Mueller: Russians entered U.S. to plot election meddling

Special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on Friday with an illegal “information warfare” scheme to disrupt the 2016 presidential election and assist the candidacy of President Donald Trump.

The dramatic indictment reveals a bold covert effort that went beyond the previously-known use of “fake news” and social media misdirection to divide American voters and harm Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

t charges that as early as 2014, Russian nationals physically entered the U.S., and, hiding their true identities, gathered intelligence, organized political rallies — and even paid Americans to assist their political sabotage. The Russians allegedly paid one American in Florida to dress up as Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform and hired another to build a cage to “imprison” the Clinton impersonator at a Florida rally.

The effort was led by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, a notorious online misinformation operation with suspected Kremlin ties, according to the indictment, and involved what the court filing called “unwitting” U.S. citizens and Trump campaign officials

The indictment concludes that the Internet Research Agency “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system.” While noting that the operation undermined multiple presidential candidates, including Trump GOP rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the document says that the shadowy Russian agency’s operations “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump… and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”

Democrats said the new charges underscored the gravity of Mueller’s investigation and the need for his political independence amid calls from conservatives for an end to his work.

According to Mueller’s indictment, the defendants allegedly posed as Americans in online interactions with political and social activists. In once instance, the Russians “communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization” who recommended they focus on so-called “purple” states such as Colorado, Virginia and Florida. The indictment alleges that the Russians then began using the term “purple states” in subsequent planning.

“As desperately as President Trump insists that the Special Counsel investigation is a ‘hoax’, these latest indictments build on multiple guilty pleas and indictments of several Trump campaign officials, demonstrating the gravity of the Trump-Russia scandal,” Pelosi added.

Shortly after Trump’s tweet, the White House released a statement quoting Trump as saying, “[w]e cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful. It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions. We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”

The statement made no mention of any possible Trump administration response to the Russian interference. Trump has repeatedly said would like to forge warmer relations with Moscow.

(Excerpted from Politico 2/16/18)

Congress’ NRA loyalists say new gun laws won’t end mass shootings

day after the Florida high school shooting, gun rights backers offered familiar talking points, noting laws alone can’t stop mass shootings — views that reflected their support for Washington’s powerful gun lobby, notably the National Rifle Association.

The NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support President Donald Trump, triple what the group devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race.

Most of that was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors.

The NRA contributions are almost entirely directed to Republicans or at efforts to defeat their opponents. A look at 10 members of Congress who have received NRA contributions — all figures are lifetime amounts — and their response to the shooting at a high school in Florida that killed 17:

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

NRA contributions: More than $4.5 million

Blunt ranks third among members of Congress who’ve received the most support from the NRA during his career.

He, too, urged caution against reaching for gun control solutions until there are more answers.

“Let’s see if any of the current laws were violated or if there’s any law that anybody has in mind that would have made a difference,” Blunt told reporters.

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 2/16/18)

Budget undercuts Trump focus on mental health, school safety

President Donald Trump is calling for a focus on mental health and school safety in response to shootings like the one that took 17 lives in Florida, but his budget would cut funding in both areas.

Trump’s latest budget would slash the major source of public funds for mental health treatment, the Medicaid program serving more than 70 million low-income and disabled people. The budget also calls for a 36 percent cut to an Education Department grant program that supports safer schools, reducing it by $25 million from the current level of $67.5 million.

The budget was issued Monday, before the horrific mass shooting at a South Florida high school. Spending priorities often change in response to events that galvanize national attention. In this case, advocates and policy experts said the budget numbers call into question how much value the administration places on mental health.

“Whatever small increases they are asking for is more than offset by the changes they would make to Medicaid,” said Andrew Sperling, legislative advocacy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The budget resurrects a GOP Medicaid plan that failed in Congress last year, which calls for turning the program over to the states and limiting future federal payments. That would mean a cut of about $1.4 trillion over 10 years from projected spending. States would face hard choices over competing priorities like mental health or addiction treatment, nursing home costs or prenatal care for low-income women.

On school safety, the administration wants to slash funding for national school safety initiatives by nearly $25 million in 2019, down from this year’s projected funding of $67.5 million.

“If the president was serious about stopping the scourge of gun violence…he would work with Congress on common sense gun safety measures, rather than pointing to mental health services and school safety as the only solutions just days after introducing a budget that slashes those very investments,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.

The future of Medicaid under Trump and a GOP Congress is one of Murray’s central concerns. The program’s role in mental health care was underscored by a Kaiser Foundation study that found Medicaid accounted for 25 percent of what the nation spent in 2014, or more than $46 billion. Medicaid was only slightly behind private payments for mental health care, which accounted for 28 percent.

(Excerpted from AP 2/16/18)

Penny wise and pound foolish: Proposed SNAP budget cuts will reduce outcomes

n President Trump’s 2019 budget, he proposes changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would significantly reduce the efficiency and efficacy of the program. This is unfortunate given the overwhelming evidence highlighting the long-term payoffs of SNAP investments, as illustrated in a recent Hamilton Project analysis which showed that SNAP benefits helped reduce health problems later in life, improved educational outcomes, lifted women’s economic self-sufficiency, and improved families immediate financial situation.

Specifically, the President’s Budget Request calls for changes that would raise administrative burdens and costs, while cutting benefits to recipients, including:

  • Making a nearly 30 percent cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program;
  • Introducing new SNAP eligibility restrictions, benefit caps, and reductions; and
  • Launching a “Blue Apron-type program” – except that it would deliver shelf-stable groceries (i.e., canned goods and boxed foods) to beneficiaries in partial replacement of SNAP benefits that can be spent at local retailers.

Many observers have noted that these misguided attempts at cost savings contradict not only the mission and goals of the SNAP program, but also the Trump Administration’s policy, as recently stated when it rejected Maine’s application to restrict SNAP purchases on junk food:

“When considering waiver requests, USDA focuses on moving people into self-sufficient lives, protecting the integrity of the program, and improving customer service. We don’t want to be in the business of picking winners and losers among food products in the marketplace, or in passing judgment about the relative benefits of individual food products.”

SNAP is an efficient program; as the Administration noted, its integrity should be protected.

SNAP relies on the private sector to provide access to food and beneficiaries to shop according to their needs and preferences. There is little administrative glut; more than 93 percent of SNAP is spent on food benefits. The President’s Budget Request would change the fundamental structure of the program, add costly administrative burden, and restrict the choices of beneficiaries.

Rather than cutting SNAP benefits or policing the food choices of recipients, it is worth asking: what type of policy reforms to SNAP would in fact reduce food insecurity and increase the likelihood that beneficiaries purchase healthy foods?

1. Increasing SNAP benefits

Professors Patricia Anderson (Dartmouth) and Kristin Butcher (Wellesley) found that a $30 increase in monthly SNAP benefits would increase participants’ consumption of nutritious foods such as vegetables and healthy proteins, while reducing food insecurity and consumption of fast food.

2. Providing rebates for healthy food

The Healthy Incentives Pilot program was an experiment in which SNAP recipients were given an immediate $0.30 rebate on their EBT card for every $1.00 that they spent on fruits and vegetables. In response, purchases of the targeted fruits and vegetables increased by 25 percent.

(Excerpted from Brookings )

The U.S.’s top spies issue a challenge to Trump’s agenda

On Tuesday, the top intelligence officials in the United States briefed senators on their annual assessments of the threats facing the country in the year ahead. Although most of these principals were Trump appointees, their testimony reflected the consensus of what some Trump supporters would probably tar as the “deep state,” the shadowy world of Washington bureaucrats and spooks operating at a remove from the public.

The headline concern of their report was something that exasperates the president: the role of Russian meddling in U.S. politics, whether in the form of direct attempts to interfere with the electoral system or the proliferation of Kremlin-sponsored social media bots and “news” websites.

“Russian hackers are already scanning American electoral systems, intelligence officials have said, and using bot armies to promote partisan causes on social media,” wrote Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times. “Russia also appears eager to spread information — real and fake — that deepens political divisions, including purported evidence that ties Mr. Trump to Russia, and its efforts to influence the 2016 election.”

Trump, as my colleagues reported in incredible detail last year, sees the furor over Russian interference as part of a grand “hoax” aimed at delegitimizing his election. “That view of the events of 2016 has had a direct consequence,” noted my colleague Philip Bump. “Trump has shown no interest in investigating what actually happened two years ago and bolstering America’s defenses against it happening again.”

But for his top spies, it’s deadly serious.

“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” said Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the United States.” He added that “there should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”

That verdict, my colleagues noted, “was echoed by all five other intelligence agency heads present at the hearing, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who two weeks ago stated publicly he had ‘every expectation’ that Russia will try to influence the coming elections.”

In a report released in conjunction with the hearing, Coats cast Russia as a leading destabilizing actor in the West. “Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-US political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions,” the report read.The Worldwide Threat Assessment report also saw no signs that Moscow will slow its efforts: “Russia is likely to sustain or increase its propaganda campaigns. Russia is likely to continue to financially and politically support populist and extremist parties to sow discord within European states and reduce popular support for the European Union.”

(Excerpted from Tharoor, Washington Post 2/14/18)

Koch-backed group fights paid sick leave laws as flu sweeps US

This week marks 25 years since Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives US workers the right to unpaid time off to care for themselves and close family members.

It took another decade for some to win paid sick leave, when San Franciscans approved a ballot initiative in 2006 for private employees to earn an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Similar measures now benefit 14 million workers in 32 municipalities and nine states.

Paid sick leave advocates cite studies showing flu infection rates decrease in cities where workers earn sick days, and that parents who cannot take leave are two times more likely to send their sick children to school. They also point to a 2012poll of restaurant servers and cooks that revealed two-thirds had served or cooked food while ill, threatening the health of their co-workers, customers and the companies that employ them.

But with a flu epidemic currently raging across the US, potential new sick leave measures are facing opposition from the same Koch Brothers-backed lobbying group that led the legal assault on Obamacare.

When Maryland lawmakers moved last month to override the governor’s veto of a bill allowing 700,000 workers to earn sick leave, the state’s director of the National Federation of Independent Business – the Koch-backed group – complained it would create job-killing costs and mandate “devastating sanctions” for failure to comply.

On Thursday, the NFIB backed a failed attempt to delay the law, which went into effect on Sunday

Past tax records reveal most of the NFIB’s funding comes from Freedom Partners, whose nine-member board includes eight current or former key figures at Koch Industries and other Koch entities. More than 95% of the candidates it backs are Republican.

While its representatives are often quoted in the media as proponents of small businesses, the group refuses to release its donor list and tends to lobby for policies that benefit billionaires and corporate interests..

A University of Washington survey of local business owners about the impact of Seattle’s 2011 ordinance found their “initial fears had faded” and instead of prompting an exodus, “the number of employers grew more in Seattle than in comparison cities”.

In Connecticut, which became the first state to require employer-paid sick days in 2012, a 2014 study found 10% of small businesses reported the law increased payroll costs by 3% or more, with the average worker taking just four sick days, and half using three days or less.

Meanwhile, during a press conference on Tuesday to announce the death of two children from the flu this season in New York City, the health commissioner touted the city’s paid sick leave law as a way to get people with the virus to stay home.

The measure passed in 2014, but a report released last month found fewer than half of low-income workers had heard of it.

(Excerpted vrom The Guardian 2/11/18)

Trump believes the men

For President Donald Trump, the allegations that his now-former staff secretary was a serial domestic abuser are another #HimToo moment.

Never mind the FBI background check that found the allegations and restraining order credible enough to delay Rob Porter’s security clearance, or the close-up photos of the black eye Porter’s ex-wife says he gave her on vacation in Italy.

To the president, sitting in the Oval Office on Friday, the victim here seems to be Porter.

“It was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now,” Trump told reporters. “He also, as you probably know, says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, so you have to talk to him about that.”

Trump made no mention of the women. No denunciation of domestic abuse to line up with Vice President Mike Pence, who initially told reporters he’d catch up with the Porter drama when he gets back to Washington from his trip to the Winter Games in South Korea, only to later clarify in an interview with NBC News: “There’s no tolerance in this White House and no place in America for domestic abuse.”

On Saturday, the president tweeted: “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused — life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”

Trump has been down this road before — many times — starting with two dozen women who’ve alleged he sexual harassed or assaulted them. His ex-wife Ivana Trump claimed once in a deposition that he raped her, in a rage over bad hair plugs. She later said she didn’t mean “rape” literally.

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), a former district attorney and one of the more outspoken members in Congress about women’s issues, said she isn’t surprised, given Trump’s handling of accusations dating back to the 2016 campaign that he himself groped or assaulted women.

“Of course he never believes the women — he can’t,” Rice said. “Donald Trump’s presidency is built on people not believing women. If people start believing women, maybe they’d think about believing any of the dozen-plus women who have accused Donald Trump of sexual assault and harassment.”

(Excerpted from Politico 2/9/18)

EPA chief’s questions about climate science draw new scrutiny

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt is getting bolder in questioning climate change.

In several recent public comments, Pruitt has sowed doubt about whether global warming is harmful to humans, and whether anyone could truly know what the Earth’s “ideal” temperature would be in 2100.

“Is it an existential threat? Is it something that is unsustainable? Or what kind of effect or harm is this going to have,” Pruitt said in an interview with Las Vegas television station KSNV.

“We know that humans have most flourished during times of, what? Warming trends. So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.”

frequently questioned if scientists know the ideal surface temperature of the earth. In making the case that governments should reduce the greenhouse gases believed to lead to global warming, scientists have discussed what the average global temperature at ground level could be in 2100.

“There are things we know and things we don’t know. I think it’s pretty arrogant for people in 2018 to say ‘you know, we know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100,’ ” he said on the New York Times podcast “The Daily” earlier in February.

Pruitt’s statements have alarmed many in the scientific community, who see a thinly-disguised denial of the science behind climate change.

“This is a standard trope of climate change denialism and it is ill-premised,” said Michael Mann, a Penn State University atmospheric science professor.

“The ideal temperature for us is of course the temperature that our entire civilization and infrastructure was built around and tailored to — i.e. the temperature range that prevailed since the dawn of civilization until we began burning fossil fuels and warming the planet at an unprecedented rate,” added Mann who is known for taking on climate skeptics.

Mann and others believe the statements are an effort by Pruitt to sow doubt about climate change policy as the EPA embarks on an historic effort to roll back Obama-era regulations intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve seen a shift in what Administrator Pruitt is focusing on. At the beginning of his tenure, the focus was a bit more on ‘can we precisely measure the impact of humans on climate change?’” said Rachel Licker, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that has opposed many of Pruitt’s policies.

“There’s been a bit of shift now into a space of whether or not climate change will harm humans and what is the ideal temperature that we should be striving for by the end of the century and even suggesting that climate change could be beneficial.”

(Excerpted from The Hill 2/10/18

After approving Medicaid work requirements, Trump’s HHS aims for lifetime coverage limits

Another Dem Pulls Off A Big Upset In State Legislative Race

Democrats on Tuesday pulled off another surprising special election upset, this time capturing a Missouri statehouse seat in a deep-red district that President Donald Trump easily carried in 2016.

Democratic candidate Mike Revis defeated GOP nominee David Linton on Tuesday night by a 4-point margin in a seat Trump carried with 61 percent of the vote just over a year ago, and which former President Barack Obama lost by 12 points in 2012. That’s a major swing — and the latest time Democrats have vastly over-performed their previous numbers this year as they look toward a potential wave election in the fall.

“Representative-elect Mike Revis’s victory tonight will undoubtedly send another shockwave through the GOP as we continue to run the best candidates focused on addressing local issues and improving their neighbors’ quality of life,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee head Jessica Post said in a statement.

Democrats have now picked up 35 state legislative seats across the country in special elections, while Republicans have picked up just four since Trump took office. This is the latest deep-red seat that Democrats have flipped and, like the party’s recent victory in a Wisconsin state senate election, indicates how revved up the Democratic base is.

There will undoubtedly be higher overall voter turnout in the 2018 general election, making it harder for progressive base enthusiasm alone to power a major wave. But this win, as well as Democrats’ improved numbers in a trio of other Missouri special elections they lost Tuesday night in heavily Republican areas, are the latest signs that white-hot liberal enthusiasm is creating new opportunities across the country for Democratic candidates, even in areas that have moved hard against their party in recent years.

That’s good news for Democrats across the country — including those staring down tough reelection fights, like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO).

(Excerpted from Talking Point Memo 2/7/18 )