EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will start flying coach instead of first class at least part of the time, he told CBS News’ Major Garrett Wednesday.
Pruitt had been flying first or business class consistently because his security detail was alarmed by hostile encounters while traveling, as POLITICO reported last month.
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But the pricey flights have attracted significant criticism and scrutiny, including a request for information from Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee. During one stretch of travel in early June, Pruitt and his staffers spent $90,000, The Washington Post reported.
EPA initially claimed Pruitt had a “blanket waiver” to fly first class, an arrangement that would appear to violate federal law. Staffers later said that Pruitt cites security concerns when asking for approval for the more expensive tickets for each trip.
Pruitt on Wednesday said he has instructed his security detail “to accommodate those security threats in alternate ways, including—up to and including, flying coach going forward,” according to an excerpt of the interview released last night.
Pruitt said he would fly coach “on my very next flight.” It’s not clear what other “alternative” security measures are available while flying coach. The full Pruitt interview will be released on “The Takeout” podcast on Friday.
Skipping these rules is a recipe for compromising U.S. national security.
Freelancing is a valuable tool in a lot of professions—it allows for creativity and flexibility. But freelancing in the realm of national security is a different story. The reporting that White House senior adviser Jared Kushner had foreign contacts that he didn’t report to the White House National Security Council—and that foreign governments viewed him as a prime counterintelligence target—is a case study in why going rogue on national security is a bad idea. In the end, it benefits foreign countries more than our own.
I spent several years at the NSC making sure what Kushner did never happened. Our job was to serve as the president’s principal mechanism for coordinating national security policy, and that meant being the key focal point for organizing, planning and preparing all meetings for senior White House officials. The role was organizational—but it was also to guarantee that no one risked being turned into a foreign agent, wittingly or unwittingly. We worked with the intelligence community to brief officials on what to expect in meetings with foreign contacts, and made sure they were unlikely to be taken advantage of. If we had heard of any official going rogue, our counter intelligence antennae would have been raised immediately. Why did this official request a meeting out of official channels? Without adequate preparation, was the official manipulated by the foreign government?
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We operated with a few basic principles—fundamental rules that all the best national security professionals understand. Skipping over them, as Kushner reportedly did, is a recipe for compromising U.S. national security and giving another country the upper hand. Following them is what makes good diplomacy.
Don’t wing it
The NSC often helps senior officials prepare for meetings with foreign counterparts. NSC staff, who are experts in their fields, work with U.S. government departments and agencies to get the most up to date intelligence so that each administration contact is used efficiently to advance U.S. policy. So, for example, if Kushner were preparing to meet with a Chinese official, U.S. national security would have been best served if he had scheduled the meeting through the NSC, prepared with National Security adviser H. R. McMaster and the NSC China experts, and gone over his talking points to make sure that he knew everything he needed to know before the meeting and what to watch out for from a counter intelligence perspective.
The full NSC staff isn’t always looped into meetings with foreign governments, depending on the sensitivity of the discussion. But McMaster, as head of the NSC, certainly should have known, along with any staff that had the appropriate clearance.
Kushner reportedly did none of these things before his meeting with officials such as Chinese Ambassador Cui and or Wu Xiaohuihe—which meant he went into the meeting with two handicaps. First, he was unprepared, giving the Chinese the upper hand. Second, he was walking into a counterintelligence booby trap. Counterintelligence is a tricky business. Without proper training by professionals, assets don’t know that they’re being manipulated and/or what to watch out for.
Bring a friend
The very act of meeting a foreign contact without experts present, or at least a government note taker, is one of the easiest ways to turn yourself into a tool for foreign intelligence. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made this error in Turkey recently, and Kushner reportedly met with Chinese contacts by himself. This means that there is no official U.S. record of any of these meetings. To know what happened, we have to rely on other countries’ “readouts,” which those countries can easily manipulate to serve their own purposes.
I can’t think of a single high level meeting during my years at the White House where there was not a U.S. translator present and/or a U.S. government “plus 1” so that there was someone who could give another readout of the meeting. Disclosures and record of meetings with foreign contacts is another step in any basic national security work. After meetings with foreign contacts, proper protocol is to create a written record of the meeting so that there is no ambiguity about what was or was not discussed and so that appropriately cleared individuals know what occurred and can use that readout to continue their work to advance U.S. policy. If that doesn’t happen, then the meeting becomes a win for the foreign contact—his or her foreign government has information the U.S. government doesn’t. And it makes the person who held the meeting and who failed to disclose it an unknowing foreign asset.
Failing to keep records of meetings with foreign governments doesn’t make the U.S. look good in the long run. If, for example, the NSC director for Israel doesn’t know that Kushner is in contact with Israeli officials, or what he’s talking about with them, the NSC director could easily be caught off guard in a discussion with his Israeli counterparts. That lack of communication within the ranks of the U.S. government sends a clear message that the White House is disorganized. It could also lead foreign contacts to stop working through the NSC—if a foreign official knows Kushner isn’t letting the NSC know about engagements then why would they bother with the NSC? This kind of circumvention would undermine not only the NSC, but also the entire U.S. national security apparatus.
Don’t be an easy mark
Foreign regimes are always searching for potential intelligence targets. First, they want assets that have access to valuable information and influence over U.S. policy. Second, they look for assets that are vulnerable to manipulation. Any kind of secret—including everything from adultery and drug use to undisclosed foreign business deals—can be used against a potential intelligence recruit. (That’s why all U.S. government employees go through security clearance investigations. Investigators want to be certain that there is nothing that can be used against you to coerce or bribe you into action.) Third, foreign government look for targets who are inexperienced—people who will easily fall into their traps, perhaps without ever knowing they have.
Kushner checks all of these boxes, which makes it especially worrisome he tried to conduct foreign policy alone. He might have set out to do good, but he’s more likely to end up undermining U.S. national security rather than advancing it.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold an oversight hearing on Mar. 14 examining the Valentine’s Day school shooting that killed 17 Florida students and faculty members, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced Thursday.
The hearing comes as lawmakers tangle over what, if any, new gun control proposals are politically feasible, and uncertainty about what President Donald Trump will ultimately push. Grassley has already sought briefings from the FBI and social media companies about advance notice that law enforcement officials received — but failed to act on — concerning the threat posed by Florida perpetrator Nikolas Cruz.
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“The great tragedy of the Parkland shooting is that it was preventable,” Grassley told committee members on Thursday. “The FBI and local law enforcement failed to act on credible tips that should have neutralized the killer and gotten him help.”
Grassley offered strong support for a narrow, bipartisan bill designed to improve the existing background-check system that Republican leaders are pushing. Democrats and Trump have called for more expansive measures to stem gun violence, including at a freewheeling, televised White House meeting Wednesday. But the Iowan declined to immediately support legislation banning “bump stocks,” devices that boost the rate of fire of semi-automatic weapons that were used in last year’s Las Vegas mass shooting.
The Trump administration is moving ahead with regulatory limits on bump stocks, Grassley noted, adding, “If that effort proves unsuccessful, I’m also willing to consider a legislative ban.”
His reluctance aside, fellow Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona released a new bill banning bump stocks on Thursday alongside Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). Flake is also partnering with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has authored her own bump-stock ban, on legislation that would raise the age limit to 21 for purchases of AR-15-style rifles that have been used in multiple mass shootings.
The Senate is scheduled to take up legislation easing certain requirements under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law next week, but gun-related amendments may be offered to that bill as the broader debate continues.
Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S., announced Thursday it will raise the age requirement for firearm purchases to 21 years old, the third major retailer to tighten such regulations in response to the deadly school shooting in Florida.
The Ohio-based company, which sells guns through its Fred Meyer chain at 43 stores across four Western states, cited the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, as part of its rationale in announcing the move.
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“In response to the tragic events in Parkland and elsewhere, we’ve taken a hard look at our policies and procedures for firearm sales,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “Recent events demonstrate the need for additional action on the part of responsible gun retailers.”
The company said it would also end the sale of assault-style firearms across the chain stores. They had halted sales of such weapons in stores in Oregon, Washington and Idaho several years ago, a spokeswoman said, and will now stop accepting special orders for the weapons in Alaska.
“We believe these are common sense steps we can take immediately that are in line with our values and our vision,” a representative for Kroger said.
Kroger joins Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods in announcing it will stop selling guns to those under 21 this week. Dick’s also announced it would cease sales of assault-style rifles at its 35 Field and Stream stores and end the sale of high-capacity magazines at all its stores. Walmart stopped selling assault rifles in 2015.
The debate over age requirements on gun sales heated up after suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly used an AR-15 assault rifle to kill 17 students and staffers in Parkland.
President Donald Trump has floated proposals for the government to raise the required age for firearm sales from 18 to 21 years old, telling lawmakers during a White House meeting on Wednesday that he would give the measure “very serious” consideration.
“You can’t buy a handgun at 18, 19 or 20. You have to wait until you’re 21,” Trump said. “You could buy the weapon used in this horrible shooting at 18.”
State legislators in Florida are currently debating a bill to raise the age limit to buy rifles.
The measures have faced push back from the National Rifle Association.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said Thursday that President Donald Trump “misspoke” a day earlier when he said he’d prefer to “take the guns first” and worry about due process later when dealing with people who could pose a danger to society.
Trump made the comments Wednesday at a bipartisan meeting on school safety, aimed at preventing attacks like the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.
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“A lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court to get the due process procedures,” Trump said. “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Flake, who was at the meeting, said he heard the comment, but he essentially gave Trump a pass, telling CBS News Thursday that everyone should just “move ahead” and not dwell on the remark, which veered well away from typical Republican views on gun rights.
“Anything we have introduced in the Congress respects due process,” Flake said. “It was a bit astonishing to hear the language there, and people around the table were shaking their heads, but you can chalk that up to that he misspoke. Let’s move ahead. It was a lot of excitement afterward that he might actually lead on this, and we need that.”
Flake, who once called for the now-president to withdraw from the 2016 presidential race, said Congress won’t reach agreement on steps on guns and school safety without Trump’s involvement.
“His leadership here is really critical if it’s going to get through the House or Senate,” Flake said. “I do think there’s a better chance the president will lead and really get out front on this.”