Meet the Real Jared Kushner

He was supposed to be the calm one, cool and unflappable under his Ray-Bans and beltless blue bespoke suits. If Steve Bannon was the Rumpelstiltskin of the administration, donning multiple half-tucked dress shirts at a time and always carrying a clutch of briefing papers and barreling through the administrative state, Jared Kushner, through pedigree and temperament, could reach out one of his long, elegant fingers and tap everyone in the West Wing on the shoulder and urge them to just cool out a bit. In a White House sullied by ties to Russia and all sorts of unsavory characters from the fringe, Kushner was set to float above, surrounding himself with fellow figures from the elite worlds of Manhattan finance and real estate and deep-sixing the harder-edged ideas of the White House’s “nationalist” wing.

Except that this isn’t quite how it has gone in the White House over the last several months. It was Kushner who reportedly pushed for the firing of FBI Director James Comey over the objections of Bannon. And it was Kushner who was the lone voice urging for a counterattack after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of a special prosecutor, according to the New York Times. And it is now Kushner whose family’s business activities leave him open to the same level of charges of conflict of interest that have dogged his wife and father-in-law, and Kushner who appears to be as closely tied to the Russian government as anyone serving in the White House: NBC News and the Washington Post reported Thursday that the FBI is taking a close look at his contacts with the Russians.

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What happened to America’s princeling? Is he hearing footsteps from Bannon and the other anti-globalists in the White House’s great and daily game of dominance? Is he trying to play to the instincts of his audience of one, President Donald Trump? The widespread assumption liberals make about Kushner seems to be this: Because he is soft-spoken, slim and handsome, with degrees from Harvard and NYU and a family that donates to Democrats, he couldn’t possibly be the same guy knifing his West Wing rivals and urging the president to go to war with the Justice Department and the FBI.

But that assumption is wrong. Kushner and his representatives did not respond to requests for comment about this story. But those who know him from his days as a young New York real estate magnate and newspaper publisher say that America is just getting to know the Jared Kushner they have always known, that beneath the unflappable golden exterior is someone unafraid to bungee jump or to counter-punch when he feels slighted.

“Polite elegance,” said his friend Strauss Zelnick, an entertainment mogul and founder of the private equity firm Zelnick Media Capital, when asked to describe Kushner’s modus operandi. But, Zelnick added, “He’s tough. In an exceedingly polite way, he is as tough as any one is in New York City real estate.”

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In the world of New York real estate, Kushner’s ability to play a new kind of game was immediately apparent soon after he moved to the city and took over his father’s sprawling New Jersey-based midmarket real estate empire, in 2008. By that point, the Kushner name was associated not with the malls and cul-de-sacs of the Garden State but with tawdry scandal after Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, was convicted in 2005 and sent to prison for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering after he attempted to blackmail his brother-in-law by hiring a prostitute to seduce him and then sent the videotaped encounter to his sister.

“I believe that God and my parents in heaven forgive me for what I did, which was wrong,” Charles Kushner told an interviewer years later. “I don’t believe God and my parents will ever forgive my brother and sister for instigating a criminal investigation and being cheerleaders for the government and putting their brother in jail because of jealousy, hatred and spite.” By all accounts, Jared was deeply affected by his father’s prison sentence, and visited him weekly.

And so in an effort to rehabilitate the family name, Kushner focused the family business on Manhattan and purchased the New York Observer, a pink-paged society weekly that made up in influence among the social and literary elite what it lacked in circulation or profitability (full disclosure: I worked as a political reporter there from 2010-2012). But the paper soon expanded into coverage of Kushner’s home turf of commercial real estate, and people in that world saw the paper’s editorial resources devoted to pushing Kushner’s agenda or settling his scores.

“I think he is someone who saw all this shit with his father go down, and it turned him into a person who was determined to operate in much the same way but just be quieter about it,” said Brian Thomas Gallagher, who worked as a deputy editor at the paper during the Kushner era. “The idea that he thought the thing to do was to buy himself a position in the New York cultural elite is probably true in its way, but I don’t think he ever saw that way. He saw how poorly his dad was treated in the papers, and the Observer was his tool or a house organ for his real estate company.”

Under Kushner, the new New York Observer became a center of the real estate industry’s social world, spinning out a packed calendar of panels and events and an annual list of the hundred most important people in the industry, which industry pros pored over with Talmudic intensity—assuming that the list was more a reflection of who was in Kushner’s good graces rather than who was actually on the up and up in terms of what they built in the five boroughs.

“The Observer became his mouthpiece in the world of New York City real estate,” said one prominent real estate broker who asked to remain anonymous because “like everybody else in New York and New Jersey real estate I realize there is no upside to talking about Jared Kushner or Donald Trump.”

“It was not something a lot of real estate people do,” this person added. “They aren’t usually so upfront about these kinds of things. But he burst onto our scene with it and made his vehicle for being out there.”

Elizabeth Spiers, a former Observer editor, has told the story of how Kushner directed her to dig up dirt on Richard Mack, another real estate developer who held some of the debt on one of Kushner’s buildings, after he refused to write down the loan during a cash-flow crunch. “[D]uring one of our weekly meetings,” she wrote in a blog post, “Jared told me he had a story he wanted us to pursue and that it was very important to him.” Spiers says she knew Kushner had an agenda, but agreed to run it down. “Apparently Richard Mack had been on the other end of some transaction nearly gone wrong and it had rubbed Jared the wrong way,” she wrote.

Spiers put her most aggressive real estate reporter, Dan Geiger, on the case—but after calling up “everyone within a 100-mile radius of the subject,” the best he could find were vague suggestions that Mack could be “kind of an asshole.” Kushner was disappointed, and insisted she assign another reporter to the story—who also came up empty. Jackie Ward, a reporter who profiled Kushner for Esquire, disclosed last year that he then ordered Spiers to find a freelancer to write the same story: her. She declined. (Kushner has disputed this account in past stories.)

Spiers departed on amicable terms with Kushner, she says, but the anger toward him among former Observer employees runs deep. Harleen Kahlon was an experienced digital media maven when she was hired by Kushner in 2010 to boost the paper’s digital outreach. The two worked closely together to redesign the website, with a weekly one-on-one meeting in her office in which Kushner would come in, put his feet up on her desk and check in on the progress of the site’s redesign, for which he hired one of New York’s top digital firms. “He would compensate his lack of knowledge by saying stuff like, ‘Let’s just blow up the whole concept of digital.’ It would sort of sound interesting for a second and then you would just forget about it and get on with the work.”

At the end of the year, when she went to collect her performance bonus at his real estate office for meeting agreed upon metrics on page views and audience growth, Kushner told her that they couldn’t pay, citing financial concerns, and asked her to “take one for the team.” Instead, Kahlon abruptly quit. Every time she sees him on TV or on the streets of New York ever since, she would point him out to people: “There is the guy that stole my money.”

Just before the election, Kahlon described her former boss on Facebook thusly: “We’re talking about a guy who isn’t particularly bright or hard-working, doesn’t actually know anything, has bought his way into everything ever (with money he got from his criminal father), who is deeply insecure and obsessed with fame (you don’t buy the NYO, marry Ivanka Trump, or constantly talk about the phone calls you get from celebrities if it’s in your nature to ‘shun the spotlight’), and who is basically a shithead.”

Kushner could play hardball with his politics too. In February 2014, when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began an investigation into Trump University, he was treated to a front-page hit piece in the Observer in which he was caricatured as a sociopath from “A Clockwork Orange.” When I was at the paper, I once wrote a small item about a Trump appearance on “Fox and Friends,” in which he complained about a New York Times article that described Trump’s real estate empire as little more than an effort to cash in on Trump’s name for a marketing fee, it prompted a quick complaint from the father-in-law to Kushner, who promptly called my editor to relay the concern.

Kushner operated much the same way across the river in his old home in New Jersey, only without the real estate angle to pose political complications. There he set up an Observer online outpost called The Politicker, which consisted for a time at least of little more than anonymous tips wired through an anonymous blogger. That anonymous blogger, David Wildstein, ultimately went to work for Chris Christie, a Kushner nemesis ever since Christie had prosecuted Kushner’s father while serving as a U.S. attorney. Wildstein faces up to 27 months in federal prison for his role in shutting down Fort Lee traffic as part of Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal, but before he was sentenced he received a note from Kushner, telling him that “I thought the move you pulled was kind of badass.”

It has always been part of the Kushner Way: unfailingly polite and urbane on the surface, while searching for the soft underbelly to stick the knife in.

Asher Abehera, a Brooklyn-based developer of hip commercial and residential real estate properties who has done five major deals with Kushner, remembers him sitting in the conference rooms of major law firms as billions of dollars worth of transactions were being sorted out and Kushner filling up the glasses on the table with water, and staying around afterwards to clean up. “He is obsessed with this notion that the whole New York City real estate world is antiquated. He wants to do things differently,” Abehera said, in part by creating high-end bespoke living and working spaces in previously under-recognized neighborhoods for a world in which “even an accounting company wants a hip office space.”

“This was a guy buying iconic buildings at an incredibly young age. It’s a massive feat. It is hard to do any deal in New York because you are in this sea of hyper-aggressive people. He is like alkaline in that sea of aggressive people.”

Which is not to say that Kushner shrinks from a fight. Soon after taking charge of the company, Kushner tried to renovate The Puck Building, a 19th Century red-brick neo-Romanesque jewel in the city’s SoHo neighborhood, and one of the few iconic Manhattan properties that the company owned. The building was landmarked, and Kushner wanted to add six penthouses to the top. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected Kushner’s plans. Rather than go back to the drawing board, Kushner and his architects resubmitted them with only slight modifications. The LPC, which has been accused of being too landlord-friendly in the past, rejected them again. Kushner re-submitted again, again with only slight revisions. Again they were rejected, until the fifth go-around when Kushner finally got approval.

“It was clear from the beginning that they weren’t willing to fundamentally re-think what they were trying to do, so they just tried to shave the corners and hope it sneaked past Landmarks,” said Andrew Berman, who fought Jared on the deal as head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “He was shockingly persistent.”

It was not the first or the last time that Kushner sparred with Berman, whom Trump loved to use as a punching bag as he devised his own plans to rip up the New York City skyline. Unlike Trump however, Kushner never took on Berman or the preservationists frontally, and never met with them privately to broker a compromise. In 2008, Kushner was behind a plan to tear down a hundred-year-old neo-classical tenement synagogue in the East Village in order to build condos on the site. After an outcry from the congregation, Kushner quickly retreated. In 2013, when Kushner purchased a beaux-arts tenement building in the South Village, preservationists, figuring that he “was probably not interested in preserving those buildings for posterity,” as Berman put it, rushed to have them landmarked.

Kushner has found frustration at the high end of the real estate business, too. As global capital has poured into the New York City real estate market over the last five to seven years, he has been riding around in the froth, embarking upon acquisition after acquisition. But industry-watchers say that it remains unclear what all of that activity will amount to. Kushner landed on the Manhattan scene with a bang, buying 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion, a record sum at the time for an individual building in New York. The acquisition came at the height of the city’s real estate bubble, and raised eyebrows around town that the Kushners were no-longer bit players from the Jersey swamps. Instead, however, the building has been nothing short of a burden, nearly going into foreclosure in 2011 and now with only 70 percent of the property currently occupied—far below the Manhattan average of the low 90s—and after losing $10 million in 2015 after debt payments. The Kushners now face a looming $1.2 billion debt payment on the building that has sent them scrambling to find other investors. Real estate experts remain mystified by the purchase, doubting the building will ever be profitable for the amount that Kushner paid. (Kushner has sold his personal stake in the building since joining the White House.)

“There has always been a lot of eye-rolling around town about that purchase,” said one real estate attorney. “What’s the German word? Schadenfreude? You see some kid pull these audacious deals and then you see them sucking wind. People are waiting for him to fall on his face.”

It’s true elsewhere too. One appraiser pointed out that you would often hear of Kushner making deals in the real estate press, but rarely read about those deals panning out with rental income or occupancy rates that are exceeding expectations.

If the purpose of the foray into Manhattan and into publishing was to rehabilitate the Kushner name, it is hard to know how well that worked out. The Kushners are not on the city’s bold-faced cultural boards or civic institutions, and now that he is more associated with Trump than with even his own family, such invitations are likely to be less forthcoming.

As for the Observer, rather than use a storied journalistic institution for an entryway into the right rooms of Manhattan, Kushner wanted to see the paper turn profitable—something that had never occurred in its previous decades of existence. He pushed for page views and cut staff and page counts when possible, and cycled through a string of editors. When the paper at last became profitable for a small period of time in 2011, Kushner pushed to cut staff to increase margins. During the height of the Trump campaign, a number of reporters quit and one wrote an open letter on the paper’s website decrying her boss’ role in the Trump campaign. Ken Kurson, the longest-serving editor in the Kushner era and a family friend and political operative, resigned this week to work at Teneo, a global advisory firm founded by Clinton insiders. Kushner has handed over the reins of the paper to his brother-in-law and shuttered the print edition for good, and with it any intention of remaining an influential player in New York City.

Meanwhile, damaging stories keep landing as journalists dig into the Kushner real estate empire, which is said to have taken part in at least $7 billion worth of acquisitions over the past decade and, according to Forbes, to have a worth close to $1 billion. A recent investigation by ProPublica revealed that Kushner Companies have bought thousands of distressed apartment complexes in Rust Belt cities in recent years, hardly the stuff of Manhattan dreams. A subsidiary that manages the complexes has been ruthless in pushing out those who didn’t pay their rent, ProPublica reported, hitting them with steep late fees and even going after them in court. “It was a lot of construction and a lot of evictions,” Kushner said in 2012. “But the communities now look great, and the outcome has been phenomenal.”

Alec MacGillis, who reported the story, found that few of the “Kushnerville” residents he met knew their money was going to a company owned by the son in law of President Trump. “That Jared Kushner?” one exclaimed. “Oh, my God. And I thought he was the good one.”

David Freedlander writes about politics and culture. He lives in New York.

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GOP turns gloomy over Obamacare repeal

A feeling of pessimism is settling over Senate Republicans as they head into a week-long Memorial Day recess with deeply uncertain prospects for their push to repeal Obamacare.

Senators reported that they’ve made little progress on the party’s most intractable problems this week, such as how to scale back Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and overall Medicaid spending. Republicans are near agreement on making tax credits for low-income, elderly Americans more generous, but that might be the simplest matter at hand.

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Republicans have started writing the very basics of their repeal legislation, even though they’ve made few decisions about what it will say. Staffers will work on the bill over the break to try to increase the pace of negotiations, as well as haggle with the Senate parliamentarian over whether the chamber can even consider the bill because of procedural reasons.

But in the meantime, frustrations are rising and confidence is diminishing.

“We talk about it every goddamn day,” said one GOP senator, who did not want to be quoted criticizing his own party. “But we haven’t done anything about it.”

Senators privately reported being surprised by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assessment on Wednesday that the Kentucky Republican doesn’t know how the party gets the requisite 50 of the party’s 52 members on board. Though aides said McConnell was restating the challenge of passing a bill in a sharply divided conference, senators said they also did not take the calculating majority leader’s words as a vote of confidence.

“He doesn’t do much that’s not purposeful. So is he sending a message here of: ‘Don’t anybody think this is likely to happen?’” said a second Republican senator. “If I had to bet my house, I’d bet we don’t get it done.”

They tried to shrug off a Congressional Budget Office score showing that 23 million fewer people will have insurance under the House GOP’s plan and that premiums would rise for two years before beginning to fall. But Senate Republicans also aren’t sure how much they can improve on a score that, in their view, fell far short of an acceptable outcome.

The nonpartisan assessment of the House’s bill “makes everything harder,” said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the most vulnerable GOP senator in next year’s mid-term elections.

“The point is, we should have a better CBO score. But I can’t guarantee it,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), acknowledging that broad coverage losses cast a long shadow over the Republicans who may be skittish about repeal. “Of course it does … on the other hand, it’s an estimate and it doesn’t mean it’s accurate. That’s something that would worry anybody.”

Yet Sen. Susan Collins said the Senate “absolutely” has to surpass the CBO’s assessment of the House effort. One of two true GOP moderates in the chamber, Collins is urging her colleagues to tilt the bill toward the center rather than to the right.

“There is no way that I can personally support a bill that is going to result in 23 million Americans losing their health insurance coverage, that will cause an 850 percent premium increase of a low-income adult aged 64, of which there are many in my state, and that does nothing to ultimately bend the cost curve of healthcare,” the Maine Republican said in an interview.

The GOP spent much of Thursday distancing themselves from the House bill’s CBO score, attacking the organization as unreliable for its inaccurate estimates of Obamacare’s effectiveness. That left the question open of how Republicans’ will measure the success of the bill they are crafting, but GOP senators insisted their target isn’t to produce a bill that the CBO looks on charitably.

“Our goal is not to please the CBO,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi said he has started writing the bill, along with leadership and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Hatch. He said he would “hope” to have a bill after the Memorial Day recess but wouldn’t put a deadline on the legislation.

Enzi said the GOP has made enough policy decisions “in some areas” of the bill to start writing. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said his conference has “really fleshed out the issues, what the fault lines are.”

But Senate Republicans’ opaque repeal strategy has annoyed some rank-and-file members. Republicans are having three lunches a week to chew over Obamacare repeal in addition to two weekly working group meetings. All are behind closed doors, and McConnell and his leadership team have been careful to keep details from leaking out.

That’s kept outside groups and House members from criticizing any particulars of the healthcare plan, but it’s also viewed by some Republicans as poor optics.

“It would aid the process to have public hearings where this could be debated publicly. It would help bring the public along,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters Thursday. “The meetings themselves are of substance. I do think it’s always best to have [the media] opine as we’re moving along.”

There are limits to how much the Senate can really juke the numbers of the CBO score to make a bill more palatable to the public. Senators cannot write a bill that saves fewer than the $119 billion in savings from the House bill, which could restrict just how much room Republicans have to produce better coverage numbers or lower premiums.

And there is some concern among Republicans that they will have a hard time besting the House score on coverage or premiums, even though senators are wary of absorbing the political beating that the House took over the CBO’s assessment. If anything, the political fallout of the CBO score made clear that the Senate won’t eliminate Obamacare’s pre-existing conditions coverage requirement after the House allowed states to opt-out. CBO said Wednesday that doing so would destabilize markets and in some places, drive up premiums.

The House still hasn’t sent the bill to the Senate and aides say they’re still not completely sure it adheres to all the rules of budget reconciliation. During next week’s recess, Republican and Democratic staff are expected to meet with the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, to start litigating the House bill. Democrats will hope to find fatal flaws that will end the reconciliation process and open the bill up to a Senate filibuster.

Assuming there are no major errors, Republicans will then start testing the waters of what legislation is allowed into the Senate bill, such as whether the GOP can automatically enroll people in insurance plans, allow states to opt out of Obamacare provisions or defund Planned Parenthood.

Aides working on the bill were slightly more upbeat about the prospect of repeal than senators themselves, believing that Republicans may have some room to maneuver. One option under consideration: Delaying repeal of Obamacare’s taxes to produce more money to shore up Medicaid coffers and reduce premiums in the short-term.

But Republicans said they haven’t gotten that far yet, and are mainly stuck over how quickly to wind down Obamacare’s more generous Medicaid benefits and preventing millions of low-income people from losing insurance. That doesn’t mean Republicans are giving up on Obamacare repeal, but it does mean that after a month of talk, the GOP has made few real decisions on a path forward.

“There is no consensus yet,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). But he added: “Doing nothing is not an option. We’re doing the best we can.”

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Pence silent after GOP candidate allegedly assaults reporter

Vice President Mike Pence is pictured.

“We aren’t going to comment,” Vice President Mike Pence’s spokesman said nearly a day after the incident occurred. | AP Photo

Vice President Mike Pence, once a self-proclaimed supporter of press-freedom legislation, has stayed quiet after a Montana congressional candidate he endorsed was issued a citation for allegedly body-slamming a reporter Wednesday night.

Many Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, called on Greg Gianforte to apologize to the reporter, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs. But Pence has not weighed in, even though he had traveled to Montana to campaign with Gianforte in early May and recorded a robocall ad on his behalf.

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Pence’s office said he doesn’t plan to comment Thursday, the day of the Montana special election in which Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist are vying for an open House of Representatives seat.

“We aren’t going to comment,” Pence’s press secretary Marc Lotter said, the office’s first statement nearly a day after the incident occurred.

Pence finds himself in an awkward spot as someone who once fought for a national shield law to protect journalists from being compelled to divulge their sources. But media watchdogs criticized him more recently when, as governor of Indiana, he attempted to start a state-run news service, and he has picked up President Donald Trump’s favorite phrase for unfavorable coverage: fake news.

Other Republicans were quick to say Wednesday night’s incident in Montana, which was caught on audio and corroborated by a Fox News crew that witnessed it, crossed a line.

“If the First Amendment means anything,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote on Twitter, “it means you can’t body-slam a journalist.”

Joel Simon, executive director of the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, told POLITICO Thursday morning that he hoped politicians of all stripes would call out the alleged assault “sooner rather than later.” He sees it as part of a troubling trend.

“We’re seeing systematic attacks, verbal attacks against the media,” he said. His group is used to dealing with journalists working in “violent and repressive societies,” he added, but is focusing increasingly on the United States.

Trump has done battle with the press for more than a year as a first-time politician. At his rallies during the 2016 campaign, crowds would sometimes chant “CNN sucks!” As president, he reportedly asked his FBI director if it was possible to jail journalists, and he has met with world leaders known for imprisoning reporters such as Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

Pence, though, has never had the kind of bruising relationship with the press that Trump has. Pence lifted the so-called blacklist barring certain news outlets from campaign events before Trump did, and he enjoyed a generally warm relationship with his traveling press corps, even offering to pose for pictures with reporters’ family members who attended rallies. Pence once called and apologized to a Washington Post reporter who was blocked from a campaign event and searched by police. Unlike Trump, he flew on the same plane as his traveling press and would mingle with reporters more than either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton.

His silence on violence against a reporter could be harmful, said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who has written for years about changes in the Republican Party. He said the notion that the press is the “enemy” is toxic.

“What we’ve seen is a systematic war on the press and this notion that the mainstream media are tools of the liberal establishment and purveyors of fake news that goes way back before Trump, but that no one has exploited or incited like Trump has,” Ornstein said.

“It’s rooted in the idea that if they’re the enemy, you can’t do anything that gives them traction or justifies their existence,” Ornstein said. “You want to do nothing that gives aid and comfort to the enemy.”

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GOP threatens to subpoena Education Dept. official who quit

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pictured.

James Runcie resigned on Tuesday night after defying Betsy DeVos’ directive to testify before the oversight panel. | AP Photo

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee on Thursday threatened to subpoena the head of the Education Department’s student financial aid office who resigned this week after a clash with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

James Runcie resigned on Tuesday night after defying DeVos’ directive to testify before the oversight panel about erroneous payments in the student loan and Pell grant programs. In an internal memo about his resignation as chief operating officer of the Office of Federal Student Aid, Runcie alluded to a range of simmering management issues at the department.

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“The issuing of a subpoena is still an open item,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House oversight subcommittee holding Thursday’s hearing told reporters. “It’s important that we hear from Mr. Runcie and at least get some of his perspective on some of these issues.”

Meadows opened the hearing by saying that Runcie’s refusal to testify was a “slap in the face” to taxpayers, who he said paid Runcie more than $430,000 in bonuses since 2010.

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) “still has questions that Mr. Runcie needs to answer,” said his spokeswoman, MJ Henshaw. “Hopefully that’s done voluntarily. If not, we will explore the option of a subpoena.”

Jay Hurt, the chief financial officer of the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, testified in place of Runcie on Thursday. GOP lawmakers pressed Hurt about the increase in the agency’s erroneous student loan and Pell grant payments, which both rose last year.

The Education Department estimated that improper payments for student loans in fiscal year 2016 were $3.86 billion, up from $1.28 billion the previous year. Improper payments in the Pell grant program increased from $562 million to $2.21 billion over the same time period, according to the department. None of those met the department’s target benchmark for such figures.

Hurt said that the increase was due in part to a change in how the department calculated improper payments. He also warned that next year’s improper payment rate will again increase because of a months-long suspension of an online tool that helps borrowers avoid mistakes by automatically inputting their tax information.

The agency’s Inspector General, Kathleen Tighe, testified that while the revised calculations were “more realistic,” the department still needs to “intensify its efforts to identify and address internal controls and oversight to address the root causes” of improper payments.

GOP lawmakers on the panel said they were concerned that Runcie and Hurt continued to receive bonuses even as the improper payment rates for student aid programs increased in recent years.

Runcie’s resignation memo suggests that political appointees at the department had been micromanaging his office, which he said had been stretched too thin. He said in an email to POLITICO that he resigned because of differences at the department between “operational leaders” like himself and political appointees.

But Meadows blasted that assertion on Thursday. He said that Runcie “may be upset that the secretary is micromanaging” but “anybody looking over your shoulder when you’re losing $3.6 billion might be considered micromanaging. I call it proper oversight.”

Republicans on the committee also said that Runcie’s resignation on Tuesday night came after they had already threatened to subpoena him and gave him 20 days to respond to a request to appear at the hearing.

Meadows said he had previously been frustrated with attempts to get Runcie to testify before the committee.

“He has shown a willingness to not testify before Congress in the past. I’m not saying that that’s where it is today,” Meadows said. “I want to take him at his word that perhaps he had a personal conflict, but we were willing to accommodate. And what we found was is that he chose to resign instead of coming before Congress.”

Democrats on the panel, meanwhile, steered clear of the Runcie resignation. They instead criticized DeVos’ proposal to overhaul student loan servicing and slammed the department for not doing enough to guard against student debt relief scams.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said earlier this week that they’re concerned that Runcie’s resignation appeared to come after political interference from DeVos. Warren called on Congress “to get to the bottom of what’s going on here.”

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FBI won’t provide Comey memos to Congress yet

FBI Director James Comey speaks during the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Russian actions during the 2016 election campaign on March 20, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In the memos former FBI Director James Comey details his interactions with President Donald Trump. | Getty

The FBI on Thursday declined a congressional request for explosive memos by former Director James Comey detailing his interactions with President Donald Trump.

The House Oversight Committee and other congressional panels requested the memos earlier this month after The New York Times reported that Comey wrote in one that Trump had asked him to shut down the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Trump denied the allegation.

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In a letter to Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the FBI’s assistant director for congressional affairs, Gregory Brower, said the bureau can’t provide the memo until it consults with Robert Mueller, the new special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s election meddling.

In light of Mueller’s appointment “and other considerations,” Brower wrote, “we are undertaking appropriate consultation to ensure all relevant interests implicated by your request are properly evaluated.” Brower pledged to update the Oversight panel “as soon as possible.”

Chaffetz responded to Brower’s letter on Thursday by restating his demand for the memos and setting a new deadline of June 8.

“Congress and the American public have a right and a duty to examine this issue independently of the special counsel’s investigation,” Chaffetz said. “I trust and hope you understand this and make the right decision – to produce these documents to the committee immediately and on a voluntary basis.”

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