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Wednesday
Jan162019

Pentagon's missile defense review looks at new space technologies

Missile Defense Agency(WASHINGTON) -- The Pentagon’s new Missile Defense Review highlights new space capabilities that could become the next layer of missile defense to deal with the threat of ballistic missile threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

According to a senior administration official, the review looks at the development of new space-based sensors that could detect long-range missile before they are launched and calls for the study of whether lasers could be used to counter ballistic missiles that are launched by rogue states.

President Donald Trump will visit the Pentagon on Thursday to formally unveil the Missile Defense Review.

The first review of its kind to be undertaken since 2010, the Missile Defense Review provides a road ahead for how the United States could continue to counter the ballistic-missile threat to the United States and its regional allies and partners.

But while the earlier review focused exclusively on the ballistic-missile threat, the new review broadens the scope to include cruise missile and hypersonic threats being developed by Russia and China.

“This is really a comprehensive look at our missile defense capabilities and programs and posture,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the review’s release. “Both what we have today, what we’d like to make improvements to and then what are the next generation programs we’d like to invest in to get ahead and stay ahead of the threat.”

A key point of emphasis in the review will be space-based capabilities that could help the U.S. stay ahead of the threat, according to the official

“Space is key to the next step of missile defense,” said the official.

The current U.S. missile defense system consists of a layered approach of interceptor missile aboard Navy ships and long-range, ground-based interceptors based in Alaska and California.

The Defense Department will looking at a space-based layer of sensors that could enhance early warning systems to track missiles before they are launched.

ABC News has learned that another space technology that might be explored is the development of a space-based interceptor that could fire rockets into space, directed at an incoming missile.

The Missile Defense Review also calls for the study of whether to use “directed energy” against incoming missiles, possibly through laser technology, according to the official.

The official described it as an advanced capability “we think is worth looking into” and whether it makes sense to be able to deploy such a technology.

ABC News has learned that one concept being explored for countering the North Korean missile threat in the future is using a new solid state powered laser on a high-altitude drone. The long-range laser would be able to destroy a North Korean missile while in the initial boost phase of its launch.

The United States has 44 ground-based missile interceptors stationed at Fort Greeley in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California designed to intercept North Korean missiles that might be headed towards the United States. The number of ground-based interceptors is already slated to increase to 64 in 2023.

The official said the Missile Defense Review will continue studying the feasibility of creating a third such site elsewhere in the continental United States to counter a threat from Iranian long range missiles.

The review is likely to rile Russia and China about America’ missile defense system, the official stressed that America’s missile defense systems are purely defensive and directed at a rogue threat. The official noted that the United States continues to rely on its nuclear arsenal to deter any potential Russian or Chinese nuclear attack.

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Wednesday
Jan162019

Graham says Trump's statements have emboldened ISIS in Syria

Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top ally of President Donald Trump, expressed concerns on Wednesday that Trump's comments about withdrawing troops from Syria have emboldened terrorist groups like ISIS, and that he hopes Trump thinks "long and hard" about his next moves when it comes to withdrawing troops from the war torn country.

"My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting," Graham said. "You make people we are trying to help wonder about us."

A bomb blast on Wednesday in the northern Syrian city of Manbij, which killed American service members, comes less than a month after Trump announced that U.S. troops would withdraw from the country.

Graham, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, interrupted a confirmation hearing for the nominee to be the next attorney general, William Barr, to make his sentiments known.

Trump declared in a video released on Twitter last month: "We have won against ISIS. We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land and now it's time for our troops to come back home."

At the time, Graham called the decision an "Obama-like mistake" and blasted the president for the hastily announced withdrawal plan, and made clear it was a move he wholeheartedly opposed.

"Anytime a president does something that people on the ground are rattled by, it usually comes back to bite us," Graham told reporters Wednesday.

"When it got to be seen we’re going to withdrawing all of our forces, people went back to their corners and started hedging their bets," Graham said.

Graham noted that if ISIS is behind the attack, it "shows they’re not defeated and they’ve been emboldened."

Meanwhile, at least one Republican senator - Rand Paul of Kentucky - is condemning the president. Paul said he met with Trump at the White House Wednesday to discuss Afghanistan and Syria.

"I have never been prouder of President Donald Trump. In today’s meeting, he stood up for a strong America and steadfastly opposed foreign wars. Putting America First means declaring victory in Afghanistan and Syria. President Trump is delivering on his promises!" Paul said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Vice President Mike Pence also issued a statement earlier in the day saying the U.S. has "crushed the ISIS caliphate" and devastated its capabilities.

"President Trump and I condemn the terrorist attack in Syria that claimed American lives and our hearts are with the loved ones of the fallen. We honor their memory and we will never forget their service and sacrifice," Pence said.

"Thanks to the courage of our Armed Forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities. As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to reestablish their evil and murderous caliphate – not now, not ever," Pence added.

Democrats, while expressing their grief over the loss of American lives, ripped Trump for his lack of strategy in the region.

"I think this tragic occurrence on the battlefield reflects how the United States has no strategy no plan and no real path forward," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, told reporters Wednesday.

"But the danger to our troops will only increase because of the haphazard and lack of strategy that we have in Syria. This rapid withdrawal without a plan a strategy puts our troops in danger," he said.

The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, also blasted the president.

"President Trump’s precipitous removal of our troops from Syria and his claim that ISIS has already been beaten we knew would not hold up. Today’s tragedy shows that’s just the case," Schumer told reporters.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

Government agency 'ignored' Constitution in Trump Hotel lease: federal watchdog

Noam Galai/WireImage via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A government agency “ignored the Constitution” by allowing the Trump Organization to retain a lease of the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue -- more widely recognized now as the Trump International Hotel -- when Donald Trump was elected president, according to a report issued Wednesday by the agency’s inspector general.

Lawyers with the General Services Administration (GSA) told investigators that “they ignored the emoluments issues” involved in determining whether the president’s election “caused Tenant to be in breach of the lease upon the President’s inauguration,” the report said.

The emoluments clause of the Constitution prohibits any federal office holder, including the president, from accepting any payment or benefit from a state or foreign government. For example, the hotel in Washington is frequently patronized by representatives of foreign governments while in the nation’s capital.

The agency failed to appropriately account for the possibility that Trump could profit from the hotel while in office, including from foreign governments, the report says.

“We also found that the decision to exclude the emoluments issues from GSA’s consideration of the lease was improper because GSA, like all government agencies, has an obligation to uphold and enforce the Constitution; and because the lease, itself, requires that consideration,” the inspector general wrote.

Investigators in the inspector general’s office launched the probe in July of 2017 “based on numerous complaints from members of Congress and the public about GSA’s management of the lease.”

The Trump International Hotel is already tied up in two legal challenges based on emoluments concerns.

Attorneys general from Maryland and the nation’s capital said Trump violated the emoluments rules by profiting from the hotel and congressional Democrats have filed a lawsuit against Trump arguing that Congress must consent to all foreign payments he receives, including at his hotel. Both lawsuits are moving forward.

Earlier this week, ABC News reported that Trump’s inaugural committee spent more than $1.5 million at his hotel ahead of his 2017 swearing-in, according to internal documents.

In their report on Wednesday, the inspector general recommended -- and the GSA agreed -- that the agency “conduct a formal legal review” of the matter.

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Wednesday
Jan162019

President Trump's top White House lawyer, top Democrats touch gloves ahead of oversight battle

3000ad/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Before they square off over Democrats' planned inquiries into the Trump administration, House Democrats' chief investigator and President Donald Trump's top White House lawyer touched gloves for the first time Wednesday as they begin to work together on oversight requests regarding the Trump administration.

Sources tell ABC News in recent weeks under the new leadership of Pat Cipollone, the White House Counsel’s office has been aggressively staffing up – adding attorneys with a variety of expertise many who have worked in oversight capacities in the past. The White House team of lawyers, according to sources, will cooperate when it’s deemed a request from Congress is valid – however, in the cases when it’s not in the legal team’s opinion they will fight that aggressively and would potentially invoke executive privilege or claim an active investigation.

After a brief "get-to-know you" phone call last week, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings and White House counsel Cipollone sat down Wednesday, with the veteran lawmaker telling ABC News after the meeting that he has "a lot of respect" for the White House counsel.

"I think he's a distinguished lawyer," Cummings, who is also an attorney, said. "Certainly he's going to do his job in representing the president and I'm going to do my job in leading the committee."

White House lawyer Emmet Flood has also briefed senior White House staff on Congressional oversight ahead of the investigations, according to sources familiar with the matter. However, sources say, the briefing was a broad overview, not about strategy or tactics when it comes to requests from Congress.

Cummings has no illusions about the White House likely legal strategy and potential resistance to congressional oversight requests but said it's important for both sides to work together. He set a deadline last Friday for the White House to respond to dozens of requests for information but has not commented on next steps or the White House's compliance with those inquiries.

"We understand that we both have a job and we're going to be straightforward with each other. My relationship with lawyers and I've gone against some of the best, have always been like that," he said.

The Maryland Democrat is preparing for a marquee public hearing next month with Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer, that will shine a spotlight on the president's family business and his time working for the businessman-turned-president.

Cummings has also expressed interest in following up with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over the department's efforts to slip a citizenship question into the 2020 censure questionnaire. A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the administration from asking about citizenship on the census,but the ruling is expected to be appealed. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments next month.

Also on the radar for Congress, is the president’s company – the Trump Organization.

Compared to the White House, the company cannot claim executive privilege and sources familiar with internal discussions expect the company to comply with any requests it receives from Congress within reason. The company also hired Stefan Passantino, the former White House ethics chief who is already representing the Trump’s firm on a matter in front of the House Oversight Committee.

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Wednesday
Jan162019

Senators nearing subpoena for Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, in probe of Russian election interference

Yana Paskova/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A key Senate panel is moving closer to issuing a subpoena for Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney and fixer, as part of its ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Asked Wednesday whether it is fair to say the Senate Intelligence Committee is moving closer to issuing a subpoena to Cohen after trying for some time to get him to agree to testify, the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told ABC News, “Fair.”

Cohen was sentenced in December to three years in prison for financial crimes, two violations of campaign finance law, and lying to Congress – a charge based on false testimony he provided to the Senate and House intelligence committees in the fall of 2017.

He met twice with the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee in September and October of 2017, but the first interview was hastily cut short by “disappointed” committee leadership after Cohen released his own statement to the press beforehand.

Burr’s interest in bringing Cohen back in front of his panel comes less than a week after the House Oversight Committee announced that Cohen had agreed to appear in an open session next month.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has also expressed interest in scheduling Cohen to appear before his panel in a closed session.

President Trump, in an interview with Fox News over the weekend, accused Cohen of agreeing to testify before Congress as part of an effort “to get his sentence reduced,” and suggested without evidence that Cohen’s father-in-law might face legal exposure because “that’s the money in the family.”

The president’s comments prompted a statement from three top Democrats, Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Schiff, warning Trump to cease any “efforts to discourage, intimidate, or otherwise pressure [Cohen] not to provide testimony to Congress.”

Cohen’s hearing in front of the House Oversight committee is scheduled for February 7. He is due to report to federal prison on March 6.

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Wednesday
Jan162019

Trump meets with coalition of Democrats and Republicans as shutdown drags on

Bill Chizek/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from the House Problem Solvers Caucus sat down with President Trump at the White House Wednesday as the president continues to demand funding to build a southern border wall as a condition for ending the partial government shutdown, now in its 26th day.

The meeting with both Democrats and Republicans comes the day after the president invited a group of rank-and-file Republican and Democrat members to the White House for lunch. No Democrats took the White House up on that invitation, which was viewed on Capitol Hill by some as an attempt by the White House to create fissures within the Democratic Party – though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave approval for Democrats to accept Trump’s invitation.

Democrats remain united in their firm opposition to building a physical barrier along the southern border and have said they will not negotiate with the president on the issue with the government still partially shuttered.

Talks between President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders broke down a week ago when Trump walked out of a meeting with top Democrats after Pelosi told the president she would not be willing to cede to the president’s demand for wall funding if the government reopened.

The seven Democrats who attended Wednesday’s meeting released a statement as they arrived at the White House saying they accepted the president’s invitation in order to relay their message that the government must be reopened as a precondition for further in-earnest conversations.

"There is strong agreement across the aisle and around the country: We must reopen the government. Our security, safety, and economy have been compromised, and millions of families are suffering,” the Democrats said in a group statement. "There is also strong agreement that if we reopen the government, the possibility exists to work together and find common ground to tackle some of our country’s toughest problems and fix them. But that conversation can only begin in earnest once the government is reopened."

The Democrats included Reps. Josh Gottheimer, Thomas Suozzi, Vincente Gonzalez, Anthony Brindisi, Dean Phillips, Max Rose, and Abigail Spanberger.

While President Trump remains dug in with his demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a southern barrier, the White House has acknowledged that the administration’s updated projection of the impact of the partial government shutdown on economic growth has worsened.

The administration’s updated projection estimates the ongoing shutdown shaves off 0.13 percentage points each week off quarterly economic growth.

The administration’s revised model includes both the estimated impact from those contractors that are not working because of the shutdown, as well as the 380,000 furloughed federal workers, according to an administration official.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders downplayed concerns about the negative impact of the ongoing stalemate on the economy, maintaining that the White House remains confident in the long term fundamentals of the economy and the president’s policies.

And while President Trump said Monday that he rejected a proposal from his close ally South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to reopen the government on a short term basis to allow for time to negotiate, Graham said Tuesday night that he and a bipartisan group of senators were preparing to make a pitch to the president to do just that.

Graham told reporters Tuesday night that the proposal would call for reopening the government on a short term basis, with a promise that within a "few weeks" they might be able to reach a viable solution that would meet his border security needs.

"I’m hoping in the next 24 hours there will emerge a group of Republicans and Democrats who will basically ask the president jointly to give us a few weeks to work on this, with you, to see if we can produce a result in the Senate," Graham told reporters Tuesday night.

"I would ask the President if that does come forward and there’s a critical mass of Republicans and Democrats asking for a period of time to work on this a short term CR, the president strongly consider giving us that opportunity," he said.

Graham argued that by reopening the government for a limited period of time would provide the president with a better opportunity to get his way in increased funding for border security. "I can’t guarantee an outcome if you give us three weeks, but I can pretty well guarantee you’re getting nowhere quick doing what we’re doing," he said.

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Wednesday
Jan162019

Trump's nominee to replace Pruitt at EPA faces Senate questioning

Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- As much of the energy in Washington is focused on the fight over the president's border wall and impact of the partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump's nominee to take over the federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment is scheduled for a crucial hearing.

Andrew Wheeler took over the helm of Environmental Protection Agency in July after Scott Pruitt, the previous administrator, resigned amid increasing ethical questions and controversy.

Wheeler has been working as acting administrator for several months and Trump nominated him to officially take over the post earlier this month.

A spokesman for the Environment and Public Works committee said in a statement senators are expected to question Wheeler on his track record since taking over at the agency as well as the impact of the government shutdown. The vast majority of EPA's nearly 14,000 employees have been sent home without pay.

"As EPA acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler has largely kept intact and built upon Scott Pruitt's policy agenda at the expense of the agency's mission to protect the environment and public health -- from weakening fuel-economy and greenhouse-gas tailpipe standards for vehicles to undermining the MATS rule, the list goes on," the spokesman said in a statement.

Democrats also will likely ask about Wheeler's connections to companies he represented as a lobbyist.

Democrats on the committee, led by Ranking Member Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, have have raised concerns that EPA employees are struggling without pay during the shutdown and that important environmental enforcement is on hold while they're not at work. Carper has also raised concerns that Republicans are trying to rush the nomination by having the hearing during the shutdown.

Public health and environmental advocacy groups have also raised concerns that Wheeler, like Pruitt, will continue to roll back environmental regulations including rules intended to prevent emissions of mercury and other toxic substances from power plants.

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Wednesday
Jan162019

Hispanic Caucus chairman attacks Rep. Steven King for 'demonizing immigrants'

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, did not hold back when reacting to Rep. Steven King’s remarks on the House floor.

King, who has been under fire for comments he made to the New York Times about white supremacy, was stripped of his new committee assignments Tuesday.

In an interview with ABC News’ The Briefing Room, Castro said this is not unusual behavior for King: "He’s been demonizing immigrants and brown people for a long time. And he crossed the line."

He also reacted to the court ruling against the White House’s attempts to ask a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

"Those folks over at the White House are trying to use the Census as an act of intimidation, to basically get people to stay in the shadows -- and that’s undocumented immigrants and others," Castro said.

Watch the video below for the full segment:

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Wednesday
Jan162019

Veterans groups avoid politics and call for shutdown to end

franckreporter/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The country’s major veterans groups came together Tuesday to call for an end to the government shutdown as union leaders separately clashed with the Veterans Affairs secretary over the partial government shutdown’s impact on military veterans.

“We have real lives being affected by the shutdown,” Veterans of Foreign Wars head B.J. Lawrence said at a press conference. “We have veterans and Coast Guard members that are having difficulties paying their mortgages, putting food on the table, paying their car payments. Enough’s enough, it’s got to end.”

Avoiding the political fray between Democrats and President Donald Trump, leaders from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America -- among others -- avoided endorsing or condemning either party.

“We represent a diverse membership base. We don’t feel it’s our position to take a side in the matter,” Lawrence said.

Roughly one-third of federal workers are veterans, according to the Office of Personnel Management. More than a quarter million of those veterans are not receiving paychecks as a result of the shutdown.

Veteran service organizations have played a role in assisting their members through financial difficulty brought on by the shutdown. The VFW announced Tuesday that the organization has donated more than $45,000 to help Coast Guard families pay for mortgages, utilities and food.

Calls from veterans to resolve the federal funding lapse follow a public clash between VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and union leaders representing veteran government employees, which occurred after ABC News reported that veterans have been struggling to make ends meet during the shutdown.

Edward M. Canales, a U.S. Army veteran and local union president with the American Federation of Government Employees, told ABC News the ongoing funding lapse could have dire consequences.

"If this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We're going to have suicides," he said last week.

Those comments sparked a response from Wilkie, who demanded Canales apologize.

“AFGE Local President Canales’ attempt to use Veterans as pawns in a political debate while exploiting the serious issue of Veteran suicide is nothing short of disgraceful,” Wilkie wrote in a letter to the AFGE national president.

The Union Veterans Council, on behalf of its federal employee members on Monday, issued a rebuke to Wilkie.

“This is an outrageous attempt to distract from the very serious crisis that tens of thousands of veterans have been hurled into with no end in sight,” Union Veterans Council Executive Director Will Attig said in a statement.

According to a recent VA report about 26 of 100,000 veterans committed suicide compared to roughly 17 per 100,000 non-veteran adults.

The suicide rate among female veterans was 1.8 times higher than non-veteran women in 2016, and for men, the suicide rate was 1.4 times higher than non-veteran men, according to the VA's data. Male veterans between ages 18 and 34 have the highest rate of suicide.

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Tuesday
Jan152019

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tells Colbert she’s launching presidential exploratory committee

Alex Wong/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is taking steps toward a 2020 presidential bid.

The New York Democrat announced that she is forming a presidential exploratory committee Tuesday night during a taping of CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

"I’m going to run for president of the United States because, as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own. Which is why I believe that health care should be a right and not a privilege,” she told the late-night host. “It’s why I believe we should have better public schools for our kids because it shouldn’t matter what block you grow up on. And I believe that anybody who wants to work hard enough should be able to get whatever job training they need to earn their way into the middle class.”

Gillibrand is the third woman to throw her hat in the ring for president. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have taken steps toward a 2020 run in recent days.

Once considered a moderate Democrat, Gillibrand was first elected to Congress in 2006 and represented a rural Republican district in upstate New York. In 2009, she was appointed to finish then-senator Hillary Clinton’s term when former President Barack Obama nominated her as secretary of State.

Gillibrand has used her time in the Senate to push a more left-leaning agenda.

In 2010 she championed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that banned gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. Over the past couple of years, she has opposed President Donald Trump’s nominees for his cabinet and other senior government roles including voting against Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.

 Gillibrand’s team paints her as a candidate that can reach across the aisle and be a unifying voice. A campaign official lauded her electoral victories where she earned more than half of the votes in predominantly rural counties that voted for Trump in 2016.

During her most recent re-election bid in 2018, Gillibrand denied having presidential ambitions. In a debate hosted by ABC News affiliate WABC-TV Republican opponent, Chele Farley cited out of state trips, including one to New Hampshire, as proof that she was thinking of running.

Gillibrand replied, “I will serve my six-year term.”

But a week after her successful re-election, she said on ABC’s “The View” that she was considering a 2020 run.

“But that’s a very important moral question that I’ve been thinking about ... what president is putting into this country is so disturbing, so divisive, so dark, that I believe I’ve been called to fight as hard as I possibly can to restore that moral integrity, that moral decency. So I’m thinking about it,” she said.

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