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Fueled by Donald Trump opponents, Rachel Maddow’s popularity rises

Rachel Maddow can trace the mood of her audience by looking at the ratings.

Her MSNBC show’s viewership sank like a stone in the weeks following Donald Trump‘s election, as depressed liberals avoided politics, and bottomed out over the holidays. Slowly, they re-emerged, becoming active and interested again. Maddow’s audience has grown to the point where February was her show’s most-watched month since its 2008 launch.

Maddow has emerged as the favorite cable news host for presidential resistors in the opening days of the Trump administration, just as Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity is one for supporters or Keith Olbermann was the go-to television host for liberals in George W. Bush‘s second term. Trump fascination has helped cable news programs across the political spectrum defy the traditional post-presidential election slump, few as dramatically as Maddow’s.

Her show’s average audience of 2.3 million in February doubled its viewership over February 2016, in the midst of the presidential primaries, the Nielsen company said.

“I’m grateful for it,” Maddow said one recent afternoon. “It is nice for me that it is happening at a time when I feel we are doing some of our best work.”

Those two things — ratings success and Maddow’s pride in the work — don’t always intersect.

“We’re making aggressive editorial decisions in terms of how far we’re willing to get off of everyone else’s news cycle,” she said, “but it’s paying off because the news cycle more often than not is catching up with us after we do something.”

Maddow has decided to cover the Trump administration like a silent movie, so the show could pay more attention to what is being done rather than what is being said. The central focus is on connect-the-dots reporting about Trump’s business interests and dealings with Russia.

Her show is a news cousin to HBO host John Oliver‘s “Last Week Tonight” in its willingness to dive into complex subjects that don’t seem television-friendly, and follow the stories down different alleys. Maddow sounds long-winded when it doesn’t work. When it does, it’s like an absorbing novel stuffed with characters.

“It’s not like I am a teacher who is trying to extend the attention span of the American news viewer,” said Maddow, a Rhodes scholar. “I have no goal of trying to privilege complexity. It just so happens that I tend to think in 17-minute bursts.”

Maddow said she and her staff try to break news, like reporting on a Department of Homeland Security report on Trump’s immigration policy, and she was aggressive in bringing the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to a national audience. More often than not, she sees her role as explaining how things work. The program spent considerable time last week on a New Yorker magazine piece about foreign investments by Trump’s real estate company.

She’s determined not to get lost in the noise, particularly since she believes Trump is skillful at distracting the media with a new story — even an unflattering one — when he doesn’t like the attention being paid to another.

“I pray for the day when the most important thing about the Trump administration is that the president said something inappropriate on Twitter,” she said. “There are bigger and more valuable stories to be chasing than that.”

When some news organizations were upset at being barred from an informal press briefing held by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer two weeks ago, Maddow understood why. But the story didn’t really interest her. Since she doesn’t trust much of what the administration says, Maddow wondered what these reporters were really missing by not being there.

“Her approach to reality and the president’s couldn’t be further apart,” said Jeff Cohen, an Ithaca University professor and liberal activist.

During busy news periods, “certain voices cut through,” said NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. “And her work is so consistently strong. She doesn’t disappoint, and she’s got a work ethic that is consistently off the charts. … She is a very original and unique voice.”

While Maddow delivers opinion pieces instead of straight news, they are well-informed, he said. Lack doesn’t see Maddow as a voice of the resistance.

Neither does she.

“People want to draft me as an activist all the time, ascribe that role to me,” she said. “I’m not. The reason I know I’m not is that I stopped doing that in order to be the person who explained the news and delivered the news instead. It’s a very clear line to me.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Five special elections for House may send message about 2018 midterm contests

The postelection dominoes of President Donald Trump‘s administration picks and a California Democratic appointment have created five openings in the House, and that means five special elections in the coming months.

It will take some Democratic upsets for this trial heat for 2018 to dent GOP control of the House, where Republicans have a 237-193 edge.

Republicans are defending four GOP-leaning seats. Democrats are protecting territory in a liberal California district. Republicans say that puts pressure on Democrats to prove they can capitalize on widespread opposition to Trump. Democrats counter that it’s merely a free opportunity to pick up a seat, maybe two, ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

A look at the five congressional contests:

GEORGIA’S 6th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

This wealthy district spanning many of Atlanta’s northern suburbs has elected former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Johnny Isakson and current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, all Republicans. But Democrats believe they have a shot, based on Trump’s underperformance and the early fundraising success of a 30-year-old former congressional staffer, Jon Ossoff.

Price won 68 percent of the vote in November, while Trump only edged Democrat Hillary Clinton, 48-47 percent.

Ossoff is trying to thread the needle, condemning Trump and highlighting the oversight role of Congress, yet styling himself as a business-friendly centrist. “I believe voters are tired of the partisanship and ready for something fresh,” he says, convinced he can win GOP-leaning moderates.

Television airwaves in this expensive market already are filled with Ossoff ads criticizing Trump and also a Republican super PAC ad criticizing the upstart Democrat, a clear sign Republicans aren’t taking any chances.

Ossoff’s path depends on advancing to a June 20 runoff from an April 18 “jungle primary” that will have more than a dozen candidates from both parties on the same ballot. In the likely event that no one captures a majority in April, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, move on. Republicans say Ossoff, even if he advances, won’t stand up against one of several Republican candidates who are well-regarded in the district.

___

MONTANA’S AT-LARGE CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Republican multimillionaire Greg Gionforte will try again to win over Montana voters after losing the 2016 governor’s race. This time, he’s talking up Trump.

“This election will be a referendum on Donald Trump and this administration,” Gianforte said after last week’s GOP nominating convention. Gianforte won 46 percent of the vote in November against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, double digits behind Trump’s 57 percent.

Gionforte will face musician and political newcomer Rob Quist, also chosen by a state party convention. Quist, a Democrat, already is the target of attack ads from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the same Republican super PAC that has been going after Ossoff in Georgia.

The winner of a May 25 special election will succeed Ryan Zinke, who now leads Trump’s Interior Department. Zinke won re-election with 56 percent of the vote before being tapped for the Cabinet post.

Montanans lean conservative, but they are willing to elect Democrats. Bullock, now in his second term, succeeded two-term Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and Jon Tester is in his second Senate term. Still, Montana’s single House seat has been in GOP hands since 1997.

Gionforte can self-finance his campaign, having made a fortune when Oracle paid $1.8 billion to acquire the technology firm he started. Quist has backing from Schweitzer, who remains popular in the state.

____

KANSAS’ 4th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

This reliably Republican district anchored by Wichita has an April 11 special election to pick a successor to Mike Pompeo, now Trump’s CIA director. In a party nominating convention, Republicans tapped state Treasurer Ron Estes, who twice won huge margins statewide and held local office in Wichita for years before that.

Democrats, also in a convention, chose Wichita attorney Jim Thompson. Democrats took Thompson’s long odds over the former state treasurer whom Estes defeated in 2010. Republicans have held the seat since their 1994 sweep.

___

SOUTH CAROLINA’s 5th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

The seat opened up when Trump tapped tea party lawmaker Mick Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget.

Candidates for May 2 party primaries can officially qualify only after March 13, but several Republicans are in. Among them: state legislative leader Tommy Pope and former state Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly, who spent the last several years coordinating the national GOP’s outreach to evangelicals. So far, two Democrats are in the race: Archie Parnell, a Goldman Sachs senior adviser, and Alexis Frank, an Army veteran who is now a student.

The rapidly growing district includes the suburbs on the southern edge of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the college town Rock Hill, a profile that had South Carolina Democrats quietly hopeful they could threaten Mulvaney in November. But he won easy re-election.

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CALIFORNIA’s 34th CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

This Los Angeles County district is the most lopsided of the special-election contests. Clinton swamped Trump here. The opening came when Gov. Jerry Brown elevated Rep. Xavier Beccera to state attorney general, replacing Kamala Harris, who ascended to the U.S. Senate. The district’s liberal leanings likely mean two Democrats — out of 19 who qualified — will advance from an April 4 jungle primary to a June 6 general election.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Search for Florida Democratic Party’s next Executive Director continues

An official with the Florida Democratic Party says that while the search to find a successor to Scott Arceneaux as executive director of the Florida Democratic Party does include Jonathan Ducote and Josh Wolf, it is by no means limited to those two candidates.

Juan Penalosa, who is working with newly elected FDP Chair Stephen Bittel on his transition team, tells FloridaPolitics that the search to replace Arceneaux remains a national search, and goes beyond Ducote and Wolf. He does say that the two are definitely in the mix, however.

On Sunday, FloridaPolitics had reported that sources said that the race to replace Arceneaux was down to Ducote and Wolf. Penalosa says that that there are several other candidates being considered.

Ducote has served as political director for the Florida Justice Association since 2014. He previously served as campaign manager for Loranne Ausley’s unsuccessful 2010 bid for CFO, as financial director for Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown’s 2011 election victory, and as campaign manager for Barbara Buono’s unsuccessful challenge to Chris Christie in the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election.

Wolf most recently served as campaign manager for Patrick Murphy‘s U.S. Senate bid. Prior to that, he served as campaign manager for Steve Grossman’s unsuccessful 2014 campaign for governor in Massachusetts. In 2012, he managed U.S. Rep. Ami Bera‘s successful campaign in California.

Arceneaux’s departure after more than seven years as Executive Director was announced in January, shortly after Coconut Grove developer and fundraiser Stephen Bittel was elected as chairman. Arceneaux’s tenure had been contentious in recent years, as some Democrats openly wondered why he had maintained his position while the state party continued to lose statewide elections.

Arceneaux was initially hired during Karen Thurman‘s term in 2009. He lasted through the regimes of Rod Smith and Allison Tant.

2016 proved to be another desultory year for Florida Democrats. After being a blue state for two successive presidential elections, Republican Donald Trump eked out a narrow, but clear-cut victory over Hillary Clinton, while Marco Rubio easily defeated Murphy to maintain his seat in the Senate.

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In Tampa, potential CFO candidate Jeremy Ring tells his story

Broward Democrat Jeremy Ring isn’t officially a candidate for Chief Financial Officer, but he talked the part during a stop in Tampa on Friday.

Speaking at the Oxford Exchange as part of the Cafe Con Tampa weekly event, the former Yahoo executive introduced himself to the audience by humble-bragging about his private sector background, describing himself as the first salesman for the internet search engine company when he started there as a 24-year-old (he’s 46 now).

As proud as he was of his private sector career, Ring was self-deprecating when it came to his knowledge about politics when he decided to first run for the state Senate in 2006.

“I had never been to Tallahassee,” he says. “I barely knew that Jeb Bush was Governor of Florida. When I lived in Silicon Valley, Nancy Pelosi was my Congresswoman – I never heard of her (actually, Pelosi represents San Francisco, an hour north of Silicon Valley, which is located in Santa Clara County). All true. I was the least experienced candidate in the history of the state of Florida.”

The meat of his message is on making Florida an innovative economy, a theme he campaigned on during his first run for office a decade ago. And he’s produced results.

In 2008, he helped create theFlorida Growth Fund, which invests in state and local pension funds involving technology and high-growth businesses with a significant presence in the state, and the Florida Opportunity Fund, a multimillion-dollar program that directs investments to high-performing funds committed to seed early stage businesses.

Ring says that Florida has one of the most complete innovation “ecosystems” in the country, not that it’s something that many lawmakers know or understand.

“Most elected officials in Tallahassee will inspire you instead of becoming the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, they’ll inspire you to be the next homebuilder or land use attorneys,” he said. “The biggest thing that we’re lacking in this state to build an innovation economy is not the pieces. The pieces exist. It’s the culture. We don’t have the culture.”

Ring’s legislative record shows that he is definitely unorthodox compared to his Tallahassee colleagues. Last year he sponsored a bill that would make computer coding a foreign language option, an idea he received from his 14-year-old son. The bill failed, though St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes is sponsoring it again this year (Brandes and Tampa Republican Representative Jamie Grant were singled out by Ring as understanding innovation).

Ring is adamant that the worst thing the state could do was to “starve our universities,” and he was critical of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s new offensive scrutinizing state university foundations. And he said that Florida cannot afford to freeze college tuition.

He tends to think that lawmakers (and the press) are in a bubble in regards to the general public’s attention span. In describing the uproar over former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli pulling the House out of Session days before it was scheduled to end (only to have to come back in a special session), he says ,”Not a single person called my office caring about that. It just wasn’t relevant to their lives.”

Acknowledging that it’s like a cliche, but Ring describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. And he is coldly realistic about his chances of success in capturing the CFO seat next year.

It would require raising an “incredible amount of money,” having a solid campaign team and essentially ignoring the Florida Democratic Party. The bigger challenge, he said, is that most Floridians don’t give a hoot about the CFO race, and that part of the campaign will be out of his control.

“What’s the Governor’s race going to look like?” he asked. “Is Donald Trump at one percent or 99 percent?”

Though he said he’s confident of raising substantial money both inside and outside of Florida and having a strong campaign team, “If Adam Putnam is leading the Governor’s race by 10 points, then no, but if John Morgan is leading the Governor’s race by 10 points, then a Democrat’s probably going to win.”

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Donald Trump looking to Sarah Huckabee Sanders in tough moments

Faced with aggressive on-air questioning about the president’s wiretapping claims, Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t flinch, she went folksy.

Speaking to George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” she pulled out a version of an old line from President Lyndon Johnson: “If the president walked across the Potomac, the media would be reporting that he could not swim.”

The 34-year-old spokeswoman for President Donald Trump was schooled in hardscrabble politics — and down-home rhetoric — from a young age by her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Her way with a zinger — and her unshakable loyalty to an often unpredictable boss — are big reasons why the deputy press secretary is a rising star in Trump’s orbit.

In recent weeks, Sanders has taken on a notably more prominent role in selling Trump’s agenda, including on television and at White House press briefings. As White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s public profile has fluctuated in recent weeks amid criticism of his performance, Sanders has increasingly become a chief defender of Trump in some of his toughest moments.

Sanders’ rise has fueled speculation that she’s becoming the president’s favored articulator, a notion she disputes. “It’s hard for any one person to maintain a schedule of being the singular face all day every day,” she said. She argued that more than one press aide spoke for President Barack Obama.

“When Eric Schultz went on TV did anybody say Josh Earnest is getting fired?” Sanders asked. “Was that story ever written?”

Spicer echoed that message: “My goal is to use other key folks in the administration and the White House to do the shows.”

Indeed, speaking on behalf of this president is a challenging and consuming job.

Trump often presents his own thoughts directly on Twitter in the early hours of the morning and is known to closely follow his surrogates on television, assessing their performances. He has been happy with Sanders’ advocacy, said Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president.

“She understands America. She understands the president. And she understands how to connect the two,” said Conway, who noted that Sanders had appeared on television throughout the campaign as well. “The president has a great deal of trust in Sarah.”

On some days recently Sanders has been the administration’s messenger of choice, even when news outlets aren’t thrilled. Last Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd said on-air that “Meet the Press” had sought a “senior administration official or a Cabinet secretary,” but that the “White House offered a deputy press secretary. And so we declined.”

Sanders credits her larger-than-life dad with helping her learn how to deliver a message. Huckabee, a frequent political commentator, has long been famed for his pithy rhetoric. The two speak most mornings before 6 a.m.

“I’ll call and say, ‘What do you think if I say this?’ He’ll say, ‘That’s really good. You might try to say it a little bit more like X,'” she said.

On advocating for the unconventional Trump, Sanders admits that even in the press office, they don’t always get a heads up before Trump tweets. But she says part of Trump’s appeal is that he “directly communicates with the American people on a regular basis.”

Arkansas-raised, Sanders moved her young family to Washington to be part of the administration. She is married to a Republican consultant and they have three young children. She joined the Trump campaign not long after her father’s second presidential bid — which she managed — fizzled out in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. She said she was drawn to Trump’s message of economic populism and his outsider attitude.

“One of the big things my dad was running on was changing Washington, breaking that cycle,” Sanders said. “I felt like the outsider component was important and I thought he had the ability to actually win and defeat Hillary.”

She also said she was drawn to the Trump family’s close involvement in the campaign, “having kind of been in the same scenario for my dad’s campaign.”

Being part of an effort to defeat Hillary Clinton had extra significance for Sanders, whose father entered the Arkansas governor’s mansion just a few years after Bill Clinton exited and who shared advisers and friends in the state. Sanders said at times it was difficult to be aggressive, but she “so disagreed” with Hillary Clinton’s policies, that she kept on.

Sanders entered politics young, helping with her father’s campaigns as a child and then working her way up the ranks until she had the top job in 2016. In 2007, she moved to Iowa to run her father’s operation in the leadoff caucus state, where he was the surprise winner. She has also served in the Education Department under President George W. Bush and worked on a number of Senate and presidential campaigns.

Mike Huckabee said his daughter was always a natural.

“When most kids at 7 or 8 are jumping rope, she’s sitting at the kitchen table listening to Dick Morris doing cross tabs on statewide polls,” said Huckabee, referring to the adviser-turned-adversary to President Bill Clinton.

Those Arkansas ties continue to hold strong. Sanders has consulted with friends from the state about her new role, including Mack McLarty, the former Clinton chief of staff, who she said counseled her to appreciate the “historic opportunity” to work in the White House.

Her rising profile has come with ups and downs. Sanders says she is turning off social media alerts because she has been flooded with criticism. For now, she has not been treated to a portrayal on “Saturday Night Live” — like Spicer and Conway. But her dad says that if that comes next, she should roll with it.

“One of the great honors of life is to be parodied,” Huckabee said. “It’s kind of an indication that you’ve arrived at a place of real power.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Donald Trump’s labor nominee likely to be asked about Florida case

Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta is expected to face questions at his Senate confirmation hearing about an unusual plea deal he oversaw for a billionaire sex offender while U.S. attorney in Miami.

Acosta has won confirmation for federal posts three times previously, but he has never faced scrutiny on Capitol Hill for his time as U.S. attorney.

Critics, including attorneys for some underage victims of financier Jeffrey Epstein, say the plea agreement was a “sweetheart deal” made possible only by Epstein’s wealth, connections and high-powered lawyers. Acosta has defended his decisions as the best outcome given evidence available at the time.

“Some may feel that the prosecution should have been tougher. Evidence that has come to light since 2007 may encourage that view,” Acosta wrote in a March 2011 letter to media outlets after leaving the U.S. attorney’s office. “Had these additional statements and evidence been known, the outcome may have been different. But they were not known to us at the time.”

Senate aides from both parties expect Democrats to raise the case during Acosta’s confirmation hearing Wednesday as an example of him not speaking up for less-powerful people. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

Sen. Patty Murray, the leading Democrat on the committee, said in a statement she met with Acosta on Thursday and is concerned about whether he would “stand up to political pressure” and advocate for workers as labor secretary. Unlike Trump’s original choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, Acosta is expected to win confirmation.

The Florida International University law school dean was nominated after Puzder, a fast-food executive, withdrew over his hiring of an undocumented immigrant housekeeper and other issues.

Acosta, 48, has previously won Senate confirmation as Miami U.S. attorney, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the National Labor Relations Board.

He declined comment when asked about the Epstein case this week.

Epstein, now 64, pleaded guilty in 2008 to Florida charges of soliciting prostitution and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, of which he served 13 months. Epstein was also required to register as a sex offender and pay millions of dollars in restitution to as many as 40 victims who were between the ages of 13 and 17 when the crimes occurred.

According to court documents, Epstein paid underage girls for sex, sexual massages and similar acts at a Palm Beach mansion he then owned as well as properties in New York, the U.S. Virgin Islands and New Mexico. Prosecutors say he had a team of employees to identify girls as potential targets.

After an investigation by local police, Palm Beach prosecutors decided to charge Epstein with aggravated assault, which would have meant no jail time, no requirement that he register as a sex offender and no guaranteed restitution for victims.

Unhappy local investigators went to Acosta’s office, which opened a federal probe and eventually drafted a proposed 53-page indictment that could have resulted in a sentence of 10 years to life in prison for Epstein, if convicted. With that as leverage, a deal was worked out for Epstein to plead guilty to state prostitution solicitation charges and the federal indictment was shelved.

It didn’t stop there. Epstein’s lawyers worked out an unusual and secret “non-prosecution agreement” to guarantee neither Epstein nor his employees would ever face federal charges.

Well-known Miami defense lawyer Joel DeFabio, who has represented numerous defendants in sex cases, said he had never heard of such an agreement before Epstein’s came to light. DeFabio said he has had clients with far less egregious sex charges — and far less wealth — who were sentenced to 10 or 15 years behind bars. DeFabio tried to use the Epstein case to argue for more lenient sentences.

“There still has been no clear explanation as to why Epstein received such preferential treatment,” DeFabio said. “This thing just stinks. The elite take care of their own.”

The non-prosecution agreement became public in a related civil case, leading two Epstein victims — identified only as Jane Does No. 1 and 2, to file a victims’ rights lawsuit claiming they were improperly left in the dark about the deal. The lawsuit, which is still pending, seeks to reopen the case to expose the details and possibly nullify the agreement.

Other victims have come forward, including one woman who claimed as a teenager that Epstein flew her around the world for sexual escapades, including encounters with Britain’s Prince Andrew. Buckingham Palace has vehemently denied those claims.

The Justice Department’s position in the victims’ rights lawsuit is that since no federal indictment was ever filed, the victims were not entitled to notification about the non-prosecution agreement. Settlement talks last fall went nowhere.

“There will not be a settlement. That case will eventually get to trial,” said Bradley Edwards, attorney for the two Jane Doe victims.

In his 2011 letter, Acosta defended his decisions as the best possible outcome.

“Our judgment in this case, based on the evidence that was known at the time, was that it was better to have a billionaire serve time in jail, register as a sex offender and pay his victims restitution than risk a trial with a reduced likelihood of success,” Acosta wrote. “I supported that judgment then, and based on the state of the law as it then stood and the evidence known at the time, I would support that judgment again.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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After 2 months, Jim Mattis is only Donald Trump pick at Pentagon

Jim Mattis is not lonely in the Pentagon, but two months into his tenure as secretary of defense not a single political appointee has joined him.

The retired Marine general, who took office just hours after President Donald Trump was sworn in, has sparred with the White House over choices for high-priority civilian positions that, while rarely visible to the public, are key to developing and implementing defense policy at home and abroad.

When the Obama administration closed shop in January, only one of its top-tier Pentagon political appointees stayed in place — Robert Work, the deputy defense secretary. He agreed to remain until his successor is sworn in. So far, no nominee for deputy has been announced, let alone confirmed by the Senate.

The administration has announced four nominees for senior Pentagon civilian jobs, and two of those later withdrew. Trump’s nominee to lead the Army, Vincent Viola, withdrew in early February because of financial entanglements, and about three weeks later Philip B. Bilden, the Navy secretary nominee, withdrew for similar reasons.

On Tuesday, the White House announced it intends to nominate John J. Sullivan to be the Pentagon’s chief lawyer. In January, Trump announced former congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico as his nominee to be Air Force secretary, but he has not submitted the nomination to the Senate.

“The process has definitely slowed,” said Dov Zakheim, who served as the Pentagon budget chief during the George W. Bush administration. He said he would be surprised if Mattis gets any senior appointees confirmed before mid-April.

“The delays are already causing much consternation among allies, especially in Europe and Southeast Asia, as their most senior working level day-to-day contacts – the deputy assistant secretaries — may not come onboard until the summer,” Zakheim said in an email exchange. “Lots of mayhem could take place before then.”

This is not an issue at the Pentagon alone. While most of Trump’s choices for Cabinet and Cabinet-level posts have won Senate confirmation, 500-plus government-wide sub-Cabinet level positions requiring Senate confirmation remain unfilled.

There are few visible signs that the absence of Trump appointments in the Pentagon has affected its management of the counter-Islamic State campaign or military operations in Afghanistan. But the president has ordered a number of major policy reviews that require senior-level Pentagon attention, including counter-IS strategy, nuclear and missile defense plans and a blueprint for building up and improving the combat-readiness of the military.

Even Republicans are taking note. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday that when lawmakers have nuclear policy questions, “we do not have people in place in the new administration to answer some of those questions.”

Pentagon insiders say the appointment process, while contentious at times, has not produced significantly more friction than previous transitions in which the White House changed political parties. Democrat Barack Obama had fewer issues at the Pentagon when he took office in January 2009 because he kept in place Bush’s defense chief, Robert Gates, and Obama’s transition team quickly settled on nominees for key senior defense policy jobs.

When Bush made Donald H. Rumsfeld his defense chief in January 2001, Rumsfeld did not get his policy chief, Douglas Feith, in place until July. Rumsfeld, however, had an advantage that Mattis does not: some of his predecessor’s senior staff agreed to remain for months. By Rumsfeld’s count, it took the Bush White House 70 days on average to approve a recommended nominee, plus 52 more days for Senate confirmation.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said Mattis is committed to getting the right people in key jobs.

“He and his staff are actively conducting interviews and working collaboratively with the White House to nominate people to the Senate for confirmation,” Davis said. “We are in the final stages of vetting on several of these, and expect they will be announced soon.”

Walter Slocombe, who served as policy chief at the Pentagon during Bill Clinton‘s presidency, said the appointments process is unavoidably sluggish because of extensive political and security vetting. “Having said that, it’s a very bad idea that it takes so long,” he said. Career civil servants can fill the void for a time, but their power is limited.

“They’ll do enough to keep the engine turning over and be a big help in a crisis, but they’re not able to take the lead on policy formation,” he added.

Mattis has said little publicly about the pace of getting a new team installed, but officials familiar with the process say he and the White House have been at loggerheads on some picks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Mattis may be about to prevail in one important appointment — Anne W. Patterson, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan who recently retired after serving as the State Department’s assistant secretary for near eastern affairs.

Officials expect her to be announced soon as Trump’s nominee to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy, a position of broad responsibility for steering policy. Critics, including some Republicans, opposed her selection on grounds that as ambassador in Cairo she was too accommodating to former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Among other key Pentagon offices still without a presidentially appointed leader: intelligence, budget chief, weapons buyer, technology chief and personnel policy. These and other top positions were vacated by Obama appointees at the end of his term or earlier last year; they are now run by holdover officials in what the Pentagon calls a “performing the duties” status, meaning they can do the work unless it involves a duty that by law can be performed only by a Senate-confirmed appointee.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Melania Trump begins to embrace new role as first lady

Melania Trump‘s invitation for high-powered women to join her at the White House was about more than the lunch they would eat, or the stated purpose of honoring International Women’s Day.

It marked a “coming out,” almost two months into President Donald Trump‘s term, for a first lady described by her husband as a “very private person.” She had spent a couple of weeks hunkered down at the family’s midtown Manhattan penthouse while Trump got down to work in Washington. Now, the former model is taking her first steps into her very public new role

Mrs. Trump strode into the State Dining Room for her first solo White House event after an announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, the first lady of the United States, Melania Trump,” and was greeted by the all-female group of about 50 people, including ambassadors, Cabinet members, at least one U.S. senator and stepdaughter Ivanka Trump.

Mrs. Trump asked guests for suggestions on how best to empower women and girls worldwide, possibly foreshadowing women’s empowerment as an issue she would pursue as first lady. Trump said recently that his wife, who turns 47 next month, feels strongly about “women’s difficulties.”

“I will work alongside you in ensuring that the gender of one’s birth does not determine one’s treatment in society,” she told guests, according to a tweet by a White House official.

The White House allowed a small pool of journalists to watch as guests and the first lady arrived for Wednesday’s lunch, but they were ushered out as Mrs. Trump began to speak. The White House press office promised to distribute text of her prepared remarks after the event, but a transcript has not been released.

In recent weeks, Mrs. Trump helped plan their first big White House social event, an annual, black-tie dinner for the nation’s governors. She followed up with a trip the next day to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia, where she was hosted by the governors’ spouses.

The first lady has made other quiet appearances, watching her husband sign legislation and executive orders, and accompanying him to the Capitol for a speech to Congress.

She took her counterparts from Japan and Israel on cultural outings and quickly learned the burden of new scrutiny and protocol when she was criticized for not being at the White House to greet the Japanese prime minister’s wife. Instead, Mrs. Trump met the president and Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for an Air Force One flight to Florida. Trump treated Abe to a weekend at Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Melania Trump then took Akie Abe to tour a nearby Japanese garden.

“We see her physical presence,” said Jean Harris, professor of political science and women’s studies at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

All first ladies go through an adjustment period as they figure out how to handle one of the most unforgiving roles in American political life. Unlike many of Mrs. Trump’s predecessors, who were politically experienced through marriage to governors or members of Congress, she is married to a lifelong businessman who never held elective office until he became president.

Complicating her White House launch is the couple’s decision for the first lady to continue living at Trump Tower until their 10-year-old son, Barron, finishes the school year. She’s not expected to live full time at the White House for at least several more months, leaving Trump largely on his own and without a traditional source of moral support.

Mrs. Trump has also been slow to staff the East Wing of the White House, where the first lady’s office is based. She so far has named only a social secretary and a chief of staff. The president has said he doesn’t want to fill hundreds of government vacancies because they are “unnecessary,” which could include the East Wing.

And the slow pace of building her staff could be complicating operations.

It’s customary for the White House Visitors Office to close temporarily during a change in administration since political appointees do the work. But this year’s shutdown lasted longer than usual, frustrating members of Congress who are responsible for distributing White House public tour tickets to constituents. Tours resumed earlier this week after a more than six-week pause.

Speculation about whether the Trumps would continue the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn had been mounting until they announced this week that it will be held on April 17.

The first lady’s popularity has risen 16 percentage points since the Jan. 20 inauguration, according to recent polling by CNN, climbing to 52 percent, from 36 percent.

Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women,” said the public sees Mrs. Trump as a calming force and as someone who has embraced being a mother.

“She’s really the polar opposite of him,” she said, noting that the first lady barely tweets, unlike her husband’s daily Twitter habit. Mrs. Trump also hadn’t been seen in public for several weeks after the inauguration, whereas the president appears on camera most days of the week.

“I think most people find it endearing that she doesn’t crave the spotlight in a way that he clearly does,” Brower said.

Harris said the public is giving Mrs. Trump “a little bit of a honeymoon period” but predicted the mood will change if she doesn’t move to the White House.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Donald Trump could be forcing out U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley

President Donald Trump has asked for resignations from 46 U.S. Attorneys appointed by former President Barack Obama, possibly including A. Lee Bentley of the Middle District of Florida.

The Tampa Business Journal contacted multiple sources to see if Bentley had been asked to step aside, but did not get a confirmation as of Friday evening.

Bentley was sworn in to the position just a year ago, and was appointed based on the recommendation of Florida U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio. Before becoming U.S. Attorney, Bentley spent 15 years as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the same district.

The Middle District of Florida is headquartered in Tampa.

U.S. Attorneys generally step aside when the presidential administration changes parties, but the process usually takes place gradually to ensure replacements are lined up for a smooth transition.

Miami U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer, also an Obama appointee, announced his resignation last month.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, equated asking for the resignations to an “abrupt firing.”

“Under previous administrations, orderly transitions allowed U.S. Attorneys to leave gradually as their replacements were chosen,” she said. “This was done to protect the independence of our prosecutors and avoid disrupting ongoing federal cases.”

Feinstein said she is “very concerned about the effect of this sudden and unexpected decision on federal law enforcement.”

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Martin Dyckman: What have we become in the time of Trump?

A young woman who works at a store that we frequent told of a recent experience that haunts my mind, as I hope it will yours.

She and her husband were homebound from a European vacation. As the aircraft waited on the tarmac at Amsterdam’s airport, an announcement told three named passengers to identify themselves to a flight attendant.

Every name, she noted, sounded Middle Eastern.

Each was asked to produce a passport, even though all the passengers had had theirs inspected at least twice before boarding.

A young man near her was one of those singled out. As he stood to retrieve his bag from the overhead bin, she saw that his hands were trembling. She wondered whether he would even be able to handle the bag.

A flight attendant checked the passport and left him alone.

He took his seat, still shaking.

“Are you all right?” she asked him.

“I am an American,” he said. “I was born here.”

So that is what we have come to in the time of Trump.

Concurrently, wire services reported that Khizr Khan, the Gold Star parent who denounced Donald Trump at the Republican convention and challenged him to read the U.S. Constitution, had canceled a speaking engagement in Canada after being told, or so it was said, that “his travel privileges are being reviewed.”

His son, Captain Humayun Khan, was protecting his troops in Iraq when he was killed by a suicide bomber.

“This turn of events is not just of deep concern to me but to all my fellow Americans who cherish our freedom to travel abroad. I have not been given any reason as to why,” Kahn said. The statement did not say who told him about it.

The cancellation was announced on the same day as Trump signed a new travel ban targeting Muslims abroad.

The speech Khan had been scheduled to give in Toronto was on the subject of “tolerance, understanding, unity and the rule of law.”

Khan, a native of Pakistan, has been an American citizen for more than 30 years. There is no legal ground for the government to restrict travel of a citizen who is not accused of crime.

A statement from an unnamed Customs and Border Patrol official, quoted by POLITICO, declined to comment on the specific report but asserted that the agency doesn’t contact travelers in advance of their foreign trips. It hinted, however, that questions might have been raised about Kahn having or having applied for trusted traveler status, which speeds up airport security checks.

We need to know more about this. Was it only a rumor that reached Kahn? Was it a misunderstanding? Or something more sinister?

In any event, it was reasonable for Kahn to be concerned in the time of Trump.

Now imagine, if you will, the terror of that young man aboard the airplane multiplied millions of times by Americans with dark skins or foreign-sounding names now that ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — agents are on a rampage.

It’s about American citizens, not just immigrants who are unauthorized. It’s no longer about targeting only those who commit serious crimes — which they do less frequently than legal residents. It’s about expelling everyone that ICE and its allies in some police agencies can get their hands on. Even Dreamers, those brought here as children, whom a humane president had promised to protect, are being swept up.

There are an estimated 11 million of these vulnerable people, by the way and they are your neighbors. They could be the people who built your house, picked the fruit for your breakfast, and tidied up the hotel room where you last stayed.

Think of our country without them. It will be a different country if Trump has his way, and it won’t be a better one.

The statistics are sobering.

According to a draft paper published in November by the National Bureau of Economic Research, unauthorized immigrants account for about 3 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP). Take that away, and it spells recession.

They represent 18 percent of the workforce in agriculture, 13 percent of construction employment, and 10 percent of the leisure and hospitality sector. They’re particularly significant to the economies of five states: California, Texas, New York, Illinois and, yes, Florida.

The report’s authors, professors at Queens College of the City University of New York, calculated that if their presence were legalized, their contribution to GDP would increase, significantly, to 3.6 percent. It would no longer be easy for unscrupulous employers to exploit them.

“Documented foreign-born workers,” they added, “are about 25 percent more productive … with the same levels of education and experience,” as the undocumented.

Legal workers would not replace most of them. A 2013 North Carolina study noted that “natives prefer almost any labor market outcome … to carrying out menial harvest and planting labor.”

Here, from The New York Times, are some other pertinent facts:

About 60 percent of the 11-million have been here 10 years or more. Many are homeowners. A third of those 15 or older live with at least one child born here, who has citizenship by birth. (Where will the foster care be for so many Trump orphans?) The proportion of the estimated 300,000 with felony records is half the rate of felons in the overall population. Illegal border crossings are declining; a growing number of unauthorized immigrants simply overstayed their visas.

The 11 million are here, for the most part, because America has needed their labor and the taxes they pay. The entire nation collectively turned a willfully blind eye to the underlying illegality, just as it did during Prohibition. Every president before now has tried to reform the situation in a humane way. Only now is one catering to a minority — and they are a minority — who vote their hatreds instead of the religions they profess.

A young citizen trembling on a plane. A prominent naturalized citizen who fears to travel. Parents and children terrified of separation. Business booming for private prisons.

What kind of country have we become?

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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