House Republicans to Question FBI Agent About Anti-Trump Texts

An FBI official will testify before two House committees Thursday investigating allegations of bias within the agency against President Donald Trump.

Counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok will tell lawmakers that his work has never been tainted by politics and that the intense scrutiny he is facing represents “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt,” according to prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press. 

Strzok will say in his opening statement that he has never allowed personal opinions to infect his work, that he knew information during the campaign that had the potential to damage Trump but never contemplated leaking it and that the focus on him by Congress is misguided and plays into “our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” according to the prepared remarks.

He worked on Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and allegations of collusion with Russia until last year, when he was removed after text messages he exchanged with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page were revealed, showing their mutual contempt for Trump.

Strzok and Page were involved in a romantic relationship in 2016, when they were both involved in the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. President Trump has seized on the Strzok and Page’s texts to denounce the Mueller probe as nothing more than a “rigged witch hunt.”

Strzok will testify Thursday before a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform committees, one week after appearing before the panels behind closed doors.

Page also briefly served on Mueller’s investigative team until the revelations of her texts with Strzok. She resigned from the FBI in May. She is facing charges of contempt of Congress after failing to appear Wednesday for private meetings with the Judiciary and Oversight committees.

Trump lashed out directly at Page in another Twitter post Thursday from Brussels:



Some See Shift In Republican Party’s Views of Russia Ahead of Trump-Putin Summit

As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, lawmakers from Trump’s Republican Party offer differing accounts of their visit to Moscow. While one U.S. senator called for the U.S. to lift sanctions against Russia, another compared dealing with Moscow to dealing with the mafia. VOA Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine looks at what appears to be a shift among many in the Republican Party, which traditionally has taken a hard line on Russia.


Partisan Divide Deepens Over Trump’s Supreme Court Pick

A partisan divide over U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh deepened Wednesday, with Republican senators extolling his judicial record while Democrats demanded time to thoroughly vet his writings and opinions on matters ranging from environmental regulation to executive authority.

“Judge Kavanaugh is the real deal,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said one day after a closed-door meeting with the nominee. “He has the all-star legal resume, top-flight academic credentials. His extensive judicial record is defined by fairness, thoughtfulness, thoroughness and analytical precision.”

President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh, 53, on Monday, making his second high court pick in as many years.

An appellate judge since 2006, Kavanaugh took part in investigations of former President Bill Clinton, helped former President George W. Bush prevail in the 2000 Florida vote recount battle, and served in the Bush administration before Bush nominated him to the federal bench. If confirmed, he would replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Kavanaugh once clerked.

While Republicans reaffirmed their intention to process the nomination well ahead of the November midterm elections, Democrats argued Kavanaugh’s record deserves painstaking scrutiny that must not be rushed.

“Judge Kavanaugh has written some troubling things about environmental protections, consumer protections, commonsense gun safety laws — all of which should be carefully examined by this Senate and by the American people,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

In addition, the New York Democrat said, the nominee’s writings reveal an expansive view of presidential authority that is ominous in the Trump era.

“Judge Kavanaugh argued that a president should not be subject to an investigation while in office, that a president should be above criminal and civil indictments,” Schumer said. “Those are serious and dangerous beliefs.”

Republicans who met with the nominee Wednesday expressed no such concerns.

“He’s absolutely honest and straight forward, and I think he’ll make an excellent Justice on the United States Supreme Court,” said Orrin Hatch of Utah, a long-serving Senate Judiciary Committee member. “I expect his confirmation to go well. There’ll be the usual attempts to sully his reputation not only in the Senate but outside of the Senate, but … I have every confidence that this man is going to be confirmed, as he well should be.”

Republicans hold a slim, one-seat Senate majority, and a party-line vote would lead to Kavanaugh’s confirmation by the narrowest of margins.

Democrats hope two Republicans who back abortion rights, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, will vote against the nominee. Republicans, meanwhile, hope centrist Democrats running for re-election in conservative-leaning states will back Kavanaugh. Three Democrats voted for Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, last year.


Trump Picks Pakistan Ambassador for Under Secretary as State

President Donald Trump has nominated career diplomat David Hale to be the next under secretary of state for political affairs. 

Hale has been serving as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan since 2015. Before that he was the ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan. 

He has also served in Tunisia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. 

In Washington, Hale served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel, Egypt and the Levant; director for Israel-Palestinian Affairs and executive assistant to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

He speaks Arabic, is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and a native of New Jersey.


Battle Lines Form Over Trump’s Court Nominee

Battle lines began to form Tuesday in Washington for the upcoming Senate confirmation fight over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans have embraced Kavanaugh as a nominee who could shift the Supreme Court in a more conservative direction for a generation. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.


Trump High Court Pick Kavanaugh May Face Contentious Cases Soon

President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee may not have to wait too long for controversial cases if he is confirmed to the job, with disputes involving abortion, immigration, gay rights, voting rights and transgender troops possibly heading toward the justices soon.

Republicans are hoping Brett Kavanaugh, the conservative U.S. appeals court judge selected on Monday by Trump to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, will be confirmed by the Senate before the next Supreme Court term opens in October.

There are no blockbusters among the 38 cases already on the docket for the justices, but they could add disputes on controversial issues being appealed from lower courts.

Abortion

Legal battles are developing over state laws restricting abortion including one in Arkansas that effectively bans medication-induced abortions. The justices in May opted not to intervene in a case challenging that law, waiting instead for lower courts to rule, but it could return to them in the future.

Other abortion-related cases could reach the court within two years.

These involve laws banning abortions at early stages of pregnancies, including Iowa’s prohibition after a fetal heartbeat is detected. There is litigation arising from plans by certain states including Louisiana and Kansas to stop reimbursements under the Medicaid insurance program for the poor for Planned Parenthood, a national abortion provider.

There also are challenges to state laws imposing difficult-to-meet regulations on abortion providers such as having formal ties, called admitting privileges, at a local hospital.

Kavanaugh’s judicial record on abortion is thin, although last year he was on a panel of judges that issued an order preventing a 17-year-old illegal immigrant detained in Texas by U.S. authorities from immediately obtaining an abortion.

Gay Rights

Another issue expected to return to the court is whether certain types of businesses can refuse service to gay couples because of religious objections to same-sex marriage.

The high court in June sided, on narrow legal grounds, with a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for two men because of his Christian beliefs, but sidestepped the larger question of whether to allow broad religious-based exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.

That issue could be back before the justices as soon as the court’s next term in a case involving a Washington state Christian florist who similarly spurned a gay couple.

Kennedy, who wrote the baker ruling, cast decisive votes backing gay rights four times, most notably in 2015 when the court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. It is not known how Kavanaugh would vote on those issues as he has not been involved in any gay rights cases during his 12 years as a judge.

Transgender People in the Military

Trump’s bid to ban transgender people from the military has been challenged in lower courts. That issue could make its way to the Supreme Court.

After lower courts blocked Trump’s ban last year, he announced in March he would endorse Defense Secretary James Mattis’ plan to restrict the military service of transgender people who have a condition called gender dysphoria. Trump’s administration has asked courts to allow that policy to go into effect, but so far to no avail.

Sharon McGowan, a lawyer with gay rights group Lambda Legal, said she saw no evidence Kavanaugh would be any less conservative on gay and transgender rights than Trump’s other appointee to the court, Neil Gorsuch.

Immigration

On immigration, litigation is continuing over Trump’s plan to rescind a program created under Democratic former President Barack Obama that protected from deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

Lower courts blocked Trump’s plan to scrap the program.

Congress has failed to agree on a plan to replace it.

Gerrymandering

Kavanaugh could have to deal with cases involving a practice called partisan gerrymandering in which state legislators redraw electoral maps to try to cement their own party in power. In June, the justices avoided a broad ruling on whether partisan gerrymandering violates the constitutional rights of voters and whether federal judges can intervene to rectify it.

Democrats have said Republican gerrymandering has helped Trump’s party keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives and various state legislatures.

Kennedy previously kept his conservative colleagues from closing the door to litigation in federal court challenging partisan gerrymandering.

The partisan gerrymandering case most likely to return to the Supreme Court involves claims that Republican legislators in North Carolina manipulated the boundaries of the state’s 13 U.S. House districts to ensure lopsided wins for the party.

Attorney Paul Smith of the Campaign Legal Center, which represents the North Carolina plaintiffs, said they had been focused on trying to convince Kennedy to rule in their favor, and now will try to convince Chief Justice John Roberts, seen as the next-most-moderate of the conservative justices. Smith viewed Kavanaugh as likely voting with the court’s most conservative justices to reject gerrymandering challenges.


Trump Replacement for Obama Climate Plan Moves Forward

The Trump administration is advancing a proposal for electric utilities that would supplant President Barack Obama’s principal attempt to curtail U.S. contributions to global warming, with a new rule that’s expected to go easier on the coal industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency disclosed Tuesday that it sent the new rule the White House for review. The document itself was not released, but President Donald Trump has been outspoken in his desire to prop up the ailing coal industry by rolling back what he considers burdensome regulations.

Burning coal to generate electricity is one of the primary sources of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change.

The submission of the rule to the White House on Monday coincided with former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler taking the helm of the EPA, following last week’s resignation of Administrator Scott Pruitt amid multiple ethics scandals.

It also comes amid a global heat wave that’s seen record-breaking temperatures across portions of the Northern Hemisphere.

Wheeler, like Pruitt, has expressed skepticism about the extent to which coal, oil and gas emissions drive climate change, something mainstream science says is indisputable fact.

Paul Wapner with American University in Washington, D.C., said Trump appears intent on dismantling the anchor-piece of Obama’s domestic response to climate change, after already reversing Obama’s biggest international achievement on that front by pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

“You remove those two pieces and basically the U.S. doesn’t have a climate plan,” said Wapner, a professor of global environmental politics. “It opens the door for other countries now to cut back on their own domestic efforts. This will certainly provide an excuse if another country is looking for it.”

EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said in a statement that the agency intends to move expeditiously on the replacement rule. She did not provide a timeline.

The EPA said it would seek public comment on the matter only after the White House review is completed.

Obama plan

Nearly 200 countries have committed to combat global warming by reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Obama sought to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, largely by reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants. The emission cuts also were expected to improve public health by eliminating 90,000 asthma attacks and up to 3,600 premature deaths a year.

Under Trump, the EPA declared last year that the old rule exceeded federal law by setting emissions standards that power plants could not reasonably meet. In December, the agency announced it would craft a replacement plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the electric utility sector.

The U.S. Supreme Court had put Obama’s plan on hold in 2016 following a legal challenge by industry and coal-friendly states.

Nevertheless the Obama plan helped drive a wave of retirements of coal-fired plants, which also have been squeezed by competition from cheap natural gas and renewable power and energy conservation mandates adopted by many states.


Senate Panel OKs Trump’s Pick to Lead Troubled VA

A Senate panel voted Tuesday to approve President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead Veterans Affairs, a department beset by political infighting and turmoil over providing health care. 

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee agreed on voice vote to back Robert Wilkie, currently serving as a Pentagon undersecretary. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont cast a “no” vote.

Wilkie has pledged to “shake up complacency” at the VA, which has struggled with long waits in providing medical treatment to millions of veterans. 

Under repeated questioning by Democrats during his confirmation hearing last month, the Air Force and Navy veteran insisted he would not seek to privatize the government’s second-largest agency. Trump promised during the 2016 campaign to steer more patients to the private sector, calling the VA “the most corrupt.”

The White House applauded the committee vote and urged the full Senate to act quickly in confirming Wilkie. It said Trump was “confident that Mr. Wilkie will continue the administration’s important work on behalf of the veterans community.”

Sanders has previously cited concern that Wilkie might not be committed to bolstering care at core VA medical centers. Major veterans’ groups see the centers as best-suited to veterans’ specialized needs, such as treatment for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

Wilkie’s nomination now goes to the full Senate. A vote could come as early as next week.

If confirmed, Wilkie will be charged with carrying out a newly signed law by Trump to ease access to private health care providers. That law gives the VA secretary wide authority to decide when veterans can bypass the VA, based on whether they receive “quality” care.

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the chairman of the committee, praised Wilkie and said he will “bring stability and leadership” to the VA. “He will prove indispensable in helping transform the VA,” Isakson said. 

Trump selected Wilkie for the post in May after firing former VA Secretary David Shulkin amid ethics charges and internal rebellion at the department over the role of private care for veterans. 

Trump’s first replacement choice, White House doctor Ronny Jackson, withdrew after allegations of workplace misconduct surfaced. Trump has since sought to pin blame for Jackson’s failed bid on Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the panel, who revealed the allegations made against Jackson.

Wilkie, 55, served as acting VA secretary after Shulkin’s firing in March, before returning to his role as Pentagon undersecretary, a post to which he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate last November.


Trump Nominates Kavanaugh to Supreme Court

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, is taking his first step Tuesday toward securing his place on the high court, when he begins meeting with senators to shore up support for his nomination ahead of a major confirmation battle.

In what is likely to be one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, Trump selected Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“There is no one in America more qualified for this position, or more deserving,” the president said of Kavanaugh during Monday night’s prime-time television announcement from the White House East Room. He called Kavanaugh a “brilliant jurist” who has “devoted his life to public service.”

Kavanaugh, a 53-year-old conservative-leaning federal judge for the past 12 years, is no stranger to executive branch politics and controversy.

Prior to his time as a judge he oversaw an investigation into the death of a deputy counsel for President Bill Clinton. It was ruled a suicide, but conspiracy theorists were not so certain. Kavanaugh also did preliminary work that led to Clinton’s impeachment for an affair with a White House intern. And he worked on the vote recount in the state of Florida that made George W. Bush president. After that he became a staff secretary for Bush, often traveling with the president.

Swift partisan reaction

Kavanaugh’s selection was met with predictable reaction from both Republicans and Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the appellate judge as “an impressive” nominee who is “extremely well qualified” to sit on the nation’s highest court.

Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on Kavanaugh’s nomination before it goes to a vote before the full Senate, echoed McConnell’s sentiments, calling him a “superb mainstream candidate worthy of the Senate’s consideration.”

Concerns that Kavanaugh will join with the court’s other four conservative members to overturn Rove versus Wade, the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized abortion in the United States, prompted Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to announce he would try to defeat his nomination “with everything I have.”

Outside the Supreme Court building, scores of demonstrators led by Democratic party Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, protested Kavanaugh’s selection. The two Democrats cited Kavanaugh’s written opinion that a president should not be subject to civil litigation or criminal prosecution while in office in opposing his nomination.

Observers believe if Special Counsel Robert Mueller tries to compel the president to testify in his investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible links to Russia, or even bring charges against the president, the issue will go all the way to the Supreme Court, which could return to its 5-4 conservative majority if Kavanaugh is confirmed.

‘Humbled’

Kavanaugh, whose wife and two daughters were with him Monday night, said he was “deeply humbled” by the nomination. He described how his mother was a trailblazer who went to law school, became a prosecutor and then a trial judge. His father went to law school at night, he added.

“Tomorrow I begin meeting with members of the Senate,” he said. “I will tell each senator I revere the constitution. … If confirmed by the Senate, I will keep an open mind in every case.”

With Republicans hoping to confirm a justice before the court resumes its session in October, as well as prior to the upcoming midterm congressional election in November, many perceived the timing as critical. “Trump did not move too fast in naming a nominee,” said Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies.

What is almost certain — and those across the political spectrum agree — is that Kavanaugh’s selection will spark a major confirmation battle in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 majority and opposition Democrats say they will fight to prevent the high court from swinging further to the right.

A handful of Senate Democrats running for re-election in states that Trump won handily in 2016 could face a difficult vote on the court nominee, potentially providing Republicans with an additional buffer if they decide to support the president.

Kennedy was often a member of five-to-four majority decisions on the high court. Those included a number of high-profile cases, including same-sex marriage and upholding a woman’s right to an abortion.

No middle position

Kennedy’s departure “leaves the court in a calcified state of a hardened left and right with nobody in that middle position,” says Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University constitutional law professor.

“Most of the time Kennedy swung to the conservative side, especially on questions of the limits of congressional power, the First Amendment, and the Second Amendment,” Burrus, who also is managing editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review, tells VOA. “He swung to the other side on the question of gay rights and abortion, and those are the particular issues that concern those on the left.”

The Supreme Court, sitting atop one of the three branches of American government, ”has grown in importance over the past few decades,” Burrus said. “This is partially due to the cases it has been asked to decide, such as the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, and it is partially due to the divided nature of American politics.”

Unlike presidents or members of Congress, however, Supreme Court justices in the United States do not have terms — they usually serve until they resign or die, giving presidents who select them a judicial legacy sometimes lasting decades beyond their terms in office.

Kennedy, who is 81, had been nominated for the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.

Trump, just days after becoming president in January of last year in a similar televised event, selected the reliably conservative Neil Gorsuch to succeed Antonin Scalia, who had died at the age of 79 in February 2016.

Jim Malone contributed to this report.


Reaction to Supreme Court Nomination Falls Along Predictable Partisan Lines

President Donald Trump’s nomination of federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court is being met with predictable reaction from both Republicans and Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement immediately after President Trump’s Monday night televised announcement praising Kavanaugh as “an impressive” nominee who is “extremely well qualified” to sit on the nation’s highest court.

The Kentucky Republican said the 53-year-old nominee’s judicial record “demonstrates a firm understanding of the role of a judge in our Republic:Setting aside personal views and political preferences in order to interpret our laws as they are written.”

Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on Kavanaugh’s nomination before it goes to a vote before the full Senate, echoed McConnell’s sentiments, calling him a “superb mainstream candidate worthy of the Senate’s consideration.”

“Judges should rule according to the law, no matter what their views of the policy outcomes are,” Grassley said in a statement on the Judiciary Committee’s Twitter page hours before Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced. Grassley pledged that “”…the process will be as fair and transparent as I can make it. That has been my approach during my nearly 38 years in the Senate, and I will not change that.”

Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh was also applauded by Rev. Franklin Graham, a prominent leader of religious conservatives who have long sought the repeal of Roe versus Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion.”Thank God for this long awaited opportunity to change the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court,”Graham posted Monday on Twitter.

Concerns that Kavanaugh will join with the court’s other four conservative members to overturn Rove versus Wade prompted Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to announce he would try to defeat his nomination “with everything I have.”The veteran lawmaker from New York state issued a statement accusing Trump of putting the “reproductive rights and freedoms and health care protections for millions of Americans on the judicial chopping block.”Schumer also expressed fears that Kavanaugh will welcome legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

California Democrat Kamala Harris, considered by many to be a leading candidate for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, also announced her immediate opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination, calling it “a direct and fundamental threat to the rights and health care of hundreds of millions of Americans.”

Two other potential Democratic presidential contenders, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New Jersey’s Corey Booker, have also cited Kavanaugh’s written opinion that a president should not be subject to civil litigation or criminal prosecution while in office in opposing his nomination.Observers believe if Special Counsel Robert Mueller tries to compel the president to testify in his investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible links to Russia, or even bring charges against the president, the issue will go all the way to the Supreme Court, which could return to its 5-4 conservative majority if Kavanaugh is confirmed.

Warren and Booker led a large demonstration on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Monday night hours after the announcement to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination.



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