Takeaways from the first hearing in Congress on election meddling by Russia

Published: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 3:45 PM
Updated: Monday, March 20, 2017 @ 3:45 PM

The House Intelligence Committee held the first public hearing on questions involving actions taken by Russia to interfere with the 2016 elections in the United States, as both parties used starkly different strategies as they asked questions of the heads of the FBI and National Security Agency about that probe.

Here are some of the highlights:

1. FBI confirms Trump-Russia investigation for the first time. Many had long assumed that the FBI was investigating meddling by Russia in the 2016 U.S. elections, but today was the first time that it had been publicly announced by the FBI Director. “Our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations,” Comey said. But the FBI Director said that he had been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm that the U.S. does have a counter intelligence probe of Russia. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and the Russian Government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Comey added.

2. FBI and NSA reject Trump “wiretap” tweets. Adding their voices to those of top members in both parties on the House and Senate Intelligence committees, both FBI Director Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, said that they had found no evidence to support the March 4 tweets of President Trump, which charged that he had been subjected to wiretaps by President Obama. “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Director Comey told lawmakers. There was no ambiguity involved.

3. The White House doesn’t back down on Trump “wiretap” tweets. Just a few hours after the FBI Director bluntly said there was no evidence to back up Mr. Trump’s charge that he was wiretapped during the Obama Administration, the Trump White House refused to back down from the charge. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said there was still time for more information to come out from the investigations of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, so there was no reason to say the President had been wrong in making that claim.

4. Republicans focus not on Russia but on leaks. Republicans used most of their time in this first public hearing to zero in on who leaked information about top Trump aide Michael Flynn, and his conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the United States. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) pressed the heads of the NSA and FBI repeatedly on who knew about incidental collection of Flynn’s phone calls, and who might have leaked them, naming a number of Obama Administration officials as possible suspects. The White House then used that hearing exchange to seemingly make the case that former President Obama might even have been the source of the information. It was another new theory from the White House – that did not seem to have any evidence behind it.

5. One Republican drills down into Russia efforts. While many of her colleagues focused on leaks, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) – who did not support President Trump during the election campaign – pushed for examples from the FBI and NSA on what the Russians actually did to upset the U.S. elections, and how it was different from the past. “We never saw in previous Presidential elections information being published on such a massive scale that had been illegally removed,” said the NSA chief. FBI Director Comey said it was almost like the Russians didn’t care if their actions were uncovered. “They were unusually loud,” Comey said, labeling the Russian intrusions, “very noisy.”

6. Comey admits the FBI kept Congress in the dark. In his testimony, FBI Director Comey said the counter intelligence investigation into Russian election meddling began back in July, but that Congressional leaders were not told of it before the elections – or even immediately after Election Day. “Why was the decision made not to brief senior Congressional leadership until recently,” asked Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). “Why was that decision made to wait months?” Comey said it was because of the “sensitivity of the matter.” Asked who made that decision, Comey indicated it would have been made by the head of the FBI Counter Intelligence division.

7. Republicans grumble about Comey’s “no comments.” Members of both parties tried repeatedly to get Comey to respond to hypothetical questions that might shed some light on the investigation, but didn’t get far. “I’m not going to answer,” Comey said. “I’m not going to comment,” he said when asked about a number of different people that Democrats wanted to talk about. Rebuffed a number of times in a quest for information, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) bluntly told the FBI chief that his reluctance to discuss the probe was only helping Moscow, by putting a cloud over U.S. democracy.

8. Democrats use the hearing to lay out broader questions. While Democrats did go after the Russia-meddling matter with much more direct gusto, they also had clearly decided to use this hearing to put a number of matters on the table, to make sure they were aired to a broader audience. For example, the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), used a chunk of his opening statement to refer to matters in the ‘Steele Dossier,” which emerged just before the election, a document that some had said was all false. But the fact that it received more attention today made others wonder whether parts of it had been verified along the way.

9. Not just the Trump tweets, but the British Intel story as well. Not only did today’s witnesses completely reject President Trump’s assertion that he was wiretapped in 2016, but the head of the National Security Agency also ridiculed the story – promoted last week by the White House – that British Intelligence had been used by the Obama Administration to wrongly monitor Trump Tower as well. Asked directly if the NSA had asked the British GCHQ to monitor Trump, Admiral Mike Rogers did not mince words. “No sir,” Rogers said. “Nor would I.” Rogers went on to say that agreed with other assessments that such a plan would be “ridiculous.”

10. Another finger pointed at Wikileaks. While U.S. Intelligence has never publicly spelled out why it feels that Wikileaks is directly connected to Russia, there was no doubt left today that the FBI Director and others fully believe there is a link. Asked how leaked emails and more were delivered to Wikileaks, FBI Director Comey said there was an intermediary, a “cut-out” as he described it, to send information to the website, which many U.S. officials believe is nothing more than a front for Russian Intelligence. Still, others will rightfully point out that no direct links have been shown – but there is a lot of smoke.

Donald Trump stares at sun during solar eclipse, sans protective glasses

Published: Monday, August 21, 2017 @ 5:15 PM

President Donald Trump points to the sun as he arrives to view the solar eclipse, Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik/AP
President Donald Trump points to the sun as he arrives to view the solar eclipse, Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)(Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Donald Trump ignored the advice of optometrists and scientists nationwide Monday when he squinted to look up at the sun during the 2017 solar eclipse.

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The president and first lady Melania Trump took in the eclipse with their son, Barron, on the White House’s Truman Balcony. 

The trio wore protective glasses, though Trump took his pair off long enough to squint up at the sky.

“Don’t look,” a staffer shouted as Trump grimaced, pointing toward the sun above, The Hill reported.

NASA officials and doctors warned people in the run-up to Monday’s eclipse to wear certified eclipse-viewing glasses or to take other safety precautions. Those who viewed the eclipse without glasses ran the risk of damaging their vision, including possible blindness.

Although Trump only looked at the sun protection-free for a short period of time, it didn’t slip past social media users, who quickly shared their incredulity at the president’s decision.

Most Stunning Moments From The Total Eclipse

See updates from the solar eclipse, as they happened:

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Trump to outline new strategy for Afghanistan

Published: Monday, August 21, 2017 @ 2:30 PM
Updated: Monday, August 21, 2017 @ 2:30 PM


            Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford speaks to members of his staff aboard his plane as it departs Fort Greely, Alaska, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, to travel to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. President Donald Trump is “studying and considering his options” for a new approach to Afghanistan and the broader South Asia region, the White House said Friday. Gen. Joseph Votel, the Central Command chief who is responsible for U.S. military operations in the greater Middle East, including Afghanistan said that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Dunford represent him in the White House-led Afghanistan strategy review. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
            Andrew Harnik
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford speaks to members of his staff aboard his plane as it departs Fort Greely, Alaska, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, to travel to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. President Donald Trump is “studying and considering his options” for a new approach to Afghanistan and the broader South Asia region, the White House said Friday. Gen. Joseph Votel, the Central Command chief who is responsible for U.S. military operations in the greater Middle East, including Afghanistan said that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Dunford represent him in the White House-led Afghanistan strategy review. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)(Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump, who has voiced deep doubts in the past about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, is expected to announce this evening that he will send as many as 4,000 additional soldiers to help stabilize the Kabul government which has been under siege from Taliban insurgents.

In a speech scheduled to be delivered at 9 p.m. at Fort Myer across the Potomac River from Washington, Trump will outline a fresh approach to prevail in Afghanistan, a goal that has eluded his two immediate predecessors – Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

RELATED: Kasich: ‘Not the way I would go’

Trump’s decision to add to the 8,400 American troops in the war-torn country follows a lengthy internal debate in his administration as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have pressed for a more aggressive approach.

The American reinforcements are expected help improve the efficiency of Afghanistan’s national army.

But the decision is controversial as many Americans are weary of the prolonged 16-year conflict, in which more than 2,300 American soldiers have been killed in action. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction this summer reported the U.S. has spent $714 billion for both combat operations and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

The same report showed that nearly 60 percent of the districts in Afghanistan are under government control. But the Afghan Army has been unable to seize the nearly 40 percent of the land controlled by the Taliban, which has sponsored a bloody insurgency against the government.

For Trump, the move is an abrupt reversal of his past criticism of the war. In 2012 he tweeted that “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”

RELATED: Trump hedges as military pitches more aggressive strategy

But Trump has surrounded himself with military advisers who have urged a more aggressive effort to reverse the deterioration in Afghanistan. Testifying last June before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis bluntly acknowledged the U.S is “not winning in Afghanistan right now and we will correct this as soon as possible.”

A number of Democrats have voiced opposition to increasing the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and they were joined Sunday by Republican Gov. John Kasich who said “we need to begin to leave there.”

In an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Kasich said “we can reserve the opportunity to use intelligence to be able to strike any of these training camps, any of these places where our intelligence community begins to think that they’re now building a base and a launching pad that would be harmful to us and our allies.”

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. and British forces on Oct. 8, 2001, launched a wave of cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan believed to be training bases for al-Qaeda terrorists which organized the attacks which destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

RELATED: Trump studying options for new approach to Afghan war

“We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail,” Bush told the nation that night in a seven-minute speech from the White House.

Although U.S. forces and their Afghan allies quickly toppled the Taliban government in Kabul which had supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban was able to survive in western Afghanistan and launch an insurgency.

U.S. forces peaked at more than 100,000 in 2010 in Afghanistan before Obama began removing American troops to less than 10,000 by 2014.

How times have changed – Reagan vs Trump on major tax reform

Published: Monday, August 21, 2017 @ 5:08 AM

As Republicans talk about the need to act on major tax reform, the preparation for that mammoth undertaking pales in comparison to the last effort during the Reagan Administration, an exercise that took time to first develop legislative proposals, and then to wind their way through the House and Senate, as the bill experienced several near-death experiences before finally achieving victory in the fall of 1986.

Here are some thoughts on the differences between 1986 and 2017.

1. Reagan vs Trump – 489 pages vs 1. The White House efforts on tax reform were much different when you look at President Ronald Reagan, who called for tax reform in his 1984 State of the Union Address. By November of 1984, the Treasury Department had finished a comprehensive study of different ideas on tax reform, and presented that to Mr. Reagan. In late May of 1985, the President spoke to the nation from the Oval Office, as he sent Congress a 489 page document, “The President’s Tax Proposals to the Congress for Fairness, Growth and Simplicity.” While President Trump mentioned tax reform in his first speech to a joint session of Congress back in February, the only thing produced so far by the Trump Administration is one page of bullet points on what he hopes to achieve with tax reform. Read through the Reagan document linked above – it is filled with excessive amounts of detail on what the President’s proposal would change, and the impact. None of that is available on even the limited goals of the Trump tax reform plan.

2. Treasury 1986 vs Treasury 2017. President Reagan had two main figures serve as Treasury Secretary during the development and passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. One was Don Regan, who left Treasury to take the job as White House Chief of Staff, trading positions with James Baker, as Baker took over the Treasury post for the drive to enact tax reform into law. Baker was a political operative who had worked for Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, while Regan was a Wall Street chieftain brought on by Reagan to serve in his administration. While you could maybe equate Regan to Trump Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin – because of their Wall Street backgrounds – Mnuchin has yet to prove that he belongs in the same sentence as Regan, who went on to become White House Chief of Staff to Reagan. Mnuchin predicted earlier this year that tax reform would be done by August. Reporters in the Capitol chuckled at the legislative innocence of that prediction.

3. Congress 1986 vs Congress 2017. Just as we can compare the players in the administration, we can look at the rosters in Congress to see what might happen on tax reform. There were some big names involved in 1986 – Rostenkowski, Packwood, Tip, and Dole. Those are four major players in the modern history of Congress. Of the 2017 roster of Brady, Hatch, Ryan and McConnell, maybe only Mitch McConnell would be considered an equal of those 1986 lawmakers. When Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady emerges from H-208 in the Capitol, he is a jovial fellow, but he isn’t the old bull that Dan Rostenkowski was at the time of the 1986 tax bill. Maybe in 20 years, Speaker Paul Ryan will be an equal of former Speaker Tip O’Neill. This battle over taxes could go a long way to establishing reputations of these key GOP lawmakers.

4. Much more bipartisanship in 1986 than in 2017. One thing that is certainly hampering tax reform efforts this time around is how things have changed politically in the Congress. Back in 1986, tax reform was done with a big bipartisan effort. The final bill received 292 votes in the House and 74 in the Senate. That seems highly unlikely this time around, as it simply wouldn’t be acceptable to large blocks of voters in either party to have a bipartisan bill (even though it should be the goal). I talked with the son of a former big name GOP Congressman the other day, who lamented the vice that politicians are in nowadays, as he argued they don’t have the political leeway back home to make a bipartisan tax deal work. I’m not sure I agree with that. I still think experience is a big deal, and most Republicans have never been in this position on a major issue like tax reform. We just saw the difficulties that the GOP encountered with health care. Stay tuned.

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5. This is far bigger than the fight over health care. I cannot stress this enough. Yes, we had some well-heeled lobbyists involved in the health care fight. But it will go to another level when we get on to tax reform. 1100 Longworth and H-208 are room numbers that mean something very important in the context of the House of Representatives, and those rooms will be two very powerful destinations for lobbyists who want to impact the course of tax reform in coming months. Back in 1986, they called it “Gucci Gulch,” and reporter Jeff Birnbaum wrote a book about it, which is still important reading today.

So, when you hear Republicans talk about tax reform, focus on one thing for now – when will see a real bill? Once that happens, then we can talk about actually passing legislation through the House and Senate, and getting that to the President’s desk.

Before the first vote can be taken, Republicans also to figure out if they are doing tax reform via budget reconciliation (no filibuster in the Senate) or by the regular legislative process, where a filibuster is possible.

A lot of work remains to be done – it seems unlikely that will happen before the end of 2017, but stay tuned.

Trump calls efforts to remove Confederate monuments 'so foolish'

Published: Thursday, August 17, 2017 @ 9:48 AM

WATCH: Protesters Topple Confederate Statue In North Carolina

President Donald Trump on Thursday again criticized recent decisions to remove Confederate monuments across the country, calling the moves “so foolish” and the monuments irreplaceable.

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“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump wrote in the first of a series of tweets. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.”

He echoed comments he made at a fiery news conference in New York earlier this week, in which he wondered whether monuments remembering former presidents George Washington or Thomas Jefferson would be next to fall.

>> Related: Trump again blames ‘both sides’ for violence in Charlottesville 

“The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” the president wrote.

His comments came amid continued criticism from across the political spectrum over his insistence that “both sides” were to blame for deadly, racially-charged violence that took place over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.

>> Related: Heather Heyer's parents preach love, action after daughter's death: 'You just magnified her'

Police said 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed Saturday during a counterprotest of a rally organized by white supremacists. The rally was aimed at protesting the removal of a Confederate statue from the city’s Emancipation Park.

Authorities arrested James Alex Fields Jr., 20, on charges including second-degree murder and malicious wounding in connection with Heyer’s death. Police said he slammed a car into two stopped vehicles and rammed counterprotesters. Fields, from Ohio, participated in the rally and was described by a former high school teacher as a fan of Adolf Hitler.

Watch - President Trump Says "Blame on Both Sides, I Wait for Facts"