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.

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Democrats try to seize on jump in gasoline prices

Published: Saturday, May 26, 2018 @ 4:07 PM

While the Trump Administration has hailed economic and job gains over the past year and a half, the price of gasoline has jumped sharply in recent months for consumers and businesses, adding to the cost of everything from a daily commute, to a summer vacation, and the amount of money companies pay to ship their products around the country.

And it’s starting to used by Democrats on Capitol Hill to take aim at the White House.

“Gas prices have risen more than 25% since Trump took office,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

“Overall world crude oil prices have increased over 75 percent in the past year,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), as Democrats wrote President Donald Trump a letter earlier this week, asking him to do something about the rising cost of gasoline .

Those numbers at the pump aren’t unusual for the Washington, D.C. area as just the ohter day, this reporter filled up on the way to work, and ha the pump shut off before the tank was full, when the total hit the $50 credit card limit at that station for a single transaction.

Figures released in recent weeks by the Trump Administration clearly show the increase, with gas prices up on average by over 52 cents a gallon from the same time a year ago, at an average of $2.92 per gallon.



The $2.92 per gallon is the highest average price at the pump on Memorial Day in four years – in 2014, gas was at an average of $3.67 per gallon, as Republicans blamed the energy policies of the Obama Administration, arguing for more oil exploration in the United States.

Gas prices generally trended down the last few years, leading President Trump to proclaim where they stood on July Fourth of last year.

But since that tweet on July Fourth of last year, the price of gasoline has only gone up, and federal energy experts expect even more in the months ahead.

“Relatively higher crude oil spot prices, higher gasoline demand, and falling gasoline inventories are all factors contributing to higher gasoline prices,” the Energy Information Administration reported last week.

The EIA predicted an average of $2.90 per gallon for gasoline this summer.

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VA may expand private health care choices for veterans

Published: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 2:55 PM
Updated: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 2:59 PM

Rob Portman on VA MIssion Act

Veterans will have expanded private health care options under legislation passed by Congress, but some critics contend it could lead to more privatization of VA services.

The measure was part of a sweeping $51 billion VA bill that would institute reforms within the federal agency.

The Senate passed the measure in 92-5 vote this week, which continued funding of the VA Choice program due to be out of money as early as next week. President Donald Trump was expected to sign the bill before Memorial Day.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who backed the legislation, said in a Friday interview in Dayton with this news outlet he heard “spirited” complaints about VA health care in town halls throughout Ohio.

Veterans’ stories about VA health care have “gotten better” since then, but the senator still hears a common complaint.

RELATED: New Dayton VA director wants to be transparent for veterans

“The problem I keep hearing about is, look I need to get a specialist in my community. I don’t want to drive from here to Cleveland or here to Cincinnati even. Why can’t I go to somebody here locally?”

The VA legislation will ease that issue with private health care options, he said.

“It says we’re going to help veterans get the care that they need where they want to get it at their convenience,” he said.

The legislation will eliminate the requirement veterans must wait at least 30 days or travel more than 40 miles to qualify for a private health care appointment, according to John W. Palmer, a spokesman with the Ohio Hospital Association in Columbus.

“We believe this is going to create stronger opportunities for access to care,” he said. “From a health care access standpoint, we definitely are equipped to handle patients that are coming in.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio(Washington Bureau)

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and a member of the Senate Veterans Committee, voted for the legislation, but said he opposes any privatization meaures.

“Privatization means putting profits ahead of those who served our country, and I will fight any effort to use America’s veterans to line the pockets of wealthy corporations,” he said in an email. “Instead, we must all work together to strengthen and improve VA to better serve veterans.”

The bill also includes provisions to strengthen the VA workforce and make it easier to hire and retain more medical professionals, said Brown spokeswoman Jenny Donohue. His office said the bill streamlines, but does not expand private health care choices.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, voted for the legislation in the House.

“This bill preserves our commitment to quality of care of veterans at facilities like the Dayton VA, puts the needs of veterans first, and ensures our veterans’ service is honored,” he said in a statement.

The Dayton VA has spent $55 million on private health care for nearly 17,700 veterans authorizations in fiscal year 2018, according to spokesman Ted Froats.

Among changes, the legislation will expand caregiver benefits to veterans who served before Sept. 11, 2001; puts tighter practices on prescribing opioids to VA patients from private providers; and sets up a presidentially appointed commission to review under performing VA facilities for possible closure, among a list of changes. Dozens of veterans service groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, supported the bill.

RELATED: Ohio Hospice hires top leader leaving Dayton VA 

The American Federal of Government Employees, which represents 260,000 federal VA employees, has had sweeping concerns with the wide-ranging bill.

The labor union says it could lead to outsourcing or the “amputation” of 36 health care specialties, such a primary care or mental health, outside the VA and force veterans into private health care if their VA facility is closed. The legislation would allow unrestricted use of private walk-in clinics and billions of dollars to be taken out of VA health care without federal data on how contractors spend the money, said Marilyn Park, an AFGE legislative assistant.

“We made a promise to veterans when they signed up to serve that they would be taken care of when they got home – not forced to wait in longer lines at private, walk-in clinics,” AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Trump Administration searches for way forward on North Korea

Published: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 4:05 PM

A day after President Donald Trump scrapped a planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un, the President, White House, and State Department made clear that U.S. officials continue to be open to further contacts with their North Korean counterparts, seeing if there is a way to get talks back on track to rein in the nuclear weapons program of the Pyongyang regime.

“We always knew there would be twists and turns leading up to this meeting on June 12,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

“We never expected it to be easy, so none of this comes as a surprise to us,” Nauert added.

On Friday afternoon, officials said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken by phone with the South Korean Foreign Minister, to discuss what the next steps might be – after the June 12 Trump summit with Kim Jong Un was cancelled.

Earlier in the day, the President expressed hope that talks could resume on the effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, as allies of Mr. Trump argued he made the right move in walking away from the summit at this point in time.

“I don’t know where we will meet, when we will meet, or even if we will meet…..but I do believe President Trump is going to end the North Korean nuclear program,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

But as Graham and others acknowledged on Friday, it wasn’t clear whether progress might be made, or how.

From both the U.S. side, and the North Korean side, there was no resumption on Friday of some of the more bellicose rhetoric that had marked the long distance relationship between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un, as Pyongyang officials said they were open to further talks and the President said he was not giving up.

“Everybody plays games,” the President told reporters in talking about the art of negotiation.

“We weren’t getting the right signals previously, so hopefully we will in the future,” Nauert told the White House Pool reporter, as President Trump gave the commencement address at the Naval Academy on Friday.

“But we didn’t want to go to a meeting just for the sake of going to a meeting,” Nauert added. “There had to be something to come out of it. so we weren’t getting the right signals.”

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Trump says N. Korea summit may be back on; Ohio lawmakers react

Published: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 2:45 PM
Updated: Friday, May 25, 2018 @ 3:00 PM


            PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 27: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) are in talks during the Inter-Korean Summit on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim and Moon meet at the border today for the third-ever Inter-Korean summit talks after the 1945 division of the peninsula, and first since 2007 between then President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and Leader Kim Jong-il of North Korea. (Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)
            Pool
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 27: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) are in talks during the Inter-Korean Summit on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim and Moon meet at the border today for the third-ever Inter-Korean summit talks after the 1945 division of the peninsula, and first since 2007 between then President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and Leader Kim Jong-il of North Korea. (Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)(Pool)

President Donald Trump on Friday warmly welcomed North Korea’s promising response to his abrupt withdrawal from the potentially historic Singapore summit and said “we’re talking to them now” about putting it back on track.

“Everybody plays games,” said Trump, who often boasts about his own negotiating tactics and skill.

The president, commenting as he left the White House for a commencement speech, said it was even possible the summit could take place on the originally planned June 12 date.

RELATED: Asian shares lower as North Korea cancellation adds uncertainty

“They very much want to do it, we’d like to do it,” he said.

Earlier Friday, in a tweet, he had called the North’s reaction to his letter canceling the summit “warm and productive.” That was far different from his letter Thursday to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, blaming “tremendous anger and open hostility” by Pyongyang for the U.S. withdrawal.

The tone from both sides was warmer on Friday. First, North Korea issued a statement saying it was still “willing to give the U.S. time and opportunities” to reconsider talks “at any time, at any format.”

Ohio leaders react

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was in Dayton Friday and said he was not surprised President Trump called off the summit with North Korea, but was hopeful direct negotiation would happen to cause the regime to disarm its nuclear capability.

“I’ve been one of those people calling for direct negotiations with North Korea, not because they are a country that we should reward or that we can trust, but because we should have direct negotiations with any country that has this nuclear weapons capability,” said Portman, R-Ohio.

He said global sanctions imposed on North Korea were a “good news” story that worked.

“It’s a good example of where if you can get the international community (together) on something, and it really is a diplomatic effort, you can put enough pressure on a regime, even a regime as evil as this one where they say, ‘OK, we want to come to the table and talk,’” said Portman, who also noted North Korea’s recent release of three American detainees.

RELATED: N. Korea demolishes nuclear test site as journalists watch

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he was “disappointed” that the talks would not take place in June, but is hopeful groundwork can be laid for a future summit.

“We all agree a denuclearized North Korea must be our goal,” he said.

Democratic Ohio House members, meanwhile, were more critical of Trump’s approach.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo said North Korea “is not an honest broker” and said that “rushed attempts to deter that nation from its decades-long tradition of brutal and unstable dictatorships will not be effective.”

“Validating Kim Jong Un with the direct involvement of the President may well be premature when dealing with an immature dictator,” she said, but urged Trump to continue to pursue high-level diplomatic talks.

North Korea, U.S. Defense leaders respond

Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called Trump’s withdrawal “unexpected” and “very regrettable,” and said the cancellation of the talks showed “how grave the status of historically deep-rooted hostile North Korea-U.S. relations is and how urgently a summit should be realized to improve ties.”

Then Trump, in his response to that response, said it was “very good news,” and “we will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace. Only time (and talent) will tell!”

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the recent back-and-forth between Trump and North Korea the “usual give and take.”

The president’s surprise exit from the planned talks on Thursday had capped weeks of high-stakes brinkmanship between the two unpredictable leaders over nuclear negotiating terms for their unprecedented sit-down. The U.S. announcement came not long after Kim appeared to make good on his promise to demolish his country’s nuclear test site. But it also followed escalating frustration — and newly antagonistic rhetoric — from North Korea over comments from Trump aides about U.S. expectations for the North’s “denuclearization.”

Catherine Lucey and Zeke Miller of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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