DeVos says Washington will not mandate ‘school choice’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised Monday night that the Trump administration would propose “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history,” but said that states, rather than Washington, D.C., would make the decisions.

“When it comes to education, no solution, not even ones we like, should be dictated or run from Washington, D.C.,” she said.

DeVos, though, offered scant details about the Trump administration’s vision for school choice.

Her speech at an Indianapolis summit hosted by the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group she had formerly chaired, came just hours before the Trump administration releases a budget that proposes cuts to many traditional education programs, while making a $1 billion investment in promoting public school choice that has already drawn conservative criticism for expanding the federal government’s footprint in education.

States can choose not to participate in the Trump administration’s plans to expand school choice, she said. But “that would be a terrible mistake on their part,” she added. “They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

DeVos also avoided getting into detail on the Trump administration’s budget proposal, which proposes a new grant program that would encourage the flow of local, state and federal dollars to follow students moving from public school to public school. And she didn’t mention an additional $250 million to study and expand vouchers.

She said the aim of the Trump administration proposal is “to empower states and give leaders like [Indiana] Gov. Eric Holcomb the flexibility and opportunity to enhance the choices Indiana provides for Indiana students.”

“We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money,” she said. “We should have zero interest in substituting the current big government approach for our own big government approach.”

But some conservative think tanks that typically champion school choice, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, see both proposals as an undue expansion of the federal role in education policy. Conservatives have long criticized the Obama administration for encouraging states to adopt higher academic standards and more rigorous exams in exchange for billions of dollars in competitive grant funding under the controversial Race to the Top program.

On the left, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten agreed.

“DeVos is taking a page from her Democratic predecessor Arne Duncan and proposing her own version of the Obama administration’s much-criticized Race to the Top,” she said. “While Duncan tied federal funds to the promotion of Common Core and testing, DeVos is tying federal funds to her own voucher and privatization projects. She is doing so, however, not by adding money but through a reverse Robin Hood strategy of robbing schools of investments that work for kids, like after-school programs, to pay for her pet privatization and voucher programs.”

In her speech, DeVos didn’t mention a federal education tax credit proposal, which the administration has purportedly been considering as a way to channel public money to private-school scholarships to enable working-class families to pay the tuition. AFC Chairman Bill Oberndorf was clear about his organization’s support for such a proposal.

“We look forward to more details about the school choice proposals and, ultimately, hope to see a federal education tax credit included in broader tax reform later this year,” he said.

It’s unclear if the Trump administration will ultimately get behind an education tax credit proposal. And there are a number of unanswered questions about how such a plan would work, such as whether the proposal would be housed under the Education or Treasury Department, whether there would be a cap on the amount of federal tax credits available, and what the income eligibility requirements would look like for families who hope to take advantage of the scholarships.

It could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate. But if the Trump administration pursues the proposal as part of a larger tax overhaul, it could face some resistance from lawmakers who aren’t looking to over-complicate the tax code.

DeVos is following her speech with a scheduled visit Tuesday morning to Providence Cristo Rey High School — a small, Catholic private school in Indianapolis where nearly every student receives a voucher through the state’s voucher program.

Between DeVos’ speech, the budget release Tuesday and her scheduled budget testimony on the Hill on Wednesday, the administration’s proposals to expand school choice are drawing intense criticism from traditional public school advocates this week. Before DeVos took the stage Monday, traditional public school advocates were protesting in Indianapolis.

The National Education Association encouraged its members to inundate DeVos with emails rejecting vouchers, and about 1,000 people sent emails in the first hour, a spokeswoman for the teachers’ union said.

“It couldn’t be clearer: Betsy DeVos’ goal as Secretary of Education is to slash funding for public schools, using voucher schemes to funnel taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools,” NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said in its message online.

The American Federation of Teachers introduced a Snapchat filter branding photos with “Trump and DeVos need to fully fund education!”


DHS monitors Manchester bombing, increases U.S. security

The Department of Homeland Security is closely monitoring news out of the United Kingdom after an explosion outside a concert arena left 19 dead and dozens more injured.

The agency is also working with foreign counterparts to get additional information about the cause of the incident, agency spokesman David Lapan said Monday night.

Police investigators in northern England are still investigating the explosion, which happened right after a concert; terrorism is suspected. As a precaution, DHS warned that the public may see heightened U.S. security at similar public venues where there are large crowds — so-called “soft target” areas that terrorists increasingly pinpoint.

“At this time we have no information to indicate a specific threat involving music venues in the United States,” Lapan said. “However, the public may experience increased security around public places and events as officials take additional precautions.”

The agency also is encouraging U.S. citizens in the the Manchester area where the explosion happened to contact the U.S. embassy in London for assistance, if necessary, and follow State Department guidance.

“We stand ready to assist our friends and allies in the U.K. in all ways necessary as they investigate and recover from this incident,” Lapan said.

The explosion comes as DHS continues to mull whether to extend a ban on carrying large electronics on U.S.-bound flights to at least some airports in Europe and possibly elsewhere. The agency is meeting with officials from the U.K. and the European Union this week in Washington to discuss the issue.


DHS ‘monitoring the situation’ at England’s Manchester Arena

The Department of Homeland Security on Monday night said they are “monitoring the situation” following a deadly explosion at an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena in the United Kingdom.

DHS said they are working “with our foreign counterparts to obtain additional information about the cause of the reported explosion as well as the extent of injuries and fatalities.” The agency did not call the bombing a terrorist attack.

Greater Manchester Police released a statement following the incident confirming 19 people have died and around 50 others were injured, as well as saying the blast is “currently being treated as a terrorist incident until police know otherwise.”

The blast happened outside the singer’s sold out concert.

DHS urged citizens who are in the area to “heed direction from local authorities and maintain security awareness” as well as to contact the U.S. Embassy in London if assistance is needed.

In addition, the statement said there is no information of “a specific credible threat involving music venues” in the U.S. Increased security around public places and events may be taken as addition precautions, the statement said.

“We stand ready to assist our friends and allies in the U.K. in all ways necessary as they investigate and recover from this incident,” according to the statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this incident. “


Bernie backers rage over Calif. Democratic Party chair race

SAN FRANCISCO — Supporters of the losing candidate in a bitterly disputed election to serve as chair of the California Democratic Party say they’ll begin a detailed audit of the votes on Monday.

The move comes after protests, allegations of ballot stuffing and bitter disputes after votes at a weekend party convention.

Longtime party operative Eric Bauman won the chairmanship of the California Democratic Party over the weekend — but his victory was marred by complaints of ballot-stuffing and floor protests. Backers of the Kimberly Ellis, a favorite of the “Berniecrat,” activist wing of the party — say efforts to scrutinize the votes will begin immediately.

The unprecedented effort to examine the documentation of the disputed state party’s election results was announced by outgoing California Democratic Party chair John Burton at the close of a raucous state Democratic convention this weekend.

Ellis, the former director of Emerge America, a women’s political organization, lost the election by a narrow margin of 62 votes out of 3,000 cast. Her loss immediately set off protests from hundreds of her backers, many of whom charged that there were irregularities that included allowing voters to cast proxy ballots without proper ID.

Some Democratic insiders are already worried the dispute has potential to do long-term damage, creating a rift in the state party as it heads into crucial 2018 elections, where as many as nine GOP House seats could be at stake in California.

“This is our Tea Party moment,’’ said one leading Democratic strategist. “And it’s not going away.”

Republicans have already seized on the protests. State party chairman Jim Brulte said the issue underscores “the complete hypocrisy of the Democrats when it comes to election integrity.”

“Democrats think voter identification laws are important for their party elections, but don’t think they are good enough for the California voters,” Bruite said in a statement. “It should be clear to the people of California that the Democrats are willing to put the elections of our state officials at risk while protecting their own Party elections.”

Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Bauman, said he welcomes the review process and will not interfere in it.

“This has never been a secret ballot election. The party’s going to make all records available for review,’’ Maviglio said. “The ballots were counted with representative of all candidates in the room in a very public process, and they’re allowed to inspect everything available,’’ he said.

He said Bauman is convinced “the results of the election will speak for themselves.”

Ellis backers say they’re so convinced the audit will find the outcome in their favor that, if necessary, they will use the manpower and money necessary to contact every one of the nearly 3,000 delegates who cast votes in the race to sign legal affidavits regarding their vote.

“We raised half a million dollars for this election,” said Ellis’ strategist Joe Macaluso, “and we’ll have the volunteers and donations to support the effort.”

The race between Bauman, a longtime party operative, and Ellis, a relative newcomer, was cast as one between the left and the far left of the party, between “new school” and “old school’’ wings — Berniecrat activists and more traditional Democrats.

Macaluso, a lead strategist for the Ellis, said that going into the election during the Democratic Convention in Sacramento, the Ellis campaign had carefully tracked its voters and it determined that 97 percent of those who said they would support her turned up to vote for her.

When the razor-thin outcome was announced, Ellis supporters demanded recounts and a re-vote from the floor — only to be told by Burton there were no provisions for such a move. But Burton did promise Ellis would be given full access to the ballots, now in the possession of the party’s executive director, Chris Myers, for examination.

Macaluso said Ellis will not concede the election until the audit is finished, a process that’s expected to be done quickly, and that she will abide by the results.

“Kimberly says we need to assume the best in everyone, but until we look at it, we won’t be able to validate the election,’’ he said. “But nobody has more of a vested interest in making sure there is no question about the fairness of this election than Eric Bauman. So of all people who should want this to be done cleanly – it’s him.”


Trump’s budget hits his own voters hardest

Donald Trump, whose populist message and promises to help American workers propelled him to the White House, is set to issue a budget proposal on Tuesday that instead takes aim at the social safety net on which many of his supporters rely.

Rather than breaking with Washington precedent, Trump’s spending blueprint follows established conservative orthodoxy, cutting taxes on the wealthy, boosting defense spending and taking a hatchet to programs for the poor and disabled – potentially hurting many of the rural and low-income Americans that voted him into office.

The budget proposal underscores the wide gulf between campaigning and governing, even for a president who promised to rewrite the presidential rulebook.

The president’s budget plan calls for more than $1 trillion in cuts to wide-ranging social programs with millions of beneficiaries, from farm subsidies to federal student aid. That includes a $600 billion cut to Medicaid over 10 years, despite Trump’s repeated promises on the campaign trail not to cut the program. The budget also takes an ax to the federal food stamp program and Social Security Disability Insurance.

Trump also proposes some of the deepest cuts to agriculture subsidies since Ronald Reagan, squeezing out nearly $50 billion over 10 years.

Trump’s budget would drastically cut domestic programs controlled by Congress, slashing $1.7 trillion over 10 years. At the end of the decade, the U.S. would spend nearly twice the amount on military spending as other domestic programs. Domestic discretionary spending would be capped to $429 billion per year, below 2004 levels, while military spending soars to $722 billion.

The annual budget proposal – which has no chance of becoming law as proposed even though Republicans control Congress because GOP lawmakers write their own budget – serves as a starting point for negotiations and as a messaging document for the president and his party.

“There’s a certain philosophy wrapped up in the budget and that is — we are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs,” White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, one of the budget’s chief architects, told reporters on Monday. “We’re not going to measure our success by how much money we spend, but by how many people we actually help.”

Mulvaney rejected accusations that Trump’s budget unfairly targets the poor, arguing instead that it amounts to a broad rethink of the country’s welfare system.

“We need folks to work. We need people to go to work. If you’re on food stamps, and you’re able-bodied, we need you to go to work. If you’re on disability insurance and you’re not supposed to be, we need you to work,” he added. “There’s a dignity to work, and there’s a necessity to work.”

Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman and founding member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, has long sought dramatic cuts to Medicaid and other programs.

Mulvaney said the budget does not touch “mainline” or “core” Social Security, but it does cut Social Security’s disability insurance. The White House is also leaning on anti-fraud program programs to save billions of dollars in Medicare.

The White House plans to heavily promote its commitment to both Social Security and Medicare, though its attempt to eliminate the federal deficit while largely preserving those entitlement programs — which together make up the bulk of federal spending — will leave behind a path of destruction for other safety net programs.

Trump’s budget would tighten the belt on programs for low-income families ranging from cash assistance to the child tax credit. Nearly $200 billion in cuts will come directly from the federal food stamp program, which helps feed 44 million people each year.

Trump would also slash $72 billion by tightening the rules for programs for people with disabilities — programs that Trump’s advisers have described as riddled with fraud and abuse. A federal watchdog, however, found last year that 17 anti-fraud programs already exist.

In an administration document outlining budget talking points, the White House pitched its proposal as a way to replace “dependency with dignity of work.” The internal guidance, which POLITICO obtained early Monday, highlights an estimated $193 billion in savings by further limiting who can receive food stamps. The administration estimates $40 billion in savings over 10 years by preventing illegal immigrants from claiming the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides a break to households making up to about $53,000 per year, depending on family size and filing status.

“If I had sort of a subtitle for this budget, it would be the ‘Taxpayer First’ budget,” Mulvaney said Monday. “This is, I think, the first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes. So often in Washington I think we look only on the recipient side — how does the budget affect those who either receive or don’t receive benefits?”

Democrats, who have opposed cuts announced in drafts released earlier this year, reiterated their objections ahead of the budget’s release.

“Candidate Trump campaigned as a populist, said he wanted to help the working people, but since he has taken office he has governed like a hard-right conservative — pushing policies that help the uber wealthy at the expense of the middle class,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Sunday night.

“It’s a complete about-face,” said Seth Hanlon, a former economic adviser to Barack Obama. “It’s a betrayal of a lot of people who put their faith in him.”

But even some Republicans — both inside and outside Congress — say they’re worried about the sheer magnitude of the proposed cuts.

“I’m deeply concerned about the severity of the domestic cuts,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a long-time member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, told POLITICO on Friday.

Rogers has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s proposed cuts to programs that benefit rural regions like his home state, like the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“I think we do need healthcare reform. I think we do need welfare reform. But the kinds of reductions that he’s talking about go exactly against the states that brought [Trump] to the dance, so to speak,” said G. William Hoagland, a former long-time Republican Senate budget aide.

He added, “The argument can be made that there are certainly programs that are not achieving their goals. That doesn’t mean we should take the money away and forget about it.”

The White House says it expected a “mixed” reaction from Hill Republicans, according to a senior administration official. The defense hikes and tax cuts are sure to be popular, but many of the cuts could make more moderate Republicans skittish. “It’s more than a messaging document and it begins the negotiations,” the official said.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are expected to deliver their rebuttal to the White House’s budget proposal in mid-June, about two months behind schedule.

While the congressional document is also in many ways a wish list, it serves to set the spending levels that lawmakers must abide by the following year. The delay of that document means appropriators will face a time crunch ahead of the September deadline to fund the government or avert a shutdown.

The Trump administration is relying on more than aggressive cuts to mandatory programs to achieve its goal of eliminating the deficit within 10 years – a gold standard of budget-writing.

The White House is also making a rosy assumption of 3 percent economic growth – nearly double the 1.9 percent rate estimated by Congress’s nonpartisan scorekeeper – to help offset its ambitious spending plans. That includes $200 billion for new infrastructure projects as well as $19 billion for paid family leave.

The budget blueprint also assumes that Trump’s tax reform plan, which is still in the early stages of being written, will go into effect. Officials said that plan is expected to deliver a boost to the economy without adding to its bottom line, but produced no details beyond a one-page document released in April.

Trump’s proposed budgets for federal departments and agencies next year are mostly unchanged from the so-called “skinny budget” the administration released earlier this year, despite the public outcry from some disgruntled Cabinet members

A half-dozen agencies got slight boosts in their budgets, however, including those in the departments of Agriculture, Interior and Labor. The State Department, which faced some of the harshest cuts in Trump’s first budget draft, is slated for a $2.6 billion bump compared to the March numbers.

Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this story.


Trump budget seeks to slash new Air Force One

President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal slashes the anticipated funding for the new Air Force One by almost $200 million, after Trump singled out the project as too expensive and demanded the Air Force and Boeing cut costs or scrap it.

The budget request for fiscal year 2018, set for release on Tuesday, will recommend $434 million for the research and development of the new presidential fleet, according to a source who obtained the budget documents.

That’s a hefty cut from the $626 million in previously projected funding for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The justification for the reduction is unclear, but the next-generation aircraft, which is not set to enter the fleet until the middle of the next decade, has been the target of Trump’s ire. Even before he took office, he tweeted his dissatisfaction with the multibillion dollar price tag, urging the cancellation of the contract with Boeing.

Then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, however, defended the program’s cost and the highly specialized defensive system the modified commercial airliner needs to protect the commander-in-chief and guarantee secure communications in a crisis.

POLITICO has learned about several other major Pentagon aircraft and missile programs slated for adjustments in the new defense budget.

For instance, the request will seek approximately $295 million, well above a projection of only $13 million in the previous budget, for the program to develop a follow-on to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that is just becoming operational — a long-term effort known as the Next-Generation Air Dominance program.

Meanwhile, research funding for the F-22 stealth fighter that now in operation would be boosted to $610 million — up from the projected $423 million in the last budget plan under the Obama administration.

The Trump budget also proposes a funding increase — from $420 million to $451 million — for the Air Force’s controversial new air-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff Weapon. The missile, which is the focus of a fierce competition from defense contracting giants, is envisioned to be able to carry both a conventional and nuclear warhead, and is seen by arms control advocates as destabilizing.

Set for a funding reduction in the nuclear weapons category is the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, set to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. The Trump proposal would shrink the fiscal year 2018 funding from a projected $294 million to $215 million.


Christie ‘concerned’ about likely Medicaid cuts in Trump’s budget

TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie said Monday he doesn’t know the specifics of President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, but admitted he is “concerned” about cuts to federal funding for Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans.

Christie said he is not yet ready to sound the alarm on the other provision that could have an outsized impact on New Jersey residents — eliminating the federal deduction for state and local taxes.

Trump’s budget, which is expected to be released on Tuesday, will cut around $800 billion from the Medicaid program over 10 years, according to preliminary reports.

“I don’t know the specifics of the proposal but it sounds like a lot of money,” Christie said at a Statehouse press conference in response to a reporter question. “That’s all I know and all you know right now is that the rumor is that the budget is going to contain an $800 billion cut over a period of time in Medicaid. I would be concerned about that being a state that has a lot of people who utilize Medicaid, not only normally but due to the decision I made in 2013 to expand Medicaid.”

These Medicaid cuts were included in the GOP Obamacare replacement proposal, but the likely inclusion in the president’s budget, first reported by the Washington Post, suggests Trump is still looking to reduce safety net programs regardless of whether the American Health Care Act passes both houses. The cuts would reduce coverage for around 10 million people nationwide, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

Christie was uncharacteristically silent when the AHCA was introduced even though it contained cuts to the program, despite previously boasting about the half-million New Jerseyans who gained coverage under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

New Jersey will receive an estimated $3.2 billion in federal funds in Fiscal Year 2017, according to the treasury department, and will only have to pay around $183 million to cover the expansion population.

An analysis conducted by the office of Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana estimates that New Jersey would have to pay around $1.5 billion per year to cover the Medicaid expansion population under the AHCA.

Christie said he had not yet expressed his concern to Trump, with whom he has a close relationship.

“The president is a little busy right now,” he told reporters Monday.

The governor, however, was more cautious when asked about Trump’s proposal to eliminate deductions for state and local taxes, which could be a major hit to New Jersey homeowners, who pay the highest property taxes in the nation.

His deputy, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, has said eliminating that deduction could be bad for the state.

“I just don’t know how she knows that when she doesn’t know what the rest of the tax package is,” Christie said of Guadagno, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor. “That’s like doing a math equation only on one side of the equation.”

Christie said changes to marginal tax rates could end up saving some taxpayers money, even without the century-old deduction.

“The answer is, we don’t know yet until the president puts out his entire plan,” Christie said. “If it turns out it’s a net-negative in a significant way for the state of New Jersey, I’ll express that.”


Burr: Flynn could be held in contempt

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr is not ruling out holding Michael Flynn in contempt of Congress as President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser continues to stonewall lawmakers.

Flynn’s lawyer informed the Intelligence panel Monday that Flynn would not honor a subpoena for a list of his interactions with Russian officials in the run-up to last year’s presidential election. And the North Carolina Republican said his committee has “plenty” of options to respond.

“You’ll just have to wait and watch. [Contempt is] certainly one of the avenues that we could pursue,” Burr told three reporters on Monday evening. “It does us no good to have people insist on pleading the Fifth if you’re out trying to get information. The only thing I can tell you is immunity is off the table.”

Burr said Flynn’s denial of his request is nonsensical.

“All I’ve asked him for is documents. I don’t know how you can plead the Fifth on a document request,” he said.

Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia will make the decision in tandem. Warner told reporters they are keeping “all options on the table.”

Though Burr is loath to rule anything out, senior party leaders are more hesitant to trigger an intense fight between the former Trump administration official and Congress. Such a conflict could escalate tensions between the GOP Congress and Trump, who continues to speak highly of Flynn.

The issue of whether to hold Flynn in contempt is dividing Republicans — and also leading to comparisons with the hardline stances many of them took against Obama administration officials who defied congressional requests for testimony and documents, including former Attorney General Eric Holder and former IRS official Lois Lerner.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who called for Holder to resign in part for stonewalling Congress, said he could not find fault with Flynn’s decision because “you can’t criticize anybody for invoking a constitutional right.” He said it was different than Lerner, who was found in contempt of Congress by the House for asserting her Fifth Amendment rights.

“The Fifth Amendment provides you an absolute right against self-incrimination, so it’s something he’s entitled to do,” Cornyn, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said of Flynn. “There’s a lot of different sources involving the Russian connection to the election so we’re pursuing all available sources. We’re not going to be deterred by that.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former Judiciary Committee chairman, said it would be a “waste of time” to haul Flynn before the Intelligence Committee simply to see him repeatedly stonewall inquisitors.

“They may have to do that just to let him know there’s some consequences to this. But I don’t fully understand why he would invoke constitutional privileges because he’s a good guy,” Hatch said. “I think he’s worried about getting mistreated by the law.”

Other Republicans said they believed the Senate should enforce its subpoena but would not go so far as to call for a contempt of Congress vote.

“The subpoena needs to be enforced, and hopefully it will be,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence panel. Added Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.): “He needs to come in front of the committee, honor the subpoena.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee slapped Flynn with a subpoena earlier this month after he declined to provide information voluntarily. The committee is looking into Flynn and other Trump associates as part of its larger investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, which including allegations of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Flynn, who was a top Trump campaign surrogate and served as national security adviser for 24 days before being fired for misrepresenting his communications with Russia’s ambassador, alerted the committee on Monday he would not comply with the subpoena, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

“The context in which the committee has called for General Flynn’s testimonial production of documents makes clear that he has more than a reasonable apprehension that any testimony he provides could be used against him,” Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, wrote in a letter to the committee. “Multiple members of Congress have demanded that he be investigated and even prosecuted.”

If he continues to defy the committee, then Senate leaders would face a choice of whether to vote to hold him in contempt. The contempt citation could then be sent to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution or to federal district court for civil enforcement.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a member of the intelligence panel, said it looks like Flynn “might be seriously guilty” by pleading the Fifth and needs to take the committee’s opportunity to clear the air.

“We have to use every means that we have available to us through the law,” said Manchin, who prefers to only seek contempt if Flynn continues to ignore the panel. “The guy needs to come in for him to have any type of credibility whatsoever.”

“I don’t know what the best way to handle it is, honest to God,” added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ex-officio member of the committee. “We’ve got to insist on his testimony but he does have the right to take the Fifth Amendment. … We are limited in what actions we can take.”

And some Republicans said they would simply follow the lead of the Intelligence panel.

“I want the Intelligence Committee to be successful,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “Whatever they think is best — I’m going to follow their lead. Sometimes contempt is the right way to do it. Sometimes there’s other ways to do it.”


Why Tillerson Needs the Media

With his unorthodox approach to the presidency, especially his use of Twitter and his frequent diatribes against the press, Donald Trump has radically altered the U.S. approach to public diplomacy. Unfortunately, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, seems to share his low opinion of the media’s responsibility to report on American foreign policy.

The latest incident saw Secretary Tillerson and the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, taking questions about the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia from a group of international journalists that did not include members of the American press corps. U.S. journalists complained that they weren’t even given a head’s up about the briefing, a shocking breach of norms that took place in one of the least press-friendly countries on Earth—a place where a servile media parrots the government’s line at almost all times and where bloggers are given lashes for speaking out.

This is becoming a painful pattern for the diplomatic press corps at the State Department, as Tillerson is the first secretary in recent memory not to invite a press corps to accompany him on his international travel. Nor does he give many interviews, explaining, “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.”

It is probably no accident that this incident occurred in Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders are famously press-shy and baffled by the American concept of freedom of the press. This was brought home to me back in 1998, in the run-up to the U.S. bombing of Iraq known as Desert Fox. One night, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called me into the desert tent of the late Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who was then the Saudi crown prince. After many hours of intense late night negotiations over U.S. military access to airfields in the kingdom, Albright wanted an update on the latest news. When she introduced me to Prince Abdullah and explained my job to him, his reaction was to offer me his condolences, saying, “You poor man, you have to deal with the press all the time. Oh you poor, poor man.”

I didn’t consider myself unlucky—dealing with the press goes with the territory in a democracy. But the Trump administration evidently sees things differently. Secretary Tillerson has institutionalized this new diminished cooperation with the media by freezing the State Department’s daily press briefing, which has not been held for the entire month of May and seems to be suspended indefinitely. Beyond the question of the signal this sends to the world about America’s attitude towards transparency and press freedom, this is short-sighted.

I was the State Department spokesman for almost four years, from 1997 through the middle of 2000. And while the daily briefing is no doubt a significant commitment of time and effort, I believe it served the media and the Clinton administration well. Now, in an era of Google, smartphones, and Twitter, the rationale for a daily authoritative articulation of U.S. policy seems even more compelling. If anything, given the speed of change in today’s world and the real-time dissemination of information available from all corners of the planet, it would seem that the administration’s views should be made available more often rather than less.

A regular briefing serves a variety of purposes. For a new administration, a regular public vetting of U.S. policies inspires confidence in Congress and in allied capitals that Washington is on top of the key international developments

In addition, given the speed of modern communication, some 10,000 American diplomats around the world often take their cue from statements in the daily briefing regarding the inclinations or analysis of top officials. Formal transmission of official policy statements is usually much slower. In a new administration, a spokesperson who can reflect the views of a new secretary of state is especially valuable, because Foreign Service officers, anxious to get a feel for their new leadership, will be able to quickly determine the underlying premises and the thinking of a new team from even short exchanges with the diplomatic press corps.

Those utterances aren’t just useful for American diplomats. Despite some backsliding in the recent years, nearly all U.S. friends, partners and allies are democratic governments, which by definition seek the consent of their populations to their foreign policies. As a practical matter, the specific elements and arguments used by the spokesman (or woman) to justify these policies can also serve as the underlying arguments for diplomats, commentators and opinion leaders to persuade publics in those other democratic countries of the wisdom of U.S. stances. Whether it is the need for Germany to spend more on defense or South Korea’s new president to remain vigilant against the North, a key function of American diplomacy is to persuade foreign publics, which in turn will bolster U.S. diplomacy with the governments in those same countries.

Furthermore, if the coherence and consistency of an administration view is able to withstand extensive questioning from the diplomatic press corps, which is widely regarded as the most knowledgeable and professional in Washington, then those policies are likely to be sustainable over the long haul. In which case (Trump aides, take note), top officials are far less likely to go off in different directions on Sunday talk shows, since the fuzziest parts of a policy have already been explored and adjusted as a result of regular briefings.

The briefings can serve the secretary’s personal interests, too. The fact that the government will have to answer international questions every day from the State Department podium also creates a requirement that other agencies accept the department’s leading role. Given the difficulty Secretary Tillerson has had establishing his primacy on foreign policy, a daily briefing can only help him within the administration.

In terms of bureaucratic politics, a daily briefing has real value. During the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, for instance, this bureaucratic advantage proved a sore point as each day Treasury would provide our economic bureau with detailed language, but State officials would be out front. When a mistake was made on one occasion, the frustration at Treasury boiled over. Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin decided to join an inter-agency conference call with lower-level officials in order to complain angrily that the mistake that day was because State did the briefing. The irony, of course, was that later it turned out that a Treasury official made the original mistake and then passed on the faulty language to State, but that wasn’t the point at the time.

A daily briefing is obviously not the only way to marshal support for administration policies or to conduct public diplomacy. But the downgrading of the daily briefing hasn’t happened in isolation. On the contrary, it appears to reflect Secretary Tillerson’s narrow conception of the department’s role. He has argued that behind-the-scenes diplomacy with his counterparts from Europe, Asia and the Middle East is his job, until such time as a new agreement or new policies are ready to be rolled out. Then and only then are public pronouncements useful. He seems to believe his predecessors were often driven more by the size of their ego than a sense of responsibility to the public.

In this respect, Tillerson may be relying too heavily on his background as an oil executive, where little is said publicly until an agreement is hammered out, at which point negotiating skills and discretion are the keys to success. But that model bears little resemblance to the art of international diplomacy and high politics on behalf of the world’s only superpower. Applying public pressure and explaining yourself is part of the job, too. And Tillerson’s hostility to the press is surely inappropriate for a moment in history when America’s leadership role is under challenge, thanks to the self-isolating label “America First” and to candidate Trump’s repeated criticisms of international institutions as bad deals for the United States.

When it comes to the public aspects of the job, Tillerson would be better off learning from two of his most successful Republic predecessors, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Both understood the importance of public opinion and public diplomacy in ensuring American leadership, in increasing their personal clout overseas and at home, in protecting the important prerogatives of the State Department, and in preventing adversaries like Russia from filling a vacuum in international affairs left by America’s absence. Indeed, Secretary Kissinger’s famous shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East included shuttling journalists from country to country so that America’s role was publicized while Moscow’s meddling in the region was downplayed.

At a minimum, Tillerson should consider the fact that there are important substantive reasons why, in a democracy, a global power with global responsibilities should articulate its international policies every day. And that it has nothing to do with the ego of the secretary of state. In fact, what’s arrogant is thinking you don’t have to explain yourself at all.


Judge won’t move libel suit against BuzzFeed over Trump dossier

A federal judge has turned down BuzzFeed’s request to move a libel suit over its publication of a dossier contained unverified allegations against President Donald Trump.

BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief Ben Smith asked that the case be relocated to New York City, but Miami-based U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro issued a ruling Monday refusing to give up the case filed by Russian tech executive and entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev.

BuzzFeed took the controversial step of publishing the 35-page dossier in January, after press reports said it was mentioned in reports U.S. intelligence agencies circulated to top officials in the Obama administration and the incoming Trump team. Smith acknowledged that his reporters could not verify the accuracy of the facts in the dossier, but he said the public should be able to see it since it had circulated widely in Washington and was affecting policy discussions.

However, Gubarev — owner of a Dallas-based web hosting firm called Webzilla — sued in February over the inclusion of a reference to Gubarev and his companies using “botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” (The report actually called him “GUBAROV.”)

BuzzFeed apologized to Gubarev around the time the suit was filed. The news outlet also redacted the references to Gubarev from the version of the report currently accessible on its site.

However, the Russian venture capitalist pressed on with his suit, targeting BuzzFeed and Smith over what Gubarev’s attorneys caustically branded “one of the most reckless and irresponsible moments in modern ‘journalism.'”

Gubarev’s lawyers initially filed the case in Broward County, Florida, citing the fact that Webzilla is incorporated in Florida. A few weeks later, BuzzFeed moved the case to federal court in Miami and then sought to transfer it to federal court in Manhattan.

In a 30-page ruling, Ungaro waded through a complex set of factors used to assess such transfer motions and concluded that it made more sense to keep the case in Florida.

Like other media lawyers, BuzzFeed’s attorneys warned that allowing the plaintiffs in the case to use the fact that news is distributed through the internet to pick virtually any forum in the country to bring the suit gave them an unfair advantage. However, the George H.W. Bush-appointed judge concluded that BuzzFeed’s ties to Florida are “extensive.”

“Based upon the evidence proffered by the parties, it is clear that Defendants do not passively operate a website that is merely accessible in Florida; rather, Defendants’ connections to Florida are extensive – Defendants regularly send reporters to Florida to cover Florida-based stories … regularly author and publish articles that are aimed at a Florida audience … and Defendants derive revenues from Florida-based advertising client, including, which is the Official Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation,” the judge wrote. “Thus, the Court finds a direct relationship between Defendants, the State of Florida, and Plaintiffs’ defamation claims.”

Ungaro also noted that the federal courts in Manhattan are notably slower than those in South Florida, with the Florida cases reaching trial “in half the time” of those filed in New York.

A spokesman for BuzzFeed said the outlet expects to prevail despite Monday’s setback.

“While we are disappointed in the judge’s ruling, we’re confident that Mr. Gubarev’s suit will be dismissed wherever we are forced to fight it,” BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said.

An attorney for Gubarev did not immediately respond to a request for comment.