in the memo – on the Russia probe.

Let’s look a little further into the details.

1. Trump says Democratic memo proves no collusion. On Twitter, and in a telephone call to Fox News on Saturday evening, it didn’t take long for the President to make clear a familiar refrain, that the Democratic intelligence review had nothing in it to worry him, as he again claimed that the FBI had engaged in biased actions in the investigation related to the Russia probe. “The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!” But on the actions of the FBI, the Democratic details seemed to paint a different picture from the President’s declaration.

2. First, take a few minutes to read the Democratic memo. Don’t take anyone’s word for what’s in the 10 page rebuttal from the House Intelligence Committee minority members, go ahead and read it yourself. The bottom line from the Democrats was simple, the FBI did nothing wrong, and the Republicans had put out a memo that didn’t tell the full story. “After reviewing the memorandum drafted by committee Republicans that was made public at the beginning of this month, the FBI rightly expressed its ‘grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,'” Democrats stated, as they countered that the FBI did nothing wrong in the investigation of former Trump Campaign adviser Carter Page. It was a much different review than what came from the GOP side. Also, here is a link to the GOP response.

3. Democrats reinforce the time line of the GOP memo. When it comes to actions of former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele – the author of the much ballyhooed Steele Dossier about Russian links to President Trump, it remains clear that whatever information Steele provided to the FBI, that “dossier” material was not what started the investigation by the FBI. As the Republican memo stated – and the Democratic memo repeats – the overall Russia counterintelligence investigation began at the end of July 2016 following information obtained from Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, with a FISA warrant being sought against one time adviser Carter Page only after he left the Trump Campaign.

4. What did the FBI tell the FISA court about Christopher Steele? In the GOP memo, Republicans said the FBI never revealed that Steele was being paid for opposition research by a law firm with direct ties to the Democratic National Committee and therefore basically by Hillary Clinton’s campaign – making the charge that political machinations had caused the investigation of Carter Page. “Mr. Schiff’s memo does not disprove that politically funded documents were used as evidence in court,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH). But the Democratic memo does give much more context about what the court was told with regards to Steele, saying that his research had been ‘commissioned by “political actors” to ‘obtain derogatory information on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.'”

5. There was much more going on than the FISA on Carter Page. While no one knows for sure what was redacted in this Democratic memo, it’s obvious from the blacked out portions in relation to Carter Page that Page had long been on the radar of U.S. Intelligence, well before President Trump’s campaign began in 2015. Democrats say that the FISA surveillance of Page – who had already left the Trump Campaign when it was approved in October of 2016 – netted other important intelligence for the FBI. “The Court-approved surveillance of Page allowed FBI to collect valuable intelligence,” the Democratic memo states. What that was, isn’t clear – but the FISA surveillance was approved three additional times by the FISA court.

6. An active Russia probe vs the Clinton emails. When you think back about what the FBI was doing in the headlines in the weeks before November of 2016, most of the attention was on the Hillary Clinton email investigation, as then FBI Director James Comey dramatically re-opened the Clinton probe in late October, roiling the campaign. But as pieces of the Mueller investigation and this Democratic memo demonstrate, the FBI at the same time was actively investigating seemingly as many as four people with ties to the Trump Campaign – before the election. As I look back on my stories from the last six weeks of the campaign, Russia was not what the FBI was publicly focused upon. It raises some interesting questions.

7. No matter the dueling memos, the probe continues. While issuing public memos from each party on the House Intelligence Committee is not exactly the way that you probably want to conduct a Congressional investigation, it’s obvious that much more consequential work on Russian interference into the 2016 election continues on both the Senate Intelligence Committee, and in the Special Counsel’s office. And there is still a review of how the matter was run by the FBI, undertaken by the Inspector General of the Justice Department. Publicly, we know of three guilty pleas as part of plea bargains involving members of the Trump Campaign. In federal court here in D.C., there are a number of sealed criminal cases which were filed about the same time as other actions by the Special Counsel. Are those cases related to this investigation? That’s not clear. But the story isn’t done.

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House Democrats release rebuttal intelligence memo on Russia probe

Published: Saturday, February 24, 2018 @ 12:38 PM

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on Saturday released their redacted response to a Republican memo on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as Democrats charged that the GOP omitted numerous details about the FBI’s probe during the campaign for the White House.

“FBI and DOJ officials did not “abuse” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign,” the Democratic memo states.

“The FBI supplied information to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that Russia might be colluding with Trump campaign associates,” Democrats said in a press statement announcing the release of the memo, which had been held back earlier this month after the White House raised questions about details included in the ten page memo.

“Some time ago, Republicans on our committee released a declassified memo that omitted and distorted key facts in order to mislead the public and impugn the integrity of the FBI,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel.

“We can now tell you what they left out,” Schiff added.

Democrats said their rebuttal “should put to rest any concerns that the American people might have as to the conduct of the FBI, the Justice Department and the FISC,” as they said the evidence “failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement.”

Democrats not only countered that, but raised questions about the testimony of one-time Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who was the focus of the original Republican memo, as the GOP raised questions about how surveillance had been approved of Page.

Democrats said the answer was not the information supplied by ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.

Some portions of the document on those points were blacked out, or redacted.

You can read the full Democratic memo at this link.

Democrats also released a fact sheet to go with the memo.

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Outlook unclear at best in Congress as Trump pushes for actions to deter school shootings

Published: Saturday, February 24, 2018 @ 4:11 AM

In the wake of the recent mass shooting at a Florida high school, President Donald Trump on Saturday signaled again that he wants changes in background checks for those people who are buying firearms, as he emphasized his call for Congress to make a series of reforms to gun-related laws, also urging state and local officials to do more to toughen security at their schools.

“Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue – I hope!,” the President tweeted.

White House officials said Mr. Trump would again press his call for action on issues of school safety in coming days as he meets with the nation’s Governors, many of whom will be in Washington, D.C. for their yearly legislative conference.

But the question remains – what will the Congress do? Or what can Congress do?

1. Some details still murky on what the President wants to do. While the President has a ready list of items on which he is asking for action in the Congress, the exact details will determine how the Congress reacts. For example, Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he wants ‘comprehensive background checks with an emphasis on mental health’ – how that is structured is an extremely important point. While it may sound completely logical that someone who has mental issues should not be able to buy weapons, those details are not easily fleshed out.  While he has talked repeatedly about background checks, the President has never addressed the issue of private gun sales – what is sometimes referred to as the ‘gun show loophole’ – which is something members in both parties have talked about dealing with for several years.   At a Friday news conference with the Prime Minister of Australia, here’s how the President set out what he wants accomplished:

2. The push for the “Fix NICS” bill. Even before the Florida school shooting, there was a bipartisan effort to make some changes to ensure that more information is funneled into the background check system for gun buyers, whether it’s on mental health, or military charges which would disqualify someone who wants to buy a firearm. The House already passed the “Fix NICS” bill – but it was combined with another measure that approved a national “Concealed Carry” effort, which would allow anyone with a legal permit to carry a concealed weapon to do that in any state – even if that state has different laws and regulations governing such conduct. While that combination was approved by the House, it seems doomed in the Senate, and it is one reason that some lawmakers are now pressing for action on just the “Fix NICS” plan, which the President has endorsed.

3. How much would the Congress really do under Trump’s plans? This is a question that’s up for debate. Think of the President’s call for certain teachers or administrators to carry concealed weapons at schools – that seems more of a state and local matter than something which would be legislated by the Congress. Increasing security measures at schools – the Congress could deliver aid, but the idea of approving new spending is not exactly a popular item with some Republicans right now in the House and Senate. Changing the age of purchase for certain weapons like an AR-15 might sound attractive to some, but that is guaranteed to be controversial as well in Congress – especially when states might be able to take that same step on their own. The “gun violence restraining order” is another idea that’s popped up as a way to keep the mentally ill from access to firearms – but is that better done by state legislatures instead of the Congress?

4. There has been some movement in Congress – but not much. Yes, we have examples of members of Congress who have changed their position on certain gun issues, but by no means has there been an upheaval on Capitol Hill in the wake of the Florida school shooting, just like there was no major change after past school shootings. Yes, the President has talked to House and Senate leaders about the gun issue – but don’t expect gun legislation to be on the floor next week or anything. Here is one GOP lawmaker who said he wants to revisit that ban – but that’s just one.

5. The outlook for the short-term – more of the same. While the Florida school shooting has energized younger Americans and their call for action, there is no sense that Republicans are about to dramatically change course on guns. As someone who has covered the gun debates since the 1980’s in Congress, the House and Senate right now have large majorities in favor of gun rights – and it has been that way since Democrats pushed through the Brady law and an assault weapons ban back in the early 1990’s. Change could always happen – but as of now, it’s hard to see that occurring in 2018.

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Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleads guilty in Mueller investigation

Published: Friday, February 23, 2018 @ 2:39 PM
Updated: Friday, February 23, 2018 @ 2:53 PM

What You Need To Know: Rick Gates

Rick Gates, a former aide in President Donald Trump's campaign, pleaded guilty to making false statements and conspiring against the United States on Friday, making him the fifth person to enter a guilty plea in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

READ MORE: Paul Manafort, Rick Gates face new charges: report | Mueller investigation: Lawyer pleads guilty to lying to investigators in Russia probeWho is Rick Gates and why was he indicted by Robert Mueller?Who is Paul Manafort, the man indicted in Robert Mueller’s Russian investigation?What are Paul Manafort and Rick Gates charged with?MORE

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