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US EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Senators’ Question on Spending, Security

Embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said he doesn’t remember asking his security detail to use lights and sirens to speed his government-owned SUV through Washington traffic, even as Democratic senators disclosed an internal email saying he did.

The email written in February 2017 by then-EPA special agent Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta has the subject line “Lights and Sirens” and added “Btw – Administrator encourages the use.”

Pruitt later promoted Perrotta to lead his personal protective detail. Former EPA officials have told The Associated Press that Pruitt made the change after Perrotta’s predecessor refused to use lights and sirens in non-emergency situations, such as when the administrator was running late for dinner reservations or going to the airport.   

Under sharp questioning by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on a Senate appropriations subcommittee that questioned Pruitt on Wednesday, the EPA chief denied making the request.

“I don’t recall that happening,” Pruitt said, adding that he was confident his security team followed the applicable policies.

It was one of several instances during Wednesday’s hearing that Pruitt either said he couldn’t recall details about requests he made regarding his personal security or where he blamed subordinates for making those decisions.

Two weeks ago, Pruitt announced Perrotta’s early retirement amid questions about whether he improperly recommended a business partner for an EPA security contract and outside work he performed as a private investigator for a tabloid newspaper.

The panel’s chairman, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, kicked off the hearing by expressing concern that allegations over Pruitt’s ethical missteps are overshadowing the Trump administration’s pro-business regulatory rollbacks.

“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on security and on housing and on travel. I’m reading about your interactions with representatives of the industries that you regulate” Murkowski told Pruitt at a hearing normally expected to focus on budget matters.

Udall also cited the Government Accountability Office’s finding in April that Pruitt’s purchase of a $43,000 private office booth for telephone calls broke federal law because the EPA failed to notify Congress in advance of an expenditure over $5,000.

‘Golden ticket’

Udall accused Pruitt of continuing to flout legal requirements to inform lawmakers about that and other big-ticket spending, and “treating your position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining.”

Pruitt had some success batting away ethics questions lobbed by Democrats when he appeared before two House panels last month, but on Wednesday the senators hammered the EPA chief with prosecutor-like follow up questions.

Protesters sitting behind Pruitt silently rose up twice in the first minutes of the hearing, once waving signs and once simply standing up in unison, wearing green T-shirts with slogans saying “Impeach Pruitt.”

The EPA chief has been the subject of a steady stream of damaging headlines in recent months, including revelations from the EPA’s inspector general this week that Pruitt requested and received 24-hour security beginning his first day in office. That challenges Pruitt’s account that the round-the-clock security was a result of threats against him after taking office.

On Wednesday, Pruitt repeatedly dodged directly answering whether he requested the stepped-up security coverage, saying career EPA officials made the decision.  

The Associated Press reported last month that Pruitt’s preoccupation with his safety came at a steep cost to taxpayers, as his swollen security detail blew through overtime budgets and at times diverted officers away from investigating environmental crimes. Altogether, the agency has spent about $3 million on Pruitt’s 20-member full-time security detail, which is more than three times the size of his predecessor’s part-time security contingent.

Despite the mounting investigations, President Donald Trump has said he supports Pruitt. Asked Friday if he still had confidence in the EPA chief, Trump told reporters, “I do.”

At one of the House hearings last month, Pruitt spoke broadly of taking responsibility for changes at his agency, and said he had “made changes” in his practice of first- and business-class travel. Perrotta drafted a memo last year saying Pruitt needed to fly in premium class seats because of security threats.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to a question from AP on Tuesday about whether Pruitt was now flying coach.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told Pruitt he was a walking example of “ego run amok,” calling him an embarrassment to the agency he leads. The senior senator called “silly” Pruitt’s claims he needed to fly in first class after unpleasant interactions with other travelers.

“Nobody even knows who you are,” Leahy told the EPA chief. “We want environmental protections that work. Forget about your own ego and your first class travel and your special phone booths that just make you a laughingstock and your agency a laughingstock.”

 

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Trump: US Has ‘Little to Give’ in Trade Talks with China

President Donald Trump says the United States has “little to give” in contentious trade talks with China, and Beijing has a lot to give, because he says the United States for years has been losing trade battles with China.

Wednesday, he defended his call to rescue China’s giant technology company ZTE, which the U.S. Commerce Department last month barred from buying American-made components for its consumer products for seven years after it was caught violating U.S. trade bans with Iran and North Korea. ZTE said with the cut in U.S. parts it had ceased “major operating activities.”

“Nothing has happened with ZTE except as it pertains to the larger trade deal,” Trump said on Twitter.  His assessment came days after he said “too many jobs” were being lost in China because of ZTE’s difficulties and that he had “instructed” the Commerce agency to “get it done!” to help ZTE “get back into business, fast.”

The U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies, are in the midst of contentious trade talks this week in Washington, after Trump threatened to impose higher tariffs on $150 billion worth of Chinese exports and Beijing responded in kind to say it would impose higher levies on American products.  Earlier talks in Bejing proved fruitless.

“Our country has been losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year with China,” Trump said of last year’s $375 billion annual U.S. trade deficit with China. 

Trump’s call to help ZTE has mystified some U.S. lawmakers, who say that use of the Chinese company’s products presents a national security risk for the U.S. The House of Representatives Intelligence Committee concluded in 2012 that ZTE “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus [poses] a security threat to the United States and to our systems.”

Senator Marco Rubio, who lost the 2016 Republican presidential nomination to Trump, is attacking the U.S. leader’s attempt to help ZTE as misguided.

“It’s not a trade issue,” Rubio told VOA. “ZTE’s been sanctioned for helping Iran and North Korea evade sanctions. So how are we going to be able to enforce the cancellation of the Iran [nuclear] deal if we’re not going to be enforcing it on companies in powerful countries that are helping Iran evade sanctions already?”

“That’s a law enforcement function that really shouldn’t have anything to do with trade,” Rubio said, “Chinese telecom companies are agents of the Chinese government. They don’t just steal national security secrets, they steal commercial secrets. Like they will use a ZTE phone to spy on an American company and steal their intellectual property.”

Congressional correspondent Michael Bowman contributed to this report.

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Senate Panel Releases Interview Transcripts with Trump Jr.

Donald Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he couldn’t remember whether he had discussed the Russia investigation with his father.

That’s according to transcripts of his interview with the panel last year. The committee on Wednesday released more than 1,800 pages of transcripts of interviews with Trump’s son and others who met with a Russian attorney at Trump Tower ahead of the 2016 election.

Trump Jr. deflected multiple questions during the interview, including whether he discussed the Russia probe with his father.

 

According to the transcripts, Trump Jr. also said he didn’t think there was anything wrong with attending the Trump Tower meeting in which he was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The meeting is under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

 

 

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NY Times: US Investigating Cambridge Analytica

The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI are investigating Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct political data firm embroiled in a scandal over its handling of Facebook Inc user information, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have sought to question former Cambridge Analytica employees and banks that handled its business, the newspaper said, citing an American official and others familiar with the inquiry.

Cambridge Analytica said earlier this month it was shutting down after losing clients and facing mounting legal fees resulting from reports the company harvested personal data about millions of Facebook users beginning in 2014.

Allegations of the improper use of data for 87 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. election campaign, have prompted multiple investigations in the United States and Europe.

The investigation by the Justice Department and FBI appears to focus on the company’s financial dealings and how it acquired and used personal data pulled from Facebook and other sources, the Times said.

Investigators have contacted Facebook, according to the newspaper.

The FBI, the Justice Department and Facebook declined to comment to Reuters. Former officials with Cambridge Analytica was not immediately available to comment.

Cambridge Analytica was created around 2013, initially with a focus on U.S. elections, with $15 million in backing from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer and a name chosen by future Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, the New York Times has reported. Bannon left the White House on August 2017.

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US Homeland Security Boss Defends Separating Immigrant Families

The head of the Department of Homeland Security defended the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from parents when the family is being prosecuted for entering the U.S. illegally, telling a Senate committee Tuesday that removing children from parents facing criminal charges happens “in the United States every day.”

Kirstjen Nielsen, who has headed the agency since December, came under attack by Democratic senators days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said a “zero tolerance” policy toward people entering the country illegally could lead to more families being split up while parents are prosecuted.

In a contentious exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Nielsen said her department was not taking children from parents as a way to deter illegal immigration. Rather, Nielsen said, if a person crosses the border illegally: “We will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken U.S. law.”

When Harris pressed her about what that would mean for a 4-year-old child whose family faces charges of entering the country illegally, Nielsen said, “What we’ll be doing is prosecuting parents who’ve broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America.”

The children are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 48 hours, she said. That department then finds people for the children to stay with while the parents are in custody, she said.

“They will be separated from their parent,” said Harris, who’s considered a possible contender for her party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

“Just like we do in the United States every day,” Nielsen replied.

But she did not dispute criticism by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that the government could do a better job of monitoring the children it places in a family’s custody to make sure they’re safe.

“I could not agree with your concerns more, period,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that her agency and HHS have procedures aimed at making sure the people caring for the children are not criminals.

“It is our duty to protect them, to keep them in a safe environment,” Nielsen said.

DHS has said it would refer all arrests for illegal entry to federal prosecutors, backing up Sessions’ policy, announced last month, to expand criminal prosecutions of people with few or no previous offenses. A conviction for illegal entry carries a maximum penalty of six months in custody for first-time crossers – though they usually do far less time – and two years for repeat offenses.

Nearly one in four Border Patrol arrests on the Mexican border from October through April was someone who came in a family. That means any large increase in prosecutions will likely cause parents to be separated from their children while they face charges and do time in jail.

Just last week, President Donald Trump criticized Nielsen at a Cabinet meeting for not doing enough to stop illegal border crossings. He discounted her explanation that her department faces legal restrictions on what it can do, according to people familiar with the exchange.

The agency has denied a report by The New York Times that the confrontation left Nielsen close to resigning. 

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Pennsylvania Primaries Could Herald Shift of Power in US House

Voters cast ballots on Tuesday in crucial party primaries in Pennsylvania, a state that has become central to Democrat’ hopes of retaking control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The state offers Democrats the opportunity to pick up as many as five seats from Republicans in congressional elections in November, analysts said. Democrats need a net total of 23 to assume the House majority, which would likely derail Republican President Donald Trump’s policy agenda.

The polls closed at 8 p.m. and final results were expected within hours. Voters in the state were also choosing Republican nominees to take on incumbent Governor Tom Wolf and U.S. Senator Bob Casey, both Democrats.

Pennsylvania’s politics were thrown into turmoil earlier this year when the state Supreme Court found that the current congressional districts had been unconstitutionally tailored to favor Republicans. The redrawn map has made some districts more competitive.

In addition, six incumbent House Republicans are not running for re-election, further scrambling the races and requiring voters to become familiar with a raft of first-time candidates. 

81 candidates for 18 seats

Some 81 candidates are running for 18 congressional seats, including 10 Democrats in a single race.

Democrats feel confident they can ultimately win three districts in suburban Philadelphia regardless of which candidates win their primaries on Tuesday because of the liberal tilt of those areas.

A more interesting contest comes in the northeastern district being vacated by retiring Representative Charlie Dent, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans in the House.

Huge job losses

The largest city in the district, Allentown, sustained huge job losses with the 1995 closing of the Bethlehem Steel plant, once been a pillar of the region’s economy.

The three top contenders represent the diverse viewpoints in the modern Democratic Party: Greg Edwards, a pastor backed by progressive U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Black Caucus; Susan Wild, endorsed by the abortion rights group Emily’s List; and John Morganelli, who opposes abortion rights and has been supportive of Trump’s hardline immigration policies.

Earlier this month, Sanders, who sought the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, visited Allentown to campaign with Edwards, drawing a crowd of more than 1,000.

Electoral risk

Terry Madonna, an expert on state politics at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said Democrats risked losing the Allentown race if a candidate viewed as too liberal wins Tuesday’s primary. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton edged Trump in the district by a single percentage point in the presidential election, he noted.

Democrats are also hoping to pick up a seat held by first-term Republican Brian Fitzpatrick in another district outside of Philadelphia. Attorney Scott Wallace faces Navy veteran Rachel Reddick in the Democratic primary there.

Nebraska is also holding a primary on Tuesday that could affect the balance of power in the House. Two Democratic candidates, moderate former U.S. Representative Brad Ashford and progressive Kara Eastman, are battling to take on Republican Representative Don Bacon in an Omaha-area district Democrats believe they can win.

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Watchdog: US EPA Chief Pruitt Asked for 24/7 Security From Day 1

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt requested and received around-the-clock security from his first day in office in 2017, the agency’s watchdog on Monday told a lawmaker questioning Pruitt’s expensive security detail.

Prior EPA administrators have not had blanket protection.

Pruitt, under pressure from Congress for his high travel and security spending in his position at America’s top environmental regulator, has said his 24-hour security was installed due to unusual threats against him.

In a May 14 letter, EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. said the decision was made by the agency’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training after being informed that Pruitt had requested that such protection begin once he was confirmed as administrator.

The inspector general’s office “played no role in this decision,” Elkins added.

The letter was addressed to Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, who had asked the office how and why Pruitt was getting 24-hour protection.

“EPA’s Protective Service Detail handles security decisions and this particular decision was made before Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA,” agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an email.

During hearings last month, Pruitt, who was confirmed Feb. 17, 2017, justified his security spending by citing threats he had received since taking office.

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Former Nevada Senator Harry Reid Undergoes Surgery for Cancer

Former Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, was recovering after undergoing surgery Monday at Johns Hopkins Cancer Center in Baltimore to remove a cancerous tumor from his pancreas.

Reid, 78, will undergo chemotherapy, according to a statement released Monday by his family.

“His doctors caught the problem early during a routine screening and his surgeons are confident that the surgery was a success and that the prognosis for his recovery is good,” the statement said.

The former Senate Democratic leader declined to seek re-election in 2016 after more than three decades in Congress. A 2015 accident left him blind in one eye.

A former boxer who grew up poor in the small town of Searchlight, Nevada, Reid rose to one of the most powerful positions in American politics as Nevada’s longest-serving senator.

He helped propel the passage of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and blocked the development of a nuclear waste dump in Nevada. He was also a champion of his home state’s gaming and tourism industry and built up a well-organized Democratic machine in Nevada.

Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who was recruited by Reid to replace him, wished him a speedy recovery.

“Senator Reid is no stranger to a fight. He beat his opponents in the boxing ring, took on the mob in Nevada, and moved bills in the Senate that no one believed could be done. He’ll beat cancer too,” she said in a statement.

His former congressional rival, John Boehner, tweeted prayers for Reid, writing: “You’re a fighter, Harry. You can whip this.”

Reid and Boehner are working on creating a public policy think tank at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, focusing on policy issues that affect the tourism, hospitality and gambling industries.

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US Embassy’s Move in Israel Draws Criticism from Around the World

The U.N. Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the situation in Gaza after the deadliest day of violence there between Israel and the Palestinians in five years.

U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov is due to brief the council from Jerusalem.

WATCH: World reactions

​Ahead of the meeting, Kuwait drafted a statement expressing “outrage and sorrow” at the killing of dozens of Palestinians by Israeli troops, while also calling for an independent investigation. U.N. diplomats said the United States, an Israeli ally and one of five nations on the council with veto power, blocked the statement.

Many of the United States’ allies, along with its foes, expressed criticism of the U.S. decision to open its embassy in Jerusalem Monday, saying it would increase tensions in the Middle East.

 

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said, “We disagree with the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital” before a final peace agreement is reached in the Middle East.

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Monday’s violence in Gaza, where Israeli soldiers killed more than 50 Palestinian civilians in clashes at the border. Macron said he had “warned repeatedly of the repercussions” of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

 

In a statement, Macron’s office said he talked with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and is planning to talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated Moscow’s objection to the U.S. move. “We firmly believe that it is inappropriate to unilaterally revise the decisions of the international community in this way,” he said.

 

Many Arab leaders also condemned the move, with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri calling it “provocative,” and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif describing it as “a day of great shame.”

Saudi Arabia condemned the Israeli gunfire against Palestinians in Gaza but did not mention the opening of the U.S. Embassy.

 

“Saudi Arabia strongly condemns the Israeli occupation forces’ gunfire against unarmed Palestinian civilians, which has left dozens of dead and wounded,” a Saudi foreign ministry spokesperson said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to London that the embassy move was “very, very unfortunate” and said it disqualified the United States from being a mediator in the Middle East peace process.

 

Turkey’s government said was recalling its ambassador to the United States “for consultations” over the U.S. Embassy move. It also recalled its ambassador to Israel following what it called a “massacre” of Palestinians on the Gaza border.

Turkey also has called for an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s largest body of Muslim-majority nations. Erdogan wants the meeting to be held Friday. In response to the thousands of people who took to the streets of Istanbul Monday, Erdogan promised to hold a pro-Palestinian rally on Friday after the OIC meeting. 

 

Kuwait also condemned the violence in Gaza and requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council for Tuesday.

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US Senate Committee to Vote On Trump CIA Pick Wednesday

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee will vote on Wednesday morning on President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the new director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, a committee aide said on Monday.

The vote will take place behind closed doors, as is customary for the intelligence panel.

Haspel was grilled by lawmakers at her confirmation hearing last week over her role in the agency’s past harsh interrogation system, pledging she would never restart the program or follow any morally objectionable order from Trump.

The nominee, who would be the first woman director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is expected to be approved by the committee and confirmed by the full Senate, now that at least two Democrats – Senators Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly – have said they would join Republicans in supporting her.

Although Republicans John McCain and Rand Paul have announced opposition to Haspel, Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 51-49-seat majority in the 100-member Senate and Vice President Mike Pence could vote to break a tie.

 

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