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.

Ohio’s Senators tour Wright-Patt as budget pressures mount

Published: Friday, March 24, 2017 @ 7:08 PM

Ohio’s two U.S. senators say a federal government shut down is unlikely next month, but added the prospect of keeping spending levels at last year’s rate could stay in place beyond a late April deadline to reach a budget deal.

Five U.S. senators, including Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, were joined by John Boozman, R-Ark., and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on a tour Friday of Wright-Patterson.

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Brown said he has lobbied newly installed Secretary of Defense James Mattis to open a Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental at the base. Portman said Wright-Patterson would likely fare well if the Pentagon pushed a new round of base consolidation because of its key headquarters and critical Air Force functions.

Brown, co-chairman with Boozman of the Senate Air Force Caucus, said he wanted to emphasize the work Wright-Patterson does for national security to key lawmakers who make decisions impacting the military.

“Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in my mind it’s the most important Air Force Base in the country,” he said at a press conference on base with Portman and Boozman.

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In Washington, lawmakers are trying to reach a spending deal to avoid a partial federal government shutdown April 28, when the latest stop-gap measure — called a continuing resolution — expires. At the same time, the Pentagon has grappled with automatic spending reductions under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

President Donald Trump’s administration has asked Congress for an additional $30 billion for a $576 billion base budget the fiscal year 2017 defense spending bill, but the request faces uncertain prospects among lawmakers.

More uncertain is the fate of a fiscal year 2018 defense bill that would hike spending $54 billion to a top line of $639 billion, but would make sharp cuts elsewhere, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the State Department. The proposal has drawn outcries among many Democrats and others.

“I think overall on budget issues I heard for the first time from some House people recently that we may limp along with continuing resolutions into the next year,” Brown said. “I hope not. I hope we can find ways to work together to figure this out. Some days I’m optimistic, some days I’m less optimistic.”

While Portman didn’t expect a shut down, he said “it’s so early it’s hard to tell. I don’t think it benefits anybody.”

The last federal government shut down sent thousands of workers home at Wright-Patterson in 2013.

Reaching a budget deal is “really frustrating,” Boozman said. The Arkansas senator decried the amount of time spent in the past decade that the federal government has operated under continuing resolutions, which cap spending levels to the previous year.

The Air Force has warned the stop-gap spending could delay the start of dozens of programs.

Extending that spending measure “would be a huge mistake and wind up costing us significantly more money because you’re having to fund programs whether they work or not,” Boozman said. “It makes no sense at all.”

Among other stops Friday, the senators and their staffs received classified briefings at the secretive National Air and Space Intelligence Center, reviewed technology created at the Air Force Research Laboratory, and learned about post-graduate national security-related education at the Air Force Institute of Technology. They also stopped at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which develops and buys weapon systems.

“It’s one thing to look at it on a balance sheet, it’s another to look at it up close and personal,” said Boozman, whose state is home to Little Rock Air Force Base.

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Infowars' Alex Jones apologizes for spreading fake 'Pizzagate' story

Published: Sunday, March 26, 2017 @ 2:23 AM

Infowars' Alex Jones apologizes for spreading fake 'Pizzagate' story

Alex Jones on Friday apologized to the owner of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria for spreading the fake story last year that linked the restaurant to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and human trafficking.

Jones, as the Austin, Texas-based host of Infowars.com, has a long history of pushing wild and false conspiracy theories, such as claiming that the U.S. government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks or the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax.

But in a rare backtracking mea culpa, Jones apologized for his role in promoting the baseless “Pizzagate” story that went viral among right-wing bloggers and media sites during the 2016 presidential campaign.

>> Watch the clip here

The gist of the fake story accused Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta, of running a child sex abuse ring through the Comet Ping Pong restaurant owned by James Alefantis. Podesta’s comments about the pizzeria — made in Democratic Party emails exposed by WikiLeaks — became fodder for fake news web portals as well as popular user-generated content sites like Reddit and 4chan.

Jones, in a statement he read aloud for his online audience, tried to put some distance between himself and the fake story and blamed “scores of media outlets,” “third-party accounts of alleged activities” and “accounts of (Infowars) reporters who are no longer with us” for the “incorrect narrative” he discussed several times on his program.

>> Read more trending news

“In our commentary about what had become known as Pizzagate, I made comments about Mr. Alefantis that in hindsight I regret, and for which I apologize to him,” Jones said.

In language that was clearly sculpted by a legal mind hoping to avoid possible litigation, Jones added: “To my knowledge today, neither Mr. Alefantis nor his restaurant Comet Ping Pong, were involved in any human trafficking as was part of the theories about Pizzagate.”

For many people, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory became part of the mainstream political discussion only in December, after 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of North Carolina reportedly brought a gun into a Comet Ping Pong packed with customers, and pointed it at an employee in hopes of finding proof of “Pizzagate.”

Welch surrendered to police when he found no evidence that children were being harbored there, D.C. police said at the time. He pleaded guilty to weapons and assault charges Friday, CNN reported.

Miffed neighbors say Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner have 'ruined the neighborhood'

Published: Sunday, March 26, 2017 @ 1:36 AM

Neighbors of first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, held a meeting last week to complain that the new arrivals in D.C. weren’t doing their part to make things livable for others in the neighborhood.

Even though former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama live a short distance away, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also lives nearby, neighbors recently complained about the Trump and Kushner household at a recent meeting. Among those reportedly in attendance was Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.

>> Read more trending news

Problems ranging from lack of parking near their home and improper trash removal have neighbors up in arms.

“They’ve completely ruined the neighborhood,” one neighbor told The Associated Press. Another noted that some of the ire may be due to the couple’s politics. 

Trump has been made aware of the issues, although she didn’t directly reference them in a statement to the AP.

“We love the neighborhood, and our family has received an incredibly gracious welcome from our neighbors," she said in the statement.

Gym owner Anne Mulhman requested a private meeting with Trump after she discovered she had attended one of her SolidCore workout classes. Muhlman wrote a note to other members saying that Trump's father was “threatening the rights of many of my beloved clients and coaches.” She later apologized for her comments.

Health bill pulled in stunning defeat for GOP

Published: Friday, March 24, 2017 @ 11:07 AM

Faced with an intransigent group of conservative Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan on Friday abandoned GOP dreams of scrapping the health law signed by President Barack Obama and there appeared little chance that the effort will soon be revived.

With moderate Republicans blaming about 30 conservatives known as the Freedom Caucus for scuttling the bill, House GOP leaders faced the grim reality that they will not keep their seven-year promise to repeal the 2010 law known as Obamacare.

It marked a stunning defeat for Ryan and President Donald Trump.

“I will not sugarcoat this,” Ryan said after deciding to end efforts to overhaul the nation’s health care system. “This is a disappointing day for us. Doing big things is hard.”

But in a hint of his frustration with GOP conservatives such as Rep. Jim Jordan of Urbana, Ryan said, “Ultimately this all kind of comes down to a choice: Are all of us willing to give a little to get something done? Are we willing to say yes to the good, to the very good, even if it’s not the perfect?”

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Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, said the focus now will be on fixing the existing health law.

“I think we lost an opportunity here to reach out to moderate Democrats and say what can we do to get your votes? And I believe that is and should be something we try to do and start to do,” Stivers said. “Because in some cases, their votes are easier to get then some of the members of our Freedom Caucus.”

Overhauling Obamacare was never going to be easy. Even though Republicans control the House by a margin of 237 to 193, Ryan needed the support of Jordan and his conservative allies to pass the bill. And it quickly became apparent that while Jordan wanted to scrap Obamacare, he sharply opposed the GOP alternative as well.

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Things started to quickly unravel. As Ryan appeased the conservatives with concessions, he began losing the votes of moderate Republicans such as Rep. David Joyce, a University of Dayton graduate who lives in Russell Twp. in Geauga County. At one point, a GOP source said, as many as 47 Republicans opposed the bill.

Polls showing just 17 percent of the American public favored the House GOP bill didn’t help either. In essence, Ryan and Trump were asking Republican House members to support a measure most of their constituents were unhappy with.

After the bill was scrapped, Jordan said repealing Obamacare “remains one of my top priorities.” But Ryan made it clear that the 2010 law will remain in effect, impervious to GOP efforts to scrap it.

“There is a bloc of ‘no’ votes that we had; that is why this didn’t pass,” said Ryan, who graduated from Miami University in Ohio. “There were a sufficient number of members that prevented it from passing and they didn’t change their votes.”

The decision to pull the bill capped a dramatic week in which Trump repeatedly tried to woo conservatives and Vice President Mike Pence was a near-constant presence on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, Trump issued an ultimatum: The House would vote Friday and if the bill failed, he was done with health care.

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But it was Trump who told Ryan to pull the bill Friday after the speaker informed him he didn’t have the votes. Ryan huddled with GOP lawmakers in a room in the bowels of the Capitol where arriving members were greeted by the Rolling Stones classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

“Because of the lack of votes today in the House, Obamacare is going to be the law of the land,” Columbus area Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi said. “I think for conservatives it’s not a good day when (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi calls it a victory.”

In all, four Republicans from Ohio either opposed or were leaning toward opposing the bill: Jordan, Joyce, Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy; and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton.

“After numerous discussions with the White House and the Speaker’s office, in an attempt to improve this bill, including discussions today, I could not support the bill in its current form,” Turner said Friday. “This legislation will result in people in my community losing health care coverage.”

Davidson, who serves the district long occupied by former Speaker John Boehner, said he isn’t ready to give up on finding a suitable replacement for a law many in his district despise.

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“Can we pick up from where we’re at, put a white board in a room, begin collaborating with those people that started falling off the left or the right and make this something that can pass? I guess I’m optimistic,” he said. “I’ve always been optimistic that this has been possible. But I’m new to Congress, so I don’t know.”

Since passage of Obamacare, Republicans have complained the law did nothing to control the rise in premiums in the individual insurance market while burdening taxpayers with hundreds of billions of dollars to expand eligibility to Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health coverage to low-income and disabled Americans.

One of the major demands by conservatives was to eliminate an Obamacare requirement that required private insurers in the individual market to provide a minimum package of benefits, including ambulance services, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, and treatment for mental health and substance abuse.

Conservatives have argued that such a mandate drives up the cost of health care and prevents insurance companies from offering a wider range of policies in the individual market. Defenders of the mandate say it prevents insurance companies from offering middle-income people policies that provide skimpy coverage.

As a compromise, Ryan suggested allowing the states — not the federal government — to establish a minimum package of benefits.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, said Friday that nothing would have been gained by bringing the legislation to a floor vote “and having it go up in flames.

“It’s possible they can continue to work on the votes,” he said but added: “It’s going to be challenging.”