These 3 lawmakers know the secrets in Mueller's report

The fate of Donald Trump’s presidency may hinge on Congress’ handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report — yet just three rank-and-file members of the House are allowed to view Mueller's confidential files.

Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) are the only members of the 435-member House that sit on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, and so they have access to evidence that underpins both volumes of Mueller’s report — the one on contacts between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign that the Intelligence panel is reviewing, and the one on Trump’s efforts to interfere with the investigation that Judiciary panel is exploring.

As lawmakers deal with the fallout of one of the most consequential investigations in a generation, these three lawmakers remain the highest-ranking elected officials with access to both sets of evidence — a result of complex and confrontational negotiations between Democrats and the Trump administration — which could help determine whether lawmakers move forward with an impeachment inquiry against Trump. (Like all other lawmakers, they are unable to view grand-jury evidence, which by law cannot be disclosed.)

“We started off wanting every member of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, to be able to review the Mueller report and all supporting materials,” Demings said in an interview. “That’s what we wanted because we have to make some critical decisions moving forward, whether it’s to begin an impeachment inquiry or just continue the investigations. We are not able to do that as of yet.”

For Democrats, the limited access is a far cry from their demands that all 535 members of Congress receive access to Mueller’s complete report and underlying evidence. But it’s an arrangement that House leaders have reluctantly agreed to as they wrestle with a growing faction of Democrats — almost one-third of the caucus — demanding impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Demings and Swalwell both support an impeachment inquiry; Ratcliffe opposes impeachment, like all Republicans except Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.).

But all three have been granted a unique level of access as the Intelligence and Judiciary panels remain locked in grueling negotiations with the Justice Department over access to Mueller’s underlying evidence.

After several rounds of brinkmanship and false starts, both committees reached tentative agreements with the Justice Department to begin reviewing slices of Mueller’s files — so long as the lawmakers promise to keep a tight lid on what they see. The rules are so strict that members of the Intelligence Committee are prohibited from discussing what they see with members of the Judiciary Committee, and vice-versa.

The Justice Department recently wrote in a court filing that lawmakers and aides are to “strictly maintain the confidentiality of any information contained in the report and to use that information only for committee purposes.”

Those limits also create a difficult personal dynamic for the three lawmakers involved, who must self-censor their conversations with colleagues on each of the committees.

“It does come with the added burden of being extraordinarily responsible with the information,” Swalwell acknowledged.

“There’s just a weird way of how your brain compartmentalizes it,” Swalwell continued. “It’s not an accident that the Intel Committee is three floors under the Capitol. When you come upstairs — I don’t necessarily think about what I heard down there until I go back down there again. It’s just a physical, out of sight, out of mind. I don’t cross the two.”

The Intelligence Committee has begun to review confidential counterintelligence information about Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election, as well as contacts between Russian operatives and members of the Trump campaign. The Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, has started to receive access to evidence that Trump attempted to interfere in the Russia investigation. That evidence includes contemporaneous notes and FBI witness interview notes.

Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney, says he’s been eager to review as much information as the Justice Department is willing to show him. “I’ve seen everything I can as quickly as they’ll let me,” he said. And he added that he wishes more colleagues on both sides of the aisle could have the same vantage point.

“I’m grateful that I’m one of the few that have had the opportunity,” Ratcliffe said. “I’m trying to take advantage of that for the benefit of educating not just Republican members of Congress but members of the public within the confines of not divulging information that I can’t for national security reasons.”

Ratcliffe noted that he’s similarly well-positioned to inform his colleagues and the public because he sat inside the room last year when the Republican-led Judiciary and Oversight Committees investigated the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. In those sessions, a handful of lawmakers directly interviewed many of the figures who played central roles in Mueller’s investigation, including James Comey, Andrew McCabe and Peter Strzok.

Ratcliffe noted that even though he wishes more lawmakers could see the information he’s reviewing, many who already have access to portions of the report have declined to view them. Some of those members have declined on principle since all lawmakers can’t review the materials.

“I do think it would be helpful if more members had access, but I also think it’d be helpful if more members took advantage of the access that they had,” Ratcliffe said. “Frankly, on both sides there are folks that have the opportunity to look at information and they haven’t availed themselves of that opportunity yet, but it allows for a more informed discussion all the way around.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

SCOTUS strikes down ban on ‘scandalous’ and ‘immoral’ trademarks

An unusual configuration of justices from both ideological wings of the Supreme Court came together Monday to strike down provisions in federal law denying federal registration to trademarks deemed “immoral” or “scandalous.”

The decision, which won the full backing of six of the justices, was the second time in two years that the high court knocked out a portion of federal trademark law as a violation of free speech rights.

Writing for the court’s majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the law ran afoul of the First Amendment rights of artist Erik Brunetti, who sought trademark protection for a clothing line called “FUCT.”

Officials at the Patent and Trademark Office rejected the proposed trademark, calling it “vulgar” and "highly offensive” and therefore banned from registration under the federal law on trademarks, the Lanham Act.

Justice Department attorneys sought to narrow the meaning of immoral and scandalous to cover just marks that are sexually explicit or profane, but Kagan said that didn’t comport closely enough with the statute, which seemed to sweep in a broader range of potential marks.

“Once the ‘immoral or scandalous’ bar is interpreted fairly, it must be invalidated,” she wrote in a relatively brief, 11-page opinion. “There are a great many immoral and scandalous ideas in the world (even more than there are swearwords), and the Lanham Act covers them all. It therefore violates the First Amendment.”

Kagan also pointed to what she suggested was inequitable enforcement of the law, allowing anti-drug trademarks while banning pro-drug ones, and barring some religious references like a “Madonna” wine, while allowing trademarks that seemed to promote religion on T-shirts and games.

At arguments in the case in April, the justices and litigants carefully avoided around the swear word that is a homophone for Brunetti’s proposed trademark, with his attorney Malcolm Stewart noting that the trademark office found that many people would view the mark as “the equivalent of the profane past participle form of a well-known word of profanity and perhaps the paradigmatic word of profanity in our language.”

Kagan’s opinion was fully endorsed by liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as all the court’s Republican appointees, save for Chief Justice John Roberts.

Roberts, along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, partially dissented, arguing that the ban on “scandalous” trademarks was constitutional when read to cover marks that are vulgar or obscene.

The chief justice said core free speech rights were not threatened in the case because no one was proposing to prevent Brunetti from using his “FUCT” logo, just denying it trademark status.

“The Government…has an interest in not associating itself with trademarks whose content is obscene, vulgar, or profane. The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech; it does not require the Government to give aid and comfort to those using obscene, vulgar, and profane modes of expression,” Roberts wrote.

The court ruled two years ago that the government could not use a ban on “disparaging” trademarks to deny registration to a band that called itself “the Slants.”

But Breyer and Sotomayor seemed particularly concerned that the ruling Monday could lead to a proliferation of clothing and other merchandise emblazoned with racial epithets.

“These attention-grabbing words, though financially valuable to some businesses that seek to attract interest in their products, threaten to distract consumers and disrupt commerce. And they may lead to the creation of public spaces that many will find repellant, perhaps on occasion creating the risk of verbal altercations or even physical confrontations. (Just think about how you might react if you saw someone wearing a t-shirt or using a product emblazoned with an odious racial epithet),” Breyer wrote.

“The Government thus has an interest in seeking to disincentivize the use of such words in commerce by denying the benefit of trademark registration,” Breyer added.

Sotomayor expressed worry that “some more extreme” trademarks than the “FUCT” one at issue in the case would now wind up with federal approval. She suggested “at least one particularly egregious racial epithet” should be considered “scandalous,” but she did not specify which one.

While Justice Samuel Alito joined the majority, he also wrote separately to say he saw no real value in Brunetti’s “FUCT” mark and would find a ban on it constitutional if more narrowly written.

“The term suggested by that mark is not needed to express any idea and, in fact, as commonly used today, generally signifies nothing except emotion and a severely limited vocabulary,” he wrote. “The registration of such marks serves only to further coarsen our popular culture. But we are not legislators and cannot substitute a new statute for the one now in force.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Sanders wants to cancel all student loan debt, even for the wealthy

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday proposed eliminating all of the nearly $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt owed by Americans, raising the stakes on an issue that has increasingly animated the progressive base of the Democratic party.

Sanders is the latest 2020 presidential contender to propose a one-time cancellation program that would forgive large portions of student loan debt, which is owed by some 45 million Americans. His plan follows one released earlier this year by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), who called for forgiving $640 billion of student loan debt.

Sanders’ call for completely eliminating existing student loan debt is sure to rekindle divisions among progressives and Democratic primary voters more broadly over whether sweeping new government benefits should be available to all — or targeted to low- and middle-income families.

But Sanders pushed back on that potential divide during a press conference outside of the Senate on Monday morning, saying he believes education is a right to everyone, regardless of income.

“The overwhelming majority of the people who are going to benefit from this legislation are working-class people,” Sanders said, surrounded by progressive lawmakers, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who are filing a companion bill to Sanders’ proposal in the House.

Sanders said he believes in “universality,” but that he aims to make sure his proposal doesn’t benefit the wealthy by demanding “that the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share in taxes”

“And that means that if Donald Trump wants to send his grandchildren to public school, he has the right to do that,” he said. “What we are saying today is public colleges and universities should be tuition-free and debt-free for all Americans.”

The lawmakers pitched the effort as a “bailout” for millennials and the working class, funded by Wall Street.

“The American people bailed out Wall Street. It’s time for Wall Street to bail out the American people,” Omar said, echoing Sanders’ comments from a campaign event Sunday at Clinton College in Rock Hill, S.C., where he argued that “if we could bail out Wall Street, we sure as hell can reduce student debt in this country.”

The key difference between Sanders and Warren is that Warren seeks to limit loan forgiveness for wealthier student loan borrowers, rather than extending the relief to all. Her proposal would forgive $50,000 of debt for borrowers earning less than $100,000, with proportionally less debt relief for those earning up to $250,000 and no benefit for borrowers beyond that income level. Warren said earlier this month that she and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn would introduce bicameral legislation in the "coming weeks" on debt relief.

The proposal to cancel all existing student loan debt is one component of Sanders’ overall $2.2 trillion higher education plan, which includes eliminating tuition at public colleges and some private schools that serve large swaths of minority students.

Sanders would pay for his higher education plan by imposing a new tax on Wall Street transactions, including stock trades, bonds and derivatives. His campaign said that taxes would generate more than $2.4 trillion over the next decade, enough to cover the $2.2 trillion higher education plan.

The Sanders legislation would also cap the interest rate on all new federal student loans at 1.88 percent. The current rate on new loans ranges from about 4.5 percent for undergraduates to about 7 percent for Parent PLUS and some graduate student loans.

The bill would also triple funding on Federal Work-Study and double money for federal programs that help low-income students enroll in and graduate from college.

Sanders previously called, during the 2016 presidential campaign, for eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities for all students. He sparred over that issue with Hillary Clinton, who attacked his plan for subsidizing wealthy families who can already afford to pay for college. Sanders ultimately backed a compromise with Clinton ahead of the 2016 Democratic convention that called for limiting free public college tuition to families earning less than $125,000.

Sanders' latest plan would go even further in eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities for all students. It would provide new federal funding to help states eliminate costs for low-income students beyond tuition, for instance. And it also aims to eliminate tuition for low-income students at some 200 private institutions that serve large numbers of minority students, including historically black colleges and universities.

Critics of the debt forgiveness on both sides of the aisle have said that it would provide large benefits to higher-income families who have student loan debt from expensive graduate degrees.

Other Democratic candidates, such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have positioned themselves as more moderate on the issue, saying that canceling student loan debt unfairly benefits those who go to college over those who don’t. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has rejected the idea of free tuition at four-year colleges as unrealistic and too expensive, though she supports free community college.

Benjamin Wermund contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Supreme Court rules against newspaper seeking access to food stamp data

The Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to businesses seeking to block their information from being disclosed to the public after it winds up in the hands of the federal government.

The justices ruled in favor of retailers seeking to prevent a South Dakota newspaper from obtaining store-level data on the redemption of food stamp benefits, now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The high court ruling rejected a half-century-old appeals court precedent that allowed the withholding of business records under the Freedom of Information Act only in cases where harm would result either to the business or to the government’s ability to acquire information in the future.

The latest case was set into motion when the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to disclose the store-level SNAP data in response to a 2011 FOIA request from the Argus Leader, the daily newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The newspaper sued, but a federal district court ruled in favor of the USDA.

The Argus Leader appealed, and the U.S. Appeals Court for the 8th Circuit ruled that the exemption the USDA was citing did not apply in this case, sending the issue back to a lower court. The district court was tasked with determining whether the USDA was covered by a separate FOIA exemption governing information that would cause competitive injury if released.

That court ruled in favor of the newspaper, at which point the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group that represents retailers such as grocery stores, filed an appeal in lieu of the USDA.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch faulted the D.C. Circuit for setting a legal standard not found in the actual words of the FOIA statute. “We cannot approve such a casual disregard of the rules of statutory interpretation,” Gorsuch wrote.

Gorsuch also quoted a Justice Department brief, known as National Parks, as a relic from a “bygone era of statutory construction.” The 55-year-old decision was not binding on courts outside Washington, D.C., but most courts defer to the D.C. Circuit on FOIA matters.

"We’re disappointed in today’s outcome, obviously," said Cory Myers, the news director of the Argus Leader, in a story posted to the newspaper's website. "This is a massive blow to the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, and who is benefiting. Regardless, we will continue to fight for government openness and transparency, as always."

Business groups had urged the high court to strike down the longstanding precedent. News organizations and open-government advocates pleaded with the justices to leave it in place.

"Legislative history tells us the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, was created to shine a light on actions by the government, not on that of private parties, and the court’s expressed desire to refer our case back to the lower courts demonstrates that our case sets an important precedent well beyond disclosing store-level SNAP sales in grocery," said Leslie Sarasin, the president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, in a statement after the ruling.

All the Supreme Court’s conservatives and Democratic appointee Justice Elena Kagan joined Gorsuch’s opinion Monday.

Three justices — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — partially dissented. Joined by his two liberal colleagues, Breyer said the majority’s ruling threatened to cloak information the public deserves to know.

“A tool used to probe the relationship between government and business should not be unavailable whenever government and business wish it so,” Breyer wrote. “Given the temptation, common across the private and public sectors, to regard as secret all information that need not be disclosed, I fear the majority’s reading will deprive the public of information for reasons no better than convenience, skittishness, or bureaucratic inertia.”

Breyer said he would hold that the word “confidential” encompasses a requirement that a business show at least some harm is likely to result from disclosure. However, he said he would back away from the D.C. Circuit’s rule that it must be “substantial” harm.

“I would clarify that a private harm need not be ‘substantial’ so long as it is genuine,” Breyer wrote.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump’s Peace Plan Is Immoral, Impractical—and Could Blow Up the Middle East

It sounds great on paper: The U.S. administration will hold a “peace to prosperity” economic workshop in Bahrain on June 25 and 26 to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Yet scratch the shiny PR surface and you’ll find a dangerously simplistic approach to a complicated situation. Anybody who followed the last 30 years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict understands that President Donald Trump’s announcement of this first step on the way to a deal is all form and no substance: a new name for the same failed idea known as “economic peace,” and before that as “a new Middle East.”

Putting economics first, before a political process, is more than a tactical error, yet another in a long line of failed attempts to advance towards a permanent two-state solution. The Trump administration’s focus on economics—led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner—is a strategic mistake that could stymie the negotiations before they begin. If Trump and his team studied history, they would know that placing economics before core political issues is a slap in the face to the Palestinians. Of course, the Palestinians want to improve their quality of life; of course they want to build a growing economy. But these are secondary goals, to be pursued after self-determination is achieved. If the Palestinians could be “bought” with economic benefits, we would be long past the need for talks. Trump’s approach is not only immoral, it is impractical.

The truth is that economics were never enough to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Paris Agreement, which followed the Oslo Accords—a set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in the 1990s that were never implemented to the letter—focused on economics, and it did not salvage the deterioration of the security situation that resulted in the second intifada, a bloody 4-year Palestinian revolt against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Neither the first nor the second intifadas broke out for economic reasons (the Palestinian economy was not faring badly, relatively speaking). They erupted because the way forward was unclear, and because the Palestinians felt that the economic benefits offered would not lead to the end of the occupation. High hopes for trust-building had been dashed against the absence of a political plan to end the conflict. This void nurtured despair and disappointment, leading to angry uprisings that cost many lives on both sides.

That is the very real danger we are facing again. By putting economics first while ignoring the end game, Trump is repeating a colossal mistake: resuming talks without defining the end goal. For both Palestinians and Israelis, that goal should be ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel within 1967 borders, with necessary land swaps. Unless both parties and the mediating power state this clearly at the outset, the expectations gap will breed mistrust. Thus, sitting down together will be futile. This will lead to further disillusionment—and escalating violence. Unless the goal of the talks is explicitly defined as ending the conflict and establishing a Palestinian state, more lives will be lost.

Moreover, there will be no Jewish and democratic state without resolving the Palestinian issue.

The problem is that once Trump’s deal hits the table, it will be hard to ignore. Israel and the Palestinian Authority will have to respond. This will place Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, already considered a collaborator with Israel by most Palestinians, in a dangerous bind. He will not able to accept a deal that blatantly ignores Palestinian national aspirations, yet rejecting it will paint him as resisting peace. Domestic pressure may force him to stop cooperating with Israel on security, which will lead to a hike in terrorism. The path from there to igniting the entire area would be short, as the painful history of the conflict shows.

A Middle East explosion could be ignited by another conflict point: the rapidly escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which is connected to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The best way to effectively confront Iran is via a regional coalition of relatively moderate Sunni regimes, headed by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with tacit participation of Israel. But forming such a coalition is not possible unless a credible political process aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is underway; Arab people will not tolerate cooperation with Israel without it. Thus, for the Trump administration, which views confronting Iran as a key foreign policy objective, a plan that establishes this process should be critically important.

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yet it is not clear whether Trump’s intentions are good or merely seek to do Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a political favor. Presenting Abbas with an impossible choice will allow Netanyahu to win another round of the blame game and accuse the Palestinians of backing away from a good deal, playing into Netanyahu’s electoral base that rejects a two-state solution. But the result may be more death and an escalation that would delay constructive talks—and a Mideast anti-Iran coalition—for years.

To end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, protect Israelis and Palestinians, and prevent more bloodshed and greater instability in the Middle East, Trump’s dangerous “economics first” approach should be discarded—and, if not, opposed.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Trump's steel tariffs

The Supreme Court Monday declined to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel for national security reasons.

American steel importers asked in April for the Supreme Court to review a March ruling from the U.S. Court of International Trade that upheld the constitutionality of Trump’s use of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to impose tariffs.

The court’s decision not to consider the case means that Court of International Trade’s ruling will remain.

The case was filed by the American Institute for International Steel and two of its member companies: Texas-based Sim-Tex, a wholesaler of oil and gas pipe, and Kurt Orban Partners, an international steel trader based in California.

Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and 10 percent duty on imported aluminum in March 2018 after an investigation into whether imports of both metals are a threat to U.S. national security.

The plaintiffs originally argued that Section 232 was far too open-ended and allowed the president to make a decision without any check from Congress or a requirement for judicial review.

A number of lawmakers have criticized Trump’s use of the statute to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from around the world. Trump could also later use the statute to impose tariffs on autos and auto part imports.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is working on legislation that would serve as a check on the president’s power to impose tariffs through Section 232. His bill will likely be released after the long August recess.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Oversight panel demands White House official testify on Trump-Putin docs

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is demanding that the White House’s records chief testify about President Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to conceal documents detailing his private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a letter to Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the White House has ignored his previous requests for information about Trump’s compliance with the Presidential Records Act, which mandates that such documents be preserved.

“These actions do not serve the interests of the American people, and they obstruct and frustrate the committee’s review,” Cummings wrote in his letter, which comes just a few days before Trump is scheduled to meet with Putin at the G-20 summit in Japan.

Democrats have long been suspicious about Trump’s private conversations with Putin — most notably, after his meeting with the Russian president in Helsinki last year, when Trump bucked his own intelligence agencies by saying he had no reason to believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Earlier this year, the White House rejected a joint request from Cummings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) for documents related to those discussions, which took place at various points throughout Trump’s first two years in office.

At the time, White House officials said Trump was concerned that the contents of those documents — including the interpreter’s notes — would leak to the media, prompting the president to safeguard them.

Cummings wants the White House records manager “or another official competent to address these issues” sit with the committee for a transcribed interview by July 8.

Cummings also asked the White House to answer questions about previous reports that Trump confiscated an American interpreter’s notes detailing his private conversation with Putin in July 2017.

The chairman did not threaten to issue a subpoena, but the White House has rebuffed a growing number of requests for information from House Democrats, including the Oversight Committee’s investigation into alleged abuses of the White House security clearance process.

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Conway says calls for her firing are efforts to 'put a big roll of masking tape over my mouth'

Senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway said a federal agency's report calling for her dismissal over Hatch Act violations is little more than an effort to silence her as one of the most prominent spokespeople for President Donald Trump and his agenda.

"They want to put a big roll of masking tape over my mouth," Conway told Fox News' "Fox & Friends" on Monday morning. “They want to chill free speech because they don’t know how to beat [Trump] at the ballot box."

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel — which is unrelated to the office of former special counsel Robert Mueller — recommended last week that Conway be removed from her job over violations of the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits all but the highest-ranking officials in the government's executive branch from certain political activities. In its report, the office of special counsel called Conway a "repeat offender" for her regular criticism of Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her capacity as a senior White House aide.

President Trump disregarded the counsel’s recommendation, telling "Fox & Friends" last week that Conway is a “tremendous spokesperson” and that everyone is “entitled to free speech in the country.”

Conway, whose official title is counselor to the president, questioned whether the Hatch Act applied to her, telling Fox News that “it was not even clear what the Hatch Act allowed.”

"It's not even clear to us here at the White House, according to the counsel, that the Hatch Act applies to assistants to the president," she said.

This is the first time the U.S. Office of Special Counsel has recommended that a White House official be removed from office, a fact Conway was quick to point out, saying that she “would be the first member of the West Wing to be hauled in front of Congress to talk about the Hatch Act.”

On Sunday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee revealed that it will vote to authorize a subpoena if Conway does not appear Wednesday for the panel’s hearings on alleged Hatch Act violations.

Conway was chastised for overstepping boundaries as a spokeswoman in 2017, when the Office of Government Ethics said she committed a "clear violation" in offering what she called a "free commercial" for the clothing and footwear line of Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and aide, in an appearance on "Fox & Friends."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

How Jay Inslee would address fossil fuels

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday released his Freedom from Fossil Fuels plan, an aggressive set of proposals aimed at weaning the U.S. off the production of fuels like oil, coal and natural gas.

The plan is the presidential hopeful's fourth major climate announcement of the election cycle, following his proposals for 100% clean electricity by 2030, a $3 trillion public investment plan for climate, and a proposal to reorient U.S. foreign policy to fight climate change.

What would the plan do?

Inslee’s set of 16 policy initiatives aims to “phase out” U.S. fossil fuel production and exports completely, though it names no date to achieve that target.

The plan would ban all new fossil fuel production on public lands, which today accounts for about a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions, and establish a presidential commission of cabinet-level officials to further reduce production.

Inslee would also support legislation that would expand restrictions on oil and gas drilling on private land and “outright bans on the most-destructive practices” like mountaintop removal coal mining and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas.

Inslee would also support legislation for a carbon tax — labeled a “Climate Pollution Fee” — that would “initially be set low” and increase “steadily and aggressively over time,” though no exact prices are given. The proposal is a departure for his campaign, which has to date focused on more popular renewable energy policies, but Inslee has twice unsuccessfully attempted to approve a carbon price as governor of Washington.

The plan would also see an Inslee administration apply a “climate test” to all new infrastructure approved by FERC and federal land management agencies, pushing them to reject pipelines or other fossil projects. The Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy would become the "Office of Industrial Decarbonization," to reflect a change in its mission.

Finally, the plan would also increase retraining and assistance for displaced fossil fuel workers and increase oversight of corporate climate risks at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

How much would it cost?

Inslee's campaign did not release a cost estimate for the new set of proposals but has previously called for $3 trillion in public spending over a decade as part of its overall climate plan.

Who would it help?

The plan aims to help the U.S. and other nations avoid the worst impacts of global climate change while also assisting residents dealing with front-line impacts of fossil fuel production and transport, such as those living near coal mining, gas drilling or pipelines.

What have other Democrats proposed?

Inslee’s proposal is the second detailed plan this cycle to combat U.S. fossil fuel production, though other candidates have touched on the subject.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in April released a proposal to ban fossil fuel production on public lands, expand wind and solar production and restore the boundaries of national monuments shrunk by the Trump administration.

In the 2016 cycle, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), proposed a ban on natural gas fracking and other restrictions on fossil fuel production and export. Those policies are still listed on the climate page of his website, but he has not yet spelled them out in a detailed proposal this cycle.

Those candidates and others have coalesced around the idea of a Green New Deal pushed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). They call for aggressive climate action paired with ambitious employment, health care and infrastructure proposals, though lawmakers, candidates and movement leaders are still working through the details.

Who opposes it?

Republicans and fossil fuel companies and employees are sure to vehemently oppose the plan, which would fundamentally reshape an economy that today produces more oil and natural gas than any other nation and relies on fossil fuels for about 80% of its total energy consumption.

The plan may also draw criticism from some Democrats and environmental groups that prefer to focus on more popular aspects of climate action, like boosting wind and solar, rather than the sticky issues of fuel production and taxes.

Green New Deal activists, for instance, have largely avoided proposals to curtail drilling and pipelines in the past year, in part to preserve ties with labor unions, many of which have workers in the fossil fuel sector. Moderate environmental groups also typically distance themselves from calls to zero-out oil and gas production.

How would it work?

Much of the detailed policymaking envisioned by the plan would be done by a Presidential Commission on Energy Transition, a panel featuring leadership from ten federal agencies, including Energy, EPA, FERC and others, alongside representatives from state and tribal governments.

That commission would focus on identifying actions the president and Congress can take to reduce greenhouse gases at a pace that meets Inslee’s previously announced climate target of net zero carbon emissions by 2045.

An Inslee administration would ban fossil production on federal lands on “Day 1,” and would also seek avenues to restrict fossil fuel production on non-public lands. Those could include mandatory set-backs that limit the proximity of projects to population centers, the buying out and decommissioning fossil fuel projects, and limiting industry use of eminent domain to seize property needed for energy projects.

Fossil fuel projects would be further curtailed at the federal agencies, where Inslee would direct regulators to evaluate “lifecycle climate pollution and climate change impacts” associated with any proposed fossil fuel projects. Democrats on FERC are already pushing to consider climate change more in their approval process for natural gas pipelines and export facilities, and the addition of more like-minded regulators could stall or halt those projects.

Inslee also pledged to work with Congress to design an “outright ban” on fracking.

Why now?

Scientists say world economies must decarbonize quickly over the next decade to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and the issue now ranks near the top of those concerning Democratic primary voters.

Inslee has also made climate change his signature campaign issue, arguing that he turned Washington state into a model for the country on green energy.

The proposal’s release also comes days before the first round of Democratic presidential debates, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week. Inslee, who consistently polls in single digits, has pushed for a debate singularly focused on climate change, and is likely to bring the issue up during his appearance on the debate stage Wednesday.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Supreme Court agrees to hear Obamacare cases with billions of dollars at stake

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a challenge from health insurers who argue the federal government owes them hefty Obamacare payments, stoking the possibility the Trump administration could be forced to pay out billions of dollars for a law it's tried to dismantle.

The insurers claim they are due money from an Obamacare program helping companies that attracted sick and expensive customers in the early years of the law's insurance marketplaces. The justices' decision to take the case means it will reconsider an earlier appellate court ruling that the federal government isn’t on the hook for the payments.

The Supreme Court’s action directly affects lawsuits filed by just three small insurers, but its eventual ruling will serve as a precedent for dozens of other similar pending cases. Altogether, insurers believe they’re owed more than $12 billion.

This marks the fifth Obamacare-related case the Supreme Court has agreed to hear in almost a decade since the law's passage, and it may soon hear another — a constitutional challenge brought by Republican-led states and supported by the Trump administration.

Unlike that lawsuit or previous challenges to Obamacare's individual mandate and subsidy scheme heard by the Supreme Court, the health insurer cases don't directly threaten the law's underpinnings. However, a ruling for the insurers would represent a politically awkward defeat for a Trump administration that's failed to rip out Obamacare, a priority for the president's base.

The insurers' case involves the Affordable Care Act's risk corridors program, which was among the safeguards built into the law to protect insurers from big losses in the early years of the new insurance marketplaces, given the difficulty of predicting how sick and expensive their new customers would be. Insurers whose customers proved more expensive than expected would receive payments, while those that underestimated costs would pay into the program.

However, many more insurers ended up qualifying for assistance than having to pay into the program, which expired in 2016. But Republicans balked at spending taxpayer dollars to cover the program's deficit decrying it as a bailout for insurers — and blocked the federal government from making payments.

That contributed to skyrocketing premiums in the ACA's fledgling marketplaces after they launched in 2014, and it also helped push many nonprofit insurers seeded with Obamacare funds into financial collapse.

The Supreme Court's decision to take up the challenge likely won't have a significant effect on the marketplaces. After several years of turbulence, most insurers are turning a profit, resulting in growing competition and relatively modest premium hikes and decreases this year. Early signs suggest a similar pattern for 2020 plans.

Insurers in 2016 filed the first lawsuits claiming the ACA guaranteed them payments from the risk corridor program, despite Congress's later decision to block taxpayer dollars. The Obama administration, and later the Trump administration, has fought the insurers in court.

Lower courts split on the merits of the legal claims. Oregon-based Moda Health won a $200 million judgment, but the $70 million claim from the now-defunct Land of Lincoln Health was rejected. A divided appellate court last June ruled against the insurers in a combined case, finding that Congress clearly took action to prevent federal payouts to the program.

Maine Community Health Options is the third insurer that had appealed to the Supreme Court to take up the issue. The cases will be consolidated and scheduled for one hour of oral arguments.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump says the Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates

President Donald Trump said the U.S. economy is on course to have the best month of June in history, while blasting the central bank for acting like a “stubborn child” by not cutting interest rates.

“Despite a Federal Reserve that doesn’t know what it is doing - raised rates far to fast (very low inflation, other parts of world slowing, lowering & easing) & did large scale tightening, $50 Billion/month, we are on course to have one of the best Months of June in U.S. history..,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Despite fears of a slowing economy, the Federal Reserve kept rates steady last week, and previewed the possibility of cuts this year — a move Trump has long desired. The Fed announced recently that it maintains “the most likely outcomes” for the U.S. economy this year are a sustained expansion, a strong labor market and little inflation.

News broke early last week that Trump has flirted with demoting Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, though the chief cannot be removed entirely from the central bank’s board unless it is “for cause.” Trump suggested Monday that had the Fed done its job properly by cutting rates, the Dow could have been thousands of points higher and the U.S. would enjoy a higher GDP.

“....Think of what it could have been if the Fed had gotten it right. Thousands of points higher on the Dow, and GDP in the 4’s or even 5’s. Now they stick, like a stubborn child, when we need rates cuts, & easing, to make up for what other countries are doing against us. Blew it!” he continued.

The president has been increasingly vocal on how he thinks the Fed should act, repeatedly pressing Powell to cut interest rates. Trump criticized the central bank earlier this month for its past interest rate hikes, as negotiations with China were underway.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump suggests U.S. will stop protecting international shipping in Strait of Hormuz

President Donald Trump suggested Monday that the American military may step back from securing the Strait of Hormuz for oil shipments and other international commerce, as the economically critical waterway has become the site of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

“China gets 91% of its Oil from the Straight, Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

“All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been … a dangerous journey,” Trump continued. “We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”

The president added: “The U.S. request for Iran is very simple - No Nuclear Weapons and No Further Sponsoring of Terror!”

Trump’s tweets follow several weeks of escalating brinkmanship between Washington and Tehran, with recent Iranian acts of aggression focused near the narrow sea passage connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

The Trump administration has accused Iran of perpetrating attacks earlier this month on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and a U.S. Navy official said last Wednesday that a limpet mine used to partly destroy one of the vessels, the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, bore a striking resemblance to Iranian explosive devices, according to the Associated Press.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed responsibility last Thursday for shooting down an American surveillance drone because Tehran alleged it violated Iranian airspace, but the U.S. military asserted that the aircraft was taken down in "an unprovoked attack” over international airspace above the Strait of Hormuz.

Trump confirmed last Friday that he called off a retaliatory strike on Iran, tweeting that the planned military response and potential casualties were “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to undercut the president’s message Monday morning, writing on Twitter a half hour after Trump’s posts about his conversation with Saudi Arabia’s leader in the port city of Jeddah.

“Productive meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud today to discuss heightened tensions in the region and the need to promote maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz,” Pompeo tweeted. “Freedom of navigation is paramount.”

The U.S. imported 1.58 million barrels of petroleum per day from Persian Gulf countries in 2018, accounting for roughly 16 percent of all American petroleum imports, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine