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The I-Card: Judiciary Hearing Turns Into a Circus

Real Clear Politics -

THE I-CARD: JUDICIARY HEARING TURNS INTO A CIRCUS WITH A LESSON. The new, Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing Wednesday. Under Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), the hearing's purpose was to begin what is expected to be a long and detailed investigation of the crisis on...

Federal appeals court strikes down domestic violence gun law

Politico -

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the government can’t stop people who have domestic violence restraining orders against them from owning guns — the latest domino to fall after the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority set new standards for reviewing the nation’s gun laws.

Police in Texas found a rifle and a pistol at the home of a man who was the subject of a civil protective order that banned him from harassing, stalking or threatening his ex-girlfriend and their child. The order also banned him from having guns.

A federal grand jury indicted the man, who pled guilty. He later challenged his indictment, arguing the law that prevented him from owning a gun was unconstitutional. At first, a federal appeals court ruled against him, saying that it was more important for society to keep guns out of the hands of people accused of domestic violence than it was to protect a person’s individual right to own a gun.

But then last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a new ruling in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. That case set new standards for interpreting the Second Amendment by saying the government had to justify gun control laws by showing they are “consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.

The appeals court withdrew its original decision and on Thursday decided to vacate the man’s conviction and ruled the federal law banning people subject to domestic violence restraining orders from owning guns was unconstitutional.

Specifically, the court ruled that the federal law was an “outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted” — borrowing a quote from the Bruen decision.

The decision came from a three-judge panel consisting of Judges Cory Wilson, James Ho and Edith Jones. Wilson and Ho were nominated by former Republican President Donald Trump, while Jones was nominated by former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

The U.S. Justice Department Thursday night issued the following statement from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland following the decision: “Nearly 30 years ago, Congress determined that a person who is subject to a court order that restrains him or her from threatening an intimate partner or child cannot lawfully possess a firearm. Whether analyzed through the lens of Supreme Court precedent, or of the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment, that statute is constitutional. Accordingly, the Department will seek further review of the Fifth Circuit’s contrary decision."

Thursday’s ruling overturned the federal law and is not likely to impact similar state laws, including one in California. Still, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, called the judges who issued the ruling “zealots” who are “hellbent on a deranged vision of guns for all, leaving government powerless to protect its people.”

“This is what the ultra-conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court wants. It’s happening, and it’s happening right now,” Newsom said. “Wake up America — this assault on our safety will only accelerate."

Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, said the problem with laws like the one the federal appeals court struck down is that they are too broad and don’t take into account the details of each case.

He offered as an example a client of his whose neighbor filed a restraining order against them because they had pointed a security camera on their property.

“They lost their gun rights,” he said. “When they do a blanket prohibition without considering individualized circumstances, they shoot the dogs with the wolves.”

Thursday’s ruling demonstrates the far-reaching impacts of the Bruen decision. In California, the decision has prompted lawmakers to overhaul their law regarding permits to carry concealed weapons.

Wednesday, Newsom endorsed a bill in the state Legislature that would ban people from carrying concealed guns in nearly all public places, with an exception for churches and businesses who put up a sign saying guns are OK.

McCarthy calls for intel briefing on Chinese spy balloon over Montana

Politico -

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday night called for a briefing of the “Gang of Eight” — the group of lawmakers charged with reviewing the nation’s most sensitive intelligence information — following reports of a Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana.

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy tweeted. “I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing.”

The Pentagon said Thursday it had detected and was tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon flying high over the United States. The balloon is floating at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a threat to people on the ground, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement.

Ryder declined to say where the balloon came from, but a senior Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks, said the Pentagon has “very high confidence” it belongs to China.

The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation and asked for military options, said the senior DoD official. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened senior Pentagon leaders on Wednesday while he was traveling in the Philippines, and discussed the possibility of shooting it down.

Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Glen VanHerck, chief of U.S. Northern Command, strongly recommended against bringing it down due to the risk that falling debris could pose a hazard to people on the ground, the senior DoD official said.

“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana, but we just couldn't buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday,” the official said.

Officials also assessed that the balloon did not pose a threat to the people on the ground or to civilian aviation, the official added.

The Pentagon also determined the balloon has “limited value” over what China is already able to collect through its satellite capabilities, the official said. But it is flying over a number of sensitive sites, including Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to some of the nation’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Still, the department is taking “mitigation steps” to protect against possible foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information, the person said, declining to give details. At the same time, officials are gaining “insights” into the balloon’s capabilities.

“We know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over and we're taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk,” the person said.

At Billings Logan airport on Wednesday, flights ground to a halt as the U.S. military scrambled F-22 fighter jets in case the decision was made to take down the balloon.

Revelations about the suspected spy balloon sparked angry reactions among lawmakers, beyond McCarthy.

“Biden should shoot down the Chinese spy balloon immediately,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) saidin a tweet","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://twitter.com/RepMTG/status/1621294190041636864","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0000","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0001","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">in a tweet. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)tweeted that the balloon","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://twitter.com/marcorubio/status/1621295667040722944","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0002","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0003","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">tweeted that the balloon highlighted how “intense & brazen” Chinese espionage efforts targeting the U.S. have become.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines demanded a briefing from the Biden administration Thursday night.

“It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised U.S. national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the U.S. that this spy- balloon was utilizing,” he said in a statement. “Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana."

Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon owes a “full and accurate accounting” of what happened.

“Information strongly suggests the Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon,” the Mississippi senator said. “No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately.”

Not all the criticism came from Republicans. The bipartisan leaders of the newly formed House committee on China issued a joint statement","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/f/?id=00000186-1504-df27-abcf-9d6d3eb90000","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0004","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0005","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">issued a joint statement declaring the balloon incursion a “violation of American sovereignty.”

They hinted it had implications for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’strip to Beijing next week","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/newsletters/politico-china-watcher/2023/02/02/blinken-braves-bilateral-deep-freeze-in-beijing-00080787","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0006","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0007","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">trip to Beijing next week. “Coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s trip to the PRC … it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy,” Committee Chair Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and ranking member Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill) said in the statement.

That suggests there may be a growing chorus of congressional voices over the next 24 hours calling for Blinken to reconsider his trip to China to protest the spy balloon’s intrusion into U.S. airspace.

“The timing of this provocation is troubling to say the least … it is very difficult to see how Blinken’s trip can proceed as planned,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If he does decide to go, this spying incident will almost certainly overshadow any hopes Blinken may have harbored about stabilizing the fraught U.S.-China relationship.”

This is not the first time DoD has tracked a Chinese spy balloon flying over the continental U.S. This kind of activity has happened “a handful of other times” over the past few years, including before the Biden administration, the senior DoD official said. However, in this instance the balloon loitered for a longer period of time.

The U.S. has engaged its Chinese counterparts “with urgency” through multiple channels, both through their embassy in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Beijing, the senior DoD official said.

“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the person said. “We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.”

Dems fret policing talks will be tangled with Tim Scott’s presidential hopes

Politico -

Democrats are signaling that they’re willing to work with Republicans on a new policing bill after the death of Tyre Nichols. Who their GOP partners might be is a trickier question.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), his party’s past lead policing negotiator, is now a possible presidential contender in 2024 — adding new potential political risk to an issue already riddled with pitfalls. Democrats are still eyeing Scott as a partner, indicating they might be open to amending a sweeping law enforcement bill named for George Floyd — the Black man whose 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer ignited the Black Lives Matter movement — that the House passed last Congress. But they’re wary of the effect that Scott’s aspirations will have on cross-party talks.

“Whenever you inject politics into the discussion, people play to a different standard,” said Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.), a Congressional Black Caucus leader. “And I would hope that more people would play to just doing what’s right.”

Neither Scott nor any other congressional Republican was invited to what’s seen as the opening act of policing discussions after Nichols’ death last month following a brutal beating by Memphis officers: Thursday’s Black Caucus meeting with President Joe Biden. The all-Democratic invite list went out despite the House’s record-high four Black Republicans in office — a group that could be influential in steering the GOP majority. And there’s no guarantee they’ll agree with Scott, whoreiterated Wednesday on Twitter that he’s opposed to Democrats’ Floyd bill but cracked the door to other options.

A Scott spokesperson pointed to the senator’s tweet when asked whether he would take part in negotiations, and did not respond to follow-up questions about whether Scott’s presidential aspirations affected the talks.

Underscoring the hot-potato nature of a topic of critical importance to many Black voters, it’s not clear that all four of those Black House Republicans even want a seat at the table on policing legislation.

“We don’t look at it in terms of, ‘Well, we’re Black members, so we should be leading the talks,’” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.). “We need to have people who have expertise in law enforcement and what policy ideas up here mean for local agencies — they have to be a part of that conversation. They should, frankly, be leading good chunks of that conversation.”

In meetings this week as they prepared to sit down with Biden, many Black Caucus members came to the conclusion that the legislative plan would need to be a scaled-back version of the Floyd bill that stalled in the Senate last term. Talks on a compromise had reached an impasse, mostly over changing qualified immunity, a protection that shields officers from being held personally liable for certain actions on the job.

“The idea that qualified immunity, if y’all aren’t going to give us that going at minimum, let the departments be held accountable. And I do think that that could be something that is conceivable,” said a senior Democratic aide familiar with the conversations who was granted anonymity to describe the group’s position.

Working with Republicans would be a balancing act. Democrats need to give in to certain demands to see any action at all, but they’re leery of signing off on a bill with little to no teeth that Congress can cite as evidence of progress.

However, some Democrats are ready to embrace legislation they’ll sell as a temporary fix, optimistic they could earn back a House majority next Congress and pass more robust legislation later.

Scott’s “view is not as far as mine,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a former Black Caucus chair. “But if that’s what we have to settle for, and get something else later, that’s what I’m going to do.”

And Carter, the Louisiana Democrat, said that while he thought the Floyd bill was a “solid one,” being “pliable enough to hear other ideas is smart.” He cited how he departed from other Democrats on how much to reform qualified immunity.

There’s hope within the Black Caucus that Scott’s coming back to the table would signal a possibility of actually passing a bill that would earn the necessary 60 Senate votes, even if the Republican-controlled House declined to take it up.

“That doesn’t mean he’s going to pass it, because he will ultimately say, ‘I did my part. The House is not ready.’ But he can show that, look, I can do hard things,” the same senior Democratic aide said.

But there’s no guarantee negotiators won’t experience a severe case of deja vu. The last round of talks collapsed after both parties were unable to close the gap on a few major sticking points, including changes to qualified immunity and restrictions on the use of force. Negotiators ended up trying to craft a more narrowly focused package before discussions totally fell apart.

After a nearly two-hour meeting with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, CBC Chair Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) said they and the White House were “in agreement” on plans in three categories: legislation, possible executive action and community-based solutions. He wouldn’t expand on what those agreements looked like.

“We’re not drawing lines in the sand,” Horsford told reporters. “We understand that it is about the culture of policing and keeping communities safe. All of us should be able to agree that bad policing has no place in any American city or community.”

Going into the meeting, CBC members planned to push the president to use the bully pulpit to bring the issue back into the forefront of the political arena, specifically using next week’s State of the Union address to zero in on the issue.

While lawmakers wouldn’t say whether Biden made any commitments, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) said that “you’ll certainly hear from the president … in the days ahead.”

“We are sick and tired of human beings being turned into hashtags. This has got to stop,” he added.

Biden told lawmakers he wanted to “talk about whatever you want to talk about … how to make progress on police reform of consequence and violence in our community.”

Still, some Democrats remain optimistic about working with Scott and other Republicans again. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries called preliminary talks with Scott a “productive, useful first start.”

And as Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) observed: “It’s not going to all happen in one fell swoop. But public sentiment shifts pretty quickly sometimes.”

Vindman leads new push to send military contractors to Ukraine

Politico -

A group of former military officers and private donors is raising money to send Western mechanics close to the Ukrainian frontlines, where they will repair battle-damaged donated weapons and vehicles that have been flooding into the country.

Leading the group is a familiar name in American politics: Alexander Vindman.

The retired Army officer played a central role in then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearings by testifying about the president’s 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy. During the call, Trump pushed Zelenskyy to investigate the son of then-candidate Joe Biden, Hunter, and his business ties in the country, and was accused of using U.S. military assistance as a lever.

As a private citizen over the past year, Vindman watched the slow Russian buildup along Ukraine’s borders and, he said, became concerned about how Kyiv would support and sustain a long conflict. Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny, also an Army officer, were born in Ukraine and immigrated to the U.S. as children.

Since the invasion last year, the Biden administration has approved hundreds of Bradley fighting vehicles, Strykers, Humvees, mobile howitzer systems and now Abrams tanks for shipment to Ukraine. But those machines must be taken from Ukraine to Poland or other NATO countries for major repairs, costing Ukrainian forces weeks as they wait for their armored vehicles to come back.

“We've got all sorts of resources going into depots and advanced bases in Poland, mainly, and inside Ukraine basically they're on their own,” Vindman said in an interview. It’s something he hopes to change in the coming weeks if the money, the support and the workers can be lined up.

Right now, for minor repairs and basic maintenance, Ukrainian troops can call American troops on standby in Poland who can walk the Ukrainians through repairs via secure telephone and video links, a process the Pentagon says is working well.

But it’s not a panacea for all the problems, with battle damage and wear and tear as howitzers and vehicles are ridden to their breaking points in hard combat. The government in Kyiv has welcomed virtually all Western help, and with the new influx of more advanced equipment just before what is expected to be another spring and summer of brutal fighting, the experienced hands close to the front could help keep that equipment in the fight.

Vindman's group has secured enough private funding to launch a pilot project in March, and has some backing from at least one company, which declined to be named but confirmed to POLITICO their interest in getting parts and material to Ukraine for more rapid repairs.

The plan is to find 100 to 200 experienced contractors who would travel to Ukraine and embed themselves with small units near the front lines. Under the project, called Trident Support, those contractors would in turn teach the Ukrainian troops how to fix their equipment on the fly.

The Biden administration has long tried to dissuade Americans from going to Ukraine, but private efforts like this are still possible with the blessing of the Ukrainian government. There is also a pool of thousands of non-American mechanics qualified to work on U.S. and NATO equipment who could be recruited.

The presence of U.S. citizens on the ground providing military logistics support would likely be a new irritant to the Kremlin, and any injuries, deaths, or capture of Americans by Russian forces would be a black eye for the White House as it works to keep congressional support for arming Ukraine. Yet the amount of foreign equipment pouring into the country — with more expected — means taking some risks in order to keep that machinery humming.

“There is absolutely a way to do this and secure American contractors or Western defense contractors in-country,” Vindman said. “You could do this using what we call ‘third country nationals’ where it's not American.”

There are already a handful of contractors working on systems donated by their countries inside Ukraine, but those Polish and Czech mechanics are relatively few in number and go for short stints only.

“The biggest challenges are that the U.S. government currently is deeply reluctant to put defense contractors on the ground,” Vindman said. “That means that people are getting paid to repair stuff in Poland, but that doesn't satisfy the warfighting capability of the Ukrainians. So this would be a kind of a policy change.”

There is no talk of trying to replicate the massive effort the U.S. ran in Iraq and Afghanistan, where at times there were more contractors fixing vehicles, cooking food and running communications systems than troops doing the fighting.

“If you're doing this smartly, and you're distributing five or six facilities [in Ukraine], you could do this for about 150 to 200 mechanics,” spread out at various locations across the front, Vindman said.

Part of the reason for the smaller-scale operation is the fact that any large depot with a visible manufacturing capability would be an obvious target for Russian drones and artillery. Russian strikes hit the Ukrainian manufacturing sector hard in the opening weeks of the war, particularly plants focused on the defense industry.

Another is the simple problem of throughput. Material is stacking up in Poland at repair facilities, and it’s much harder to get that equipment over the border in significant quantities on a regular basis, given the limits of trucking and rail capacity.

One employee of a non-profit organization in Ukraine who has done similar work in other conflict zones said that in Ukraine, “it's a really complex system and the structure for tracking logistics is spread very thin right now because they're fighting."

“I do not see the large logistics companies that have had experience in other areas transporting stuff in and out, or really helping out on that level in Ukraine,” said the person, who requested anonymity due to ongoing contracts in Ukraine.

Doing that work inside Ukraine could save time and start the process of getting the Ukrainians up to speed on fixing equipment that the country will likely need to maintain for years to come.

“It's complicated, but not an intractable problem,” said Ken Letcher, a retired Army colonel who specialized in logistics. The U.S. spent two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan supplying equipment across the globe and training locals to do the work for themselves.

Letcher is helping on the project, which he said is seen as “a fairly finite requirement of 12 to 18 months. At some point either after the Ukrainians are caught up on maintenance, this capability would stand down, or at some point after the war, it is then handed over.”

While some of the larger, more complicated work will still have to be done in large depots in Poland and the Czech Republic, “in the meantime the Ukrainian army needs to create such a hub in Ukraine itself,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Since we managed to create [Humvee] maintenance in Ukraine with the involvement of private funds, the next level of maintenance is something we might dare to do in future,” with other vehicles and weapons systems, he said.

Vindman, for his part, said that while the repair project is a philanthropic effort at the moment, “this may become a viable business with government support."

“But we aren’t holding our breath or waiting for permission,” he added.

Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western U.S.

Politico -

The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm for people on the ground, officials said Thursday.

A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters that the U.S. has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, provided a brief statement on the issue, saying the government continues to track the balloon. He said it is “currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."

He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the U.S. took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.

The defense official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.

The Pentagon announcement comes days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China. It’s not clear if this will affect his travel plans, which the State Department has not formally announced.

Kari Lake meets with NRSC officials

Politico -

Defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake met with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Thursday, two people familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

The meeting comes as Lake is considering a run for the Senate in Arizona. Caroline Wren, a senior adviser to Lake, confirmed the meeting, saying it lasted about an hour and that the topics of discussion included the differences between running a Senate and a gubernatorial campaign.

Asked if the meeting got Lake any closer to making a decision about a Senate run, Wren said: “I don’t think so. I think it was more listening.”

Lake has been litigating her gubernatorial loss in Arizona, contesting without evidence that the final results were marred by fraud. A number of Arizona Republicans, including failed Senate candidate Blake Masters, are also considering a run for Senate.

Lake is also set to travel to Iowa next Friday for a meet and greet with the Scott County Republican Women.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

Why Erin O’Toole is speaking up

Politico -

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole, the former leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, knows Parliament Hill from the inside and out.

He led the Conservative Party in the last election campaign and won the popular vote — as he’ll remind anyone willing to listen. But he lost the election. After Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the most seats, the knives came out for O’Toole.

His disgruntled caucus ousted him from leadership on Feb. 2, 2022.

A year removed from that abrupt fall from grace, O’Toole sat down with POLITICO for a rare interview. During a conversation about the highs and lows of a decade in Ottawa, he discussed political culture, the scourge of misinformation, and his latest thinking on his next act.

We’ve distilled the hour-long conversation into eight takeaways — excerpts that have been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Takeaway 1: He has few regrets about the 2021 election and the turmoil that followed. 

O’Toole blames the loss in part on the effectiveness of the prime minister’s wedge politics, which convinced Canadians that Conservatives couldn't be trusted to manage Covid.

“After six to eight months of self-reflection, I kind of said, no, I would not do anything differently, in terms of trying to present a modern, responsible Conservative option to Justin Trudeau.

“We were winning the seat count a week out from the election, five days out from the election. But the very fear that the prime minister kind of relied on to launch the election [meant] ultimately, we didn’t make enough people comfortable in the suburbs on our approach to handling Covid. That’s the regret, because I do think that different approach might have reduced some of the polarization we see.”

Takeaway 2: In a world on Zoom, O’Toole struggled to keep his work-from-home caucus united.

“I didn’t have a caucus meeting in-person until after the election. I saw some people suffering greatly in their personal lives on Zoom. I could see in the Zoom meetings, people multitasking, people putting peanut butter on their bagel. People weren’t engaged. And there was a section that went right down the rabbit hole of Covid — ivermectin, the whole nine yards.

“I would try to keep people focused on the task at hand, which was working to get the country out of the pandemic and help save lives, help reduce pressure on the hospital waiting rooms.”

Takeaway 3: Wedges are effective, but they have consequences. 

O’Toole says Trudeau’s pandemic politics have divided Canada.

“Right after the election, the first thing Liberals did was enforce a vaccine mandate for the Hill, knowing full well I had some elected members of Parliament that would probably not pass the mandate.

“Why did they do that? That was all pure politics. That wasn’t keeping anyone safe or anything like that. They wanted to continue the wedge from the election into the post-election period as they were rolling out a mandate nationally. These are very good short-term political wedges. And were instrumental. They were one element of my ultimate demise as leader, but they're also the same element that led to Wellington Street being blockaded. And the flags popping up in my riding that I really dislike.

“Mr. Trudeau has created these circumstances. And if anything, my biggest regret about not being leader is I’ve always tried to be someone that tries to drive towards consensus and collaboration. I think Mr. Trudeau is setting up the circumstances for the country to be more divided long-term. And that’s not a good thing. And that’s far more important than me or him.”

Takeaway 4: For the rest of this term, O’Toole plans to pick his spots. 

He tells POLITICO that with more time to advocate, he’s focused on issues core to his interests.

“After I moved my family and my kids’ schools and adjusted our family to a bit of the sudden change, I established a number of areas that I wanted to provide unique support in the advocacy efforts. A little bit of goodwill if I could attach my name to a cause.

“One has been the Afghan interpreters and the 8,000 people that we still haven't gotten out of Afghanistan.

“Another area has been MAID [medical assistance in dying] and mental health. Probably the first thing I started working on on the Hill was mental health for veterans and first responders.

“I’ve been advocating for many years for nuclear power, and the small modular reactor at the Darlington site. It’s not only in my riding.

“Arctic issues and defense issues more broadly.

“And then, of course, Ukraine, part of the last speech I gave as leader. When Minister [Mélanie] Joly was downplaying a looming invasion. Her speech didn't age well. Mine saying we should have been sharing defensive lethal weapons earlier I think has aged a bit better.”

Takeaway 5: Substack beats Twitter. 

O’Toole joined a growing number of MPs who’ve launched podcasts and Substack newsletters. He embraces platforms that promote debate in a way tweets cannot.

“Social media has become just so tribal and so toxic that I’ll put something out, it could be on the passing of the Queen, and the Liberal angry troll army will hammer it. And now I also get hammered by the anti-lockdown, anti-vax sort of people, too. So that means people who are actually trying to access and learn about something, they’re not taking anything away from those sites anymore.

“So with Substack, [Conservative MP] Michelle Rempel Garner encouraged me to use it because she found it stimulated some good debate. There’s still some trolls on there. But the posts are longer-form. So it’s not compartmentalizing it into a little tagline.

“And it’s good for me, because some of the issues I’ve been talking about and droning on about for 10 years are now very topical.”

Takeaway 6: Under the Liberals, Canada is M.I.A. in the world.

O’Toole draws a straight line from NAFTA renegotiations to President Joe Biden’s lukewarm approach to Canada-U.S. relations.

“We have become a complete afterthought in almost every major relationship we have. And I blame the government for its kind of virtue signaling foreign policy.

“This is one [area] where mainstream media takes a bit of a share of the blame, in my view, too, because they could not move past their own dislike of Donald Trump to realize how ineffective our NAFTA negotiations were, and how we really lost our special place with the United States. And nothing proves that more than how Biden treated Canada in its first year as president, from Keystone XL to everything else.

“I have a lot of respect for [Finance Minister] Chrystia Freeland, but we completely botched those negotiations and it has set us back. And now in NATO, we’re not taken seriously. Europeans don’t take us seriously. I think with our response to Ukraine, we’re starting to climb back up. We’re finally making the tough decisions on China. There’s a chance we can reverse this decline.”

Takeaway 7: We should all worry about misinformation. 

It’s a Conservative problem, he says, but Liberals have vocal fringe elements, too.

“The one thing that I worry about a little bit in our party — and this isn’t the leader, this is the party and the conservative movement — is creeping misinformation, especially on the Ukraine situation. I’ve noticed right-wing people on social media, especially some veterans, a couple of whom I’ve spoken to personally about it, buying hook, line and sinker, some of the Russian propaganda on Ukraine. That it’s run by Neo-Nazis, or that it’s conducting money laundering with all the aid from Western countries.

“These are all narratives from Putin and the Kremlin. When somebody sees something posted by a friend, they take it at face value. ‘Hey, I was at the convoy with Jim. And if Jim says this is true about Ukraine, it must be true.’ And I think we have a responsibility to counter that. That was part of the reason I wrote my essay on the F--K Trudeau flags.

“It’s important for [political] parties not to allow themselves to be defined by the fringe. But when you criticize the fringe, they’re loud. And so a lot of people will just remain quiet. I don’t think we can remain quiet. That accessible observer in the middle, we have to convince them that the Conservative way is right. And if we allow fringe [voices] that are not part of our party to define our party, it’s going to be harder to convince those people that we deserve their vote.”

Takeaway 8: O’Toole wants a role with his party after the next election — maybe. 

He hasn’t committed to running for re-election. But he sounds open to another term if he can find a role to play in the Conservative Party.

“I want to see what we roll out as a party, and where I can help, and where I can add some input. There are people giving up on this country. And there are people that in some cases have been marginalized by their own prime minister. The unvaccinated.

“I want us to get through that period, and anything I can do to help. I give [Conservative Leader] Pierre [Poilievre] advice from time to time. He’s asked a couple of times. That’s a unique position.

“All this election talk about a spring election really has me saying, ‘What are we going to put forward? What can I do to help the team?’ But I still consider it an honor to be the MP for Durham. And we’ll see what happens this spring.”

A new crypto threat to government launches

Politico -

If the spread of social media to the Middle East sparked the Arab Spring, imagine what will happen when people get their hands on crypto tools that allow them to send money, form groups and enter into financial contracts — all with more secrecy than Bitcoin provides.

That’s the startling pitch from Amir Taaki, an early Bitcoin developer now working with an international group of anarchist coders on next-generation software designed to find out. The coders believe their system will present a graver threat to governments than other internet advances of the past 20 years.

The group is preparing to launch a testnet, a critical early milestone on the path to releasing a finished product, as soon as Thursday afternoon, according to several members and the text of a draft announcement shared first with POLITICO.

Fourteen years after Bitcoin’s release, law enforcement and cybersecurity officials continue to grapple with the fallout from the first generation of cryptocurrency-related technology — from money laundering, to unregistered securities offerings, to ransomware attacks. But even as regulators and law enforcement figure out how to handle the first wave of blockchain networks, developers around the world are racing to deploy more advanced variations on the original concept.

While many of these next-generation tools are being designed to ensure greater legal compliance than their predecessors — or even for use by governments themselves, as crypto’s underlying technology grows in legitimacy and institutional heft — the planned launch shows that radical anti-government ideas remain a driving force in the evolution of many crypto networks.

The anarchist project calls itself DarkFi, a reference both to “DeFi” — the nickname for crypto-based decentralized finance — and a 2014 speech","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.fbi.gov/news/speeches/going-dark-are-technology-privacy-and-public-safety-on-a-collision-course","_id":"00000186-149f-d0d5-aba6-f7df39520000","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-149f-d0d5-aba6-f7df39520001","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">2014 speech by former FBI Director James Comey about the “Going Dark” problem that widespread encryption presented for law enforcement agencies hoping to surveil digital activity.

Representatives of the group say its members are spread across parts of Europe and the Middle East. Though they frame the software as a tool for shielding users from government-imposed violence, law enforcement officials say the proliferation of enhanced encryption is making it harder to catch drug dealers, terrorists and human traffickers

Bill Callahan, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who oversaw money laundering investigations during a two-decade stint at the agency, said that that the potential for advanced encryption to cloak crime is troubling — and that for the sake of public safety, new encryption tools need to strike a balance between personal freedom and government oversight.

“We have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Callahan, who now works at Blockchain Intelligence Group, which conducts forensic investigations of crypto activity. “We don’t have an absolute expectation of privacy.”

Callahan, who was not familiar with the details of DarkFi, said that people building and running crypto networks could face legal liability for criminal activity conducted on the networks. “If they are allowing this to be used by nefarious actors,” he said, “they run the risk of being held responsible.”

The risk only grows if developers publicly tout their intention to flout law enforcement. “That’s probably going to be Exhibit A,” Callahan said.

Like many of the newer crypto tools being developed for use by governments and legally compliant businesses, the DarkFi project leans heavily on zero-knowledge proofs, a cryptographic technique invented by mathematicians in the 1980s that allows for targeted verification of encrypted information in a way that allows most aspects of the information to remain secret.

Experts who reviewed DarkFi’s announcement and its website at POLITICO’s request said the project appeared to be technically sophisticated, even as they expressed skepticism of its developers’ vision.

“They seem like they’re actually putting a lot of engineering effort into it,” said Matthew Green, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University and a co-founder of Sealance, a startup that aims to integrate advanced encryption into a legally compliant version of crypto.

“It’s not a small project,” he said. "They are aiming to do something very, very powerful.”

“They do know how to do it and they’re thinking correctly,” said Evan Shapiro, the San Francisco-based CEO of the Mina Foundation, which supports another next-generation crypto network backed by venture capital investors.

But Shapiro said that in critical respects, DarkFi was behind in its development to a handful of venture-backed crypto protocols that had similar technical ambitions while being designed for more conventional commercial purposes. He said that at a technical level, DarkFi was likely to differ little from these more-commercial projects, even if it attracted applications and users more aligned with its anarchist vision.

Taaki, who has spent time in London and Syria in recent years and did not respond to questions about his current location, says the new platform will permit more secrecy than commercially-minded projects that can't afford to buck government pressure to ensure legal compliance.

In other words, the group believes that the high-tech game of cat and mouse between rogue crypto coders and governments that has gone on for over a decade is still only just beginning.

In a sense, this is an extension of the mission of the original cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, which was invented specifically to challenge government control of money and banking. As it has spread and gained wider adoption, governments have found ways to mitigate the threat posed by the original cryptocurrency and its immediate successors.

Despite Bitcoin’s use of pseudonymous addresses, for example, all transactions on the network are recorded in public view, and law enforcement officials have honed techniques to trace them back to individual users. Even as the total volume of illicit cryptocurrency activity has continued to grow in recent years, its share of transaction volume has fallen to new lows as legitimate usage has exploded, according to a report","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://blog.chainalysis.com/reports/2022-crypto-crime-report-introduction/","_id":"00000186-149f-d0d5-aba6-f7df39520002","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-149f-d0d5-aba6-f7df39520003","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">a report released last year by analytics firm Chainalysis.

And on the technical sidea report funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and released last year identified several vulnerabilities","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2022-06-21","_id":"00000186-149f-d0d5-aba6-f7df39520004","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-149f-d0d5-aba6-f7df39520005","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">several vulnerabilities in Bitcoin that an attacker with the resources of a national government could use to disrupt the network itself.

Since Bitcoin’s launch, thousands of successors have sought to improve elements of its design. Starting with Ethereum, launched in 2015, many newer systems have offered more advanced functions, such as smart contracts, which can automate financial activity. Others, like Monero — which became a cryptocurrency of choice for illicit use following its 2014 launch — have offered higher levels of secrecy.

But developers are still trying to perfect blockchain systems that integrate next-generation functionality and secrecy in a single system. Doing so will help fulfill “the destiny of crypto,” Taaki said, to bring about individual freedom at the expense of governments.

Among the features promised by DarkFi are ones that will allow people to form organizations that collectively raise and distribute money in total secrecy. Taaki said this was inspired in part by the group’s experience using existing technology to form a crypto-based organization to support jailed Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

But technical and political obstacles remain in the way of this anarchist vision.

"Building private blockchains that can do things like Ethereum is really hard,” said Green, who was instrumental in the development of ZCash, an early privacy-focused cryptocurrency released in 2016.

Green said that he, too, believes that advances in encryption and network design could bring further crypto-driven disruption. But, at least, for now, he said governments have shown they can and will find ways to crack down on networks used for criminal activities.

“We’re more in the taking-the-cap-off-of-the-toothpaste phase,” he said. “The toothpaste won’t be out of the tube probably for 10 years.”

Florida eyes more changes to voting laws ahead of 2024

Politico -

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida could alter its voting by mail rules yet again ahead of the 2024 presidential election, including blocking voters from being able to request a mail-in-ballot by telephone.

The office of Florida’s top election official, Secretary of State Cord Byrd, has come up with a list of possible changes included in a recent report that the Republican-controlled Legislature could enact this spring. His office, however, is not recommending new identification requirements strongly opposed by the state’s local election supervisors.

Some changes outlined by the department in a 60-page report handed over to state lawmakers late Wednesday include requiring that election supervisors verify the signature of a voter who signs a request for a mail-in ballot, even though some local election officials already do that.

“The Department recommends building on the election integrity measures adopted recently to enhance the security of the vote-by-mail process,” states the report.

Some of the recommendations could trigger another partisan firestorm from Democrats suspicious of proposals taking aim at mail-in voting.

Republicans in Florida for many years had dominated mail-in voting in the state, but that shifted over the past few cycles, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the 2022 elections, about 2.7 million Floridians voted by mail, with 43 percent of the ballots cast by Democrats compared with 36 percent from Republicans.

Brad Ashwell, Florida director of All Voting Is Local, a voting advocacy group, called the proposals outlined by the department as largely “unnecessary” — though he did praise a recommendation for legislators to authorize the creation of a uniform vote-by-mail ballot request form.

“The voters are already being harmed by the last changes they made,” said Ashwell, noting recent changes such as one that forces voters to request a mail-in ballot after every general election and that increased identification requirements to request a ballot.

He added that it would also be “asinine” to order up additional revisions to mail-in voting ahead of the 2024 election when turnout could be much higher than it was during the midterms. He also suggested that prohibiting ballot requests by phone could be an obstacle to elderly voters and those with disabilities.

Since the 2020 election — where mail-in voting was repeatedly criticized by former President Donald Trump — GOP legislators in the Sunshine State have pushed through several changes to mail-in voting, many of them at the insistence of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Democrats and voting rights groups widely criticized a 2021 law that place a two-ballot limit on how many mail-in ballots someone could gather for elderly or sick voters.

DeSantis and Florida Republicans have refused to go along with suggestions to eliminate no-excuse mail voting, or allowing people to vote by mail without providing a reason. But they have made key changes such as banning the collection of more than two mail-in ballots from non-family members, a practice derided by DeSantis as “ballot harvesting.” Lawmakers also put restrictions on drop boxes where people drop off their ballots and required voters to renew their ballot requests after every general election. Parts of this law is still being challenged in federal court.

Last year, legislators contemplated requiring voters to add personal information — like a driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number to what they mail back to supervisors, a move that would have likely required voters to use an extra envelope. Currently, supervisors compare the signatures on the ballot envelope and what the voter has on file.

One Republican election supervisor called the initial proposal from GOP legislators a “recipe for disaster.” Legislators backed off the change and instead directed the Department of State to come up with recommendations on how to increase ID requirements.

In January, election supervisors across the state officially chimed in with their own report warning about making widespread changes.

A working group of Democratic and Republican supervisors submitted a report to the Department of State that said requiring voters to put their personal information on ballots would be a “seismic” change that would increase costs, confuse voters and potentially lead to identity theft as well as delays in counting ballots.

The final report from the department did not include any recommendations that voters be required to put identifying information on their ballot envelopes, opting instead to focus on the "ballot request process."

Mark Earley, supervisor of elections for Leon County and head of the supervisors' statewide association, told Department of State officials that local supervisors appreciated the “credence” given their concerns about potential identification changes. Earley, however, added that some of the recommendations could “pose challenges.”

In a brief interview Thursday, Earley said eliminating the ability to request ballots by phone “is going to hinder a lot of voters” though he said he understood the desire to create a paper trail for requests.

Sam Bankman Fried’s co-founder gave GOP govs group $500,000 right before bankruptcy

Politico -

Just days before the cryptocurrency exchange FTX filed for bankruptcy, the company’s co-CEO Ryan Salame wrote a $500,000 check to the Republican Governors Association, the main campaign arm tasked with electing GOP executives across the country.

The donation was not a radical move on Salame’s part. He was, at the time, an emerging prolific GOP donor who gave more than $23 million to federal candidates and PACs in 2021 and 2022, according to FEC records. But with the fall of FTX and the arrest of Salame’s co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried, a new layer of scrutiny has been placed upon the campaign contributions that emanated from the leaders of the failed crypto empire.

A number of Democratic candidates have announced their intentions to return donations from Bankman-Fried. The RGA, however, appears to have kept Salame’s funds. A spokesperson for the group declined to comment on that specific donation. Unlike Bankman-Fried, Salame was not indicted.

The $500,000 donation from Salame was part of a $28.6 million haul that the association brought in over the last three months of 2022, according to filings with the IRS.

That money — coupled with seven-figure donations from GOP mega-donors — fueled its aggressive push to claim the executive branch in a number of states on Nov. 8. Ultimately, however, Democrats flipped three governorships in their favor. And they did so with an atypical cash advantage.

“Democrats were on total defense in 2022 and their incumbents were mired in tough races due to their out-of-touch records,” an RGA spokesperson said, pointing to the defeat of the incumbent Democratic governor in Nevada.

During the fourth quarter of 2022, the Democratic Governors Association raised about $40.2 million, according to filings with the IRS. Veterans of gubernatorial campaigns said it was the rare instance of the party’s donors shifting their focus to the DGA.

“Major donors are very often focused on national issues and presidential politics rather than state issues,” former DGA executive director Colm O’Comartun said of the party’s donor class, adding that gubernatorial races in swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania created a persuasive argument for the Democrats’ major donors. “Starry eyed donors have been used to being with Nancy [Pelosi] on Nantucket but are now warming to Democratic governors.”

It could have been even worse for Republicans if not for donors like Salame. Last year, RGA also received $6 million from The Concord Fund, a group associated with the powerful conservative legal activist Leonard Leo. Its project, known as the Judicial Crisis Network, spent millions to support former President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. In 2022, the Concord Fund also gave $2.15 million to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports conservative candidates running for state judiciaries and other state-level campaigns.

The influx of cash suggests a growing effort by the group to focus on the states. A spokesperson for the Concord Fund maintained, though, that the group, primarily through its support for the Judicial Crisis Network, has already been involved in state court issues for over a decade.

RGA is free to accept donations of unlimited size, beyond the limits set for federal and many state-level campaigns. Groups like RGA are also free to accept contributions from corporations, unlike federal campaigns.

RGA’s 2022 fundraising haul also included a number of major conservative donor dynasties. The Las Vegas Sands Corporation — whose majority shareholder is Miriam Adelson — gave $3.79 million. The gift is also the latest indication that Adelson has remained a political force since the death of her husband, Sheldon Adelson, in 2021. Another political dynasty also spent big to support the Republican Governors: Suzanne DeVos gave $300,000, as did Richard DeVos Jr., Doug DeVos, and Daniel DeVos.

DGA’s haul also included some of the party’s mega-donors: Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker gave a total of $27 million to the group in 2022, and billionaire Stephen Mandel gave $1,000,000 as well. A portion of the haul came as a transfer from an affiliated committee, Democratic Action.

DGA did not report any gifts from FTX in 2022.

U.S. supports blocking Russia and Belarus from 2024 Olympics as war rages in Ukraine

Politico -

The U.S. supports blocking Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2024 Olympics unless it is “absolutely clear” that they are not representing their respective countries, the White House announced on Thursday.

As Russia continues to wage its almost yearlong war in Ukraine, a handful of Ukrainian allieshave called on the International Olympic Committee to ban all Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stopped short of backing an outright ban on athletes coming from Russia and Belarus. But she said the U.S. supported “suspending Russia and Belarus’ sport national governing bodies from International Sports Federations; removing individuals closely aligned to the Russian and Belarusian states, including government officials from positions of influence and international sports federations, such as boards and organizing committees; [and] encouraging national and international sports organizations to suspend broadcasting of sports competition into Russia and Belarus.”

Should the International Olympic Committee allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate, the use of official Russian or Belarusian flags, emblems or anthems should be prohibited, Jean-Pierre said during her Thursday press briefing.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged the International Olympic Committee to ban the two countries’ athletes from competing in the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. But last week, the IOC released a statement saying, “No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport,” and proposing that participants from Russia and Belarus could compete as “neutral athletes.”

Roy Wood Jr. named entertainer at 2023 White House Correspondents' dinner

Politico -

Roy Wood Jr., the stand-up comedian known for his work on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," will be the featured entertainer at the 2023 annual White House Correspondents' dinner, the Correspondents’ Association announced on Thursday.

“It will be a great night that will go down in the history books, or not, depending on which state you live in,” Wood said in the announcement.

The dinner, set for April 29, is typically attended by numerous Washington VIPs, including the president and first lady. The annual event, attended for decades by presidents from both parties, became a political flash point during the Trump administration when then-President Donald Trump refused to attend the event amid his frequent tirades against the Washington press corps. The dinner was canceled amid the Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021 but returned last year with President Joe Biden in attendance.

Wood, who studied journalism at Florida A&M University in 1998 before shifting to stand-up comedy, is the son of a pioneer radio and television journalist. Roy Wood Sr. covered topics like the Civil Rights movement and the South African Soweto race riots — work that helped him earn a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists.

“It’s an honor to be a part of a long-running tradition of celebrating those members of the media, who work so hard to uncover the truth, and hold our government accountable,” Wood said in a press release.


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