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Poll: Most disapprove of Donald Trump, except on economy

Most Americans disapprove of Donald Trump‘s overall performance two months into his presidency. But they’re more upbeat about at least one critical area: his handling of the economy.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of Trump’s overall performance, and about the same percentage say the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It was conducted amid the collapse of the GOP’s health care overhaul.

But the poll also found a brighter spot for the businessman-politician on the economy, often a major driver of presidential success or failure. There, Americans split about evenly, with 50 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving of Trump’s efforts.

“He’s driving the car off the cliff in every other kind of policy and executive action he’s trying to push through, but (not) the economy,” said Ryan Mills, a 27-year-old tobacco company chemist from Greensboro, North Carolina.

Overall, just 42 percent of Americans approve and 58 percent disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president. That’s an unusually poor rating by historical standards for a still-young administration.

By contrast, at this point in their presidencies, Barack Obama‘s approval rating was above 60 percent in Gallup polling and George W. Bush‘s was above 50 percent. Gallup’s own measure of Trump’s approval has dipped below 40 percent.

Trump has suffered defeats in the federal courts, which twice temporarily halted his travel ban on some foreigners, and in Congress, where discord among Republicans has stymied legislation to up-end Obama’s signature health care law. The FBI, along with Congress, is probing Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and any possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

The president has responded in public with belligerent tweets often blaming the media, Democrats, conservative Republicans and others.

The AP-NORC poll did show Republicans still far more likely to approve than disapprove of Trump, a fifth of GOP respondents said they don’t approve of his performance. Among independents, six in 10 disapprove.

Notably, whites — who formed an important chunk of Trump’s political base during the election — divide about evenly on the approval question, 53 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving.

But there are signs in the poll that Trump’s base is holding and that people are willing to give him a chance on the still-strong economy.

Fifty-eight percent of whites without a college degree — who were especially likely to vote for Trump — approve of the job he’s doing overall.

Nearly 20 percent of those who disapprove of Trump’s overall performance still approve of how he’s handling the economy. And most Americans — 56 percent — describe the national economy as good, while 43 percent describe it as poor. About a year ago, in April of 2016, just 42 percent of Americans described the economy as good in another AP-NORC poll.

The current majority extends across party lines, with 63 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of independents and 53 percent of Democrats describing the national economy as good.

Trump voter Joshlyn Smith, a Riverside County, California, law enforcement officer, said the president needs to move past “the Twitter stuff” that often mires him in social media spats — and focus instead on the nation’s policy.

“I feel like I want to give him a fair shot, especially in terms of helping on taxes and the economy,” said Smith, 38. “On a personal level, I think he’s too involved with how he’s portrayed in the media. I want him to have a little bit tougher skin.”

The approval ratings of many presidents through history are linked to the economy, with several — including Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama — suffering politically for downturns during their first year in the White House, according to a project by the Miller Center at The University of Virginia.

Trump inherited a strong economy, which might be leading people to give him a chance to maintain it, said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center.

“It starts with how they’re feeling about their pocketbooks and their family budget,” Perry said. For presidents, “if you can keep the economy going well and having people feel good about (it), good about their lives and therefore good about the country, that can cover a multitude of sins.”

The poll, conducted over five days preceding and following last Friday’s collapse of the GOP health care bill, suggests the political damage could be hard for Trump to leave behind even if the economy stays strong.

It was a galling setback for the president and the Republicans who control Congress. Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin canceled a House vote that would have spelled defeat for the legislation because too many Republicans opposed it.

In other findings:

— More than 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of health care, the worst of seven issues tested in the poll. Three in 10 Republicans feel that way, as do 6 in 10 independents and 90 percent of Democrats.

— Eighty-six percent call health care a very or extremely important issue to them personally, nearly as many as the 87 percent who say the same about the economy.

— Along with health care, majorities of Americans also disapprove of Trump’s handling of foreign policy, immigration, the budget deficit and taxes. Half approve of how he is handling Supreme Court appointments.

— Most Americans — 62 percent — say the country is headed in the wrong direction, while just 37 percent say it’s headed in the right direction. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans say the country is headed in the right direction, while just a third of independents and less than a fifth of Democrats say the same.

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The AP-NORC poll of 1,110 adults was conducted March 23-27 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.

Interviews were conducted online and using landlines and cellphones.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Cyprus businessman suing BuzzFeed for unproven Donald Trump dossier

A businessman based in Cyprus is suing the BuzzFeed online media outlet for defamation over its publication of an unproven dossier on President Donald Trump‘s purported activities involving Russia and allegations of Russian interference during last year’s U.S. election.

The businessman, Aleksej Gubarev, claims he and his companies were falsely linked in the dossier to the Russia-backed computer hacking of Democratic Party figures. Gubarev, 36, is seeking unspecified damages from BuzzFeed and its top editor, Ben Smith, for the lawsuit’s libel and slander claims.

BuzzFeed’s lawyers, meanwhile, say the case should be tossed out of Miami federal court due to lack of jurisdiction or at least transferred to New York, where the company’s main offices are located.

The most recent filing by Gubarev’s attorneys Monday appeared to mock BuzzFeed’s editorial style by titling the document this way:

“Six Ways BuzzFeed Has Misled The Court (Number Two Will Amaze You) … And A Picture Of A Kitten.”

The 35-page dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, was circulating among multiple news outlets during the 2016 election. It contains unproven allegations of coordination between Trump’s advisers and Russians on hacking the emails of prominent Democrats and makes unverified claims about sexual activities.

On Jan. 10, BuzzFeed published the dossier in full, noting at the time that much of its content had not been verified. The Associated Press has not authenticated its claims. Trump himself has described the lurid dossier as “phony allegations” concocted by his political opponents.

In one paragraph, the dossier claims that Gubarev and his companies, XBT Holdings and Webzilla Inc., “had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership” at the behest of Russian entities, according to court documents filed by his lawyers.

“Not a single portion of this statement, as it applies to Mr. Gubarev, XBT or Webzilla, has any basis in fact whatsoever,” his attorneys wrote in a filing dated Monday.

Since the dossier’s publication, they added, Gubarev “has found his personal and professional reputation in tatters” and his wife has been subjected to online harassment. XBT operates 37,000 computer servers around the world, about 40 percent of them in Dallas, the document says.

In his lawsuit, Gubarev is described as a “venture capitalist and tech expert” who moved from his native Russia to Cyprus in 2002. Gubarev is not involved in politics and has no connections with the Russian government, the document says.

In a March 14 filing, BuzzFeed’s attorneys contend the case has no place in a Florida court because neither BuzzFeed nor Gubarev’s companies have a strong presence in the state. They want the case dismissed or moved to New York, where BuzzFeed’s headquarters are located.

“On the most fundamental level, this action has no meaningful connection to Florida,” the BuzzFeed lawyers wrote. “While the dossier itself continues to generate intense international interest, it is clear that this dispute about its publication has nothing to do with Florida.”

Gubarev, however, contends that BuzzFeed regularly reports in and about Florida and that Webzilla has maintained a corporate presence and paid taxes in the state since 2009.

The case, originally filed in February, is pending before Miami U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro. She could issue a ruling on the motion to either dismiss or transfer at any time.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Marco Rubio looking for a landlord willing to take a chance

In Tampa and Jacksonville, Sen. Marco Rubio or his staff does not hold office hours. Office hours require an office to do that.

Two months ago, Florida’s junior senator had seven locations around the state and one in Washington, D.C. designed to help constituents with issues involving their government. Only five exist now in Florida.

The reason?

Last month Rubio’s Tampa landlord decided not to renew his office lease due to the massive disruptions caused by “protestors.” A few weeks before, the leaseholder of the senator’s Jacksonville office also gave him the boot for the same reason.

“A professional office building is not the place for that,” said Jude Williams, President of America’s Capital Partners, the Tampa building landlord. “I understand their cause, but at the end of the day it was a security concern for us.”

This tired act of petulance forced Rubio’s staff to deal with constituents by telephone, mail or email. Until new offices are located, the public had better get used to impersonal service.

The First Amendment is sacred, but in this case someone exercising their rights trampled on the rights of other Floridians. To whom do they go for redress? Certainly not their senator.

So, who are the protestors and what are they protesting?

“A variety of progressive groups who oppose Donald Trump’s agenda” was the description assigned to them by the Tampa Bay Times. In an article about the situation, the Times reported the agitators (you’ve got to know who and what you’re protesting to be assigned the “protestor” moniker) and more from around the country are coached on how to protest with legislator’s offices being among the desired locations.

The irony here is some of those now without a place to go for direct help from their senator may actually agree with their political views regarding Trump. We have recently learned of alternative places to meet constituents.

How do office hours at Starbucks sound? Rubio’s two-person Tampa staff is meeting with some constituents in “coffee shops and libraries.”

That would be comical if it were not so ridiculous.

The Times told the story of a meeting between David Higgins of the progressive group Indivisible FL-13. Higgins wished to personally deliver a letter urging Rubio to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, so a meeting was arranged in a St. Petersburg public library.

Hopefully Higgins was mollified by Rubio’s harsh statements on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Senator’s active participation in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bi-partisan investigation into the very issue discussed at the library.

Meanwhile, the office protestors have moved to the highly-visible intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, where they should have been all along. Just so traffic is not impeded, they have found the ideal spot to share their view of just what a bad guy Donald Trump is with thousands of people as they pass by.

Higgins asked Rubio staffer Shauna Johnson why they have not yet found another office. She responded that would-be landlords have a problem with why they were kicked out of their previous location. When Higgins asked for that reason, Johnson simply responded, “protests.”

A senator or congressman’s office is there for all constituents, not just for a select few malcontents. Other building tenants, who also pay taxes and provide livelihoods for employees, have the right to go to and from work without having to be part of a circus.

For Rubio’s constituents in the Tampa Bay area who merely want access to their government, here’s hoping a landlord will take a chance. For those who want to carry signs and chant, the corner of Dale Mabry and Kennedy is lovely this time of year.

Matt Gaetz: Fix Florida’s Everglades, avoid distraction of costly land buy

As a former state legislator and now a member of Congress, I’ve been proud to support investments in protecting Florida’s natural resources, including the Everglades. While located far from the Emerald Coast, the Everglades are about as iconic in Florida as the Blue Angels, the Space Shuttle, and the orange. Everglades National Park alone welcomes 1.1 million visitors annually with an economic impact of more than $103 million.

Recently, I joined my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in encouraging President Donald Trump to remain on the current path to Everglades restoration. In a letter delivered by Congressman Francis Rooney, we made the case for why Everglades restoration is critical to preserving such a unique and treasured ecosystem. Congress has already invested $1.26 billion into this ongoing effort. The smartest scientists say these projects are having a meaningful impact on restoring Florida’s “River of Grass” and addressing concerns over water quality issues around Lake Okeechobee. For these reasons, we must complete the comprehensive array of fully-vetted projects that are designed to restore the Everglades and reduce the discharges from the lake.

At the heart of the current debate over fixing Lake Okeechobee is whether additional land should be purchased by the government using state and federal dollars through a bonding scheme that relies on future generations paying off the debt. At a time when 42 percent of all land in South Florida is already owned by the government, we should be looking for ways to get government out of the real estate business – not deeper into it. And with Washington so focused on cutting costs, there simply isn’t enough money to buy more land, especially for projects for which land has already been acquired by the government.

Instead, the dollars committed by Congress and the state should be going toward projects that the science says can provide communities with tangible benefits for flood protection, storage and water treatment – the most quickly and at the best price.

Land buys are not only costly to taxpayers, but also to those who rely on the land to help put food on our tables. According to the conservative James Madison Institute, more than 4,100 jobs will be lost as a result of the proposed land buy. The study also found the plan could cost Florida up to $700 million in economic output, mostly in already struggling Glades communities.

In the case of the proposed plan to purchase 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee, the major landowners have signaled they are not willing to sell. Many of these are multigenerational family farmers. So, without a single seller, why does the debate continue? One has to wonder that if the sellers are anything but willing, is eminent domain really at work?

Instead of a futile land buy, Florida needs to stay the course on completing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which has enjoyed bipartisan support from our

Congressional delegation since its inception under Governor Jeb Bush and President Bill Clinton in 2000. The plan keeps taxpayer dollars focused on addressing the water quality issues in coastal areas of South and Southwest Florida while also building additional storage at points north, east, south and west of Lake Okeechobee. Most importantly, it does so in a way that respects private property rights and agricultural communities, which play a crucial role in Florida’s economy.

Whether you are from North Florida or South Florida, we can all agree that Florida’s Everglades are a national treasure we cannot afford to lose. Finishing the projects that were started in 2000 will help to ensure the “River of Grass” will be around for generations to come. We need to stay the course and not get distracted by another government land buy that won’t solve the problem but will harm some of our struggling rural communities.

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Matt Gaetz is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 1st Congressional District, stretching from Pensacola to Holmes County.

Darryl Paulson: Why Donald Trump won — A review of the 2016 election

We know Donald Trump won and Hillary Clinton lost the 2018 presidential election.

What else do we need to know? We need to know why Trump won and Clinton lost.

We know that Clinton won the popular vote 65,844,954 to 62,979,879, or by 2.9 million votes. Trump’s popular vote deficit was the largest ever for someone elected president.

We all know that he popular vote does not determine the winner in a presidential election. The only thing that matters is the electoral vote, and Trump won 304 electoral votes to Clinton’s 227. Trump won 34 more electoral votes than was needed to win the election.

There were also seven “faithless” electors who cast their vote for neither Trump or Clinton. Three voted for former general and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ohio Governor John Kasich, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul and Sioux anti-pipeline activist Faith Spotted Eagle each received one vote.

Ask individuals why Trump Won and Clinton lost and you will receive a variety of responses. Some Clinton supporters argue that she lost because of Russian hackers and WikiLeaks releasing her emails. Others blame FBI Director James Comey’s “October surprise” about reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails shortly before the election.

Others blame Clinton for her defeat. She was an unpopular candidate who barely defeated a little-known Vermont senator even though the Democratic National Committee seemed to do everything possible to assist Clinton in winning the primaries. Many saw Clinton’s use of a private email server, in spite of warnings, to be a self-inflicted wound, as was her comment about Trump’s supporters being a “basket of deplorables.”

Heading into election night, the election was Clinton’s to lose, and that’s exactly what she did. Clinton was not the only Democrat to lose. What was supposed to be a great election for Democrats, turned into a great election for Republicans.

Republicans lost only two senate seats, although they had to defend 24 of the 34 contested seats. Republicans lost only six seats in the House, although Democrats had hoped to win control of both chambers at one point. In addition, Republicans picked up two more governorships, raising their total to 33, and they won control of both houses in the state legislatures in two more states, giving them complete control in 32 of the 49 states with a bicameral legislature.

Trump won, in part, by shifting six states from the Democratic to the Republican column. Trump won the key state of Ohio by 8 points and Iowa by 9 points. He also squeaked out narrow wins in Florida (1.2 percent), Wisconsin (0.8 percent), Pennsylvania (0.7 percent) and Michigan (0.2 percent). Victories in these six states added 99 electoral votes to the Trump total, more than enough to win the election.

Republicans like to point to Trump’s strengths by noting he won 30 states to 20 for Clinton, carried 230 congressional districts to 205 for Clinton and swept over 2,500 counties compared to less than 500 for Clinton. The political map of America looked very red and looked very much like a Trump landslide.

But maps often distort political reality. After all, Clinton did win 2.9 million more votes than Trump. If she had not lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 percent, she would have been president and Trump would be managing his hotel chain.

The usual explanation for Clinton’s loss was that turnout was far lower than normal. That is not true. The total turnout of 136.6 million was a record turnout and represented 60 percent of the voter-eligible population.

Turnout was down slightly for black voters, but that ignores the fact that 2008 and 2012 had record black turnout due to the Barack Obama candidacy.

According to a recent analysis of the 2016 presidential vote by The New York Times, Trump’s victory was primarily due to his ability to persuade large numbers of white, working-class voters to shift their loyalty from the Democrats to the Republicans. “Almost one in four of President Obama’s 2012 white working-class supporters defected from the Democrats in 2016.”

Trump was able to convince enough working-class Americans that he was the dealmaker who would work for the little guy and Make America Great Again.

“I am your voice,” said Trump, and the America voters believed him.

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Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg specializing in Florida Politics, political parties and elections.

 

Trump U settlement held up by Florida ex-student seeking full refund, apology

President Donald Trump‘s $25 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleged fraud at his now-defunct Trump University may be put on hold because a former student in Florida wants a full refund plus interest and an apology.

A federal judge in San Diego will decide Thursday whether to let Sherri Simpson opt out of the settlement and sue the president individually.

Simpson, a Fort Lauderdale bankruptcy and consumer rights attorney, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she thinks Trump should acknowledge wrongdoing and apologize. Simpson and a partner paid $35,000 in 2010 to enroll in Trump University’s “Gold Elite” program, where they were supposed to be paired with a mentor who would teach them Trump’s secret real estate investment strategies.

Like other members of the lawsuit, Simpson said they got little for their money – the videos were 5 years old, the materials covered information that could be found free on the internet and her mentor didn’t return calls or emails. Under terms of the settlement, Trump admitted no wrongdoing and the students will get back 80 percent of their enrollment fees – about $28,000 for Simpson and her partner.

Simpson said that’s not enough, financially or morally. She doesn’t want U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel to scuttle the entire settlement – she just wants the right to sue Trump individually.

“I would like an admission that he was wrong, an admission that, ‘Oops, maybe I didn’t handle it as well as I should have, I didn’t set it up as well as I should have, that I didn’t maintain it or oversee it as well as I should have,'” said Simpson, who appeared in two anti-Trump ads made by political action committees last year.

Trump’s lead attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli didn’t immediately return a phone message or email. But attorneys representing both the former students and the president have told the judge they oppose Simpson’s request and want him to give final approval to the settlement. They say Simpson and the other former students were informed in writing that they had to opt out of the lawsuit by Nov. 16, 2015, if they wanted to pursue individual lawsuits. They say she filed a claim form on Feb. 1 to receive her share of the settlement, but then filed her objection three weeks ago.

“The 2015 notices were crystal clear,” wrote Rachel L. Jensen, an attorney for the students, in a court filing. “If Simpson had any questions or concerns, she could have brought it up with counsel for the class on any one of their many calls. She did not.”

Simpson argues that the written notice also said that if the students obtained money, they would be notified how to receive their share or “how to ask to be excluded from any settlement.”

Of the 3,730 members of the class, attorneys said only Simpson and a man who wants triple his money back have objected. Thirteen former students opted out before the 2015 deadline, but none have sued Trump individually.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond Law School professor who has been following the lawsuit, thinks the judge will approve the settlement but could let Simpson pursue her own lawsuit. If she does, it would raise the question of whether Simpson’s attorneys could depose a sitting president, and the case could be delayed until Trump leaves office.

The lawsuit became campaign fodder last year as supporters for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said it showed Trump University was a scam and that Trump lied in its advertising. Trump told prospective students that he “hand-picked” the teachers and had helped devise the curriculum, which he said would be “Ivy League quality.”

But in a 2012 deposition, Trump told lawyers that he had no direct role in hiring teachers or designing courses. Trump University, which opened in 2005, changed its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” in 2010 after New York officials said it was not an accredited school. It mostly ceased operations later that year.

During the campaign, Trump blasted Curiel’s rulings on the lawsuit and insinuated that the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican ancestry influenced his decisions.

Trump has proposed building a wall between Mexico and the United States as a curb to illegal immigration. Curiel was appointed to the bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama.

Trump vowed never to settle the case. But less than two weeks after the election, the settlement was announced.

Trump tweeted shortly after, “The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee’s mission: To keep the world from ‘spoiling’

Now that he’s dispensed with the possibility of running for political office again, former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee says he just wants to be a cultural “preservative.”

Huckabee – a Christian minister, former Arkansas governor and now Walton County resident – spoke to reporters before his appearance at Wednesday’s Legislative Prayer Breakfast in Tallahassee.

Huckabee ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2016. His daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, now is deputy White House press secretary for President Donald Trump.

Earlier this week, at the Okaloosa County Republican Party’s Lincoln Dinner, he batted down continued rumors of another run for elective office, including Florida governor.

“Let me be real clear — it ain’t me,” Huckabee said, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News. “There is a greater likelihood that I will have transgender surgery than I will run for the governor of any state, at any time, or anything, anywhere. It ain’t happening.”

On Wednesday, he referred to a passage in Matthew in which Jesus tells his followers they are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”

“We seek to have an influence and a preservative effect on the culture,” he said. “Salt in the first century was a preservative. It’s how things were kept from spoiling … there were no Yeti coolers.

“When Jesus told us that, what he meant was, if the world is rotting, putrefying, spoiling, you’re supposed to keep that from happening,” Huckabee said. “It’s not the secular world’s fault that things are going astray, it’s our fault. If the salt isn’t doing its purpose, to preserve, then things will get worse.

“The burden is not on the people who do not embrace the Gospel; the burden is on those of us who do.”

Indeed, the problem in his view is that “Christian believers are not doing enough … It’s not one or two issues, it should mean that in every aspect of our lives, everything we do is changed through our relationship with Christ.

“If we’re not consistent, I can see why people would be cynical and say, ‘if that’s what it means to be a believer, to treat people with indignities, then I don’t want any part of it,’ ” he added. “And that’s the challenge.”

For instance, the biblical perspective “means there is no such thing as an expendable person, as a person who is disposable,” he said. “Every life is sacred … We shouldn’t put a higher value on the captain of the football team than a child with Down syndrome.”

Attending a VIP reception before the breakfast was Agriculture Commissioner and likely 2018 GOP gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, Republican state Sens. Keith Perry and Dennis Baxley, and conservative Florida Supreme Court justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson.

Jared Kushner, taking new White House role, faces rare scrutiny

Jared Kushner has been a power player able to avoid much of the harsh scrutiny that comes with working in the White House. But this week he’s found that even the president’s son-in-law takes his turn in the spotlight.

In a matter of days, Kushner, a senior Trump adviser, drew headlines for leaving Washington for a ski vacation while a signature campaign promise fell apart. The White House then confirmed he had volunteered to be interviewed before the Senate intelligence committee about meetings with Russian officials. At the same time, the White House announced he’ll helm a new task force that some in the West Wing have suggested carries little real influence.

Kushner became the fourth Trump associate to get entangled in the Russia probe. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the intelligence committee, said Tuesday that Kushner would likely be under oath and would submit to a “private interview” about arranging meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials.

The news came as the White House announced Kushner would lead a new White House Office of American Innovation, a task force billed as a powerful assignment for Kushner. But the task force’s true power in the White House remained unclear, according to a half-dozen West Wing officials and Kushner associates who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official White House line is that the group would have sweeping authority to modernize government, acting as strategic consultants who can draw from experiences in the private sector — and sometimes receive input from the president himself — to fulfill campaign promises like battling opioid addiction and transforming health care for veterans. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that it would “apply the president’s ahead-of-schedule-and-under-budget mentality” to the government.

But others inside and outside the White House cast doubt on the task force’s significance and reach, suggesting it was a lower priority for the administration and pointing out that similar measures have been tried by previous presidents with middling success. The assignment revived lingering questions about whether Kushner had opted to focus his time on a project that would put him at some distance from some Trump’s more conservative and controversial policy overhauls.

The announcement came just days after Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, were photographed on the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado, as the GOP health care deal began to unravel amid protests from conservative Republicans that it did not go far enough in replacing President Barack Obama‘s Affordable Care Act. Kushner rushed back to Washington on Friday but it was too late to save the bill, which was scuttled hours later by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Two people close to Kushner vehemently denied the president was upset at his son-in-law for being absent, saying Trump had given the trip his blessing. And a senior White House official insisted the timing of the task force announcement was planned weeks in advance.

Kushner, who has been at his father-in-law’s right hand since the campaign, has long been viewed as a first-among-equals among the disparate power centers competing for the president’s ear. Kushner, who routinely avoids interviews, draws power from his ability to access Trump at all hours, including the White House residence often off-limits to staffers.

His portfolio is robust: He has been deeply involved with presidential staffing and has played the role of shadow diplomat, advising on relations with the Middle East, Canada and Mexico. Though Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been spotted with some frequency on the Washington social circuit, the president’s son-in-law is routinely in the office early and leaves late, other than on Fridays when he observes the Sabbath.

While those close to Trump flatly state that Kushner, by virtue of marriage, is untouchable, this is a rare moment when he has been the center of the sort of political storm that has routinely swept up the likes of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior counselor Kellyanne Conway. It points to a White House whose power matrix is constantly in flux.

Kushner has been closely allied with senior counselor Dina Powell and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive and a registered Democrat. That group has, at times, been at odds with conservatives led by Bannon, who to this point has been the driving force behind the White House’s policy shop.

When Kushner officially joined the administration in January as a senior adviser, it was suggested that the real estate heir would draw upon the private sector to streamline and modernize government. His task force has been meeting since shortly after the inauguration and started talking to CEOs from various sectors about ways to make changes to entrenched federal programs.

“Jared is a visionary with an endless appetite for strategic, inventive solutions that will improve quality of life for all Americans,” said Hope Hicks, Trump’s longtime spokeswoman.

A list supplied by the White House of some of those who have met with Kushner reads like a who’s who of the American business world, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Tim Cook of Apple and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase. Kushner usually does more listening than talking in the meetings, largely avoiding ideological arguments while asking questions about efficiency and best practices, according to a person who has attended a gathering but is not authorized to discuss private conversations.

But the Trump team is hardly the first seeking to improve how the government operates. The Reagan administration tasked the Grace Commission in 1982 with uncovering wasteful spending and practices, while the Clinton administration sought its own reinvention of government in 1993 with what was initially called the National Performance Review. Previous commissions have not produced overwhelming results in changing the stubborn bureaucracy, casting some doubt on what Kushner’s team can accomplish.

Philip Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, said the domestic spending cuts in Trump’s budget blueprint suggest that this new committee would most likely focus more on shrinking the government than improving its performance.

Even then, any change would be unlikely to deliver significant budget savings compared to reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

“It’s not the main thing we ought to be focusing on,” Joyce said. “It’s at the margins of the big issues facing the country, certainly in terms of the budget.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Darryl Paulson: On Neil Gorsuch; both parties should just grow up!

Until 1987, presidential nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court were respectfully received and reviewed by the U.S. Senate. In 1986, Antonin Scalia, a judicial conservative and constitutional originalist, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to a vacancy on the court.

He was confirmed 98 to 0 by the U.S. Senate.

The confirmation process imploded in 1987 when another Reagan nominee to the court, Robert Bork, was subject to such a vicious attack concerning his record and judicial temperament, that the word “borking” became part of the political lexicon. To be “borked” was to be the subject of a public character assassination.

Since the defeat of Judge Bork in 1987, the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominees has become bitter and brutal. In 2016, President Barack Obama nominated the highly-qualified jurist Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy due to the death of Scalia. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold hearings on the Garland nomination, arguing that it should be left to the next president.

Democrats were outraged by the treatment of Garland and are taking out their anger by attempting to defeat President Donald Trump‘s nomination of Neil Gorsuch. Democrats contend that Gorsuch’s views are out of the mainstream and accuse him of favoring corporations over workers. They also argue that he fails to fully defend the right to vote and favors the “powerful candidate interests over the rights of all Americans.”

Republicans respond by asking how, if Gorsuch’s views were so extreme, did he win confirmation on a 98 to 0 vote 10 years ago, when he was seated on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado. Would not some of those senators have opposed his extreme views when first nominated?

Not only that, but the American Bar Association (ABA) told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Judge Gorsuch received its “well qualified” rating, the highest rating available from the ABA. Nancy Scott Dogan of the ABA said, “We do not give the “well qualified” rating lightly.” So, why does the ABA see Judge Gorsuch in such a different light than Democrats in the Senate?

Republicans want to confirm Gorsuch for several reasons. With the death of Justice Scalia, Gorsuch would likely carry on his conservative views. For quite some time, the court has been divided between four conservatives, four liberals and the swing vote of Justice Kennedy.

The Republicans and Trump also need a political victory. The Republican failure to “repeal and replace” Obamacare was a deep political blow to the party and its president.

President Trump, who promised his supporters that they would “get tired of winning,” are beginning to wonder what happened to all those promised wins.

Democrats want to defeat Gorsuch as political payback for the treatment of Garland, and also to make amends for Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton.

In addition, Democrats want a second major defeat of Trump after he failed to secure passage of the Republican health care plan. Democratic activists do not want their elective officials to give 1 inch to the Republicans.

In 2005, the “Gang of 14” senators from both parties reached an agreement to prevent an impasse over judicial nominations. The filibuster and 60 vote requirement would continue for Supreme Court nominees, but a simple majority would be needed for other nominations.

Since Republican outnumber Democrats 52 to 48 in the Senate, eight Democrats must support Gorsuch for him to be confirmed. So far, no Democrat has indicated support for Gorsuch. As a result, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is threatening to use the “nuclear option.”

The “nuclear option” would allow the Senate to approve a change in the filibuster rule to require a simple majority of the Senate, or 51 votes, to confirm a Supreme Court appointee. To change the filibuster rules only requires 51 votes.

If Democrats are successful in their filibuster against Gorsuch, it will be the first successful filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee in over 50 years when the Senate rejected President Lyndon Johnson‘s selection of Abe Fortas to be Chief Justice.

According to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a successful Democratic filibuster would mean “that qualifications no longer matter.” A candidate unanimously confirmed to the Court of Appeals a decade ago and one who has received the highest rating from the ABA is not suitable for the court.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of only three senators still left who brokered the “Gang of 14” deal, is keeping the door open to use the nuclear option. As a firm believer in the rules and traditions of the Senate, Collins argues that “it would be unfair if we cannot get a straight up-or-down vote on Judge Gorsuch.”

But then, it was only a year ago, that Obama and the Democrats were making the same argument on behalf of Merrick Garland.

If only one of the two parties could grow up!

___

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.

National Dems ask if Ileana Ros-Lehtinen supports new petition to repeal ACA

No one knows when President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans will make another attempt at repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Some hard-line GOP lawmakers want to force a repeal-only bill back onto the floor, once again putting several House Republicans on the spot.

On Friday, Alabama Republican Mo Brooks, part of the House Freedom Caucus, filed a full ACA repeal.

However, Brooks says he must wait 30 days until he begins collecting signatures for a discharge petition, POLITICO reports.

That’s compelling the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to single out Miami Republican Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, who last week said she would not support the American Health Care Act because “millions of people would lose their coverage.”

However, like her GOP brethren, Ros-Lehtinen frequently sided with them when voting on bills to repeal the ACA over the past six years. According to the DCCC, Ros-Lehtinen voted 12 times to repeal the ACA. But since there’s not an alternative at the moment, Democrats are questioning whether she’d support the Brooks petition.

But since there’s not an option at the moment, Democrats are wondering whether she’d support the Brooks request.

“Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has voted repeatedly to recklessly tear health care away from millions of Americans with absolutely no plan to replace it,” said DCCC spokesperson Cole Leiter. “House Republicans should be focused on improving the Affordable Care Act, but instead are again pursuing full repeal without a replacement, and Ros-Lehtinen’s constituents deserve to know where she stands on this petition.”

Ros-Lehtinen has represented parts of Miami in Congress since 1988. She defeated Democrat Scott Fuhrman last fall 55 to 45 percent.

Regarding another crack at health care, House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday that “we want to get it right.”

 “We’re going to keep talking to each other until we get it right,” he said. “I’m not going to put a timeline on it because this is too important to not get right and to put an artificial timeline on it.”

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