House Ethics Committee sanctions Mark Meadows, Ruben Kihuen

The House Ethics Committee has formally sanctioned two members — GOP Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen (Nev.) — over sexual harassment-related allegations.

Meadows was found to have violated House rules "by failing to take appropriate steps to ensure that his House office was free from discrimination and any perception of discrimination." This case grew out of an investigation into Meadows' former chief of staff, Kenny West. Meadows kept West on his payroll even after learning of credible harassment allegations against the former aide. Meadows will have to pay more than $40,000 to cover the cost of West's salary.

Kihuen, who announced his retirement as the #MeToo movement swept Capitol Hill last year, was found to have "made persistent and unwanted advances towards women who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities."

Both lawmakers were reproved by the Ethics Committee.

POLITICO first reported allegations against Meadows and West.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Without a 280-character limit, George Conway dishes on it all

"Mr. Kellyanne Conway" isn't confined to a 280-character limit anymore.

Instead, George Conway, the outspoken husband of counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, stepped out from behind his Twitter persona and op-ed writing to participate in an 80-minute wide-ranging discussion on Yahoo News' Skullduggery, where he continued to take digs at President Donald Trump.

Conway, who said he was finally worn down by requests from the podcast's co-host Michael Isikoff, hit on why he withdrew his name from a top position at the Justice Department, when the tides began to turn in regards to his view on Trump, and the relationship with his wife given his harsh criticism of her boss.

Here's a round-up of top moments from Conway's interview.

Checks and Balances

Conway said the group he created to encourage conservative lawyers to speak out against the Trump administration, entitled Checks and Balances, is not about "any single individual," adding that their mission statement does not specifically "use the 'T' word."

"It's about the principals, it's about the rule of law," he said. "You don't have to stay silent when you see something that you don't like that is inconsistent of these timeless principals."

Conway added that there are aspects of the administration that conservatives, such as himself, like. He said that he has liked the judges Trump has nominated and confirmed, including Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

However, he also said that he's found the president's tweets disturbing, especially when he criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on indictments issued to Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter.

"To criticize the attorney general for permitting justice to be done without regard to political party is very disturbing," he said.

'I call myself Mr. Kellyanne Conway'

Trump last week said he did not know George Conway, referring to him as "Mr. Kellyanne Conway," and that his criticisms towards the president were to get attention.

George Conway agreed with the president on two of the three points.

"I call myself Mr. Kellyanne Conway," he said. In addition, Conway said that he did not know the president well.

But he said that he doesn't want attention with his criticisms, adding that "if I wanted to get attention, I wouldn't be on this podcast." Conway said he has been asked to speak on a number of news networks, but has declined those invitations.

When asked about how Kellyanne Conway feels, George Conway said he doesn't "think she likes it."

"I've told her that I don't like the administration, so it's even," he said. "It's one of these things that if I had a nickel for everybody in Washington who disagrees with their spouse about everything that happens in this town, I wouldn't be on this podcast, I would probably be on a beach somewhere."

"The fact of the matter is, when it comes down to things we disagree about, we agree on most policy things, virtually all ever, it's just though, this is the one thing we really disagree about," he added.

Dodged a bullet

Conway believes he dodged a bullet by not joining the Trump administration.

The lawyer was undergoing a background check to be the chief of the civil division at the Justice Department, which he said he believes was nearly completed when he withdrew his name.

"It's like the administration is like a shitshow in a dumpster fire, and I'm like, I don't want to do that," he said.

He added that following Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey and Comey's comments about the Russia probe, he knew that the relationship between the president and the Justice Department was going to be tense.

"I realized, you know, that this guy is going to be at war with the Justice Department," he said. "He's going to be at one end and if I get this door prize, I'm going to be in the middle of a department he's at war with. Why would anybody want to do this?"

Election night tears ... of joy

The night of Trump's win in 2016, it was reported that George Conway cried due to how happy he was about the election results.

Conway said that he was happy at the time that Trump won, adding that he didn't like the Clintons and did not want Hillary Clinton to win. Conway was a lawyer representing Paula Jones in her lawsuit against Bill Clinton.

On Trump, he said at the time: "My view was he was the lesser evil."

But he also said that he was happy for his wife, and the outcome of all the work she did to get Trump elected.

"My wife did an amazing thing, she basically got this guy elected," he said. "And other people like to take credit for it, but she got this guy elected.

"She steadied that vote. She did it. She went on television, she imposed message discipline on that campaign, I mean he was in the crapper when she took that campaign over," he said.

Conway, however, said that he does not know whether Trump is now the lesser of two evils.

"Faced with the choice again, I would probably move to Australia," he said.

Grounds for impeachment

Conway said that discussions of impeachment should happen after all the evidence from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is complete.

Only then, he said, could there be a judgment and he believes that the House and Senate should make the decision on what to do next.

"I'm open to supporting what's constitutionally appropriate, and if any constitutional officer commits an impeachable offense, then they should be subject to potential impeachment and removal under the Constitution," he said.

When asked if that includes Trump, he said: "Including any president."

Goodbye to the party of Trump

In March, Conway changed his voter registration from Republican to "unaffiliated," citing the state of the Grand Old Party.

"I don't feel comfortable being a Republican anymore," he said. "I think the Republican Party has become something of a personality cult."

When asked whether he would support Trump in his re-election in 2020, Conway immediately said no. He wouldn't confirm whether he would support a Democrat in 2020 or a Republican who chooses to run against the president. In addition, Conway also said he has no comment on whether he believes Trump is "stable."

"I don't know, we'll have to see. I don't know who's going to run," he said.

The turning point

Although Conway said he cannot pinpoint the moment his views soured on Trump, he said that the president's continued attacks on Sessions really irked him.

"I think the things that really bugged me the most was the tweets at Sessions, and the Justice Department, those things bugged me the most," he said. "I don't know if there was any one moment but it was sort of a gradual thing."

When asked whether he thinks Trump poses a threat to the United States' fundamental institutions and the rule of law, Conway said he thinks "that we have a strong constitutional order, and I think that's what we've seen thus far."

"I don't think there's been actual, functional damage," he said. "In a sense, we have a weak president because the president wasn't able to fire his attorney general, he was only able to tweet at his attorney general for so long.

However, Conway added that the perceptions that Trump creates, such as his tweets calling Mueller's investigation a "witch hunt," could have a long-term effect on Americans.

"They're corrosive," he said. "And even if they don't actually have a legal effect and they're not executed with an order of any sort, they have a corrosive effect, I think, over the medium to long term perceptions, I think, of the public on what is how the system operates, and that's disturbing."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Assange charges could unsettle liberals, conservatives — and Trump

Apparent criminal charges against Julian Assange are thrusting the WikiLeaks founder back into American politics — a development that could create awkwardness across the political spectrum.

Many liberals and civil rights activists have defended Assange as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protections. Conservatives have celebrated him for exposing Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016. And President Donald Trump, who himself declared his “love” for Assange’s website during the 2016 contest, may have new concerns about whether the focus on Assange has a connection to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

For now, the details remain murky about what U.S. law Assange, an Australian national holed up in a London embassy, has even been charged with violating. An unrelated federal court filing discovered late Thursday appears to have accidently mentioned Assange but doesn’t explain whether the sealed charges deal with WikiLeaks’ publication of stolen Democratic documents to influence the last U.S. presidential campaign or another matter that has also triggered notice from U.S. prosecutors.

It’s unclear when — if ever — the details about Assange will even be made public. Still, Assange’s reemergence at a time when Mueller has carefully studied how WikiLeaks obtained the Russian-hacked Democratic emails in 2016 jumpstarts a debate over the fate of the Australian computer programmer.

Although Assange has legions of determined enemies in the U.S., especially pro-Clinton Democrats and national security insiders who consider him a hostile foreign agent, some influential actors may not be enthusiastic about his prosecution.

The American Civil Liberties Union, characterizing him as a journalist, warned that prosecuting Assange “would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”

“It should not be lost upon anyone that there are leaks of classified information to the media just about every day,” added David Coombs, the lawyer who represented Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning during the 2013 trial about the leak of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports to WikiLeaks.

Some Republicans argue that it is high time for Assange, who has been living under asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, to face justice.

“This is cut and dried: WikiLeaks is an outlet for foreign propaganda and Julian Assange is an enemy of the American people,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican. “He deserves to spend the rest of his life in an American prison.”

But many influential conservatives gleefully celebrated the release of Clinton’s emails in 2016 and have hailed Assange as a whistle-blower.

In September of 2016, Fox News host and Trump confidante Sean Hannity hosted Assange on his show and congratulated the 47-year-old for showing “how corrupt, dishonest and phony our government is.”

“I do hope you get free one day,” Hannity added.

In late 2010, after Wikileaks released a trove sensitive U.S. diplomatic documents pilfered by the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, Hannity had called for Assange to be jailed for “waging war” against the U.S.

But Assange’s potential criminal prosecution may be most awkward of all for Trump, who during the 2016 campaign repeatedly praised WikiLeaks for revealing damning correspondence from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

“I love WikiLeaks,” Trump extolled several times during the presidential campaign. “This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove.”

Since then, after briefings from U.S. intelligence officials who consider Assange a national security threat,Trump has changed his tune and sought to place some distance between himself and Assange.

“The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange — wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people.... to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media lies to make it look like I am against "Intelligence" when in fact I am a big fan!” Trump wrote in a two-part tweet in January 2017.

Only a few months into Trump’s presidency, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said it would be a “priority” to stop leaks and arrest Assange. CNN reported in April 2017 that the U.S. was preparing charges to arrest Assange and that then-CIA director Mike Pompeo characterized WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

Assange’s efforts in the 2016 campaign presents challenges for several people in Trump’s orbit. Mueller’s prosecutors and his grand jury have summoned about a dozen associates of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone to Washington to explain how the self-proclaimed dirty trickster came to know about the pending WikiLeaks release of emails embarrassing to the Clinton campaign.

The president’s oldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., also appeared to have correspondence with WikiLeaks leading up to the election, The Atlantic reported last year.

Legal experts cautioned against drawing conclusions about the nature of any charges the Justice Department might bring against Assange.

“I don’t think we should assume this is Russia related,” said Matthew Miller, a former Obama-era Justice Department spokesman. U.S. officials have considered bringing charges against Assange since he was the conduit for Manning’s 2010 disclosure of secret government documents.

Seamus Hughes, a former U.S. counterterrorism official now working at George Washington University, first discovered the reference to criminal charges against Assange and posted the publicly-filed document on Twitter.

“This is every lawyer’s worst nightmare,” said Samuel Buell, a Duke University law professor and former federal prosecutor who said the disclosure looks to be “an erroneous cut and paste.”

At issue is a three-page court filing dealing with an unrelated sex-crime case brought by federal prosecutors alleging Seitu Sulayman Kokayi tried to coerce and entice a minor. In one passage, Assange’s name mysteriously appears amid an explanation for why the case needs to be kept from public view “due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case.”

After explaining the reasons why the U.S. government can keep a case sealed, the document concludes: “The complaint, supporting affidavit, and arrest warrant, as well as this motion and the proposed order, would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.

Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement the reference to Assange in an unrelated criminal case “was made in error.”

“That was not the intended name for this filing,” he said.

A spokesman for Mueller declined comment.

Barry Pollack, a U.S.-based lawyer representing Assange, took issue both with the disclosure of the charges, as well as its longer-term implications. “The news that criminal charges have apparently been filed against Mr. Assange is even more troubling than the haphazard manner in which that information has been revealed,” he said. “The government bringing criminal charges against someone for publishing truthful information is a dangerous path for a democracy to take.”

Even some Assange critics agree. While the Obama White House publicly described Assange as an "accomplice" in Manning's theft of classified information, Obama officials concluded that it would be difficult to charge him given the implications for more traditional journalists.

Several former federal prosecutors said Assange could be a goldmine of information for Mueller if U.S. officials were able to extradite him from the Ecuador embassy and ultimately flip him into a government witness.

Philip Lacovara, an attorney from the Watergate special counsel team, called Assange “the linchpin between the Russian intelligence operatives and the activities by Donald Jr., Stone, and others to exploit the illegally hacked emails and to disseminate them for coincident purposes of aiding Trump’s own political goals and enabling Russian influence on the election.”

“He could reveal important information to prosecutors, not just about Americans who worked with WikiLeaks to commit crimes, but also about foreign intelligence services that used WikiLeaks to undermine the United States,” added Renato Mariotti, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


HHS official vows to pursue research ‘alternatives’ to aborted fetal tissue

An HHS official told a key conservative lawmaker Friday the agency seeks to end the use of fetal tissue in taxpayer-funded research if it can find “adequate alternatives” — advancing the agenda of anti-abortion groups who decry the use of tissue derived from elective abortions for biomedical research.

Brett Giroir, the HHS assistant secretary of health, sent a letter to GOP Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) — the anti-abortion leader of the Freedom Caucus — describing the agency's plan to move forward on alternatives to fetal tissue. The National Institutes of Health currently funds more than $100 million in research that draws on fetal tissue.

In the letter, Giroir — one of the top officials involved in the agency's ongoing review of fetal tissue research — says that HHS is “fully committed to prioritizing, expanding, and accelerating efforts to develop and implement the use of these alternatives.” He also portrays HHS as "pro-life and pro-science" under the Trump administration and says the agency did too little to find alternatives to fetal tissue under previous administrations. Parts of the letter were shared with POLITICO by a source.

Scientists are alarmed by the efforts by anti-abortion groups to stymie such research, maintaining there are few alternatives to fetal tissue, which has been instrumental in developing vaccines and in researching how the Zika virus affects the brains of fetuses in utero, as well as exploring treatments for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s. They say the tissue would otherwise be discarded, and safeguards have been in place to ensure it is obtained and used ethically.

Giroir's letter — drafted in response to a meeting with Meadows and before HHS has listening sessions with scientists on Friday afternoon — suggests that the Trump administration has committed to efforts to accelerate the development of alternatives so it could reduce or eliminate the use of fetal tissue. The draft defines alternatives as “models that are scientifically validated and reproducible in multiple conditions and by multiple investigators.”

HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said the agency has not made a formal determination on whether to continue to fund fetal tissue research. “We continue to go through a thoughtful, deliberative process given the scientific ethical and moral considerations involved,” she said. “When we receive inquiries from members of Congress, we respond.”

Ending the use of fetal tissue from abortions in government-funded research is a longtime goal of anti-abortion groups, which criticized HHS after videos surfaced in 2015 purportedly showing Planned Parenthood officials profiting from the sale of fetal tissue, and have lobbied the Trump administration to end government support. Planned Parenthood said the videos were edited to be intentionally misleading, and a Texas grand jury subsequently cleared the organization of any wrongdoing.

"[W]e will continue to advocate for cutting off funding for this research as soon as possible and are hopeful that HHS will reach a new policy consensus that better reflects the administration’s pro-life position," Mallory Quigley of Susan B. Anthony List, the nation's leading anti-abortion advocacy organization, told POLITICO this week.

Meanwhile, NIH leaders are concerned Giroir is committing the agency to a path that is not scientifically workable, given that fetal tissue is the only current option for some researchers studying developmental disorders in children, for instance. NIH did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The Trump administration has already canceled one small FDA contract, citing concerns the contract’s language didn’t meet federal procurement rules, although the language was little changed from previous years when it had been renewed. HHS also has frozen new research projects that involve fetal tissue.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Accused Russian spy negotiating with prosecutors for 'potential resolution'

Attorneys for alleged Russian spy Mariia Butina are in talks with prosecutors in her case to reach a “potential resolution," they said in a court filing on Friday, indicating a plea deal may be in the works.

Butina was indicted by a federal grand jury in July on charges of conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent. Prosecutors allege that Butina has operated as an agent of the Kremlin since at least 2015, working her way into GOP circles via gun rights groups, likely the NRA, in an attempt to influence U.S. policy.

They say the 29-year-old came to the U.S. on a student visa “predicated on deception” and that she had been in contact with intelligence services back in Russia throughout her time in the country, including a former diplomat who was later expelled from the country.

The government also says Butina worked alongside a high-level Russian official who was not named in her indictment but who is presumed to be Alexander Torshin, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is under U.S. sanctions.

Butina pleaded not guilty in the case and has been held without bail because prosecutors say she poses an “extreme” flight risk.

Friday’s filing by her team, made jointly with prosecutors, asks for a two-week delay in any hearings and filings in the case because both sides “continue to engage ... in negotiations regarding a potential resolution of this matter and that those negotiations would be potentially hindered by simultaneously engaging in motions practice.”

The judge quickly approved the request.

Butina’s attorneys said that if a resolution is reached, they would withdraw a motion to dismiss the charges.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump says he has answered Mueller's questions but not yet submitted them

President Donald Trump on Friday said he has answered a list of questions from Robert Mueller about his dealings with Russia and other matters being investigated by the special counsel.

However, the president said he has not yet submitted his responses to the special counsel's office. Trump has long derided the investigation as a "hoax," claiming that there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russian actors to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Trump also signaled he is confident about his answers and behavior, a rhetorical point he and his legal team have tried to push as the probe is seen as nearing its resolution.

"I've answered them very easily, very easily," Trump said of the questions. "I'm sure they are tricked up, because, you know, they liked to catch people: 'Gee, was the weather sunny or was it rainy? He said it might have been a good day, it was rainy, therefore he told a lie. He perjured himself.'"

"You always have to be careful when you answer questions from people who probably have bad intentions," Trump added.

Trump also insisted that he personally wrote the answers to the long list of questions — "142 items" — amid speculation that his lawyers wrote the responses. Mueller has been trying to extract answers from Trump for nearly a year, as his office negotiated with presidential attorneys over deposing their client, a proposition Trump roundly rejected.

"The questions were very routinely answered by me," said Trump, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office during a cybersecurity bill signing. "I haven't submitted them, I just finished them."

Half a dozen people in contact with the White House and other Trump officials have told POLITICO that a deep anxiety has started to settle in at the West Wing and among Trump's allies about Mueller's next steps. His team has already issued indictments against Russian agents and has secured guilty pleas from two people from Trump's inner circle, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort.

Trump allies are steeling themselves to be served indictments from Mueller's team, with CBS reporting Wednesday that the indictments could come as soon as this week. On Thursday, the president fired off a series of notably specific tweets in which he revived his direct attacks on Mueller, calling his investigation a "total mess."

"They have found no collusion and have gone absolutely nuts. They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want," Trump wrote.

"A TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!" added Trump, using his favorite allegory for the probe.

But on Friday, he insisted he's not worked up about the ongoing probe.

“I’m not agitated," Trump said. "It’s a hoax. The whole thing is a hoax. There was no collusion.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Losing ammo, Nelson lawyer admits he needs more than one 'silver bullet'

MIAMI — Sen. Bill Nelson’s chances of keeping his seat in a recount against Gov. Rick Scott are so long that the Democrat‘s own lawyer admitted he needs more than one “silver bullet” to have a decent shot.

Hours later, Nelson lost ammunition when a federal judge late Thursday night rejected one of the Democrat’s numerous lawsuits, this one challenging state Division of Elections rules governing standards to determine voter intent in a manual recount. Counting some ballots by hand started to wrap up in the U.S. Senate race Friday as officials throughout the state reviewed an estimated 55,000 ballots.

Heading into the manual recount, Nelson lawyer Marc Elias downplayed the fact that a machine recount showed no change in his client’s favor. In fact, Scott, a Republican, slightly increased his lead by 41 votes, to 12,603. That result is no shock to election experts who note that Nelson has to win all of his court cases — which he isn’t doing — and has to somehow defy history by overcoming such a large margin.

As the manual recounts wrap up — with preliminary reports indicating no major change and no newly found batch of Democratic votes — Nelson’s path narrowed even more Friday. The manual recounts are supposed to finish by Sunday, and the race is scheduled to be certified on Tuesday, Nov. 20.

Still, Elias told reporters in a conference call Thursday that Nelson’s win was possible, given a number of circumstances.

“It’s never been our view that there is going to be one silver bullet that was going to change the margin in this race,” Elias said. “If you look at each stage where the margin has shrunk, it has not shrunk because of one big thing, but rather it has shrunk from a number of smaller things.

“So as we move forward, I continue to expect that 12,500 margin to go down and ultimately disappear entirely due to a variety of factors,” he added, underestimating Nelson’s deficit by 603 votes.

Elias listed three factors he said could sway the race in Nelson’s favor: the signature mismatch lawsuit that has already been decided, another legal contest about ballots that were cast before Election Day and mailed but have not been delivered or counted, and the manual recount.

Scott’s campaign said Elias’ optimism is misplaced.

“Bill Nelson has served the country and the state of Florida for decades. But his D.C. lawyers don’t care about his legacy,” Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline said. “All they care about is changing Florida’s election laws ahead of the 2020 presidential race. With the hand recount concluding in most counties across the state showing no significant change in the margin, it’s time for Bill Nelson to face reality and concede.”

Federal Judge Mark Walker did rule in favor of Nelson in the signature mismatch case — in which the signature of voters casting absentee and provisional ballots don’t match the signature on file — but the judge did not go along with the Democrat’s motion to automatically count all those ballots.

Instead, the ruling and a subsequent opinion from an appeals court dictated that all of those voters would have to proactively find their county election supervisor by 5 p.m. Saturday and sign a sworn affidavit attesting to the fact that they cast those ballots. Additionally, the ruling only applies to those notified of a mismatch after Nov. 1.

And the total pool of voters to whom that decision applies — about 5,000 – is not enough for Nelson, whose campaign is struggling to find the voters after Judge Walker rejected his effort to force the state to cough up their identities to make it easier to find them. Nelson also lost a bid to delay the recount deadlines but is suing in state court to mandate the hand recounting of all of Palm Beach County’s 588,598 ballots after a major tabulating machine and recount malfunction.

A ruling in the absentee ballot deadline case is pending. It’s unclear how many ballots were postmarked before Election Day but were received by election supervisors throughout the state after 7 p.m. on Election Day, thereby rendering them invalid under a Florida law that Nelson is challenging.

In a related loss for Nelson, Walker also rejected a League of Women Voters lawsuit that sought to force the recusal of Scott from presiding over the recount because of his conflict of interest as both governor and candidate amid his baseless claims about “rampant voter fraud.”

Walker, though, did excoriate Scott for his rhetoric.

“This Court recognizes the demarcation between typical campaign-trail puffery and the words and actions of a public official acting in an official capacity. While campaign-trail rhetoric is increasingly bombastic, imprudent, and not necessarily rooted in objective facts, there is a critical line between campaign rhetoric and that rhetoric transforming into state action that requires judicially imposed recusal,” Walker ruled.

“Here, Scott has toed the line between imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric and problematic state action,” Walker wrote. “But he has not crossed the line.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


House conservatives protest LGBT protection in Mexico-Canada trade deal

Protections in the new North American trade pact for LGBTQ people are roiling conservative lawmakers in the House, who are urging President Donald Trump to rescind them.

They are displeased that the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement contains requirements that workers be protected from discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

“A trade agreement is no place for the adoption of social policy,” reads the letter, which carries the names of 40 lawmakers and was sent Friday. “It is especially inappropriate and insulting to our sovereignty to needlessly submit to social policies which the United States Congress has so far explicitly refused to accept.”

It’s one more landmine in the path of Trump’s biggest trade achievement. Already, labor groups have expressed some concern that mechanisms to enforce new worker protections aren’t sufficiently strong and hinted that the incoming Democratic House might seek changes.

Now the conservatives, including House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), are hoping to revise the deal before it gets signed. Another signatory is Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), a Ways and Means Committee member who is leaving Congress at the end of the year.

One congressman who led the effort on the letter said the issue could be a "deal-killer" for him supporting the pact.

"This is language that is going to cause a lot of people to reconsider their support of the trade agreement, and to the point that it may endanger the passage of the trade agreement unless something is done," Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) told POLITICO in an interview.

Adjusting the deal is a tall order.

The countries are expected to sign the agreement on Nov. 30 at a G20 summit in Argentina, the day before the current Mexican administration leaves office. The easiest way for the administration to address the conservatives’ concerns is to persuade Canada and Mexico to change the language before the agreement is signed. If those countries balk and the administration is concerned about having enough Republican votes to win approval, it could attempt to negate the language through the implementing bill. But that would be highly unusual and give many Democrats another reason to vote against the legislation.

Tweaks can be made through so-called side letters. But this particular demand is certain to leave Canada especially cold.

Lamborn said his understanding is that the administration could seek to alter the language without opening the deal back up. But "if it’s bad enough — and in my opinion it’s bad enough — they should consider taking it out," he said. "At this point I’m a 'no' vote and I would encourage others to be a no vote unless something is done. And things could be done within the agreement."

The LGBT provisions were a Canadian priority — part of the so-called progressive trade agenda championed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and described as a “big win” by his government. And the Trudeau government already is less than enthusiastic about entering the agreement while steel tariffs remain in place. Canada’s ambassador to Washington joked in a recent interview with POLITICO that the country might sign the pact with a “bag over its head.”

It’s unclear whether the LGBT clauses even have real teeth. Both Canada and the U.S. agree it wouldn’t require a new law.

But it’s unprecedented language in a U.S. trade agreement.

USMCA’s Chapter 23 on labor requires countries to implement policies that protect workers against employment discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Another provision in the same chapter requires countries to promote workplace equality with respect to gender identity and sexual orientation.

The conservatives say this would undo other administration policies.

The letter argues that USMCA contradicts other administration work on sexual orientation and gender identity, and would also make it impossible to end a pair of executive actions from the Obama administration forbidding workplace discrimination.

It accuses the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative of working against administration policies.

In reality, the federal government is somewhat divided about whether employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a question that turns on how judges interpret the word “sex” (one of the law’s protected classes, along with race, religion, and national origin).

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department said that “sex” included sexual orientation and gender identity, and that discrimination on those bases was therefore illegal. After President Donald Trump was elected and Jeff Sessions became attorney general, the department reverted to the position that the 1964 law did not bar discrimination against LGBT individuals. In addition, the Justice and Education departments, in a two-page guidance letter to schools, scrapped an Obama directive aimed at protecting the rights of transgender students.

But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which continues to retain a Democratic majority, still adheres to the Obama policy that the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal appeals courts are split on the question, and the Supreme Court has never taken up the matter.

Earlier this year Trump issued orders to ban transgender troops who require surgery or significant medical treatment from serving in the military except in select cases — following through on a pledge under review by the Pentagon that is being fought out in the courts.

“It is deeply troubling,” the letter says, that the U.S. Trade Representative has approved language that contradicts LGBT policies in the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. USTR did not respond to a request for comment.

The letter is otherwise supportive of Trump’s trade efforts. It begins with praise: “We applaud your hard work to negotiate a new trilateral free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. Balancing the competing interests of three different countries is a monumental challenge.”

Doug Palmer contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Climate protesters storm Pallone's office

Dozens of youth climate protesters stormed Rep. Frank Pallone’s (D-N.J.) office Friday urging bold action to address climate change, in the latest signal liberal activists will continue pushing senior House Democrats to ramp up their ambition.

Pallone, the incoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he agreed with the “basic outlines” of Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “Green New Deal” proposal and endorsed the idea of moving towards decarbonizing the grid. But he stopped short of committing to the activists' demand that he swear off campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal companies, and he disputed how they categorized some of the contributions he has received from fossil fuel interests.

“The ideal of getting towards a carbon-free America is certainly something I agree on,” Pallone told POLITICO after leaving the protests. “How long it takes to do that, how we would get there and the details of the legislation, all that has to be worked out. But the idea is a good one. There’s no disagreement here on the substance.”

The demonstration was organized by the Sunrise Movement, a group of youth activists rallying around the increasingly dire predictions from climate scientists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned earlier this year that steep cuts in carbon emission are needed by 2030 to have a chance of avoiding the worst effects of global warming and sea level rise around the world.

“We don't anticipate being able to ram any legislation through this election cycle considering Trump is in the presidency and the Senate is controlled by the climate-denying GOP, but we really need to lay out the groundwork now,” Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement, told reporters after the protest. “If we delay another two years to draft the plans and start to build the political will and public consensus around the solutions, we will be well behind our timeline and that’s a death sentence for our generation.

Organizers expected arrests as they occupied Pallone’s office. Those would come on the heels of 51 arrests of protesters at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office this Tuesday.

Pallone has been at odds with other Democrats this week over Pelosi’s plan to revive a select panel on climate change. He argues his committee — and others of jurisdiction — are best-positioned to move swiftly on climate legislation and adding another panel would add bureaucratic hurdles to crafting bold bills.

Joining Pallone in a nearly 20-minute discussion with protesters was Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who told POLITICO afterwards she happened to have a meeting scheduled with the New Jersey Democrat at the same time.

“I think you think we don’t agree with you. We do,” she told the youth activists from the Sunrise Movement. “I don’t think you realize you’re preaching to the choir, but it’s music to my ears.”

Protesters said they felt energized after speaking with Pallone, but they urged him to pledge not to take any fossil fuel money. He has received nearly $100,000 from electric utilities and more than $44,000 from other energy interests, according to Opensecrets. Pallone did not sign their pledge Friday but committed to reviewing it.

This week’s actions are just the beginning of their efforts to build support for the Green New Deal, according to the activists. They said Ocasio-Cortez was “well-positioned” to lead the charge in Congress and they would organize “really, really hard” to defeat Democrats not ready to move aggressively on the problem.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Booker to campaign for Espy in Mississippi Senate race

Sen. Cory Booker will campaign for Mississippi Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy on Monday, according to two Democratic officials with knowledge of his plans.

It's Booker's second trip to Mississippi for Espy, who's vying to unseat Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. The potential 2020 candidate previously campaigned for Espy in Jackson, Miss., in July.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), another prospective 2020 contender, is scheduled to campaign for Espy on Saturday.

The visits by the two African-American senators come as national Republicans have begun mobilizing to ensure the race doesn't spin out of the party's control. A video recently surfaced of Hyde-Smith joking that she would be in "the front row" of a public hanging if she were invited by a supporter.

Hyde-Smith also recently suggested to a group in Starkville that Mississippi might want to make it more difficult for "liberal folks" to vote.

Hyde Smith's campaign on Friday said that that comment was "all a joke."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Pelosi meets with Fudge and other foes amid speaker drama

Nancy Pelosi sat face to face with her potential challenger, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, on Friday as the California Democrat continued her fight to reclaim the speaker’s gavel.

The two women huddled at the behest of incoming House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a key Pelosi ally and senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus who is also close with Fudge, the CBC’s former chairwoman.

Pelosi also spent Friday afternoon meeting with incoming Democratic lawmakers who during their campaigns vowed to oppose her as speaker, including Reps.-elect Max Rose (N.Y.), Jeff Van Drew (N.J.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) and Haley Stevens (Mich.).

Fudge, a six-term lawmaker, said Pelosi raised the issue of possibly serving as a "transitional leader" or agreeing to serve as speaker for only one or two terms, although there was no commitment by Pelosi to that idea.

“We talked briefly about it, yes," Fudge told reporters following the 45-minute session with Pelosi. "We talked about some succession plan, and we talked about some other things. I think the biggest issue that we discussed was the feeling in the caucus of people who are feeling left out and left behind."

In an interview before she met with Pelosi, Fudge said an offer by Pelosi to limit her time as speaker — to, say, one term — could win her and other Democratic rebels over.

"That would be strong," Fudge declared.

After Pelosi met with the incoming freshmen who had called for new leadership during their campaigns, some skeptics left the room expressing an openness to supporting her.

Stevens, for instance, said she hasn’t ruled it out, even though she said in her Democratic primary that she wouldn’t back Pelosi.

Sherrill, who also ran on a promise not to support Pelosi, hustled through a swarm of reporters and refused to answer questions about their sit-down. Pelosi allies have been trying to convince the New Jersey Democrat to vote “present” instead of opposing Pelosi on the House floor, according to multiple sources on both sides of the fight.

A present vote — while not directly in support of Pelosi — would lower the threshold for a majority on the floor, making it easier for Pelosi to win. Sherrill could tell supporters she kept her vow not to support Pelosi but not block her from getting the speaker's gavel. Sherrill wouldn't say whether she still intends to vote against Pelosi and walked into a members-only room where reporters were not allowed.

But Rose emerged from his meeting vowing to continue to oppose Pelosi.

Rose said the session was “extraordinarily civil” and that Pelosi did not ask him to change his mind. Rose said they used their time together to discuss issues important to his district, including transportation needs and help with the opioid epidemic.

“I have been so consistent and clear, and I haven’t played games with my position; it allows her to fill the discussion,” Rose said. “The only thing she offered me was a can of Coke. There was no grand offers made. No drama.”

Anti-Pelosi rebels including Rose have been circulating a letter that now includes 20 incumbents and members-elect indicating they won't vote for Pelosi on the floor, a number large enough that it would prevent her ascension to the speaker's chair and plunge the Democratic Caucus into chaos just as the party returns to power in the House.

The insurgents' threat — and Pelosi's inability so far to win them over — has turned into a serious problem for the longtime Democratic leader. Pelosi has sat atop the House Democratic Caucus since 2002.

Fudge has not formally announced her candidacy. But even floating herself as a potential speaker challenger has scrambled Pelosi's effort to lock down the 218 votes needed to win. Fudge would be the first black woman in leadership and first African-American speaker.

Fudge repeatedly said on Friday that Pelosi doesn't have the votes to win a speakership fight on the floor, stating "If the vote were taken today, she does not have the votes to be speaker of the House. I don’t think I do, either, right now."

Prior to her meeting with Pelosi, Fudge suggested she might take a few weeks to decide whether to run. Democrats are set to nominate a speaker in a closed-door caucus meeting on Nov. 28, after they return from the Thanksgiving Day recess.

But while many expected that Fudge would want to be on the ballot for that vote, Fudge said she could wait to announce her bid until after Pelosi likely wins the Democratic nomination. Pelosi needs support from only half the Democratic Caucus for that vote. The more difficult test is on Jan. 3 on the House floor, where 218 votes — or a majority of those members present and voting — are required and Pelosi has little room for error.

“I can’t even sleep, my phone is going off so much, not just from people within this institution but people outside of this institution who are excited about the possibility of change in the leadership," Fudge said. "I’m hearing it from lobbyists, from labor, from tons and tons of people, and so there’s a great deal of hope and excitement about the fact that there could be new leadership.”

Should Pelosi fail to get the votes, however, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) are expected to jump into the race for speaker, among others. Asked about her chances going up against both men, Fudge took a shot at them for being too afraid to challenge Pelosi themselves.

“Let me tell you what I think. … None of them had the courage to do what I’ve done,” she said sternly.

With her opponents continuing to work against Pelosi, the California Democrat's allies are hitting back in her defense.

Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky blasted Pelosi’s critics for defying “the majority voice of the caucus.” She suggested they are worse than the House Freedom Caucus, the group of conservative rabble-rousers who banded together to defy GOP leadership for years.

“The majority rules!” Schakowsky said, aghast. “The very idea of organizing without even an opponent. … They do not have a candidate.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Oprah pal and spirituality guru plans 2020 run

Add one more name to the growing list of Democrats preparing to run for president in 2020: Marianne Williamson — pal of Oprah, spirituality guru and fixture of Hollywood's New Age community.

Williamson, a best-selling author of a dozen books on spirituality including “A Return to Love,” announced on Friday that she's forming a presidential exploratory committee and traveling to Iowa, her fifth trip to the state this year.

“We had a miracle in this country in 1776 and we need another one,” the Williamson said in a video announcement. “It’s going to be a co-creative effort, an effort of love and a gift of love, to our country and hopefully to our world.” She added that America needs to get “back to an ethical center that is the true exceptionalism of the American ideal.”

While the 66-year-old Williamson is not a familiar name inside the Beltway, it is not her first time dabbling in national politics. In 2014, she raised $2 million in bid to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman in California, running as an independent. She earned endorsements from high-profile Democrats like former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Williamson came in fourth out of sixteen candidates with 13 percent of the vote with Rep. Ted Lieu eventually prevailing.

“She has not talked to me. I don’t know anything about it,” Granholm said in a text message when asked about Williamson’s presidential ambitions.

A cryptic job listing had been circling around in political circles this week for a social media director to join a presidential bid that was “part campaign, part startup, part spiritual movement” on behalf of a “woman, non-politician, high-profile writer and spiritual personality.”

Multiple sources said they understood the posting to be for Williamson but spokespeople for the potential presidential candidate did not return requests for comment.

In 2014, Williamson also had support from celebrities like Eva Longoria, Nicole Richie and Jane Lynch. Alanis Morrissette even composed a campaign jingle for the effort. "We're going down, down, down. We're going down unless we move to new ground, unless we start a revolution, awaken from this frozen, start the mending of our union today," went the song.

During her congressional bid, Williamson decried what she called America’s “permanent war machine,” the mass incarceration of people of color, and economic inequality. After she lost, Williamson told Oprah in an interview that she learned a lot from the experience.

“I kept waiting for people to tell me what to do and [I] tried to hire people who would tell me what to do,” she said. “It taught me what I should have already known: to only listen to myself.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Another Trump aide tell-all due to hit shelves in January

Another account of life inside the Trump White House is set to join the ever-growing canon on the subject.

Cliff Sims, a Trump adviser who joined the West Wing staff on Day One as a special assistant to the president after working on the campaign, is writing a memoir about his time working for the president. The book is set to be published in January, two sources familiar with the project said.

Sims, who oversaw message strategy in the White House and was viewed as a MAGA loyalist who clashed with staffers whose backgrounds were from the "establishment" Republican National Committee, left the White House last May. His exit was not mourned by many of his detractors in the White House communications department, who said they did not trust him.

Back then, his allies said he was expecting to move over to the State Department. But Sims ultimately did not return to the administration.

Sims’ book, according to people familiar with the project, has been in the works for months and was described as a thoughtful and introspective portrayal of his time serving in the Trump White House. The book is modeled, those people said, on George Stephanopoulos’ tell-all memoir “All Too Human,” a personal account of his time serving as communications director in the Clinton White House. At the time, Stephanopoulos was criticized for pulling back the curtain while the president he had served was still in office.

Sims, who founded the conservative Alabama political blog Yellowhammer News before joining the Trump train, writes in detail about senior administration officials like counselor Kellyanne Conway, chief of staff John Kelly, former communications director Anthony Scaramucci and the president himself, the sources said. But the book is not simply an unloading of grievances on former colleagues. In the book, he also turns self-critical about the role he played in a snake-pit work environment, ultimately attempting to offer a candid view of what it was like on the inside from a position of access to the president, and as a person who took copious notes as part of his job.

Sims’ book is not a takedown, á la Omarosa Manigault’s “Unhinged,” which was based on secret tape recordings she made of her colleagues while working by their sides, those people said. But neither is it a glowing, Trump-approved book like former press secretary Sean Spicer’s “The Briefing.” Even though it aims to strike some middle ground, people familiar with the text said, they expect it to be viewed inside a White House that brooks no criticism as another betrayal, nonetheless.

Sims did not respond to calls and text messages. White House officials said they were not aware of the project, and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not respond to a request for comment about the book project.

If past is prologue, Sims is in for a lashing from the president when his book hits the shelves. When Manigault published her tell-all earlier this year, Trump called her a “dog” and a “crazed, crying lowlife,” and accused her of violating a non-disclosure agreement she signed during the campaign.

It was not clear how any non-disclosure agreement might affect Sims, or if he was ever asked to sign one. The Trump campaign earlier this year sought legal action against Manigault Newman for breaching the agreement through her book.

Another question Sims will face is whether there is still appetite for more inside-the-room Trump stories from aides who appear to be cashing in as they are heading out. He's also in competition with writers who are still telling the story from the inside out. The journalist Michael Wolff is also working on a sequel to his bestseller “Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Grassley to trade Judiciary gavel for Finance

Chuck Grassley plans to trade his Senate Judiciary Committee gavel to lead the Finance Committee next year, he said on Friday — leaving Lindsey Graham in line to replace him as chairman.

Grassley's move to Finance wasn't a given, since the Judiciary panel has played an outsized role in the successful confirmation of more than 80 of President Donald Trump's nominees to lifetime appointments on the federal bench. That number could include future Supreme Court justices beyond Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh in the next Congress, heightening the influence of the Judiciary chairman.

But Grassley, a former Finance chairman, opted to return to a committee that also enjoys extensive jurisdiction, including taxes and trade as well as Medicare and Medicaid. The Iowa Republican is set to replace retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) as Finance chief next year, while also replacing him as Senate pro tem, a post traditionally given to the longest-serving majority senator that is also third in the presidential line of succession.

“The economy is better than it’s been in years and there’s a sense of optimism about the future of our country that people haven’t felt in a long time thanks to the pro-growth policies of a Republican President and a Republican majority in Congress,” Grassley said. “Looking ahead, at the Finance Committee, I want to continue to work to make sure that as many Americans as possible get to experience this good economy for themselves."

Grassley's departure paves the way for Graham to take the helm at Judiciary, giving the South Carolina Republican valuable power over Department of Justice confirmations — including the next attorney general. It also gives the next chairman oversight of the DOJ as it supervises special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into President Donald Trump.

While Graham's ascension won't be official until the next Congress begins, he openly acknowledged his interest in the Judiciary gavel this summer and predicted that "there's a deal to be had" on immigration.

Even after battling more right-leaning primary challenges in the past, Graham has displayed a bipartisan streak, aligning with Democrats on Judiciary to steer legislation protecting Mueller's job through the committee.

But Graham also has proven a reliable partner for Trump, passionately defending Kavanaugh during the high court justice's sexual misconduct scandal and indicating that he would probe the FBI's own handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation should he become Judiciary chairman.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Judge orders White House to return press credentials to CNN's Acosta

A federal judge on Friday ordered the White House to immediately reinstate CNN correspondent Jim Acosta's security pass, siding with the network and media advocates in the first decision in a major lawsuit over press access.

The ruling came as a victory for the White House press corps, which President Donald Trump has fought against since he took office. He had derided media outlets as "fake news" and called them "the enemy of the people."

But the decision to pull Acosta's press pass last week over a dispute involving a news conference came as a major escalation, followed by another in court Wednesday, when lawyers for the administration argued that Trump had the authority to ban any reporter from White House grounds for any reason.

Judge Timothy Kelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, a Trump appointee, said, however, that the administration deprived Acosta of “due process” when it stripped him of his press pass. The judge granted CNN's request for the reporter's access to be temporarily restored while the rest of the case moves forward.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that the administration would temporarily reinstate Acosta's "hard pass," which allows reporters to freely enter and exit the grounds.

"We will also further develop rules and processes to ensure fair and orderly press conferences in the future," she said. "There must be decorum at the White House."

CNN said Friday it was "gratified" by the result. "Our sincere thanks to all who have supported not just CNN, but a free, strong and independent American press," the network said in a statement on Twitter.

CNN argued in filing its lawsuit that the White House was unfairly punishing Acosta because it disagreed with his coverage and that it had not followed appropriate steps to revoke his security badge. A group of news organizations, including POLITICO and the White House Correspondents' Association, filed briefs siding with CNN.

Kelly said Friday that he was not ruling on whether the White House violated Acosta's First Amendment rights but that it appeared officials had yanked the reporter's press pass without any advance notice or chance to rebut. The process by which the White House came to its decision was so “shrouded in mystery,” the judge said, that Department of Justice lawyers arguing the case were not even able to say who inside the White House had made the call to pull Acosta’s pass.

Kelly also noted the White House’s shifting explanations, highlighting that the administration was no longer relying on its initial justification — that Acosta had laid hands on an intern, which was disputed by video of the incident — and that it was only after the lawsuit was filed that the White House fully laid out its argument that Acosta had been banned for disruptive behavior.

Kelly’s decision Friday does not end the overall case, but it was seen by press advocates as a good sign. One of the standards for granting a temporary restraining order — as the judge did to restore Acosta’s pass — is that the underlying case is likely to succeed. Kelly said CNN appeared likely to succeed on Fifth Amendment grounds.

“Even if Judge Kelly did not address the First Amendment issues yet, this is a strong win for CNN and press freedom generally,” said Katie Fallow, a senior attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “The judge recognized the importance of restoring the reporter's access to the White House immediately and rejected the government's argument that the President has complete discretion whom to allow at press conferences."

Kelly did not comment directly Friday on the White House's argument that Trump could strip any reporter he chooses of their security pass. But he said he was bound to a ruling in a 1977 D.C. Circuit Court case that said the government cannot boot out reporters "arbitrarily or for less than compelling reasons” and must follow a clear process to do it.

“Once the White House opens” to reporters, Kelly said, then the due process protections apply to removing any media.

Speaking of the president, Kelly said, “Certainly he need not ever call on Mr. Acosta again, but...the government must provide Mr. Acosta due process.”

Acosta watched the events unfold inside the courtroom but did not react when the judge read his decision. Outside the courtroom, though, a CNN group appeared to pose together for a photo.

"Let's go back to work," Acosta said to reporters assembled outside the courthouse.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


DeVos' school sexual assault policy boosts protections for the accused

The Trump administration revealed its plans on Friday for how the nation's schools will be expected to handle allegations of sexual harassment and assault — a proposal almost certain to ignite a firestorm at a time when sexual misconduct allegations have repeatedly captured the spotlight.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the long-awaited rewrite is aimed at boosting due process for the accused, but advocates warn it will create more barriers for students seeking justice. The proposed regulations are intended to replace Obama-era policies under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination.

DeVos' revamp has been among her most controversial and anticipated moves in office and Democrats are sure to pounce on it as they wield newfound control of the House to call the secretary and her aides to testify on Capitol Hill.

The proposal marks a step into politically fraught terrain for the administration, as sexual misconduct claims — including against President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, and against the president himself — have galvanized activists in recent months.

DeVos offered the overhaul more than a year after she scrapped controversial Obama-era policies that pushed schools to do more to crack down on sexual violence on campus, but that critics said also prompted educators to trample due process.

The proposal echoes the debate that has repeatedly captured the nation since Trump took office, most recently when allegations from Kavanaugh's high school and college years nearly tanked his nomination — leading the president to fret that "it's a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of."

The administration touted its plan as a historic move that will for the first time create formal regulations — through a notice-and-comment process — for schools responding to sexual harassment claims.

DeVos said her focus is on "ensuring that every student can learn in a safe and nurturing environment."

“That starts with having clear policies and fair processes that every student can rely on," she said in a statement. "Every survivor of sexual violence must be taken seriously, and every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined."

"We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetrate it, while ensuring a fair grievance process. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas. They are the very essence of how Americans understand justice to function.”

DeVos' proposal includes language meant to assure due process: Accused students are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. They should be given written notice of the allegations against them and should have access to evidence gathered in investigations. Both parties would have the right to appeal disciplinary decisions.

The proposal includes a narrower definition of sexual harassment than in the past — as unwanted conduct that is "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" — and it would give both K-12 schools and colleges more latitude in how they handle allegations.

The rules would let schools use a higher standard of evidence for discipline decisions related to sexual misconduct and offer mediation if both students agree to it. They would also hold schools responsible only for allegations involving misconduct on school-owned properties or at school-sponsored programs or events, a change the administration stresses isn't meant to create an "artificial bright-line" between harassment occurring on or off campus.

The rules also maintain certain requirements meant to offer relief to students who have been harassed or assaulted. They require schools to respond meaningfully to all complaints and encourages them to offer so-called supportive measures — changes in class schedules or dorm room assignments, for example — even if the student does not want to file a formal complaint.

DeVos' move to rescind the Obama guidance last year was among her most widely criticized actions since taking office. Drafts of the new rules that leaked in recent months drew intense pushback from women's advocacy groups, who argued the DeVos rewrite will mean more obstacles for victims reporting assaults and could open the door for retaliation against students who do report.

Notably, the new rules would guarantee students the right to cross-examine their accusers, something survivors' advocates say is deeply traumatizing. Students, however, can request to be in separate rooms during the questioning, which would be done through third-party advisers, not between students directly.

“This rule will return schools back to a time where rape, assault and harassment were swept under the rug," said Jess Davidson, executive director of End Rape on Campus.

"It demonstrates Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration share the same attitude about assault that we saw from Senate Republicans during the Kavanaugh hearing — disparage and diminish survivors and discourage them from reporting.”

Men's rights advocates and civil liberties groups, meanwhile, have cheered the administration's efforts, arguing the Obama-era policies they are replacing — which weren't formal rules though they were treated as such — led schools to trample the due process rights of the accused.

"It’s important that allegations aren’t ignored and aren’t prejudged," said Samantha Harris, vice president for procedural advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties group that was among the most vocal critics of the Obama administration‘s guidance.

"It’s an unfortunate misconception that due process rights for the accused somehow undermine protections for complainants and those things are mutually exclusive,” she said. “Schools can have a process that is tremendously respectful to complainants and take those complaints seriously."

The proposal kicks off a 60-day public comment period, and the administration may still tweak it before it becomes a final regulation, but it will carry the weight of law once it does.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate HELP committee, said DeVos "has begun the appropriate public rulemaking process, including the opportunity for individuals to review and make comments for 60 days, to bring much needed clarity to the federal rules helping colleges protect the safety and rights of students."

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the Democrat expected to chair the House Education and the Workforce Committee in the upcoming Congress, blasted the proposal, which he called "a damaging setback" that "provides schools with numerous opportunities to evade responsibility for incidences of sexual misconduct."

"I strongly encourage the administration scrap this proposal and join the effort to make college campuses and school classrooms safer and more welcoming for all students,” he said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Federal judge tosses Nelson rules challenge

TALLAHASSEE — Federal Judge Mark Walker has rejected a case brought by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s campaign that challenged the rules county canvassing boards use to decipher and count certain votes.

The case filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee challenged two state Division of Elections rules known as the “magic words” requirement and the “consistency” requirement. Lawyers for Nelson’s campaign argued they violated free speech and equal protections provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

In a ruling handed down early Friday, Walker wrote the rules are prudent.

"The issue is whether the use of these reasonable and natural rules is constitutional,” Walker wrote. “It is.”

The case was one of several brought by Nelson’s campaign in anticipation of the manual recount that Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered Thursday. Nelson trails Republican Gov. Rick Scott by just 12,603 votes.

The cases filed by Nelson’s campaign have not helped slim Scott’s razor thin lead. Walker handed Nelson a small win Thursday morning by giving voters until Saturday to fix ballots that had been rejected due to mismatched signatures. But a document submitted Thursday night by the National Republican Senatorial Committee shows that 65 counties had rejected a total of 4,839 vote-by-mail ballots due to faulty signatures. Another 97 provisional ballots were rejected for the same reason.

The manual recount in the U.S. Senate and state agriculture commissioner races call for canvassing boards in the state’s 67 counties to review disputed ballots known as "undervotes" or "overvotes." A ballot where someone did not input enough selections is deemed an undervote and a ballot with too many selections is an overvote.

Nelson’s campaign had also filed a lawsuit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court Thursday that demanded a hand recount of the 588,562 ballots cast in Palm Beach County. The lawyers claimed County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher’s office would not be able to complete the manual recount in time. But Bucher said Thursday night the manual recount for the Senate race should be completed sometime Friday. The deadline to submit final results to Detzner's office is Sunday at noon.

Along with Nelson’s rule challenge, Walker handed down another order early Friday that rejected a case brought against Scott by the League of Women Voters, which argued the governor should be blocked from using his official powers to oversee the election. Lawyers for the league argued during a three-hour Thursday hearing that Scott endangered the integrity of the election when he made allegations of voter fraud last week. Walker disagreed.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Veteran Democrats wary of climate push by Ocasio-Cortez and her allies

Veteran Democratic lawmakers are closing ranks against new members pushing the party to the left on climate change.

Incoming chairmen say they want to address climate change, but they are bristling at the tactics of Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other newly elected Democrats who say the party needs to come up with a "Green New Deal" that would decarbonize the economy within a decade.

“The idea that in five years or 10 years we’re not going to consume any more fossil fuels is technologically impossible,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), whose in line to lead the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told POLITICO. “We can have grand goals but let’s be realistic about how we get there.”

Ocasio-Cortez is working with other liberal members and youth climate activists to expand the scope of a select committee on climate change that Nancy Pelosi wants to relaunch if elected speaker. But several older members say they think even creating a new panel would be a distraction and could delay action by the existing committees with jurisdiction over the issue.

Incoming Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) slammed the creation of a new committee during a closed-door meeting of Democrats Thursday, drawing pushback from Ocasio-Cortez and Rep.-elect Joe Neguse (D-Colo.).

Liberal environmental advocates torched Pallone for his opposition to the revival of the climate select committee.

“Frank Pallone is concerned about holding onto his power and title, not about the future of our generation or human civilization,” said the Sunrise Movement, which organized the protest at Pelosi’s office earlier this week. “If he were serious about stopping climate change, he would give back his money from fossil fuel PACs and support the Select Committee for a Green New Deal, the only policy in history that rises to the scale of this crisis.”

Pallone said he shares the goals of groups anxious for aggressive action but called for regular order to develop a bipartisan response.

“We can have a very aggressive agenda that we can get a caucus consensus on and that we can even get some Republicans on,” he said. “This select committee kind of takes us away from the goal. We want, as I said, to move very aggressively.”

Some lawmakers are looking for ways to harness the progressive energy within the existing congressional structures so everyone gets on the same page.

“I have the same energy, I have the same urgency, but I think we need to have a conversation about how we do it,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told POLITICO. “It would help to sit down with those of us that have been here and have been working on these issues and want to team up and go big on climate because I think we have to be strategic and I think we have to function as a team.”

But it’s a big team, noted Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). He said the centrist Blue Dog caucus expects to add six to eight members. He worried a climate change committee and goals like 100 percent renewable energy could turn off voters in swing districts at a time when Democrats would be unable to do more than pass "messaging" bills.

“A lot of the Republican seats that we won — a lot of them are moderate, conservative Democrats, and we have to keep that in mind. Those are the people I’m concerned about,” Cuellar said. “We can’t go too extreme.”

Others expressed wariness at the thought of going around the traditional nexus of power within the House.

“To create a specific committee may not achieve the goal — the goal being solid legislation to address the climate problem,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said. “I’d be pretty careful going around the normal committee structure. That sets up a set of problems that I don’t think any of us want to be getting into.”

The threat of turf wars might be reason enough to abandon plans for a new climate committee, said Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). He said lawmakers have been handcuffed for years while in the minority and have ideas they want to execute.

“Those committees are geared up and ready to introduce legislation,” he said.

Lowenthal and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who co-chair the 60-member Safe Climate Caucus, wrote a letter to Pelosi Thursday arguing that existing committees would be sufficient but agreeing to cooperate if she decides to proceed with a new panel.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Hyde-Smith’s campaign says comment about suppressing 'liberal' votes was 'a joke'

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s suggestion that Mississippi should make it harder for “liberal folks” to vote was “all a joke,” the senator’s campaign said on Friday, pushing back against critics who argue she was advocating for voter suppression.

In a campaign appearance in Starkville, Miss., earlier this month, Hyde-Smith told a group that “there's a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who that maybe we don't want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. So, I think that's a great idea.”

Her comments were met with laughter by the group.

Hyde-Smith’s campaign says the senator’s “great idea” remark at the end of the video lacked context and argued that it was difficult to hear her clearly without the video’s subtitles.

Hyde-Smith had previously been asked whether she would support opening polling places on college campuses when she made the remark, communications director Melissa Scallan said.

“The great idea she was referring to was the polling places on college campuses,” Scallan said Friday, while also calling it “irresponsible” that people are sharing the video because whoever shot it “has an agenda obviously” and because Hyde-Smith’s voice is in the recording is “very hard to hear.”

Hyde-Smith is in a runoff election with Democrat Mike Espy, a former agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration, to serve the remaining two years of former Sen. Thad Cochran’s term. Cochran retired earlier this year, citing health reasons, and was replaced by Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Democrats have accused Republicans across the country of attempting to suppress the voting rights of minority groups under the guise of curbing voter fraud, but the issue is much more fraught in the South, which has a history of racial tension and voter discrimination.

Espy did not mince words in a statement on Hyde-Smith’s remarks, noting the historical context of the senator’s message. “For a state like Mississippi, where voting rights were obtained through sweat and blood, everyone should appreciate that this is not a laughing matter,” he said.

Espy, a former congressman who would be the first black senator from Mississippi in over a century, called Hyde-Smith a “walking stereotype who embarrasses our state.”

Hyde-Smith responded to Espy on Twitter, asking: “It’s ok to still have a sense of humor in America isn’t it?”

“These students enjoyed a laugh with Cindy despite out of state social media posts trying to mislead Mississippians,” the post to her Twitter account continued, posting a picture that appeared to be at the same event.

“I know the senator — she’s not a racist and she would not be in favor of suppressing anybody’s right to vote,” Scallan said Friday, insisting again that Hyde-Smith was "not even saying she’s supporting voter suppression at all" and lamenting that the political climate has become so volatile.

“It’s sad that somebody can’t make a joke ... without everybody taking it so seriously,” she said.

Hyde-Smith’s latest remarks to surface are the second controversy she’s faced this week. The same Twitter user, a local publisher, posted a video of Hyde-Smith over the weekend in which she says with a smile that if a supporter she was campaigning with invited her to a “public hanging,” she’d “be on the front row.”

Her use of the phrase was ill-received given Mississippi’s dark history involving racial discrimination and lynchings, but Hyde-Smith brushed it off as an “exaggerated expression of regard” and said that it was “ridiculous” to have given the comments a negative connotation.

“In nearly 20 years of public service nobody has ever accused [Hyde-Smith] of racism or anything — there’s nothing,” Scallan said, arguing that now, “People are reaching for things.”

Despite President Donald Trump carrying deep-red Mississippi by 18 points in the 2016 election, the race between Hyde-Smith and Espy has gotten tight enough that both Republicans and Democrats are placing ad buys in the state, and Trump himself is even mulling a visit to boost Hyde-Smith’s chances. Scallan said the campaign would welcome a visit from Trump, and while she’s heard rumblings of a possible Trump visit, the White House hasn’t confirmed its plans.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine