Cummings: Trump aides admitted to lawyers they used private email

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is pictured. | AP

Rep. Elijah Cummings said the lawyers repeatedly refused to name the officials and now he’s asking Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to issue subpoenas for the information. | Alex Brandon/AP

A top House Democrat says White House lawyers acknowledged this week that “several” Trump administration officials used their private email accounts for government business in violation of federal record-keeping law.

But Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said the lawyers repeatedly refused to name the officials and now he’s asking Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to issue subpoenas for the information.

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In a letter to Gowdy delivered on Friday, Cummings described a Wednesday briefing on the email matter from three members of the White House counsel’s office: deputy counsel Stefan Passantino, deputy counsel Uttam Dhillon and associate counsel Daniel Epstein.

The lawyers “stated that several White House employees came forward and ‘confessed’ that they failed to forward official records from their personal email accounts to their governmental email accounts within 20 days, as the Presidential Records Act requires,” Cummings wrote. “However, the White House officials refused to identify these employees.”

Asked specifically whether President Donald Trump’s senior aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner was among the violators, the attorneys told committee staff, “You should talk to Mr. Kushner’s counsel about that,” Cummings added.

The Maryland Democrat said the lawyers contended they couldn’t provide more details during an ongoing internal review of the matter. But Cummings said they refused to give the committee a timeline and stopped short of committing to providing the information at all, even when the review is complete.

Gowdy joined Cummings last month in requesting details from the White House on the identities of officials who had used private email accounts or text messaging apps for government business. Their request came after a POLITICO report revealed that Kushner had been using email connected to a family domain to conduct some government business. Subsequent reports found that a slew of senior Trump aides had routinely used private accounts to communicate with White House officials.

Though an initial deadline for the White House to turn over details was set for Oct. 10, the committee only received a two-page letter from Trump’s legislative liaison, Marc Short, that provided no specifics on which officials might have relied on private accounts.

Cummings now says he’s concerned that Gowdy is letting the administration slide.

Yesterday, my staff informed me that you have declined my request to send a follow-up letter to the White House seeking the information we requested by a date certain because the White House is in ‘full compliance’ with the bipartisan document request we sent on September 25, 2017,” Cummings wrote. “Based on the record before us, I do not believe anyone can reasonably argue that the White House is in ‘full compliance’ with our document request.”

Gowdy aides did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It’s a ratcheting up of tension between committee leaders who have tangled before — they co-led the congressional investigation into the Benghazi attacks, including a seven-hour grilling of Hillary Clinton as the presidential campaign was getting underway.

Still, the two men have largely forged a grudging respect for each other over the years, which is crucial as they attempt to work together on sometimes-sensitive investigations.

Most recently, Gowdy recently threatened to subpoena a pair of cabinet agencies for failing to respond to a separate bipartisan request on the use of costly charter jets by senior administration officials. The White House, per Gowdy’s office, was deemed “partially” compliant with that probe but is still due to turn over more documents by the end of the month.

Cummings is also pushing for Gowdy to subpoena the White House for documents connected to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned amid questions about his ties to Russia and his failure to report foreign business interests while shaping Trump administration foreign policy matters. Gowdy deferred that request to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating potential crimes in connection with Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In his letter Friday, Cummings blasted Gowdy’s decision to defer to Mueller, noting that when he and Gowdy ran the investigation into the deaths of four service members in Benghazi, “you subpoenaed thousands of documents and demanded hours of sworn testimony from witnesses” despite a separate ongoing criminal investigation.

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What to watch on the GOP budget and tax reform

Bob Corker is pictured here. | POLITICO

No one has been more outspoken about the potential cost of Republicans’ tax plans, and no one has a more subtle position on the subject, than Sen. Bob Corker. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

Here’s what you need to know about their fiscal blueprint, taxes and the deficit.

The budget approved last night by the Senate will open the door to Republicans’ far-reaching plans for the tax code — and raise questions about what it means for the government’s piggy bank.

It doesn’t just allow them to tap the all-important reconciliation process that will enable them to muscle their coming tax plan past Democratic objections in the Senate. It also establishes how much the GOP can spend in total on the tax proposal — $1.5 trillion.

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As Republicans finalize their budget plans — the House appears ready to adopt the Senate plan next week — here’s what you need to know about their fiscal blueprint, taxes and the deficit.

Does anyone care about the deficit? Just a few years ago, Republicans were shutting down the government and threatening its credit rating over their demands to slash spending. It seems like a distant memory now, though, if anything, the government’s long-term debt predicament has only gotten worse.

Lawmakers have done little about spiraling entitlement costs, and interest payments on the debt are projected to triple as interest rates return to normal levels. the nonpartisan Congressional budget says the government will begin routinely running $1 trillion deficits for the foreseeable future beginning in the next five years — and that’s before Republicans make any changes to the code.

How to make $1.5 trillion disappear: Though Senate Republicans’ budget allows for a $1.5 trillion tax cut, they say it won’t actually cost anywhere near that. Why? Something called dynamic scoring. They contend their tax plan will generate so much economic growth that it will throw off enough surplus tax revenue to cost that $1.5 trillion cost.

“The resolution anticipates the enactment of tax reform will generate economic growth at a significant enough level to compensate for the initial decrease in revenues assumed under a static scoring convention,” the budget says.

So would it? Dynamic scoring is now part of Congress’s official budget rules so it would be up to the Joint Committee on Taxation — the nonpartisan agency charged with tallying the cost of tax legislation — to determine what effect the Republican plan would have on the economy. While it’s hard to know how exactly how JCT would come down on a tax bill that’s still being written, many believe it’s highly unlikely the office would award Republicans $1 trillion or more in “dynamic revenue.”

It’s true the agency said a 2014 tax reform plan by then-House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, which ultimately failed to advance, would have generated somewhere between $50 billion and $700 billion in “dynamic” revenue. It’s also true that the plan Republicans are working on is much more friendly to business than Camp’s plan, which is why some Republicans are optimistic they can top $700 billion this time around.

But unlike Camp’s plan, which was deficit-neutral, the Senate proposal would produce a lot of debt — and JCT, like most economists, says that will undercut the benefits of any tax changes. That’s because more red ink means more borrowing by the federal government. There’s only so much money out there for everyone to borrow, and if Uncle Sam has to borrow more to fill holes in the government’s budget, economists say it will increase borrowing costs for everyone, which would create a drag on the economy.

What about Bob? No one has been more outspoken about the potential cost of Republicans’ tax plans, and no one has a more subtle position on the subject, than Sen. Bob Corker — and that could mean a lot of headaches for Republicans, who have a bare 52-vote majority in the Senate.

Though the retiring Tennessee Republican was instrumental in negotiating that $1.5 trillion figure, he says he won’t vote for any subsequent tax legislation that actually increases the debt by that much. He is merely backing the “meaningless” budget in order to get to taxes, he told reporters.

So how much is Corker willing to spend on a tax bill? That’s a little complicated.

Corker says he’s willing to grant the $500 billion he figures it would cost to make permanent various temporary tax provisions currently in the tax code, contending they should not count against the tax plan because lawmakers would probably extend them anyway. (The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget believes the cost of extending those provisions is actually more like $200 billion).

Corker is also willing to accept whatever additional revenue, on top of that $500 billion, that dynamic scoring shows the Republican tax plan generating. Moreover, he’s willing to consider dynamic scoring estimates from groups other than JCT.

“There’s some crazy scores, and there’s some scores that are sensible,” said Corker. At the same time, he said, “what I don’t want us to get into is a situation where you’re using the scorekeeper that gives you the outcome you wish.”

But if Corker believes credible dynamic scoring shows the GOP plan only generating, say, $300 billion in additional revenue, then he will support spending a total of up to $800 billion on a tax plan, even if his party’s budget allows for a $1.5 trillion cut — which would surely antagonize his colleagues.

Many expect the White House or Treasury to produce its own dynamic analysis of the GOP plan — one that’s more aggressive than what JCT would endorse — in hopes of wooing Corker.

Temporary? Really? Republicans have discussed creating a whole slate of temporary provisions, and effectively daring future Congresses to allow them to lapse. Many note the strategy worked with George W. Bush’s tax cuts, most of which were ultimately made permanent. All of that would send the ultimate cost of Republicans’ tax plans to well over $1.5 trillion.

A major part of their plans, for instance, would offer companies expanded writeoffs for business investments. It’s known in tax circles as expensing, and it would cost roughly $100 billion annually, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.

Republicans plan to only offer it for five years, before shutting it off. But experience shows that temporary tax provisions are a rare thing. Lawmakers routinely roll over ostensibly temporary provisions amid fierce lobbying from special interests and complaints that failing to act would amount to a tax increase. Remember the tax extenders, most of which were made permanent in 2015?

It’s also proven particularly difficult to undo business investment writeoffs. Expensing is really just a souped-up version of the so-called bonus depreciation Congress began offering companies in 2008 in a bid to jog growth amid the Great Recession. Though other recession-era policies, like expanded jobless benefits have since expired, lawmakers have never allowed those bonus depreciation provisions to die, which they now want to expand. So don’t be surprised if expensing remains on the books for more than five years.

Are Republicans ready to dish out the broccoli? So far, lawmakers have mostly emphasized all the easy parts of rewriting the tax code — the taxes that would be cut. But the sort of overhaul Republicans are talking about comes with losers too, and who exactly would get screwed under the GOP plan has been a closely guarded secret as lawmakers try to keep lobbyists off-balance.

The few indications Republicans have given about how they intend to finance their plan have not gone over well, with lawmakers forced to scale back their plans to dump a long-standing deduction for state and local taxes.

The real test for Republicans will be when they finally release their tax-rewrite bill — which they say will come after they finalize their budget — and everyone will be able to see who gets stuck with the bill. Camp’s plan used the word “repeal” 404 times. And as the Obamacare repeal debate underscored, Congress has a hard time taking things away from people.

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Grassley won’t force Sessions to answer Trump-Comey questions

Chuck Grassley is pictured here. | POLITICO

“I think there’s plenty of precedent for” Attorney General Jeff Sessions declining to answer questions, Sen. Chuck Grassley said. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

The attorney general refused to discuss his private conversations with the president — even though he hasn’t invoked executive privilege.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) does not plan to force Attorney General Jeff Sessions to answer questions about his private conversations with President Donald Trump concerning the firing of FBI Director James Comey, a spokesman said Friday.

Sessions sidestepped repeated questions about the Comey firing and the federal probe of Russia’s election meddling during testimony before the Judiciary panel earlier this week, dismissing a bid by the committee’s nine Democrats to force him to formally invoke executive privilege in declining to answer questions.

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While Democratic frustration simmers over Sessions’ ability to evade questions about his private conversations with the president without claiming executive privilege, Grassley appears to have concluded that the matter isn’t worth pressing because the Trump administration would likely prevail.

“No president is likely to invoke executive privilege until forced to do so,” Grassley spokesman George Hartmann said by email. “In this case, it’s premature and probably not a legitimate use of committee time and resources to force the issue.”

Grassley said in a Thursday interview that “I don’t think you can find fault with Sessions not” discussing his private talks with Trump given that former President Barack Obama’s first attorney general, Eric Holder, resisted a formal assertion of executive privilege for months during the congressional investigation into “Fast and Furious,” a Department of Justice gun-smuggling operation gone awry.

“I think there’s plenty of precedent for” Sessions declining to answer questions, Grassley added. “I wouldn’t feel that way if I hadn’t been treated that way myself by Holder.”

Congressional Republicans railed for months against Holder after the Fast and Furious probe began in 2011, and Grassley himself harshly criticized Holder for withholding information. The House GOP issued a subpoena and later held Holder in contempt of Congress as a means to pry loose a formal claim of executive privilege. Obama ultimately invoked executive privilege to shield Holder’s DOJ from providing documents on the initiative after months of congressional requests.

But Grassley’s spokesman asserted a notable difference between the Fast and Furious matter and Sessions’ discussions with Trump over the Comey firing, which Trump has said was motivated in part by the federal probe of his associates’ ties to Russia.

“Unlike Attorney General Holder during the Fast & Furious investigation, this case involves communications between the president and a close adviser, which seems on its face to meet the basic elements of executive privilege, and thus would be a challenge for Congress to overcome,” Hartmann added.

Democrats on the committee are not about to drop the issue.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview that “a number of us feel the urgency of putting some boundaries on this seemingly endless claim of executive privilege without the president even invoking it.”

Assuming that Trump would win a battle over an executive privilege claim regarding the Comey firing is “questionable,” Blumenthal added, because “there would be a challenge based on his tweets and his comments that seemingly waive the privilege because he’s commented on his conversations with the DOJ — including Attorney General Sessions, saying he never should have recused himself.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an interview that “I think there is a double standard” being applied to Sessions versus Holder, noting the long-standing friendship between Grassley and the attorney general, a former GOP senator who sat on the judiciary panel.

Sessions ought to be pushed further to address his discussions with Trump about Comey’s firing, Durbin added, but it’s “not likely to occur, under the circumstances.”

Sessions also declined to address questions about private conversations regarding Trump’s controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio under questioning from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the judiciary committee’s top Democrat, during his Wednesday testimony.

“Until such time as the president makes a decision with respect to this [executive] privilege, I cannot waive that privilege myself or otherwise compromise his ability to assert it,” Sessions said.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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Take the President’s Finger Off the Nuclear Button

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A military aide carries the ‘nuclear football’ on the South Lawn of the White House on April 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. | Getty

Soapbox

I was once tasked with ordering a nuclear strike in the event of catastrophe. It’s an awesome responsibility no single person should have.

In 1997, as a member of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, I was once the “designated survivor”—the senior official who stayed away from the State of the Union speech in the event of an attack that killed America’s entire executive and congressional leadership all at once. It was a heady experience. I was taken to a location outside of Washington (my daughter’s apartment in New York), where I was accompanied by key military staff and Secret Service, including a military officer carrying what I presumed to be the nuclear football—a black, leather-encased aluminum briefcase that would be used to authenticate the person ordering a nuclear strike. The football, formally known as the “president’s emergency satchel,” also contains options for different strike packages—to hit, say, Moscow, Pyongyang, or a much wider set of targets.

On this particular day, the person who would have to punch the authorization code into the nuclear football was me. Within nanoseconds, an order would go to the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center, and minutes later the missiles would launch. Millions would die.

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I don’t recall getting any specific instructions on what to do if the doomsday scenario happened. All I knew is that if necessary, I could turn to that military officer accompanying me, holding that 45-pound bag, and trigger a military response, including a nuclear strike. It felt like an awesome responsibility to put on one man’s shoulders, even if it was exceedingly unlikely the president—or in this case, the secretary of agriculture—would ever have to use it. I sometimes wonder if I would have had the courage to give the order.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot lately as I read alarming stories about how President Donald Trump is ordering up options for “limited” strikes on North Korea, or how he reportedly once mused to top Pentagon officials about wanting a nuclear arsenal 10 times our current size.

I’m by no means, a nuclear expert, but I’m hardly the only one alarmed. On Wednesday, former CIA director John Brennan said he rated the odds of a war with North Korea at 25 percent. Days earlier, the sober-minded chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, said he was worried the president might start “World War III.” Former secretary of defense William Perry has warned that today’s situation is as dangerous as anything he saw during the Cold War—and he lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis up close as a satellite photography consultant for the CIA.

Right now, the decision to trigger a preemptive or retaliatory nuclear attack lies solely in the hands of one person, without any required oversight from Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the secretary of defense. Since the advent of nuclear weapons and the passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, all presidents have had virtually unlimited power and authority to trigger a nuclear attack. And while there are processes in place to verify codes and communication links—the nuclear football—that power does not require any input or consultation with Congress. The framers of the Constitution never envisioned investing the president with the sole power to wipe out all human life on Earth several times over.

It’s past time to re-examine the War Powers Act and the role of Congress, the president and war-making in the modern era, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons. This effort must be bipartisan, should involve public hearings if possible and should probe questions such as: What is the specific role of military commanders downstream to execute on a presidential decision? Are we sufficiently protected against the threat of a cyberattack that could trigger nuclear war? How do we prevent mistakes, either human or technological? How should congressional leaders participate in the planning and decision-making process when it comes to such grave choices?

I recognize that in war, sometimes quick decisions are necessary and lengthy consultation isn’t possible. But at the same time, the present system violates a basic principle of self-governing democracy: The American people’s right to have a say in whether to go to war. I’m confident we can still protect the president’s ability to act decisively when necessary, but otherwise provide robust congressional and military oversight to the process by which a nuclear attack is triggered.

In the great movie “Crimson Tide,” a valid launch order was sent to Captain Frank Ramsey, an American submarine commander played by Gene Hackman. As they were preparing to launch, a second emergency message came through. But it was garbled. Ramsey’s second in command, played by Denzel Washington, believed the scrambled message meant the original order was now void, and a mutiny against Hackman was initiated to prevent accidental nuclear war with the Soviets. It turned out Washington was right.

No one should use Hollywood as a strategic guidepost, but the story is a reminder that when such power is consolidated in one person, without any oversight, mistakes can happen. Even under the best of circumstances, there’s no perfect way to manage nuclear weapons. But we can do better. It’s time for Congress to act.

Dan Glickman (@DanRGlickman) is a former congressman from Kansas and secretary of agriculture. He is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and vice president at the Aspen Institute.

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