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The White House could order the FBI to investigate the sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, several former senior White House and Justice Department officials from both parties said Wednesday, contradicting President Donald Trump’s claims that doing so would exceed the FBI’s mandate.
Trump continued to insist on Wednesday that there is no potential role for the FBI in exploring claims by California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh covered her mouth while trying to strip her bathing suit off during a party when both were in high school in the 1980s.
“It would seem that the FBI really doesn’t do that,” the president said in response to a reporter’s question about Ford’s call for the FBI to look into the matter before she agrees to testify at a Senate hearing. “They've investigated about six times before, and it seems that they don’t do that.”
Trump’s stance echoed that of Senate Republican leaders, who suggested there is no role for the FBI in investigating a decades-old incident that would not be a federal crime.
“We have no power to commandeer an Executive Branch agency into conducting our due diligence. The job of assessing and investigating a nominee’s qualifications in order to decide whether to consent to the nomination is ours, and ours alone,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said in a letter Wednesday to Ford’s lawyers.
Longtime Senate Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) agreed. “The FBI does not do investigations like this. The responsibility falls to us,” Hatch said.
But several officials who have had direct roles in the nomination and background check process said it’s common, as part of the FBI’s vetting of presidential nominees for judicial posts and executive branch jobs, to investigate matters that do not qualify as federal crimes. Some noted that the Trump White House itself enlisted the FBI last winter to explore spousal abuse claims against former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter
“What happened here is actually not unusual,” said John Yoo, a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush.
“The Judiciary Committee will often say to the Justice Department: ‘Can you send the agents back out and find out if this is true find out what happened with this?…. The normal procedure for this would have been to send the FBI out,” Yoo added.
A former Obama administration lawyer also said the FBI would look into the matter if the White House relayed such a request.
“If the FBI was asked to do it, it would do it,” said the attorney, who asked not to be named. “It doesn’t have to be a federal crime. They’ve investigating someone’s suitability for the position….. It has nothing to do with it being a federal crime.”
In a letter to Democrats Wednesday afternoon, Grassley offered a somewhat different argument, however, saying that FBI involvement was not appropriate given that Ford’s allegations had now gone public.
“Confidentiality permits people to speak freely and candidly about the character and qualifications of the nominee,” Grassley wrote. “The White House requires the Senate to keep Background investigation files private so that people can speak anonymously to investigators if they so desire. Because Dr. Ford’s allegations are in the public arena, there is no longer a need for a confidential FBI investigation.”
Such an investigation did take place when Anita Hill came forward with sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court Clarence Thomas in 1991, and was quickly completed. But Grassley stressed that the probe took place before those claims went public. The Iowa Republican acknowledges that one of those FBI reports was leaked before the follow-up hearing where Hill told her story and Thomas rejected it.
Some officials said the Trump administration’s response to the battery claims against Rob Porter provides ample evidence of the FBI’s willingness to conduct follow-up inquiries, even where no federal crime is alleged. In that case, White House officials asked for more information about the initial claims and the FBI was tasked with conducting another round of interviews aimed at developing more information on what transpired.
In a letter sent to Congress in April, FBI Assistant Director Gerald Roberts said that after Porter’s full background check was sent to the White House in July 2017, officials there came back to the FBI to request “additional information, to include but not limited to, re-interviews of Mr. Porter, his ex-wives and his girlfriend at the time.”
In urgent cases, such re-investigations can be handled by the FBI quite quickly, former officials said.
“It seems to me you could have this done in a day or two, actually,” Yoo said during a question-and-answer session at a Wednesday event sponsored by the Washington Legal Foundation. “I actually was surprised…that the committee decided to just have hearings on Monday to hear from both Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford without the benefit of additional information.”
A White House counsel’s office lawyer under President Barack Obama, Sarah Baker, echoed that position.
“This is really easy to do. This is a quick process. I don’t think it needs to take more than a couple of days,” Baker told reporters Wednesday on a conference call organized by Senate Democrats. “The only reason you don’t ask is if you don’t want the answer.”
One staffer said background investigations are often reopened for questions unrelated to any crime, like concerns about a nominee’s academic credentials.
Yoo did not completely side with Democrats, whom he accused of trying to drag out the process in order to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation. However, the former White House official — perhaps best known for his Bush-era legal memos authorizing torture — said he thought it was still possible that Republicans could get another nominee onto the court this year even if Kavanaugh should withdraw.
Former officials said such background investigation reports are typically handled as highly sensitive, with reports usually hand-delivered to the White House counsel in a sealed envelope.
“It’s not something that’s supposed to be widely shared around,” one attorney familiar with the process said.
Experts on background checks said it would be unusual for the FBI to investigate a 36-year-old allegation, particularly one that involved individuals who were in high school at the time.
But Democrats noted that Grassley has insisted on far-reaching disclosure about judicial nominees’ drug use. As a ranking minority member and as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley insisted that judicial nominees’ drug history back to age 18 was relevant and often disqualifying. (Standard applications for national security jobs ask only about drug use in the past seven years and high-level executive branch employees were asked about drug use over the past decade.)
“His rule was for any judicial nominee, any drug use other than marijuana since age 18 and they’re out,” said one Obama administration attorney involved in the process, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We had to pull people …. Any post-bar drug use at all and you were out.”
One security clearance lawyer also reported that his client, a White House appointee, was questioned about drug use at age 16.
Grassley relaxed his policy on nominee drug use last November. He said Republicans and Democrats had agreed that “one to two uses” after a nominee became an attorney would no longer be disqualifying.
“Over time, there’s been an evolving attitude in our society towards marijuana ….. I’ve had this absolute prohibition attitude that I’ve demonstrated, maybe not in public but in private,” Grassley said. “If that’s the sole judgment of whether somebody ought to have a judgeship or not or maybe any other position, we may not be able to find people to fill those positions.”
The Judiciary chairman said one of his concerns was that if the panel stuck by a stricter policy, nominees might just lie about their drug use when questioned by the FBI.
“Maybe the word gets around that you better lie about it or you ain’t going to get a judgeship. That’s kind of worried me a lot,” he said. “I think we ought to have a consistent policy.”
Moderate Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill will vote against Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, narrowing the number of potential Democratic votes the nominee can secure.
The Missouri senator, who is up for reelection this fall in a conservative state, cited Kavanaugh's views on "dark, anonymous money that is crushing our democracy." She said that the "troubling" allegation of sexual assault leveled against Kavanaugh did not influence her decision.
“He has revealed his bias against limits on campaign donations which places him completely out of the mainstream of this nation. He wrote, ‘And I have heard very few people say that limits on contributions to candidates are unconstitutional although I for one tend to think those limits have some constitutional problems,'" McCaskill said. "Judge Kavanaugh will give free reign to anonymous donors and foreign governments through their citizens to spend money to interfere and influence our elections with so-called ‘issue ads.’"
McCaskill also said she was "uncomfortable" with his views on executive power but said that her fear that Kavanaugh's place on the bench would loosen political spending restrictions was the "determining factor." Outside groups have spent more than $16 million against McCaskill and nearly $14 million against her opponent, Josh Hawley, this year.
Her opposition is not a huge surprise, given that she also voted against Justice Neil Gorsuch last year. But her decision to oppose President Donald Trump's nominee is likely to animate her race against Hawley, Missouri's GOP attorney general and a former law clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts.
Hawley said on Hugh Hewitt's radio show on Wednesday that "people are very, very upset by what they see as an ambush" on Kavanaugh by Democrats after the allegations were raised against him just two weeks before his likely confirmation vote. Hawley has repeatedly hammered McCaskill for opposing Republican nominees and supporting the Supreme Court picks of President Barack Obama and touted his support for Kavanaugh often.
“I would absolutely vote 'yes,'" Hawley said at a debate last week. "I’ve been very disappointed, I have to say, that Claire McCaskill has not stood up to her party on this issue."
While conservatives may dislike her "no" vote, McCaskill's decision could also help her turn out the Democratic voters in Kansas City in St. Louis that she needs to win reelection. Her race is essentially tied.
No Democrats yet support Kavanaugh, though he does not need their support to get confirmed if he wins over 50 of the 51 Senate Republicans. Democratic Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Indiana are all undecided.
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's seemingly all-but-guaranteed confirmation was thrown off course after an allegation became public that he had sexually assaulted a woman when they were both in high school.
Christine Blasey Ford brought her claim anonymously over the summer, but it took months to break out into public view.
Here is a timeline of how Ford's accusation came to light and how Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump have responded:
July 30: Feinstein receives a confidential complaint
Ford wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, a confidential letter alleging that Kavanaugh climbed on top of her at a party in the 1980s, held her down and groped her.
Ford initially described the incident to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who later forwarded the letter to Feinstein. Feinstein said she kept the letter’s existence private at the time to respect Ford’s request for confidentiality. Ford had already contacted the Washington Post but declined to speak on the record.
Late August: Ford decides to stay quiet
Ford decided coming forward would probably not affect Kavanaugh's confirmation, and she decided to stay quiet.
“Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” she told the Washington Post of her thinking at the time.
Sept. 12: Feinstein shares the story with Democrats
Feinstein described the contents of the letter to other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, according to the New York Times. Several of them urged her to go to the FBI or to make the letter public, the paper reported.
That same day, the Intercept reported that Senate Judiciary Committee members wanted to see the document, but Feinstein would not let them.
Sept. 13: Feinstein says she sent information about Kavanaugh to FBI
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chastised Feinstein for keeping the letter secret until the last minute, and the White House called it an orchestrated political move to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
White House counsel Don McGahn got a copy of the letter shortly after Feinstein released her statement and quickly forwarded it to Capitol Hill, a White House aide told POLITICO.
Sept. 14: Kavanaugh denies the still-anonymous allegation
Kavanaugh said in a statement: “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) released a letter signed by 65 women who said that they knew Kavanaugh in high school and that “he has always treated women with decency and respect.”
Sept. 16: Ford reveals herself in the Washington Post
In a bombshell Washington Post interview, Ford identified herself as Kavanaugh’s accuser. She said she had already been contacted by news outlets asking about Kavanaugh, making it was clear that her identity had leaked.
Sept. 17: Ford and Kavanaugh agree to testify
Debra Katz, an attorney for Ford, said her client hoped to tell "her story in a manner that is a fair proceeding."
Kavanaugh issued a new statement saying that he had not previously known who the accuser was but that "I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone."
"I am willing to talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee in any way the Committee deems appropriate to refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity," he said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told reporters that Kavanaugh told him he was not at the party where the assault allegedly took place; a spokesman from Hatch's office later clarified that Kavanaugh had said he did not attend any parties like the one described.
Trump said he was open to a "full process" to air the allegation, though he called Kavanaugh "as high a quality individual as you'll ever see." Lawmakers scheduled a hearing for the following Monday.
Sept. 18: Ford calls for an FBI investigation
Ford's attorneys told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she wanted the FBI to investigate her allegation, throwing into question whether she would appear at the Sept. 24 hearing.
Sept. 19: Trump says he wants Ford to testify
“I really want to see her. I really would want to see what she has to say,” Trump said. “If she doesn’t show up, that would be unfortunate."
President Donald Trump went to Northand South Carolina on Wednesday to tout his administration’s response to Hurricane Florence, whose epic downpour killed at least37people, swamped thousands of homes and roadways, stranded a nuclear power plant and unleashed toxic pollution from coal-ash pits and hog-waste ponds.
“There will be nothing left undone,” Trump told federal and state officialsin North Carolina before heading out to tour the storm damage. “You will have everything you need."
Here’s what he didn’t talk about: His administration’s environmental policies are likely to worsen the devastation from future disasters like Florence.
From gutting climate rules to letting developers fill in more water-absorbing wetlands, the administration’s push to relax Obama-era regulations threatens to reverse years of federal efforts to reduce the property damage, contamination and human suffering that extreme rainfall and surging seas cause.
“The Obama administration took steps in the right direction and now we’re going backwards,” said Geoff Gisler with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "If the federal government doesn’t take action and doesn’t move in the right direction, we will not only be equally unprepared the next time a major storm hits one of our states, we’ll likely be less prepared."
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s policies have had little real-world effect so far — they haven’t even come into force yet in much of the country, and former President Barack Obama’s efforts were still a work in progress when he left office. But these are five examples of how the regulatory rollback will matter in the coming years and decades:
Relaxing federal building standards
Obama directed federal agencies in 2015 to stop putting their money into construction in flood-prone areas, requiring that funding for projects like new veterans’ hospitals, schools and highways go to less low-lying places or that the projects be elevated.
But the new requirements drew the ire of business and real estate interests, who feared they could stanch the flow of federal cash to their projects. And last year, Trump revoked it — shortly before Hurricane Harvey inflicted a major flooding disaster on the Houston area with as much as 60 inches of rainfall.
A Trump White House adviser later mused that the administration was considering issuing its own flood standards “to build back better, faster and stronger.” But to date, it has not.
The 2015 order “anticipated exactly the sorts of flooding that the nation has experienced,” said Samantha Medlock, a former senior Obama White House adviser on flood policy. She added: “Many states and local governments no longer rely solely on outdated flood maps but instead have integrated the latest science and adopted higher standards to reduce risks of loss of life and property in floods. It is past time for the federal government to follow their lead."
Weakening wetlands protections
Wetlands act as nature’s sponges, soaking up flood waters and filtering pollution before slowly releasing it downstream. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 80,000 acres of coastal wetlandsin the U.S.are lost every year, often filled in to build parking lots, strip malls and subdivisions.
In Houston, unchecked development thatdecimated the region’s prairie wetlands made Hurricane Harvey’s flooding far worse. Harris County lost 30 percent of its wetlands between 1992 and 2010, according to research by Texas A&M University. Altogether, the researchers found that the Houston area lost roughly 4 billion gallons’ worth of lost flood retention through destroyed wetlands.
Now the Trump administration is in the process of unwinding federal protections for a broad swath of the country’s wetlands.
A rulethat the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last summer would revoke a major2015 Obama administration regulation that had beenaimed at protecting headwater streams and wetlands. Those includespecific types of wetlands that are common in the Carolinas, which researchers have found play a key role in regulating flooding in the Lower Neuse River basin, where much of Florence’s flooding occurred.
The Obama-era rule has drawn criticism from a broad range of industries, including oil, gas, mining, farming and development, that argue it is a vast federal overreach. Trump has ordered EPA to replace it with a much narrower regulation that is expected to restrict federal protections that limit development and pollution to a far smaller set of waters.
Delaying action on coal ash ponds
The hurricane-prone Southeast is dotted with coal plants where toxic ash left over from power generation is stored in pits, ponds and landfills, often on the banks of rivers and lakes. North Carolina alone has 14 coal ash sites collectively holding more than 150 million tons of the toxic waste.
Florence’s historic rains havealready caused more than 150 dump trucks’ worth of coal ash to break free from a Duke Energy landfill north of Wilmington, some of which made its way into a nearby lake used for fishing and recreation. But a worse disaster was probably prevented because a state law required ash to be excavated from impoundments next to the lake. Coal ash basins at another site in Goldsboro, N.C., were also inundated, potentially displacing ash there, too.
But similar leaky ponds are still in usein most other states — and the Trump administration has taken steps to extend their lifespans.
A 2015 Obama administration rule would have required coal ash ponds built in or near water to be closed by April 2019. Instead, the Trump administration this summer extended that deadline by a year and a half, and may yet roll back the ruleeven further. And language in a proposal last spring has environmentalists suspicious that the Trump EPA may create new loopholes that allow coal ash ponds that don’t meet structural integrity standards to continue operating.
“People in the Southeast will be surely placed in greater jeopardy,” Lisa Evans, an attorney with the groupEarthjustice, said of the Trump administration’s rollback of the coal ash rule.She called the Obama-era regulation a matter of “such plain, common sense.”
“Everybody can understand that you shouldn’t have a toxic waste site on the edge of a river,” she said.
Loosening reins on chemical storage
Hurricane Harvey resulted in more than 100 releases of toxic chemicals, sending dozens of tons of the contaminants into the water, air and land, according to an Associated Press and Texas Tribune analysis of county, state and federal records months after the storm waters receded.
But this summer, the Trump administration decided not to issue spill prevention rules for huge, above-ground chemical storage tanks like the one that developed a massive leak in West Virginia in 2014. Environmentalists had sued EPA to demand action after that spill sent 10,000 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal into the Elk River, just upstream from the drinking water plant in Charleston, W. Va.
Although spill prevention rules exist for petroleum, Trump’s EPA concluded that similar regulations for other chemicals “would be duplicative and unnecessary,” then-Administrator Scott Pruitt said in June. The agency said 2,491 spills of hazardous substances had occurred between 2007 and 2016, not counting spills related to transportation. It said 117 of the spills had significant impacts like water supply contamination or casualties.
Enacting a wholesale rollback of climate rules
While scientists are reluctant to attribute any individual storm to climate change, the world’s foremost panel of climate experts has concluded that global warming stands to make them wetter and more intense. The warmer the atmosphere, the more moisture it can hold — and the United Nations’ climate panel estimates that a temperature increase of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit is likely to cause hurricanes to dump 10 to 15 percent more rain in the coming decades.
In the case of Florence, ateam of scientists from Stony Brook University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimated that warming conditions caused the storm to dump 50 percent more rain than it would have without climate change.
Meanwhile, climate change is causing sea levels to rise, in turn prompting hurricanes’ storm surges to be higher and reach further inland than they used to. Oceans have risen by an average of 8 inches globally since recordkeeping began in 1880, including 3 inches of rise in the past 25 years.
The U.S. government’s most recent report by top climate scientists predicts that seas will rise by at least another few inches in the next 15 years and by 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century. Other research has concluded that sea levels could rise by more than 6 feet by the end of the century because of faster-than-expected melting in Antarctica.
Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate treaty, and EPA’s subsequent unwinding of the three major Obama-era regulations aimed at slashing carbon pollution from power plants, vehicles and oil and gas operations, set the country on a path that makes Florence-like storms all the more likely, experts say.
Meanwhile, state and local policies can create their own hurdles for preparedness. For instance, in 2012 the North Carolina Legislature banned the state from relying on sea-level rise projectionsfrom its own Coastal Resources Commissionwhen making planning decisions. That move followedpressure from real estate interests that argued it could hinder oceanfront development.
Republicans are struggling to convince voters they will protect people with pre-existing conditions as Democrats trying to build a blue wave for November pound them for threatening to take away sick people’s health care.
Republicans have sought for weeks to defuse public angst over the issue, alternately vowing to protect coverage for vulnerable Americans while trying to fire up opposition to Democrats’ growing embrace of single payer.
Polling shows heightened public concern over pre-existing conditions — 75 percent of voters in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll said it's "very important" to keep Obamacare's insurance protections — and greater trust in Democrats to deal with the issue. The GOP’s most direct attempt to address the insurance protections — a recent Senate bill Republicans said would protect sick patients — backfired spectacularly after it quickly became clear the measure wouldn’t actually cover the pre-existing conditions it claimed to protect. The Trump administration's support for a lawsuit in Texas that would gut the health care law also hasn't helped the perception Republicans won't protect patients with pre-existing conditions.
That has left Republicans, who took control of Washington after years of vague promises to replace Obamacare, grasping to find a new health care message less than two months before midterm elections. Their inability to neutralize the pre-existing condition issue is hurting their efforts in tight races that could determine control of Congress.
“This is the killer app of Obamacare,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, pointing to the broad bipartisan support for the law’s health protections. “What you have to do at this point is duck and cover.”
Republicans’ dilemma is the latest sign of a radical shift in health care politics over the past year that’s jarred the GOP. Republican lawmakers' clumsy failed efforts to replace Obamacare sent the law’s popularity surging as the potentially dangerous stakes for people with pre-existing conditions came into sharp focus.
Polls this summer showed that voters trust congressional Democrats more than Republicans on health care issues, and when it comes to pre-existing conditions, Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage, a Morning Consult/POLITICO poll found last week.
That margin has Democrats across the country running confidently on Obamacare for the first time since its passage in 2010, even in swing districts and deep-red strongholds still skeptical of the health care law.
In August, more than half of Democratic ads nationwide focused on health care, far outpacing the rate of GOP ads touting job growth or tax cuts combined. Democrats, including some who say the Obamacare repeal effort motivated their candidacy, have cut deeply personal ads highlighting their own health care struggles. Republican candidates, in contrast, have run far fewer health ads, and they tend to focus on Democratic support for single-payer health care or “one-size-fits-all” government solutions.
The Trump administration this summer added fuel to Democrats’ health care offensive when it joined part of a 20-state lawsuit aimed at eliminating Obamacare. While the administration isn’t asking the courts to throw out the entire health care law, it’s challenging provisions that ban insurers from rejecting coverage or charging more based on patients’ pre-existing conditions.
Democrats, who once worried the grass-roots energy that helped sink the repeal effort last year wouldn’t translate to electoral success this November, are worried no more about whether the health care issue will help them at the polls.
“It’s been a political gift,” said Brad Woodhouse of Protect Our Care, an activist group orchestrating much of the outside pressure on Republicans’ health care agenda. “Any prospect that they were going to get out of the health care box they put themselves in went away the minute this lawsuit was filed and the Trump administration weighed in.”
The Trump administration asked the court to delay a ruling until January, potentially pushing off backlash until after the midterms. However, a federal judge in Texas during oral arguments this month appeared sympathetic to the lawsuit challenging Obamacare and has promised a quick ruling.
Sensing their disadvantage on the issue, 10 Senate Republicans last month sponsored a bill that would force insurers, who routinely rejected patients with pre-existing conditions before Obamacare, to accept those patients. There was one major loophole, though: Insurers didn’t have to cover those conditions. In other words, an insurer would have to sell a health plan to someone with cancer, but it wouldn’t have to actually cover cancer treatment.
“It’s a cruel hoax and a fraud,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who’s in a very tight re-election race against a Republican state attorney general who is part of the anti-Obamacare lawsuit. “How do you have a pre-existing conditions bill that says we’re going to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but not for their pre-existing condition? I mean, it’s embarrassing."
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the Republicans whose “no” vote helped doom the Obamacare repeal effort, instantly shot down the new bill. Within hours of introducing the legislation, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) was already backtracking, contending he could make improvements to bolster the bill’s protections.
“It was never intended to be comprehensive,” Tillis said in an interview last month. “This was to get the discussion going.”
But weeks later, the bill hasn’t been changed, and Republicans have stopped talking about it entirely.
Other Republicans say the threat to Obamacare’s consumer protections has beenoverblown by Democrats for political gain. They say Republicans should go on the offensive and highlight President Donald Trump’s expansion of cheaper health plans, which cost less than Obamacare plans because they cover less and provide fewer protections.
“Republicans know a better solution is to give Americans more options and let them choose the coverage that works best for them,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) wrote in an op-ed last week.
But few Republicans in competitive races are eager to make that case. Some are awkwardly trying to embrace Obamacare’s protections while still railing against the law. That’s proven an especially difficult tightrope walk for McCaskill’s challenger, Josh Hawley, and West Virginia Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey, who also is among the attorneys general backing the Obamacare lawsuit.
“The reality is that Josh Hawley has always said he wants people with pre-existing conditions to be covered,” his campaign said in response to an August ad highlighting his support of the lawsuit. “On the other hand, Sen. McCaskill is responsible for the current Obamacare mess.”
McCaskill, who’s trailing Hawley slightly in polls, is in the middle of airing 30 different ads in 30 days highlighting pre-existing conditions. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has surged to a comfortable lead by persistently attacking Morrisey on the issue, punctuated by an ad that shows Manchin shooting a copy of the Obamacare lawsuit.
Three other Democrats in close Senate races in states Trump won — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — are also making pre-existing conditions a central theme of their campaigns.
House Republicans are in an even tougher spot, since their chamber last year approved an Obamacare repeal bill that would have watered down the law’s consumer protections. The House legislation which Trump hailed in a Rose Garden celebration, was supposed to be the payoff of eight years of promises to replace the health care law. Instead, it was an instant liability for vulnerable incumbents dragged down by an unpopular president.
“You say you want to repeal something, it’s got to be replaced with something that is better than what you’re repealing,” said Rep. Dan Donovan of New York, one of the few Republicans who voted against repeal.
Donovan and 26 other House Republicans signed on to a resolution calling on Congress to restore pre-existing condition protections if the Trump-backed lawsuit in Texas wipes them out. That group includes some in competitive races, like Arizona’s Martha McSally and California’s David Valadao, who have faced intense criticism over their repeal votes.
Republicans lament that the focus on pre-existing conditions has drowned out their once-reliable campaign tactic of highlighting Obamacare’s flaws — or for that matter, Democrats’ national health plans that GOP candidates say are escaping much-needed public scrutiny.
“What we want is a marketplace where you can get what you want,” said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who’s battling a progressive Democrat in a district Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016. “Let’s tell the truth about [Obamacare]: It is a discriminatory, expensive system that’s one size fits all.”
Obamacare supporters, who have tried to tamp down talk of single-payer and "Medicare-for-all" this cycle to keep the focus on Republicans, aren’t slowing down in the campaign’s home stretch.
Liberal activist group Health Care Voter is running a voter mobilization campaign in the home districts of Sessions and 19 other House Republicans who voted for repeal.
Protect Our Care is also embarking on a six-week, 23-state bus tour to boost Democratic Senate candidates by highlighting the threats that it says GOP policies pose to health coverage.
“Make it about Republican sabotage, repeal and legal challenges to do away with things that people want,” said Woodhouse of Protect Our Care. “There’s nowhere in the country, no district, no state where Democrats shouldn’t be hammering away at this.”
Russian hackers behind the 2016 Democratic National Committee hack appear to be targeting the personal email of senators and their staffers, according to Sen. Ron Wyden.
In a letter today to Senate leaders, the Oregon Democrat urged support for legislation that would allow the Sergeant at Arms to protect those email systems.
The letter from Wyden follows reports in January that the Russian hacking group Fancy Bear — which the U.S. intelligence community identified as one group that penetrated the DNC in the lead-up to the 2016 election — was going after Senate offices.
"My office has since discovered that Fancy Bear targeted personal email accounts, not official government accounts," Wyden wrote. "And the Fancy Bear attacks may be the tip of a much larger iceberg.
"My office has also discovered that at least one major technology company has informed a number of Senators and Senate staff members that their personal email accounts were targeted by foreign government hackers," he wrote.
Wyden said his staff subsequently learned that the Senate Sergeant at Arms told offices it didn't have the authority protect their personal emails. BuzzFeed previously reported that the Sergeant at Arms would not protect personal emails.
He said he was introducing legislation to change that. He asked for support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Rules panel.
The Associated Press first reported Wyden's letter.
President Donald Trump announced he intends to nominate Nellie Liang, a 31-year veteran of the Federal Reserve staff, to an open seat on the central bank's board.
Liang, a PhD economist and reportedly a registered Democrat, was the first head of the Fed’s office of financial stability from 2010 to early 2017. She gave key input into the development of the central bank’s post-crisis regulations and conducted extensive research into the interaction between interest rate policy and financial stability.
Her selection comes at a time when the Fed is watching closely to see whether an extensive period of low interest rates has led to a buildup in risks in the financial system. She would be the first minority woman on the Fed board.
When Liang is nominated, Trump will have put forward candidates for all the vacancies on the Fed’s seven-member board. Richard Clarida was sworn in this week as vice chairman, and Michelle Bowman and Marvin Goodfriend are pending before the Senate floor for two other Fed seats.
Liang began her career at the Fed in 1986 in the division of research and statistics. Since leaving the central bank in 2017, she has been a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank that is also home to former Fed chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. She has also done work for the International Monetary Fund.
She received her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and her PhD from the University of Maryland.
Her selection was earlier reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday said that he would restart denuclearization talks with North Korea with the goal of completing the process by 2021.
The comments came on the heels of meetings this week between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after which Kim vowed to dismantle parts of his nuclear program in exchange for certain concessions from the United States.
"On the basis of these important commitments, the United States is prepared to engage immediately in negotiations," Pompeo said in a statement.
The announcement is a change in tone for the U.S. Last month, President Donald Trump canceled a planned Pompeo visit to Pyongyang, saying the two sides were not making enough progress.
But on Wednesday, Pompeo said he had invited North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to restart talks with him next week in New York at the United Nations General Assembly meeting.
Pompeo also said he had invited Pyongyang officials to meet in Vienna, Austria, with Stephen Biegun, the State Department's recently appointed North Korean envoy, "at the earliest opportunity."
"This will mark the beginning of negotiations to transform U.S.-DPRK relations through the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula," Pompeo said, using an alternative acronym for North Korea.
Kim has previously indicated that he would like to get rid of his nuclear weapons program by the end of Trump's first term, although experts say the North Korean leader has taken few steps to actually achieve that goal.
What if, after having moved into the White House and gotten comfortable, Donald Trump refuses to check out when his term ends?
Preposterous, you say. No president, not even Trump, would dare to defy 200-plus years of political tradition—not to mention the Constitution—to illegally overstay. But how sure can we be that our norm-busting president won’t attempt to shatter this inviolable standard, too? He and his lawyers have already advanced the specious legal idea that the chief executive can’t be charged with obstruction of justice, thereby placing him above the law. Who’s to say that Trump’s legal advisers might construct some pretext—a national security crisis or charges of election fraud—that would place him above the Constitution and cement his place in the Oval Office?
The fear that a president might not go at his appointed time has a precedent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, encouraged by columnist Walter Lippmann, contemplated taking dictatorial powers at the beginning of his first administration, but then reconsidered. Almost a half-century ago, the prospect of impeachment and conviction sent President Richard Nixon’s innate paranoia to a sub-basement of suspicion and distrust. As the lights started going out around him, he raged, he drank, and raged some more. In one sober moment, he called CBS News reporter Nancy Dickerson in the middle of the night to ramble on and on about how the press was mistreating him.
According to reporter Seymour Hersh, Nixon intimates began to believe that he was contemplating some sort of a coup d’état to maintain power. An unnamed member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Hersh that in one meeting Nixon called himself “the last hope” and claimed that the “eastern elite was out to get him.” Said the four-star officer: “His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the president, without the words having been said, was trying to sound us out to see if we would support him in some extra-constitutional action. He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power.”
The officer and others told Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger of their Nixon anxieties. Nixon had centralized military power in the White House, often cutting his previous secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, out of the chain of command, giving some credence to the worry that he might issue an extreme order. Schlesinger investigated what sort of countermeasure the military could take if Nixon ordered Marines or other Washington-billeted troops to block his removal after impeachment and conviction. “Schlesinger’s overriding concern, in case a crisis did arise, was the possibility that the armed forces would follow their inherent loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief,” Hersh wrote.
Ultimately, the specter of a Nixon coup inspired Schlesinger to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to execute no White House order without his countersignature. Nixon never gave any such orders, and his aide-turned-biographer Jonathan Aitken later described Schlesinger’s move as “the wildest over-reaction of Watergate.” Nixon’s reaction when told the tale: “Incredible.”
Compare Trump to Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump has sought to curry favor with the military, stacking his Cabinet with generals. Former CIA Director John Brennan has called him “unstable, inept, inexperienced, and unethical,” and temper-tantrums in public and on Twitter have caused him to be branded as a hothead. Trump’s current chief of staff, John F. Kelly, has described him as “off the rails,” according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House. Woodward, who reported on Nixon’s ouster in The Final Days, compares Trump’s paranoia to Nixon’s in his new book.
Trump has repeatedly bruised the rule of law with his words and actions, so why not the Constitution? Earlier this year, when a lawful search warrant was served on his attorney, Michael Cohen, Trump said, “I just heard they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys.” This week, he claimed hyperbolically that he doesn’t have an attorney general because his AG won’t run the Department of Justice like a windup toy for him, and he called the Federal Bureau of Investigation a “cancer in our country.” This is strong meat! He claims that the special prosecutor’s investigation, which has returned eight guilty pleas and one conviction, is a “witch hunt.” He has used the presidential pardon to reward political allies such as Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza. L’Etat, C’est Moi could be incorporated into the Trump coat of arms.
Trump laid the groundwork for contesting the legitimacy of the 2020 election during the 2016 campaign, blaring his distrust of the election process nonstop. “They even want to try and rig the election at the polling booths, where so many cities are corrupt and voter fraud is all too common,” he said. In the final debate with Hillary Clinton, he declined to say whether he would accept the results of the election, a position he was still voicing on Election Day. “I want to see what happens, you know, how it goes,” Trump said. Even after winning, Trump repeatedly asserted—with no proof—that 3 million to 5 million noncitizens had voted in the 2016 election, and that their illegal ballots cost him the popular vote. Once inaugurated, he impaneled his now-abandoned Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate his bogus allegations.
Trump appears to have conveyed his disparaging views about voting integrity to his political base. According to one 2017 poll, half of all Republicans surveyed favored postponing the 2020 election until new standards made it certain that only eligible American citizens could vote. Respondents who agreed with Trump’s untruths that he won the popular election and that millions of ballots were cast illegally were the most likely to support the idea of postponing the election.
This isn’t the first time the idea of postponing the federal election has surfaced. In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security asked the Department of Justice whether the government could put off an election in the case of a terrorist strike. No such legal mechanism was found, and the outrage generated by the inquiry prompted Congress to pass a resolution, 419-2, declaring that nobody could shelve an election.
So if Trump couldn’t postpone an election, could he just ignore it? The nation would erupt, of course. Even great numbers of his supporters would abandon him. But never underestimate Trump’s audacity. In 2016, he reserved the right to reject the results. The fact that he won made his rejection moot. But what scenario might play out in 2020 if Trump lost but denied the results? Would he endlessly filibuster the states for recounts? Appeal to the Supreme Court and ignore its ruling by claiming squatters rights to the White House?
Not even Trump would go that far, right? Even though he’s taught us to expect the worst from him, I’d like to think that he’d pack the Bekins van and move back to Trump Tower after losing. But what about the long shot of the House impeaching him and the Senate convicting him? Would he honor those judgments? Again, I’d like to think so, but my faith wobbles. His sense of victimhood, displayed daily on Twitter, predicts that he might interpret his constitutional defenestration as a coup by the Deep State, a coup that justified his counter-coup. Trump’s backers—see these pieces in the American Conservative and the Federalist as well as a commentary by Bill O’Reilly and an interview with Steve Bannon—have already poured the foundation for such a notion with their talk of the “coup against Trump.” Likewise, all the talk about using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office can’t help but have boosted his baseline paranoia.
The president’s cheerleading for anti-democratic authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping and Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and the mutual admiration pact he’s signed with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un does not bode well for an orderly transition of power in 2020 or 2024 or whenever his eviction notice is served. Because nothing is off the table when Trump’s operating, let’s hope current Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has read deeply from the Nixon histories and has issued the appropriate order to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rumors circulated nationwide in the spring of 1970 that Nixon had ordered the Rand Corporation to study the feasibility of suspending the 1972 election in the case of a domestic uprising. The rumors were baseless, David Greenberg writes in Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, but their intensity required a denial from Daniel Patrick Moynihan. That same year, Scanlan’s Monthly ran a memo, purportedly written by an aide to Vice President Spiro Agnew, that referred to election-canceling plans. It was most likely a hoax. Send plans to postpone the 2020 elections to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My think of themselves as a royal family. My Twitter would resign, given a chance. My RSS feed invites your attempts to impeach him.
President Donald Trump is growing more confident that his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, can weather a charge of sexual assault and will be confirmed, according to two sources familiar with the confirmation process.
The feeling is shared by some of Trump’s key Republican allies, even as controversy continues to rage over a sexual-assault allegation against the conservative judge. The White House and its allies have taken no steps to line up a new nominee, according to four people familiar with the confirmation process.
"We're very confident," one Republican in touch with the White House said when asked whether Kavanaugh will survive the firestorm.
Even so, Kavanaugh’s Washington allies continue to hunt for evidence — scouring everything from high school yearbooks to real estate records — that might reveal Ford to be acting out of personal or political bias, or simply misremembering a single night of high school.
Trump’s optimism was on display in his comments to reporters Wednesday, just before he departed Washington D.C. for North Carolina to tour hurricane-ravaged areas. As he did on Tuesday, Trump cast Kavanaugh as an extraordinary man with an “unblemished record,” whom he said has been treated unfairly. But he also escalated his rhetoric, applying new pressure on Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, by saying she should attend a scheduled Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to testify publicly about her allegation.
“I really want to see her. I really would want to see what she has to say,” Trump said. “If she doesn’t show up, that would be unfortunate.”
"This is a very tough thing for him and his family. And we want to get it over with,” Trump said — before adding: "At the same time, we want to give tremendous amounts of time."
The sources including a White House official said the increasingly frequency and sympathy of Trump’s tone toward Kavanaugh reflected growing optimism that his nominee would win Senate confirmation despite the epic drama still unfolding around Ford’s accusation and whether she will detail it in public.
“This is not in the bag,” said one White House official. “But I think we know what we are going to do.”
On the advice of senior aides, including White House counsel Don McGahn, Trump had previously offered a more muted and cautious line, and in general he has shown uncharacteristic restraint on the subject.
One reason Trump and his allies are feeling bullish: Some Republican senators, including Sen. Bob Corker, who initially called for further investigation of Ford’s allegation, have said the Senate should go ahead and vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination if Ford does wind up testifying. Kavanaugh’s fate hangs on just a few additional votes.
Some conservatives have interpreted Ford’s declaration that she wants the FBI to investigate her account before she testifies as evidence that her account of a night in the mid-1980s is somehow flawed.
No evidence has emerged to that effect, although Democrats and Republicans alike on Wednesday described a flurry of hearsay, rumors and online testimonials of generally dubious veracity that allegedly support their respective sides.
Trump underscored the high stakes of the controversy in his remarks to reporters Wednesday. “Look, when I first decided to run, everybody said the single most important thing you do is a Supreme Court justice, okay? We've all heard that many times about a President.”
Republicans hope to vote on Kavanaugh – with or without a Senate hearing – early next week, as long as they can lock down 50 votes among Senate Republicans, with Vice President Pence can casting the tiebreaking vote if needed.
One Republican familiar with the confirmation process said the White House and GOP are walking a line between not enraging women sympathetic to Ford’s charges but also projecting strength and partisan fire to core Republican voters.
“One thing that is keeping everyone in line is that we’re worried about the #MeToo movement, but we’re also worried about discouraging the base,” said the Republican. “There is a real concern, if Kavanaugh does not get confirmed and we don’t rally to the cause, it could hurt us.”
The question of whether or not Ford will ultimately appear in-person in Washington D.C. added the latest twist to the Republicans’ fast-moving process of trying to confirm and seat a judge before the November mid-terms.
At stake is the balance of the Supreme Court and court decisions that will reverberate for generations, as well as Trump’s own promises to evangelicals and conservatives that he’d stock the courts with like-minded judges.
Ford’s lawyer, Debra Katz, sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley Tuesday explaining that Ford wants the FBI to investigate the allegations prior to her testimony. The letter added that, since Ford went public with her story in the Washington Post on Sunday, the California clinical psychology professor has endured harassment and threats and has even fled her home.
Kavanaugh’s backers have combed through dusty yearbooks and public records to try to reconstruct the night of the Maryland house party party at which Ford says a 17-year-old Kavanaugh assaulted her so aggressively that she feared for her life. Ford says Kavanaugh took her into a room with another male friend, groped her, tried to forcibly remove her clothes, and cover her mouth when she protested.
Ford’s lawyer has not responded to repeated requests from POLITICO for an interview.
Kavanaugh has spent the last few days, holed up in the West Wing with White House counsel, Don McGahn, who has served as confidant and counselor as the two try to line up support of senators, map out a defense strategy, and prepare for a potential hearing on Monday.
In recent days, Kavanaugh has retained the law firm of Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz to represent him.
Even after the allegations came out and Ford went public, the White House and conservative groups doubled down on Kavanaugh as their favored pick for the Supreme Court – with no else waiting in the wings, said four sources familiar with the confirmation process.
Trump himself has largely left the defense of Kavanaugh and strategy behind it to McGahn and congressional leadership. And even as Trump has expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh – as he’s often done for men facing allegations of abuse or sexual impropriety-- he’s also been quite focused on the federal government’s response to the hurricane and new tariffs on China. He spent Wednesday in North Carolina, receiving a briefing on the hurricane response and handing out food in styrofoam containers to hurricane victims in a church parking lot.
“Trump is happy no one is talking about Manafort and Mueller, so he is happy to play along,” said one Republican close to the White House.