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Schumer Calls for Sessions’ Resignation

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) just called for a special prosecutor to look into Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential election and to investigate news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have perjured himself before Congress by denying conversations with Russian officials during the campaign.

He also called on Sessions to resign.

“Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign,” said Schumer this morning. “But, whatever one’s views are on resignation, the most important thing we must do is ensure the integrity of the investigation. Has it already been compromised? What can we do to ensure it moves forward in a way that ultimately leads to the unvarnished truth?”

Ben Carson Confirmed to Lead HUD

In another triumph in the Year of Unqualified Cabinet Nominees, Ben Carson was just confirmed to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by a Senate vote of 58-41, with seven members of the Democratic caucus voting for Carson’s confirmation. Democratic caucus members voting ‘aye’ were Brown, Donnelly, Heitkamp, King, Manchin, Tester and Warner.

In addition to selecting people stunningly unqualified for the positions to which they have been nominated, Trump has taken this a step further by picking nominees who seem to oppose the very mission of the departments they are nominated to lead. As much as any other candidate in the last Republican presidential primaries, Carson expressed constant doubt about government’s ability to do anything to help people and his rhetoric has often gone further, suggesting that government often harms our most vulnerable.

“There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens,” wrote Carson in a 2015 editorial bashing HUD under the Obama administration. “But based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.”

Oh, and he will also be a Housing Secretary without a sliver of housing experience.

And with that, I introduce the new head of that important department.

Senate Democrats Comment on Trump Speech

While some were basking in the afterglow of Trump’s speech last night — celebrating that the president didn’t drool on himself, call anyone names or go on a paranoid rant against the media or Saturday Night Live — Senate Democrats were quick to weigh in on his speech before a joint session of Congress. Here are some excerpts:

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

“President Trump made it clear in his speech tonight that many of his top priorities are still severely out of touch with our values in New York. I wanted to hear him outline a real plan to keep good-paying jobs in New York, but instead we heard more of the same talk about lowering taxes for rich corporations, building an expensive border wall, and gutting the Affordable Care Act that millions of Americans now rely on. These policies will not raise wages or create good-paying jobs for workers in New York.”

Jack Reed (D-RI)

“President Trump didn’t mention Russia in his speech tonight, but Americans cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Russian interference in our democracy. We need to get to the facts and learn lessons to prevent future misconduct by foreign governments. But this Administration and its allies are throwing up roadblocks to a fair, impartial investigation. We need bipartisan action in Congress to ensure no foreign attack on our electoral process goes unchecked.”

Cory Booker (D-NJ)

“This speech was more of the same fear and factual distortion that President Trump has made central to his campaign, transition, and first weeks in office. He doubled down on actions that are counter to some of our most fundamental American values and did nothing to meaningfully reach out to people who are scared of losing their economic security, their access to affordable health coverage, and even their ability to pursue the American dream because of Trump’s harmful policies.”

Mazie Hirono (D-HI)

“With this President, I pay attention to what he does more than what he says because in his first month in office, Donald Trump’s actions have not lived up to the clichés he delivered tonight.

“He stands by executive orders that have spread fear and chaos throughout the country. Tonight he called for repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with rhetoric. He also clearly called for school vouchers, and in this he has the right Education Secretary who does not believe in public education. For all his rhetoric about national security and American interests, he had absolutely nothing to say about getting to the bottom of Russian interference with our democracy.”

Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

“As he said tonight, President Trump has had a busy first month in office – but his actions have not kept his promises to put working families first. He has failed to put forward an economic plan or offer a concrete proposal for sustained job creation. And he failed to drain the swamp in Washington, instead installing Wall Street billionaires in his Cabinet and failing to address serious questions about his campaign’s relationship – and his personal business ties – with Russia.”

Chris Murphy (D-CT)

“President Trump offered nothing new tonight. He offered no new ideas. He offered no new legislation to fulfill his endless promises. He offered no new explanations for all the things that have gone wrong during the first month of his administration. His tone tonight was more sober than usual, but what a low bar we have set for the presidency when a speech is considered a success when the Commander-in-Chief doesn’t do something truly stunning or embarrassing.”

Kamala Harris (D-CA)

“Behind the political rhetoric tonight was an affirmation of this President’s divisive agenda and a complete lack of substance and specifics. Tonight, the President failed to provide comfort to the hundreds of thousands of DREAMers and their families who live under constant fear of deportation in California and across the country. Treating all immigrants like criminals disparages the millions of incredibly hardworking and patriotic families who simply want a chance at the American dream.

“The President failed to provide assurances to the 5 million Californians who rely on the Affordable Care Act for their health insurance. Let’s be clear – access to health care is not the guarantee of health care. The American people are counting on us to improve and build on what we’ve made, not go back to a time when insurance companies could discriminate against women or those with a preexisting condition.”

Zinke Confirmed to Head Interior Department

Even in the hoopla over President Mini-Mitts exceeding expectations by not wetting himself before Congress last night, I need to get back to the U.S. Senate and report that Ryan Zinke was just confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of the Interior by a vote of 68-31.

There were 16 Democrats voting in favor of Zinke’s confirmation (Bennet, Brown, Coons, Cortez Masto, Donnelly, Heinrich, Heitkamp, Kaine, Manchin, McCaskill, Murphy, Nelson, Tester, Udall, Warner, Wyden) and one Independent, Angus King.

Next up will be a confirmation vote on Ben Carson to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Ross Confirmed as Commerce Secretary

By a Senate vote of 72-27, Wilbur Ross was just confirmed as Trump’s Commerce Secretary. This ensures that even if one or two of Trump’s other cabinet members leave, we will still have an endless supply of Trump administration officials with financial ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia.

In the Democratic Caucus, 27 Senators voted against Ross and 21 voted to confirm.

Warren Persists Again – Goes After Trump and Commerce Nominee

Well, at least nobody told her to sit down this time.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who was a driving force in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before being elected to the Senate, was expected to be among the most informed and vocal of Wilbur Ross’s critics in confirmation debates and she did not disappoint earlier today.

“Mr. Ross is a Wall Street billionaire with a long history of profiting from the suffering of others,” said Warren, opening her remarks on the Senate floor. “He also has shady ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That’s just his record. And because of that record, I do not have confidence that he will protect the interests of the American people as Secretary of Commerce.”

Warren then read chapter and verse on everything we know about the Trump Administration’s seemingly endless ties to Putin and listed Ross as one of the primary players in those cozy relationships.

“In this context, Mr. Ross’s connections to Russia raise dangerous issues. We know that Ross installed a former KGB official and close associate of Vladimir Putin as the vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, a bank that Mr. Ross controlled and a bank that was flooded with Russian money.

“How closely connected was this former KGB official to Vladimir Putin? Here’s one hint: He was so closely connected to Putin that he was given $100 million dollar payout by a Russian-controlled mining company as a golden parachute. And he wasn’t even the only Putin pal on Mr. Ross’ board. That’s right. Mr. Ross wanted the bank he controlled to have multiple board members from Putin’s inner circle.”

The Massachusetts Senator then reviewed how normal this has all become with Trump’s cabinet nominees.

“We’ve never seen a cabinet like this in history. Like many of President Trump’s other nominees and like President Trump himself, this nominee seems to see his time in public service as a chance to increase his own wealth. In other words, on any given deal, he might be working for the American people or he might just be working for himself. We will have no way to know.

“There is significant reason to believe that the President of the United States has substantial financial ties with Russia, but nobody actually knows any of the details because he has failed to reveal his tax returns. And now President Trump expects the Senate to rubber stamp his nomination of a top banker to Vladimir Putin’s buddies to run the Commerce Department of the United States.”

Warren saved the best for last by revealing that Ross has long been the leader of a Wall Street “Secret Society” — his official title within this little fraternity is the “Grand Swipe” — that gathers to both commiserate on their shabby public image and to poke fun at the very people they routinely victimize.

“Ross ran a secret club of top Wall Street tycoons called Kappa Beta Phi. I am not making this up. It is actually true,” said Warren. “So he runs this secret club which apparently gathers every year to get drunk and entertain themselves by putting on off-color skits that make fun of the millions of Americans they’ve swindled over the years.”

I can’t believe that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t jump up and protect his buddies after that one. But even if he had, Warren would undoubtedly have persisted. Here’s the full video of her floor speech.

Schumer on Poor Quality of Trump Cabinet Picks

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) went to the Senate floor just a few minutes ago to discuss the ongoing poor quality of Trump’s Cabinet of Deplorables and the extent to which they seem to come in loaded down with ethical and conflict of interest issues.  An excerpt:

“Just yesterday the nominee to be the Secretary of the Navy withdrew his name from consideration because he couldn’t disentangle himself from his massive personal business interests. He may have more integrity than some of the others who continued through the process with conflicts of interest hanging over their heads.

“The Navy Secretary nominee is one of 14 relatively high-level administration officials who have left, resigned or withdrawn their nomination in just the first month of this presidency. That list includes the nominee for the Secretary of Labor, Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Navy, and principal National Security Advisor. It is clear the Trump administration did not carefully vet or select these picks.”

The Senate will vote today on Wilbur Ross to lead the Department of Commerce and Tuesday or Wednesday on Ryan Zinke for Secretary of the Interior. Confirmation votes could also happen later this week on either Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development) or Rick Perry (Energy Department).

Cabinet of Deplorables Status: February 27, 2017

Here’s your update on Donald Trump’s Cabinet of Deplorables and where they are in the confirmation process as of Monday morning. I will update this with a new post as needed until the cabinet is filled. (Changes since last update are bolded for an easier quick-check.)

Confirmed

Elaine Chao; Department of Transportation – Confirmed by a vote of 93-6 on January 31.

Betsy DeVos; Department of Education – Confirmed by a vote of 51-50 on February 7.

Governor Nikki Haley; Ambassador to the United Nations — Confirmed by a vote of 96-4 on January 24.

Retired General John Kelly; Department of Homeland Security – Confirmed by a vote of 88-11 on January 20.

General James Mattis; Department of Defense – Confirmed by a vote of 98-1 on January 20.

Steven Mnuchin; Department of the Treasury – Confirmed by a vote of 53-47 on February 13.

Representative Mick Mulvaney; Director, Office of Management and Budget — Confirmed by a vote of 51-49 on February 16.

Mike Pompeo; Director, CIA — Confirmed by a vote of 66-32 on January 23.

Representative Tom Price; Department of Health and Human Services – Confirmed by a vote of 52-47 on February 10.

Scott Pruitt; Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency — Approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee by a vote of 11-0 on February 2. Confirmed by a vote of 52-46 on February 17.

Dr. David Shulkin; Department of Veterans Affairs — Confirmed by a vote of 100-0 on February 13.

Rex Tillerson; Department of State — Confirmed by a vote of 56-43 on February 1.

Reported Out of Committee; Floor vote to be scheduled

Dr. Ben Carson; Department of Housing and Urban Development – Approved unanimously by the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on January 24. Floor vote expected week of February 27.

Rick Perry; Department of Energy – Approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee January 31 by a 17-6 vote. Floor vote expected week of February 27.

Wilbur Ross; Department of Commerce – Approved on January 24 by Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Floor vote expected February 27

Representative Ryan Zinke; Department of the Interior – Approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee by a 16-6 vote on January 31. Floor vote expected February 28.

Awaiting Committee Hearing

Alexander Acosta; Department of Labor — Awaiting referral to Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee

Sonny Perdue; Department of Agriculture — Awaiting referral to Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee

GOP’s Collins Wants Flynn Testimony, Maybe Trump Tax Returns

I hear a lot from people these days that Senate Republicans will do nothing to derail the disaster-bound Trump Train and, while I agree with that to a large extent, I think it’s important that we leave room for a few of them to surprise us. We saw hints of that in the cabinet confirmations when Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) went against the GOP by voting ‘nay’ on Betsy DeVos’s nomination as Education Secretary.

Collins was also the lone Republican voting against Scott Pruitt’s confirmation to head the EPA and she’s doing good things again as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee — this time saying that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn must be forced to appear at upcoming committee hearings on Russia corrupting the 2016 presidential election.

(Flynn resigned as Trump’s senior security advisor on February 13 after lying to Mike Pence about discussions he had with Russian officials in December.)

The Maine senator said in a radio interview that she and “many of the members” of the Intelligence Committee will make a formal request compelling Flynn to testify under oath, adding that “We’ve asked all of the agencies and campaign officials involved to preserve all documents, all emails, all text messages that could be in any way relevant to the investigation.”

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and the senior Democrat on the panel, Mark Warner (D-VA), issued a joint statement last month saying that a full investigation will be done.

Collins also suggested that if it had probative value the committee would subpoena Trump’s tax returns.

“I don’t know whether we will need to do that,” said Collins. “If it’s necessary to get to the answers, then I suspect we would.”

While this is all good news, the Intelligence Committee conducts many of its hearings behind closed doors and we may never know what actually happens in those meetings. This is where we can only count on Democrats to make sure nothing is swept under the carpet. Joe Manchin (D-WV) won’t do much, but I think we can count on Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

But from Collins’ point of view, things are full speed ahead and she says she is committed to getting to the bottom of what happened with Team Trump and Russia.

“This is a broad investigation, and I am confident that since it is a completely bipartisan investigation with full-time staff, that we will get to the bottom of this.”

Wyden Demands Answers on Questionable Phone Searches at Border

In yet another sign of what our country is becoming under the Trump regime, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has sent a letter to Homeland Security chief John Kelly demanding to know why Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have been ordering some people to unlock their cell phones for examination.

Wyden also cited a recent statement by Kelly saying that people visiting the U.S. may be asked to give security officers their social-media passwords so agents can examine their usage of applications like Facebook and Twitter.

“We want to get on their social media, with passwords: What do you do, what do you say?” Kelly told the House Homeland Security Committee earlier this month. “If they don’t want to cooperate then you don’t come in.”

While Kelly’s comments before that committee were in the context of what will likely happen in the future as immigrants are vetted for admission to the U.S., reports are surfacing that people are already being subject to these searches upon entering the country.

In January, Sidd Bikkannavar, who was born in the U.S. and is an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was detained on reentering the country after a vacation in Chile and asked to give CBP agents the password to his phone. Bikkannavar complied but remains concerned because the phone was issued by NASA, contained sensitive information and he has no idea what agents gleaned from their search.

“I was cautiously telling him I wasn’t allowed to give it out, because I didn’t want to seem like I was not cooperating,” says Bikkannavar. “I told him I’m not really allowed to give the passcode; I have to protect access. But he insisted they had the authority to search it.”

In his letter, Wyden challenged Kelly to answer five specific questions, including the following:

What legal authority permits CBP to ask for or demand, as a condition of entry, that a U.S. person disclose their social media or email account password?

What legal authority permits CBP to ask for or demand, as a condition of entry, that a U.S. person turn over their device PIN or password to gain access to encrypted data? How are such demands consistent with the Fifth Amendment?

Wyden also told the Homeland Security Secretary that he intends to introduce legislation to “… guarantee that the Fourth Amendment is respected at the border by requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before searching devices, and prohibiting the practice of forcing travelers to reveal their online account passwords.”

“These digital dragnet border search practices weaken our national and economic security. Indiscriminate digital searches distract CBP from its core mission and needlessly divert agency resources away from those who truly threaten our nation.”

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