State official seeks to allay concerns over agency overhaul

Published: Monday, July 17, 2017 @ 6:38 PM
Updated: Monday, July 17, 2017 @ 6:38 PM

The State Department's second in command, John Sullivan, sought Monday to allay fears that a plan to reorganize the agency will lead to an upheaval of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that major decisions, such as transferring key operations to the Department of Homeland Security, have not been made.

But Democrats on the committee remained skeptical given the drastic cuts to the budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development that the Trump administration has proposed. The reductions, which Congress has yet to approve, have stoked concerns that a far-reaching overhaul, involving job cuts, program eliminations and the expected consolidation of many offices in the agency's sprawling bureaucracy are a foregone conclusion.

But Sullivan gamely argued otherwise. He said there is no intention of folding the independent U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department. He told members of the committee that USAID is well represented in internal department discussions on the reorganization and that he understands and respects USAID's different mission, culture and skill sets.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he found the possibility of making USAID part of the State Department alarming.

He called the reorganization effort an "ill defined" process that "thus far seems to be no more than an exercise in undermining and pushing out career diplomats."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she would oppose any attempt to move the State Department's bureaus for refugee admissions programs and consular affairs to Homeland Security. Sullivan said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson "does not have at present that intention." But Sullivan also said if those moves are raised during the reorganization review, "we would consider" them.

More than three dozen former diplomats and national security officials from Republican and Democratic administrations have urged Tillerson to retain the department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. They said they were reacting to a leaked proposal from the White House Domestic Policy Council to shift the office to Homeland Security.

Homeland Security, the former officials told Tillerson in a letter released Monday, "has neither the international staffing infrastructure nor the expertise to identify refugee groups in need of protection or resettlement, nor to understand the diplomatic consequences or opportunities to leverage resettlement for U.S. foreign policy interests."

Among those who signed the July 16 letter were William Burns, who served as deputy secretary of state and envoy to Russia during the Obama administration, and William H. Taft IV, who held high ranking posts at the State and Defense departments during the George W. Bush administration. Leaders of 18 humanitarian organizations also signed the letter.

"We are convinced that the elimination of PRM's assistance functions would have profound and negative implications for the Secretary of State's capacity to influence policy issues of key concern to the United States," they wrote. "It would also be ironic, as this is one of the bureaus at State that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support over many years."

A survey commissioned by the State Department also recommended moving State's responsibilities for issuing passports, visas, and other travel documents to Homeland Security. Those duties are currently handled by the Bureau of Consular Affairs, one of the largest parts of the State Department.

The survey, conducted by a private consulting firm, was ordered in late April by Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO. Tillerson was brought into Trump's administration in part due to his experience running a massive organization, and he was given a mission to reorganize the State Department.

Tillerson has largely accepted the administration's plans to slash diplomatic and development funding, although he faces intense bipartisan opposition in Congress, which will likely reverse at least some of his proposed 31-percent cut in funding.

Trump wanted to cut almost $17 billion from the foreign aid budget, but House Republicans countered last week with a reduction of $10 billion. The $47 billion foreign aid measure approved by the House Appropriations Committee spared Israel and Egypt and exempted the budget for protecting U.S. embassies overseas.

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Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner

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Roller coaster Thursday for President Trump on Russia, Cohen, Cabinet

Published: Thursday, April 26, 2018 @ 4:49 PM

In a turbulent Thursday, President Donald Trump raised new questions about how he might deal with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, admitted that Michael Cohen was his lawyer in legal dealings with porn star Stormy Daniels, watched as his Cabinet saw a day of success, verbal scrapes, and setbacks, and then saw a Senate panel approve a bill designed to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

A day after his personal lawyer notified a federal court that he would exercise his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in a lawsuit brought by Daniels, the President did an interview by telephone on his favorite morning television program, “Fox and Friends” – but that only created more news.

Instead of just being a Fox News bullhorn for his views on a number of different subjects – Mr. Trump in the interview instead stirred new interest in how he will treat the Russia probe, and the legal questions surrounding a $130,000 pre-election payment in 2016 to an adult film star.

Even for reporters – it was a busy day. Let’s run down some of the headlines.

1. Trump raises personal intervention in Russia probe. In an interview on his favorite morning television program, “Fox and Friends,” the President vented more of his frustration about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and seemed to raise the possibility that he might take some action in the future. “You look at the corruption at the top of the FBI, it’s a disgrace,” the President said. “And our Justice Department – which I try and stay away from – but at some point, I won’t,” Mr. Trump said, making a statement which was interpreted by some as a threat to intervene in the case.

2. From Fox News to court documents in two hours. Not only were fans of the President watching as he joined “Fox and Friends” by telephone from the White House, but federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York were listening, too. And two hours later, comments by the President were already in a footnote of a new submission to a federal judge who is dealing with evidence seized in an FBI raid on the President’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen. While Cohen had said that many of the documents and computer records seized by the feds were involved in legal work that he did for the President, radio host Sean Hannity, and one other person, Mr. Trump had a different view, saying Cohen does a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work.

3. Trump interview opens new questions on Cohen, Stormy Daniels. As the story has slowly played out over a $130,000 payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels – what she said was hush money from President Trump before the 2016 elections – Mr. Trump has said little about it, telling reporters aboard Air Force One in recent weeks that he knew nothing about the payment made to Daniels by Michael Cohen. But on “Fox and Friends,” the answer was different, as Mr. Trump clearly acknowledged that he was a party to the legal settlement. “He represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me,” the President said. “From what I see, he did nothing wrong.” That prompted a Fox News host to ask, “Then why is he taking the Fifth?”

4. White House doctor, Trump’s VA nominee, withdraws. Even before getting on the phone with “Fox and Friends,” there was already big news for the White House, as the day began with what many on Capitol Hill had been expecting, with White House physician Ronny Jackson announcing that he would drop his bid to be Veterans Secretary, amid growing reports of embarrassing personal stories. “He’s a great man, and he got treated very, very unfairly,” President Donald Trump told reporters, as he met with children of White House reporters just outside the Oval Office. For the President, the episode seemed to be an unforced political error, as he’s made veterans issues one of his main causes since entering office.

5. Senators demand better vetting on next VA nominee. As the VA search resumed, members of both parties made clear they want the White House to look for someone with more experience, worried that the President’s first pick was done on a whim. “The best possible person that we can get,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), the Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, when asked who the President should select. “I want to find the best person available that we can get,” Isakson told reporters. “The President put a guy out there who was not qualified,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). “This was so bungled.” “I feel like they put the President in a bit of a difficult situation,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).  “Maybe the vetting could have been done better.”  For now, the VA will keep its acting director, as the President must find a new nominee.  He fired the last VA Secretary, David Shulkin, in late March.

6. Pompeo wins Senate approval as Secretary of State. As the White House tried to pick up the pieces surrounding the President’s failed VA pick, officials were able to celebrate a 57-42 vote in the Senate to confirm CIA chief Mike Pompeo as the next Secretary of State, giving the President a top diplomat who clearly seems more in line with Mr. Trump’s world view. Six Democrats – Donnelly (Indiana), Heitkamp (North Dakota), Jones (Alabama), Manchin (West Virginia), McCaskill (Missouri), and Nelson (Florida), joined with all Republicans, and one independent (King of Maine) in voting for Pompeo as the 70th Secretary of State. “He has the qualifications and experience necessary to successfully fulfill his role,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).   In the midst of all of the other controversy involving the President and the White House on this Thursday, the Pompeo vote was a big win, as was later Senate approval of the President’s choice for Ambassador to Germany,  Richard Grenell.

7. Pruitt dukes it out with lawmakers in contentious hearing. After weeks of stories about ethics issues involving his stewardship at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt spent much of Thursday in the proverbial ‘hot seat’ in Congress, defending his work at the EPA, and warding off the verbal barbs of Democrats. “You are unfit to hold public office,” one said. “You seem unable to take responsibility for your actions,” added another. “In any other administration, Republican or Democrat, you would be long gone by now,” said one more Democrat.  While Pruitt sternly defended his decisions, he seemed to change his story on the exact reasons that he needed a $43,000 secure phone booth for his office, and altered his explanation of raises which were engineered for some of his top aides, as he left Democrats looking for deeper explanations on a variety of fronts. While Pruitt seemed to survive the theater of Thursday’s hearings, it wasn’t clear if he had inadvertently opened other lines of questions about some of his actions.

8. The first real push back on Russia from Congress. There has been talk for months from Republicans about how they could dissuade President Trump from threats to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller – but on Thursday – there was finally legislative action, as the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan bill which would allow the Judicial Branch to review the firing of someone like Mueller. The plan was supported by four Republicans, all the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “While I do not believe President Trump intends to remove Special Counsel Mueller, I believe this legislation has enduring value for future special counsel investigations,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not schedule this bill for a vote – but it still represented the first real warning shot by the GOP Congress to the President on the Russia probe – and Mueller.   Look for Democrats to start making a lot of public calls for a vote on this bill, as they try to convince the President to leave Mueller alone.

9. Diamond and Silk make their case to Congress. Almost any other day, the appearance on Capitol Hill of Diamond and Silk, a pair of black women who have become darlings of conservative politicians, would have made for big news – but instead it was merely a footnote in a day of fast-paced political events. At a House hearing that looked at political bias on the internet, the two social media personalities made the case that Facebook and YouTube had – on purpose – reduced their ability to make money by ‘monetizing’ videos on those social media platforms, simply because of their political views and support for President Trump. Any other day, this would have been playing live on the cable channels, and would have dominated social media. But on this Thursday, there was too much to digest. So, to paraphrase John Stewart’s line from the Daily Show, here’s your five minutes of Zen. Watching this video is also a good test, as one might expect that people on both sides will find reasons to like what they see and hear, no matter your personal political bias.

10. My kids don’t know how big their Thursday was. All of my kids have come to work with me over the years at the Capitol; this time I brought my two younger boys. They were tuckered out by mid-afternoon as I dragged them up and down the stairs, chasing lawmakers, doing interviews, checking the traps, and seeing old friends all around Capitol Hill. In the midst of all of the news, all the partisan bickering, all of the political drama, it’s important to remind people that those who work on Capitol Hill are good souls. My parents started work in the halls of Congress in the late 1950’s, and I’m still here almost 60 years later. We had just walked into the Capitol on Thursday when we ran into Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). It was just steps from where I remember – as a 12 year old – meeting Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC). Maybe they’ll stick around Capitol Hill, maybe not. But it’s great to have them here. I just wish there had been a little less news.

 

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President Trump’s choice for VA Secretary withdraws his nomination

Published: Thursday, April 26, 2018 @ 8:28 AM

Facing numerous questions about his past work record, White House physician Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration for VA Secretary on Thursday morning, calling a variety of claims about him, ‘false and fabricated.’

“If they had any merit, I would not have been selected,” Jackson said in a written statement. “I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination,” Jackson said in a written statement.

Jackson’s nomination had been in peril all week, as allegations piled up against him, and his confirmation hearing on Wednesday had been postponed indefinitely.

The move came after President Trump had openly suggested earlier in the week that Jackson did not have to pursue the post.

“I even told him a day or two ago – I saw where this was going,” the President said in a telephone interview on “Fox and Friends.”

Even before questions were raised about incidents during his time as the White House physician, there were GOP Senators who were not pleased about the President’s choice for VA Secretary, wondering aloud vetting procedures at the White House.

“I don’t know whether that process is being short circuited now,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

GOP lawmakers quickly said the President needed to find a VA nominee who was familiar with the troubles confronting the massive federal agency.

“The next VA Secretary must have the experience and commitment needed to continue that progress,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN). “We owe it to those who have served our country.”

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Trump’s personal lawyer to take the Fifth in Stormy Daniels case

Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2018 @ 7:32 PM

Over two weeks after being the subject of an FBI raid, President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer filed notice in a California federal court on Wednesday that he would exercise his right against self-incrimination, and refuse to answer questions about a lawsuit linked to a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, who has claimed she had a past affair with Mr. Trump.

“Based upon the advice of counsel, I will assert my 5th amendment rights in connection with all proceedings in this case due to the ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York,” Cohen said in a court declaration.

The legal battle centers on the $130,000 payment – which Daniels said amounted to ‘hush money’ – to keep her quiet before the 2016 election, money which Cohen has publicly acknowledged that he paid.

In his court filing on Wednesday, Cohen made clear “the FBI seized various electronic devices and documents in my possession, which contain information relating to the $130,000 payment.”



Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, immediately seized upon the decision by Cohen, labeling it a ‘stunning development.’

Meanwhile, the President seemed to be ready to personally get involved in Cohen’s legal battle over the evidence seized in the FBI raids, which involved information and electronic devices in his home, office and hotel room in New York.

In a letter sent to Federal Judge Kimba Wood in New York, lawyers for Mr. Trump wrote, “our client will make himself available, as needed, to aid in our privilege review on his behalf.”

It’s not clear what documents the government has seized from Cohen which would involve the President, what subjects they might cover, and how it is related to any investigation of Cohen.

Judge Wood set a Thursday midday hearing to get an update from the FBI on what exactly was seized in the April 9 raids, and what has been duplicated and shared with Cohen and his lawyers.

For now, those documents are in the hands of a special FBI team, which is not linked to the investigation of Cohen; the judge has suggested she might appoint a “special master” to oversee the handling of that evidence.

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Without mentioning Awan, House panel takes first steps to respond to IT case

Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2018 @ 1:05 PM

With few answers yet as to why a group of IT aides were fired by House Democratic lawmakers in 2017, a U.S. House panel on Wednesday approved a series of plans designed to tighten internal procedures for internet technology workers who have ‘privileged access’ to the House internet network, focusing on those who work for multiple members of Congress.

“It’s important that we actually get this right,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), who led a task force that looked at how to more closely monitor part-time workers known on Capitol Hill “shared employees.”

Under the plan, House officials would get 30 days to report back on how they would implement the changes, which Davis said would include ‘a much needed background check system.’

“It will strengthen the regulations associated with individuals known as ‘shared employees,’ who are employed by three or more offices,” said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), the Chairman of the House Administration Committee.

During the committee’s meeting on Wednesday, there was never a mention of the name of Imran Awan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has become the focus of press allegations that he – and his relatives – may have compromised information on the House computer system, while working for several dozen House Democratic offices over a number of years.

No official explanation has been given as yet – by lawmakers or House officials – as to why Awan, his wife, and a handful of their relatives were suddenly terminated, and while no charges have been filed, it was clear from the proposed policy changes advanced on Wednesday that lawmakers believe tighter controls are needed for the future.

The new proposals for U.S. House employees would include:

+ A requirement for background checks “as a condition of privileged access” to the network not only for IT workers, but also for other ‘shared employees’ who do budget, payroll or other financial work for a lawmaker.

+ Setting up a task force to routinely review polices related to IT workers employed by multiple members of Congress.

+ Develop a new employee ID badge which clearly identifies ‘shared employees’ who are doing work on Capitol Hill.

+ Make it easier to block access for those workers – not only to the Congressional IT network – but also limit physical access for them if there are issues with the employees.

+ Not allow shared employees to also be engaged in an outside business activity which sells/leases/provides goods or services to any House office.

The changes were approved with little debate in an eleven minute meeting of the House Administration Committee.  There were no direct references made to the Awan investigation, and no hints at any further developments in the probe of why Awan, his wife, and relatives were fired in February and March of 2017.

As of now, no charges have been filed for any wrongdoing involving the House IT system, though Awan and his wife, Hina Alvi, face federal bank fraud charges involving a home equity loan.

A federal court hearing on the next step in that fraud case has been postponed repeatedly, and is next scheduled for May 4.

U.S. Capitol Police have refused to make any detailed comments on the investigation into the IT matter.

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