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.

Senate moves forward on budget, still stalled on Obama health law

Published: Thursday, October 19, 2017 @ 8:05 AM

With the strong support of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Senate was poised on Thursday to approve a budget framework for 2018 that would authorize an expedited effort in Congress on tax reform, but the President’s public reluctance had seemingly scrapped quick action on a separate bipartisan deal involving a small piece of the Obama health law, a move that experts say will cost the federal government billions more in health spending.

On the Senate floor, the emphasis for GOP Senators has not been on their budget outline, which would bring the budget to balance in nine years, but rather on the tax reform, the first real effort to rewrite the Internal Revenue Code since 1986.

“Because as we all know, our archaic tax code is a significant roadblock standing in the way of America’s economic future,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Despite some reservations from GOP Senators, McConnell looks to have the votes to push through this budget plan later today.

As for the President, he continues to press the case for tax reform, though in recent days he has been mentioning tax cuts much more than reform.

“Let’s give our country the biggest Christmas present of all,” the President said in a speech earlier this week. “Massive tax relief.”

“It will be the largest tax cut in the history of our country,” Mr. Trump told a bipartisan group of Senators that he called to the White House on Wednesday.

The exact details of that tax plan remain under wraps at this point; the emerging plan seems to bee one where the House and Senate will finish work on the budget outline for next year, and then reveal the tax bill – most likely in November – and move quickly to vote on it in the House by Thanksgiving.

As for health care, there had been hope earlier this week that the Senate could move swiftly to approve a bipartisan deal to address certain payments to health insurance companies under the Obama health law – but that seems to have run aground, after the President went from supporting the plan, to opposing it, in less than 24 hours.

One issue seems to be the complexity of the underlying Obama health law – it sounds simple enough to argue that if you cut off the “Cost Sharing Reduction” payments to insurance companies, then that should save money for Uncle Sam.

But as I wrote earlier in the week, doing that only means other subsidies kick in, and actually cause the feds to spend billions more.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the extra cost would be $194 billion over ten years.

Portman on controversial DEA bill: ‘It slipped through’

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 4:30 PM
Updated: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 4:15 PM


            Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Sen. Rob Portman Wednesday said he was unaware of the details of a 2016 bill that effectively quashed the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to stop distributors from sending prescription drugs to doctors’ offices and pharmacies that fed the opioid epidemic.

The law passed by unanimous consent — a voice vote, with no members of the House or Senate opposing it. While members of the DEA and Justice Department told Washington Post and 60 Minutes reporters that they opposed the legislation, no one in Portman’s office was aware of the agencies’ concerns, he told a Washington Post panel convened Wednesday to discuss the epidemic.

“I frankly asked my office, ‘Did we hear from anybody?’ and the answer was no,” the Ohio Republican said.

RELATED: Congress investigating local drug distributor

Portman said the bill went through Congress at the same time his own drug treatment bill — the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act — went through Congress, and much of the focus was on that bill. The DEA bill, he said, “sort of slipped through.”

Speaking with Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Portman said he and other senators plan to review the law, which effectively made it far tougher for the DEA to crack down on those pouring pain pills into communities. Portman has focused heavily on drug addiction issues dating back to his time in the House of Representatives, and during his 2016 re-election campaign for the Senate he ran ads highlighting his work fighting the opioid epidemic.

RELATED: Former drug czar nominee defends roll in opioid law

The Post story is largely credited with causing Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., to withdraw his name from nomination to be the nation’s next drug czar. Marino was a leading cosponsor of the 2016 bill, as was Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who is now running for governor.

Portman wasn’t the only one who said he was unaware of the implications of the bill Wednesday. Manchin said his staff was “not intricately involved” and was told it was aimed at ensuring that cancer patients and the terminally ill had access to pain relief — not that it could make it harder for the DEA to crack down on those purposefully dealing pills.

RELATED: Portman wants opioid money added to health care bill

“We never intended it to be a wholesale market to open up the floodgates,” he said. “Because in West Virginia, the floodgates were already open.”

Manchin has cosponsored a bill aimed at repealing the 2016 law. “No one intended for this to happen,” he said.

Trump leaves both parties confused on Senate health care deal

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 12:49 PM

A day after seemingly endorsing a legislative effort in Congress to formally approve money for insurance companies that would pay for health insurance subsidies for certain consumers, President Donald Trump indicated on Wednesday that while he backed the idea of bipartisan negotiations related to the Obama health law, he did not support a deal on “Cost Sharing Reduction” payments, .

“If something can happen that’s fine,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a White House photo op, as he made clear that he wants to stop insurance subsidy payments that go to health insurers.

“I won’t do anything to enrich the insurance companies,” the President said. “They’ve been enriched by Obamacare like nothing anyone has ever seen before.”

The statements left lawmakers on Capitol Hill wondering whether Mr. Trump would help push the plan through the Congress, or if it would galvanize more conservative opponents, as in less than 24 hours, the President had gone from supportive, to mildly unimpressed, to seemingly opposed to the plan.

“He called Murray-Alexander deal a very good solution,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. “Now this morning, he says he can’t support it.”
“He keeps zigging and zagging,” Schumer complained in a frustrated, and almost exasperated tone on the floor of the Senate, as he urged the President to be consistent when it comes to legislation in Congress.

“Our only hope is, maybe tomorrow, he’ll be for this again,” Schumer added.

As the President pinballed back and forth on the Senate CSR payments deal, it wasn’t clear what the Congress might do on the matter, as conservative groups urged GOP leaders not to accept the plan, saying it only tweaks the Obama health law, and not in a good way.

“This is a bailout for health insurance companies,” the group Freedom Works said in a morning news release.

Health insurance experts were still debating the Senate plan, unsure of all of its impacts, especially since there was no final bill draft at this point – and no plan for any vote on it, either.

Trump presses tax reform as Senate begins debate on GOP budget outline

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 @ 2:08 AM

President Donald Trump urged conservative activists on Tuesday night to help lobby Senators in favor of a GOP tax reform package, as despite some infighting, Republicans seemed like they would be able to approve a budget outline this week in the Senate, a plan which would allow for future legislative action on a tax bill – without the threat of a Senate filibuster.

“Let’s give our country the best Christmas present of all – massive tax relief,” the President said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, where his vow of big tax cuts drew large cheers from the audience.

“This is our once-in-a-generation opportunity to revive our economy,” Mr. Trump added, though he acknowledged that he doesn’t expect much support from Democrats in the Congress.

Before any tax bill can be brought up on the floor of the House and Senate, both chambers must approve a budget outline for 2018, which authorizes the use of the ‘budget reconciliation’ process for tax reform – helping the GOP to avoid a Senate filibuster. That was the same legislative tool used in a failed bid to overhaul the Obama health law.

In an important sign for the White House, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) – who had been absent for weeks with an illness, returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday – and then, GOP leaders won the support of another key Republican Senator, who has tangled repeatedly with the President.

“I support the Senate budget resolution because it provides a path forward on tax reform,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who still wants GOP leaders to add more money to the budget outline for military needs.

Still not ready to commit to the budget or tax plans was Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who lobbed a series of pointed jabs at both McCain, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), accusing them of trying to use budget gimmicks to funnel more money to the Pentagon, instead of finding ways to restrain spending.

In a first test vote, the Senate voted 50-47 in favor of beginning debate on the budget framework for 2018, which would balance the budget by 2026. A House budget outline would achieve that a year later.

No Democrats joined with Republicans to begin the Senate debate, as right now, the White House faces a difficult task in getting any Democratic lawmakers to endorse the President’s budget or tax plans.

“It’s going to be hard to get the Democrats, because they’re obstructionists, and they vote in blocks,” the President said in his Tuesday night speech.

If no Democrats cross party lines on taxes, that makes it all the more important for the GOP to stick together in the Senate, or the GOP could face the same outcome as on health care reform.

No legislative language for a tax reform plan has been released as yet by the GOP. Lawmakers don’t expect to see all the details until next month.