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Published: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 @ 2:48 PM
Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 @ 2:46 PM
WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke bristled Tuesday under questioning by Democrats about his travel spending as the Trump administration seeks deep cuts to conservation programs and fee increases at national parks.
Zinke testified before a Senate committee about the agency's proposed $11.7 billion budget for 2019.
He has proposed doubling entry fees during peak seasons at some of the nation's most popular national parks to help make up for an $11 billion backlog in needed maintenance. Meanwhile, an Interior advisory committee has proposed cutting royalty fees paid by energy companies to drill for oil and natural gas in federal waters.
The former Navy SEAL flashed with anger when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee's ranking Democrat pressed him on whether he could justify increasing access fees for working Americans when he has been spending taxpayer money on chartered airplane flights. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington asked Zinke if it was a mistake for him to spend $12,375 on a late-night trip in June from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana on a private jet.
"Well, first, insults and innuendos are misleading. I never took a private jet anywhere," Zinke said, adding that all three flights he had taken on private planes as secretary were on aircraft driven by propellers, not jet engines.
Zinke also referenced a report last week by The Associated Press that the Interior Department is spending nearly $139,000 to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office at the agency's headquarters.
"I resent the fact of your insults, I resent the fact they're misleading, I resent the fact of the doors," Zinke said to Cantwell, the tone of his voice growing sharp. "And I'll go through line by line. ... To allege that it's a private jet is inappropriate, ma'am."
Zinke is one of several members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet who have been under intense scrutiny for spending on travel and other expenses that critics deemed questionable. Records show he also spent more than $53,000 on three helicopter trips last summer, including one that allowed him to return to Washington in time to take a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence.
Zinke has previously derided the flap over his pricey flights as "a little BS" and pointed to flights taken by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell during the Obama administration.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told Zinke he has fallen far short of his self-professed role model, Theodore Roosevelt, a renowned conservationist who protected about 230 million acres of public lands. By contrast, Zinke "pushed the largest reduction of ... treasured public lands in American history," proposed opening most of America's coasts to offshore oil drilling and "played a shell game" with wildfire budgeting during the most expensive wildfire season in U.S. history, Wyden said.
Wyden, who has served in Congress for nearly four decades, called his vote to confirm Zinke "one of the biggest regrets of my time in public service."
Interior's inspector general is investigating Zinke's travel and is expected to issue a report within a few weeks.
It is not the first time Zinke has faced questions over his travel spending. A 1999 report by the Navy faulted Zinke for improper travel expenses submitted for two flights to Montana while he was an officer, including one for which he reimbursed the Navy for $211.
Zinke told The Associated Press in 2014 that the travel disputes occurred because his commanding officer disagreed with his belief that Montana should be used for SEAL training.
At Tuesday's hearing, Zinke also defended proposed increases to national park entrance fees and downplayed the possibility of oil and gas exploration off the Pacific coast, where officials in California, Oregon and Washington are adamantly opposed.
The coasts of Oregon and Washington and most of California have "no known resources of any weight," Zinke said.
Likewise, Maine has little recoverable oil and gas off its coast, Zinke said.
Zinke's proposal to open 90 percent of the nation's offshore reserves to development has sparked widespread opposition along the East and West coasts.
Zinke's plan to charge $70 per vehicle at some of the busiest national parks — including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion — also has drawn fierce opposition. Currently, the Park Service charges entry fees of $25 or $30 per vehicle.
"When you give discounted or free passes to elderly, fourth graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there's not a whole lot of people who actually pay at our front door," Zinke said. "So, we're looking at ways to make sure we have more revenue in the front door of our parks themselves."
The Park Service increased the cost of a lifetime pass for seniors last year from $10 to $80. An annual pass costs non-seniors $80, an amount Zinke called "the greatest bargain in America."
"I just took my kids to the theater, and after paying the ticket to the theater and having popcorn, it's more than $80," said Zinke, who according to his financial disclosure statements has personal assets worth between $1.8 million and $2.8 million.
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 @ 7:33 PM
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said today that it “would be a big mistake” for President Donald Trump to fire Independent Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian officials trying to influence the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign had any ties to those officials.
“I’ve said all along it would be a mistake to do so,” Portman told reporters on a conference call. “I think you have to let Mueller do his work. The American people deserve an answer.”
Portman’s comments follow those of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was quoted Tuesday as saying firing Mueller would “probably” be an impeachable offense. Graham had earlier said a Mueller firing would be “the beginning of the end” of the Trump presidency.
Portman said the intelligence community “has determined there was meddling in our election and we need to know more about it.”
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 @ 9:22 AM
Issuing the first report in the review of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that a range of stepped up election security measures must be taken by local, state, and federal officials to address a series of gaps, which lawmakers in both parties say Moscow was obviously trying to exploit.
“It is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election system,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Intelligence panel, which has been working for over a year to uncoil what cyber attacks Moscow was engaging in during the 2016 campaign for President.
“Russia attempted to penetrate 21 states; we know they were successful in penetrating at least one voter database,” Burr added at a bipartisan news conference on Capitol Hill.
The panel issued a two page summary of what Senators say should be changed, ranging from giving grants to states to help secure their election systems, and pushing states to replaced outdated voting machines, and ensure that such vote counting equipment is not connected to the internet .
While Burr again stressed that there was “no evidence that any vote was changed,” he made clear that the bottom line of the investigation shows Russia was a bad actor in 2016.
“Russia was trying to undermine the confidence in our election system,” Burr added.
“The Russians were relentless in trying to meddle in the 2016 elections,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), as she said Senators in both parties agree that Moscow is trying to do the same thing in 2018 in the United States, and in other Western democracies as well.
“We may never know the full extent of the Russian malicious attacks,” Collins added.
One idea suggested by committee members is for states to go back to paper ballots in the future, to insure that overseas actors can’t hack their way into the voting process.
The panel will hold a hearing on Wednesday to go over these findings and recommendations related to election security, as Burr and other Senators stressed that their overall review of Russia’s 2016 election meddling continues.
The news conference demonstrated the difference between the investigations into Russian interference in the House and Senate, as Senators of both parties joined together, while over in the House, the two sides have been issuing dueling memos and reports.
Published: Monday, March 19, 2018 @ 8:44 PM
A week after the feds announced the largest budget deficit in February in six years, the national debt edged over $21 trillion for the first time ever on Monday, as budget experts argue the U.S. is on a track that will likely again feature yearly deficits of $1 trillion, a level reached only during the Obama Administration.
“This is unsustainable,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI).
The $21 trillion debt milestone was hit as lawmakers in Congress were trying to place the finishing touches on a giant Omnibus funding bill which will increase deficits by well over $100 billion in 2018, because of extra spending approved for both domestic and defense accounts.
Even before that, budget watchdogs were warning of a new tide of red ink in the Trump Administration.
“Thanks to the recent budget-busting tax cuts and spending deal, the national debt is skyrocketing and on an unsustainable course,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
The February budget numbers had two main reasons why the monthly deficit jumped to $215 billion – up from $192 billion in 2017 – less revenue coming in to Uncle Sam, and more spending.
Tax revenues were $155 billion in February, down from $171 billion a year ago.
While deficits are heading back up, there’s no hint of action in the Congress on any plan to restrain spending, though only a handful GOP lawmakers publicly grumbled about the situation, as they waited to see what exactly was in the Omnibus.
But the Omnibus has become almost a normal spending tool for Congress, unable to get through the dozen yearly spending bills on time.
For the current 2018 Fiscal Year, lawmakers were supposed to have finished 12 funding measures by October 1 of last year – but that spending work has only been completed on time in four of the last 43 years – one reason there are calls to overhaul the system.
Published: Sunday, March 18, 2018 @ 6:49 PM
As President Donald Trump this weekend repeated some of his complaints about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and whether it involved anyone on his campaign, Mr. Trump did something unusual – sending out a pair of his tweets which included the name of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading that investigation.
It was the first time on Twitter that the President had more directly taken aim at Mueller, a former FBI Director who was named by the Trump Justice Department in 2017 to investigate the charge of Russian meddling in last year’s elections.
Were the weekend mentions of Mueller a new game plan from the President? Or just more of him venting frustration about the Russia investigation?
1. Is Trump now going to more publicly confront Mueller? Before this weekend, President Trump had mentioned the Special Counsel’s name in a tweet just one time, back in December. But this weekend, the President did it twice. “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” Mr. Trump said in a familiar refrain about the investigation. But his next tweet went further, directly accusing Mueller of putting together a biased investigation. In the process, the New York Times reported that the President shrugged off the advice of his legal team to not even mention Mueller’s name. Democrats in Congress said the Twitter volleys showed one thing – that the President is feeling pressure from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
2. Trump lawyer calls for end to Mueller probe. While the President condemned the Russia investigation, one of his lawyers, John Dowd, went a step further, saying it was time for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to bring the Mueller probe to a close. Asked about that on Fox News Sunday, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) basically told lawyer John Dowd to shut up, saying no matter what you think of the issue of collusion, Mueller’s task is to find out how Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. “To suggest that Mueller should shut down, and all he is looking at is collusion – if you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it,” Gowdy said bluntly. Gowdy was one of the few Republicans to address the issue on Sunday.
3. Most Republicans say little about Trump-Mueller. About 12 hours after the President’s Sunday morning tweets, one of his White House lawyers sent word that the President was not “considering or discussing the firing of Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.” But Democrats said that’s the way it looked to them, and a handful of Republicans joined in airing similar concerns. “It’s critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — unimpeded,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a statement. “Members of Congress need to be vocal in support of Special Counsel Mueller finishing his investigation,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). But there were few other Republicans making such statements.
4. Mueller remains silent on Russia investigation. While the President has expended a lot of energy in recent months raising questions about the Russia probe, Special Counsel
Mueller has said nothing. He has not appeared in public to discuss the investigation. He has not released any statements on
all the furor surrounding the investigation. He has not taken issue with any comments by the President. Instead, Mueller has
let the guilty pleas and indictments do the talking for him, as several people who worked for the Trump Campaign have already
plead guilty to lying to the FBI about their conversations related to Russia. For some Republicans, Mueller’s work has already
gone on too long.
5. Few details on the firing of ex-FBI official Andrew McCabe. The weekend got off to a fast start at 10 pm on Friday night, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. No paperwork was released, so despite a lot of press reports on what exactly happened, we haven’t seen any part of an internal investigation that’s being done on the way top FBI brass handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and the Trump-Russia probe. While the President celebrated the firing of McCabe – “a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – most GOP lawmakers stayed quiet. On Sunday, Trump accused both McCabe, and former FBI Director James Comey of fabricating evidence against him. “Fake memos,” he wrote. One Republican who raised a red flag about the firing of McCabe was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who expressed concern about a bureaucratic process involving federal workers that usually takes much longer to complete.