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Friday
Jan182019

Pelosi cancels effort to continue Afghanistan trip after Trump revealing travel plans 'significantly increased danger,' official says

Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday accused President Donald Trump and his administration of endangering the lives of Americans, including her own, by publicly revealing a congressional delegation’s plans to travel by commercial aircraft to Afghanistan.

“We had the prerogative to travel commercial and we made plans to do that until the administration leaked we were traveling commercially and that endangers us,” Pelosi told reporters in the U.S. Capitol at midday Friday. They were her first public comments since Trump blocked her and the delegation from using a military aircraft on Thursday, saying in a letter she could fly commercially instead. “We weren't going to go because we had a report from Afghanistan that the president outing our trip had made the scene on the ground much more dangerous because it's just a signal to the bad actors that we're coming.”

Pelosi had tried to salvage aspects of a congressional delegation to Afghanistan blocked by Trump, but was unable to continue the trip on commercial aircraft due to “increased" danger to officials on the trip, her spokesman said Friday.

In what was becoming an increasingly personal feud in their political standoff over Trump's demand that congressional Democrats agree to pay for his proposed border wall, the president on Thursday torpedoed plans at the last minute for the delegation to utilize a military aircraft to make the trip, citing the government shutdown as the reason. The day before, Pelosi had called for a delay in Trump's State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 29, until after the government shutdown ends.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made Trump's letter to Pelosi public in a tweet.

Pelosi, who said the trip would have been her ninth to Afghanistan, admonished the president, cautioning that “you never give advance notice of going into a battle area.”

“You just never do. Perhaps the president's inexperience didn't have him understand that protocol. The people around him, though, should have known that. That's very dangerous,” she said. “But the more important thing is the people who we would be meeting with, our civilians there. Our own troops first and foremost, again, they take so many risks for us. We didn't want to heighten the risk for them.”

Pelosi said that by publicly releasing the letter, the president “heightened the danger on the ground.” As the lawmakers considered whether to fly commercially, Pelosi said the State Department “doubles down and says we don't think you should come because the president's statement has made it dangerous.”

“The fact that they would leak that we were flying commercial is a danger not only to us but to other people flying commercially. It's very irresponsible on the part of the president,” Pelosi said. “We'll go again. We'll go another time.”

Pelosi declined to explain why she believes the White House leaked word of her commercial travel plans, telling reporters “I rest my case.”

Asked if she believes the move was in retaliation of her letter to Trump asking the president to schedule a new date for the State of the Union after the shutdown ends, Pelosi laid on thick sarcasm.

“I would hope not,” Pelosi quipped. “I don't think the president would be that petty, do you?”

Pressed on her accusations that Trump endangered the lives of Americans and U.S. troops, Pelosi answered: “That's what the State Department reported to us.”

“This is a fact, this isn't even an opinion. Anyone in the presence of a high level or any level of a congressional delegation in a region, you heighten the danger,” Pelosi said. a

Overnight, before the rescheduled commercial flight, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service provided an updated threat assessment, “detailing that the President announcing this sensitive travel had significantly increased the danger to the delegation and to the troops, security, and other officials supporting the trip,” according to a statement from Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.

A U.S. official familiar with the trip's logistics told ABC News that security planners voiced concerns about the idea of the speaker and her delegation flying to Afghanistan outside of typical military-travel arrangements.

Hammill said that the White House also leaked plans for the delegation to continue on commercial travel.

"This morning, we learned that the Administration had leaked the commercial travel plans as well,” Hammill noted. “In light of the grave threats caused by the President’s action, the delegation has decided to postpone the trip so as not to further endanger our troops and security personnel, or the other travelers on the flights.”

A senior Pelosi aide pointed to “multiple administration” sources telling reporters Friday morning that the delegation would continue on commercial aircraft. ABC News was among those contacted.

The White House denied that the administration leaked word of the commercial travel plans.

"When the Speaker of the House and about 20 others from Capitol Hill decide to book their own commercial flights to Afghanistan, the world is going to find out," an administration official who refused to go on the record told ABC News. "The idea we would leak anything that would put the safety and security of any American at risk is a flat out lie."

Pelosi was still in her office in the U.S. Capitol when she received a letter from the president Thursday afternoon, where Trump announced he was postponing the excursion due to the shutdown. Trump suggested Pelosi fly commercially if she wished to continue her travel.

The delegation had loaded onto a bus operated by the U.S. Air Force for the drive out to Joint Base Andrews. Instead, the bus drove lawmakers to the East Plaza of the Capitol, where members disembarked from the bus and walked into Pelosi's office.

After huddling with Pelosi for hours behind closed doors, Reps. Adam Schiff, Eliot Engel, Stephen Lynch and Mark Takano -- who all had planned to join the trip - quietly left the Capitol, declining to comment as they rolled suitcases through the basement of the Capitol. Reps. Susan Davis and Elaina Luria were also members of the delegation.

Friday morning, Trump continued to criticize Pelosi for scheduling the trip during the shutdown.

Later Friday morning, the White House released a memo from the Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, to the "heads of all executive Departments and agencies, blocking any congressional delegation from using military aircraft.

"In light of the current partial government shutdown, the President has asked me to direct the heads of all executive departments and agencies of the Administration on new policies in support of Legislative Branch travel," the memo reads. "Under no circumstances during a government shutdown will any government owned, rented, leased, or chartered aircraft support any Congressional delegation, without the express written approval of the White House Chief of Staff."

The partial government shutdown is now in its 28th day. The House of Representatives returns to session next Tuesday, likely ensuring the shutdown will continue through the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Jan182019

DNC alleges it was targeted in phishing attack after midterms

M-A-U/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The Democratic National Committee alleges it was among the intended victims of a widespread cyberattack that was detected days after the 2018 midterm elections, according to court documents filed overnight.

"On November 14, 2018, dozens of DNC email addresses were targeted in a spear-phishing campaign, although there is no evidence that the attack was successful," the DNC wrote in an amended complaint filed late Thursday, part of an ongoing lawsuit against the Russian government, the 2016 Donald Trump campaign and others.

The DNC said that the content and the timing of the emails led the organization to believe it was targeted as part of a wider phishing campaign that cybersecurity firms had previously said appeared to use some of the same technical tricks as a Russian hacking group known as Cozy Bear, or APT 29. Cozy Bear is one of two groups linked to Russian intelligence that purportedly infiltrated the DNC's systems ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

"Therefore, it is probable that Russian intelligence again attempted to unlawfully infiltrate DNC computers in November 2018," the filing says.

Spear-phishing refers to a tactic in which hackers attempt to trick their victims into clicking on malicious links in emails by pretending to send them from a legitimate, trusted source. The November 2018 phishing campaign used email accounts that falsely appeared to belong to the U.S. State Department and targeted more than a dozen entities across different industries, from the media to defense contractors, according to a November 2018 post by the cybersecurity firm FireEye. FireEye emphasized that despite "notable similarities" with a past suspected Cozy Bear behavior, the firm could not firmly attribute the phishing campaign to the Russians.

A spokesperson for CrowdStrike, another cybersecurity firm that reportedly identified the November phishing campaign and counts the DNC among its customers, declined to comment for this report.

The filing Thursday is the latest in a lawsuit that takes aim at the 2016 Trump campaign, the Russian government and several others over the 2016 hacking of emails from the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and their subsequent publication online. President Donald Trump is not named as a defendant.

The new complaint from the DNC's legal team does not contend that the president or his associates had any knowledge of the latest phishing attempts, but suggests that by initially denying now-reported contacts with Russia-linked figures, along with other behavior the DNC deems suspect, the Trump campaign showed itself to be part of a broader conspiracy with the Russian Federation.

Trump has long denied accusations of collusion with Russia, and in December several of the defendants in the case argued that it should be thrown out. Echoing Trump's public criticisms of the Russia investigation, the 2016 Trump campaign said in a motion to dismiss that the Russia-conspiracy accusations only seek to "explain away [the DNC] candidate's defeat in the 2016 presidential campaign."

At the time of the DNC's initial filing, Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager for the 2020 race, described the legal action as a "sham lawsuit about a bogus Russian collusion claim filed by a desperate, dysfunctional and nearly insolvent Democratic Party."

The DNC's legal team told ABC News it hopes the court will deny the calls to dismiss the case and allow the case to move forward. The team said the DNC would then seek documentation including communications Trump campaign principles had with Russians and Russian intermediaries as a part of the discovery process.

"The DNC regularly coordinates with law enforcement and we maintain open channels of communication regarding cyber security issues," a spokesperson for the party added in an email to ABC News.

For its part, Russia has consistently denied the hacking and conspiracy allegations leveled against it. But in a November letter to the court in response to the DNC suit, the Russian government said that even if it did hack the DNC, such a "sovereign act" by a nation-state should be protected from civil suits by U.S. law.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Jan182019

Former VA secretary improperly used government resources for wife: Report

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin used a government car for his wife and occasionally used an agency driver as her chauffeur on the driver’s personal time in violation of ethics guidelines, according to a new inspector general report.

Additionally, security details for leadership at the VA were mismanaged and exposed the former secretary to lapses in protection, according to the report.

Due to a lack of management-level guidance, the report said, agents cut corners in security practices and shared details of the secretary’s travel with “individuals who were not authorized to receive the information.”

In one case, keys to the VA motorcade were repeatedly stashed behind the door to the gas cap instead of being returned to a safe place.

The report found a “lack of adequate threat assessments” led to “security vulnerabilities” starting as far back as 2015, but the failures were not solely the fault of the former secretary.

“Secretary Shulkin relied on advice from staff … and no one raised any concern that his use was inappropriate,” the inspector general noted.

The agency's inspector general offered a variety of recommendations including directing the VA police service to publish written policies on how security details should protect VA leadership. The Office of Operations, Security, and Preparedness agreed with each of the suggestions.

"OSP will continue to work with OIG, all relevant VA stakeholders, and external agencies to ensure executive protection services meet the highest standards," the office said in response to the findings.

The issues raised in the report were addressed after current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie took office in July 2018, Curt Cashour, the agency's press secretary, told ABC News.

“Secretary Wilkie takes seriously any ethical breaches or violations of federal statute such as those identified in this report, and has made clear to VA employees that they will not be tolerated on his watch,” Cashour said in a statement.

Thursday's report wasn’t the first time the inspector general has investigated Schulkin’s personal use of government resources. Before his departure from the agency last year, the former secretary was found to have improperly accepted gifted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament in London and spent more than $120,000 of taxpayer money on a European trip that consisted mostly of sightseeing.

"There was nothing that was done improper," Shulkin told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America in March of 2018. "What happened was this was a politicized issue. This was used to try to decrease my effectiveness in getting the job done for our veterans."

Shulkin and his wife, along with senior VA leaders and a six-member security detail flew a commercial airline to Copenhagen in July 2017 to attend a day-and-a-half of meetings with Danish government officials to discuss veterans issues, but the trip also included a day of tourist stops.

According to the 2018 report, Shulkin's chief of staff misled VA ethics officials at the time so his wife’s travel expenses could be covered by the department.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jan172019

Trump postpones Pelosi's trip 'due to shutdown' after she called for State of the Union delay

ABCNews.com(WASHINGTON) -- In the increasingly personal political standoff between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president on Thursday said he was canceling her trip to Belgium, and Afghanistan in apparent retaliation for Pelosi asking Trump to delay his State of the Union Address until after the government shutdown ends.

"Due to the Shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan has been postponed," Trump wrote in a snarky letter released Thursday afternoon. "We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over."

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted out the letter.

A Pelosi spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment and it was unclear what travel plans, if any, she had.

Trump added that he feels “it would be better” if Pelosi was in Washington negotiating with him “and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the shutdown.”

“Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative,” Trump noted. “I look forward to seeing you soon and even more forward to watching our open and dangerous Southern Border finally receive the attention, funding and security it so desperately deserves.”

An administration official said that the Defense Department was made aware prior to the letter being sent to Pelosi, and that the policy applies to all CODELs -- or congressional delegation trips -- that may have been scheduled during the shutdown.

Sanders, when asked why Trump sent the letter to Pelosi, said, “We want to keep her in Washington. If she leaves she guarantees that the second round of paychecks to workers won’t go out.”

She said Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “always have an invitation” to the White House if they want to come to negotiate.

Asked if there is any White House response to Pelosi's letter to Trump on Wednesday calling for a delay in his State of the Union Address, she said, “We’ll keep you posted. Nothings changed on that front.”

Earlier Thursday, with the shutdown in its 27th day, Pelosi said she had not received a response to her letter, which urged Trump to delay the annual address until after government is reopened. When asked what she'd do if Trump were to insist on sticking to the Jan. 29 date, Pelosi she’d “cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“We haven't heard. Very silent more than 24 hours,” Pelosi said, seemingly amused. “Have you heard? We haven't heard.”

At the Pentagon Thursday morning, Trump continued to push for border security, including his proposed border wall, accusing Pelosi of refusing to let Democrats negotiate.

“The federal government remains shut down because congressional Democrats refuse to approve border security," Trump said. "We're going to have border security.”

Pelosi and Trump haven’t spoken to each other since Trump walked out of a Jan. 9 meeting with congressional leaders in the Situation Room, declaring it “a total waste of time.”

Last year, Trump delivered the State of the Union to a televised audience of 45.6 million people, leaving the impression that Pelosi is denying the president a prime platform to share his point of view as leverage against the president.

“Let's get a date when government is open. Let's pay the employees,” Pelosi said. “He thinks it is okay not to pay people who do work. I don't. My caucus doesn't either.”

Pelosi said she is confident security professionals could keep the event safe, but added her qualm is that they would not be immediately paid for their work.

“This is directly related to our security,” Pelosi said, recounting several votes the House has taken to end the shutdown.

Pelosi predicted there's “bipartisan agreement” to use other technology to protect the border, but stressed “I'm not for a wall,” when she was asked why she hasn’t proposed an alternative dollar figure to counter the president’s $5.7 billion demand for a barrier.

“The president says the only way to do it is with a wall. That's a debate that we have,” Pelosi said. “We must respect our workers protect our borders and reopen government the government immediately.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jan172019

Acting attorney general faces questions over speech to conservative group during shutdown

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Some Justice Department officials are concerned that acting attorney general Matt Whitaker may have violated federal guidelines and his department's own guidance on the government shutdown by taking time on Wednesday to give a politically-tinged speech promoting Trump administration policies of little urgency.

"I think it's deeply hypocritical," one federal prosecutor said of Whitaker's speech, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the Justice Department to speak publicly.

According to a message sent to U.S. prosecutors around the country last week, those deemed "excepted" and required to work through the shutdown — without a paycheck — can only perform work on matters related in some way to substantial threats against life or property. And in a memo posted online by the Justice Department last week, "ancillary functions" such as "public affairs activities and community outreach ... may be conducted only to the extent the failure to perform those functions prevents or significantly damages" department operations.

At issue are remarks Whitaker gave Wednesday to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. The Justice Department said in a press release that the remarks were intended "to commemorate [the] 25th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act" — a law Congress passed with near-unanimous support in 1993 to help protect worshipers' rights.

Wednesday's event had an undeniable political bent: The Heritage Foundation's stated mission is to "promote conservative public policies," and in introducing Whitaker, the foundation's president charged that "the political left has actively worked to undercut our freedoms," citing efforts related to abortion and other controversial matters.

During his own remarks, Whitaker praised President Donald Trump as someone "who is standing up for the First Amendment," insisting "others" have tried to stand in the way.

"For example," Whitaker said, "we’ve seen nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives," and he noted that one U.S. senator tried to block "an evangelical Christian" from joining the Trump administration. Whitaker did not mention that the nominee – Russell Vought, now the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget — had claimed Muslims "have a deficient theology" and "stand condemned."

Whitaker "could have used his platform to call for an end to the shutdown so his employees won't miss mortgage payments, but instead he made a partisan speech," one career Justice Department official said to ABC News. Whitaker is expected to be replaced atop the Justice Department in the coming weeks.

Last week, a top Justice Department official in Washington sent an email to department offices around the country, laying out "what employees deemed excepted and working in the office may do."

"We have been directed to continue only activities that relate to 'emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,' i.e., where there is a reasonable likelihood that the safety of human life or the protection of property would be compromised to some significant degree by delay in the performance of the function in question," the email to senior prosecutors said. "The risk should be real, not hypothetical or speculative."

The email, obtained by ABC News, said administrative or other work "essential" to supporting the protection of life or property is also permitted. And the email urged senior prosecutors to "remind all of your employees who are working during the furlough as excepted employees that they should only perform work as described above."

"All other non-excepted work should be performed after the furlough is over," the email said.

Speaking to ABC News on the condition of anonymity, one federal prosecutor accused certain Justice Department officials of "talking out of both sides of their mouths here," saying it's a stretch to interpret the guidance issued last week as permitting "a speech or pursuits involving religious liberty."

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.

Despite questions over whether Whitaker should have given such a speech during the shutdown, it could be a technicality that might prohibit him from doing so. According to rules governing furloughs, a Senate-confirmed member of the president's Cabinet may be able to use his or her time for non-essential functions, because such an official can't technically be furloughed. But Whitaker is serving as attorney general in an "acting" capacity — he was not confirmed by the Senate.

When the government was shut down for weeks in late 1995 and early 1996 during President Bill Clinton's administration, then-attorney general Janet Reno still held her weekly, on-camera press briefings with reporters. In one of those events, she announced a big settlement related to environmental violations, and in another she announced she was suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Previous guidance and legal opinions authored by Justice Department lawyers have said employees called to work during a shutdown may perform some non-essential functions while in the office, but only during "brief" intervals that arise when the employee "is not engaged in an excepted function."

"In such cases, the employee may remain at work, and may perform non-excepted functions during these intervals," according to guidance issued to Justice Department employees in October 2013, when the government was shuttered for more than two weeks.

Whitaker, however, gave his remarks outside the Justice Department, he wrote them ahead of time, and they had been planned for weeks, with the Justice Department issuing a press release promoting the event the day before.

In all, Whitaker spoke for more than 15 minutes about how "religious freedom has made this country stronger."

"And that is why threats to religious freedom are also threats to our national strength," he said at the Heritage Foundation. "I am hopeful that we can recover the consensus in support of religious freedom that came together 25 years ago."

He was likely away from the Justice Department for less than an hour.

Whitaker has become a frequent target of criticism from Democratic lawmakers and others, who question whether he can impartially oversee the Justice Department. In particular, his detractors have raised concerns over statements he made before joining the Justice Department that criticized special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and they have demanded to know why Whitaker refuses to recuse himself from oversight of the Mueller probe even though senior ethics officials within the Justice Department told him he should.

But after Trump appointed Whitaker to temporarily head the Justice Department, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, a frequent target of Trump's ire, called Whitaker a "superb choice."

"He certainly understands the work, understands the priorities and principles of the department, and I think he's going to do a superb job," Rosenstein said.

Whitaker is expected to step aside as acting attorney general soon. William Barr, who served as attorney general under the George H. W. Bush administration, has been nominated by Trump to become attorney general again, and Barr is likely to be confirmed by the Senate.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jan172019

Shutdown hits US diplomats overseas, even as State Department calls employees back for next two weeks

vincent_ruf/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The State Department announced Thursday it was calling back nearly all staff next week and paying them for a two-week period, but a growing number of U.S. diplomats are frustrated by the partial government shutdown and the damage it’s inflicting on their jobs and America’s standing abroad.

While they’ll be paid for this pay period, several diplomats are calling on the administration to fully reopen the government, as they struggle to interact with counterparts abroad and pay their own bills. Employees have been either furloughed and sent home or are working with no pay and limited in what kind of work they can conduct.

“Morale is pretty rock bottom,” said a Foreign Service officer based in Europe, “And this is among a really dedicated, really patriotic bunch of people who are unfortunately getting these messages that what they’re doing is not important or that they’re not valuable enough to have somebody figure out how to get them paid.”

Amid an eight-country tour of the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to assure his department’s rank and file serving at missions overseas and working to support his trip while not being paid because of the government shutdown.

“We’re doing our best to make sure it doesn’t impact our diplomacy,” Pompeo said of the shutdown while in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.

“Morale is good,” he added, and said, staff “understand that there are squabbles in Washington, but their mission remains, their duties continue, and they’re executing them.”

While the plan to pay staffers has changed for the next two weeks, the uncertainty of what could come after that -- if the shutdown continues for that long -- has unnerved diplomats and their foreign counterparts.

“It is an embarrassment to the country. I have had multiple [foreign counterpart] contacts asking how does this happen in the U.S.,” said another Foreign Service officer.

Approximately 23 percent of U.S. employees overseas and 40 percent in the U.S. have been furloughed, according to a State Department spokesperson. But because of the shutdown, employees have been limited in their ability to meet with foreign counterparts or provide assistance to U.S. companies working in their host country. They’ve been forced to cancel or decline invitations to events or meetings.

“You don’t sort of put diplomacy on hold, and I think that we’re going to look back at this period with a lot of regret for sort of missed opportunities,” said the diplomat based in Europe.

That’s because the department is forced to prioritize “the protection of the United States’ critical national security interests and the safety of U.S. citizens abroad” over other functions, according to the spokesperson, who is among those still working but without pay. Even with the new pot of funding for salaries, department activity will be limited to this scope, with limits on employee travel and engagement.

That pay will also only run for the next two weeks before the department will have to consult with Congress on moving additional funds to cover salaries. In addition, employees will not yet be paid for the first month of the shutdown -- until fiscal year 2019 appropriations are approved and back pay can kick in.

While the department could have taken this step to pay employees as soon as the shutdown started, it didn’t largely because no one anticipated the shutdown to last this long.

"It has become clear as the lapse has continued to historic lengths that we need our full team to address the myriad critical issues requiring U.S. leadership around the globe and to fulfill our commitments to the American people," a State Department spokesperson told ABC News. "We are also deeply concerned about growing financial hardship and uncertainty affecting Department employees whose salaries and well-being are affected by the unprecedented length of the lapse."

Even amid the shutdown, staff had to support Pompeo’s week-long Middle East tour while not being paid -- a trip that required more staff than usual to work for his wife Susan, who traveled with him and had her own schedule of meetings and activities. The secretary said his wife was on "an important mission ... trying to help the State Department be better" by touring embassy facilities and living conditions and making recommendations for improvements.

Consular operations like visa and passport services have remained open because they are supported by the fees folks pay for them, but some could be at risk of closing or scaling back hours if they do not have sufficient fees.

Certain operations within the agency have also remained open because of residual funds, including Diplomatic Security, Overseas Buildings Operations, and International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

But with fewer employees in the office, staff have had to pick up more work. Conversations have been turned to what tasks should be prioritized, instead of getting that greater amount of work done with less staff, one official in Washington said, adding, “People are starting to snap at each other in meetings.”

Diplomats sometimes spend a year in language training ahead of a new posting, but those classes have also halted -- even though diplomats will ship out to post at the same time. That means they will be less prepared when their position starts later this year.

While some federal employees in the U.S. have turned to side gigs, those based at U.S. missions abroad are not allowed to do so.

The shutdown could also start to pose a security risk, some have warned.

“We have tens, if not thousands of USG [U.S. government] employees with security clearances not getting a paycheck. Can only imagine that the Russians, Chinese and others are licking their lips at the prospect of there being a lot of people in need of cash,” said one U.S. diplomat based in Eastern Europe.

“USG employees are so incredibly dedicated and patriotic, and here our own government is putting them in a precarious situation,” they added.

Department employees are expected to receive back pay after the shutdown ends.

One U.S. diplomat quipped that even quitting would be difficult because the shutdown means that there is no one working to fund moving families home -- something guaranteed to all diplomats.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jan172019

Under Trump administration, more kids separated at border than originally estimated: Report

John Moore/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Under President Donald Trump's administration, thousands more kids may have been separated from their parents at the border under the Trump administration than was previously thought, according to an internal government report released Thursday, with a "steep increase" of such cases a year before "zero tolerance" began.

The latest findings by the Health and Human Services Inspector General's office suggests that tough immigration policies embraced early in Trump's term contributed to the family separations.

Also, poor communication among federal agencies and informal tracking systems made it difficult to track whether the kids ended up with their parents, other sponsors or in foster care, the internal watchdog reported.

"The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown," according to the IG report.

While the government has identified some 2,700 children were separated in 2018 under zero tolerance, "thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017" before a federal judge ordered the government to reunite the families, the report found.

"Zero-tolerance" was a policy announced in spring 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that mandated adults were prosecuted for trying to enter the country illegally. It resulted in the separation of thousands of kids, who cannot be subjected to lengthy detentions.

With the parent detained, the child would be designated an "unaccompanied" minor and provided to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement.

By June 2018, a federal judge ruled that the families be reunited. The Trump administration identified some 2,600 kids who had been put in government custody as a result of the policy and, by last December, told the courts there were only eight kids still waiting to be reunited.

HHS responded to the report with a detailed letter summarizing its efforts to care for the large influx of children. Lynn Johnson, the assistant secretary for children and families at HHS, said the agency remains committed to improving communication and transparency efforts related to migrant minors.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jan172019

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter lesson for House Democrats

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a member of Congress for only 15 days, but she already has some of the most veteran House Democrats chasing her heels and taking notes.

“She’s really good at Twitter and she’s gonna teach me,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., emerging from a jam-packed Twitter training session Thursday morning hosted by Ocasio-Cortez.

“Between [former Rep.] John Dingell and AOC, I’m going to get good at Twitter,” she said.

“AOC,” as the freshmen Democratic phenom from New York is known, has 2.44 million followers on Twitter. Rep. Dingell has nearly 37,000; her husband, John, has more than 251,000.

Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman in Congress, has electrified progressives with her social media engagement, unabashed about picking a fight, pushing back at critics and giving followers an inside look at her personal life.

“The top tip, I think, is really to be yourself and to really write your own tweets so that people know it’s you talking,” Ocasio-Cortez told ABC News after emerging from class.

ABC News was the only news organization to visit the Ocasio-Cortez Twitter boot camp in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol. Here is a selection of the advice AOC gave to her peers:

  •     “Social media is not just for young people.”
  •     “If you don’t know what a meme is don’t post a meme.”
  •     “If you’re an older woman, talk like an older woman talks.”
  •     “Don’t try to be anybody who you’re not.”
  •     “Jonathan Dingell is amazing on Twitter, absolutely amazing.”
  •     “Social media is not a press release. It’s not a press conference.”
  •     “It’s not the kitchen that’s popular, or the cooking that’s popular, it’s that I’m engaging people doing something I’m already doing.”
  •     The most effective behavior is “behavior that is not like your normal member of Congress.”
  •     “Sometimes the culture here is to fit in and keep your heads low,” she said. But “we don’t want to separate ourselves” from constituents on social media.
  •     “Mute people but try not to block them.”
  •     “The way we grow our presence is being there.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jan172019

'I never said there was no collusion': Giuliani rants against Mueller probe

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani sparred with Chris Cuomo in a heated -- and often pinballing -- interview Wednesday night. The former New York City mayor tried to defend the president and impugn the credibility of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

In one spirited debate, Giuliani told Cuomo, host of Cuomo Prime Time, that he had never said the president didn't collude with Russia during the campaign.

"You just misstated my position," Giuliani said, interrupting the host. "I never said there was no collusion between the campaign! Or between the people in the campaign."

"Yes, you have," Cuomo interrupted.

"I have not. I said the president of the United States -- there is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here: conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC," Giuliani said.

Trump of course has tweeted the phrase "no collusion" dozens of times, including 51 times in 2018 (and once in 2019).

Giuliani himself, contrary to his interview with Cuomo, has echoed the "no collusion" claim many times. After a CNN interview in July 2018, he responded to a viewer with exactly that claim. He tweeted, "No collusion, no obstruction. President Trump did nothing wrong."

Giuliani also explained away one-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's alleged contact with an ex-Russian agent, saying, "He was only there for six months -- or four months."

Defense attorneys inadvertently revealed earlier this month that Manafort is accused of sharing 2016 campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime business associate whom the special counsel has identified as a former Russian intelligence officer.

While defending handing over polling data as not being collusion, Giuliani said, "Polling data is given to everybody," before conceding, "He shouldn't have given it to them" just one question later.

Later in the interview, Giuliani seemed to hedge even further about collusion, saying, "If the collusion happened, it happened a long time ago. It's either provable or it's not. It's not provable because it never happened."

Seconds later, when asked what he meant by "if it happened," Giuliani responded: "I'm telling you there's no chance it happened."

The former mayor did say Mueller's report should be made public, but also said Trump and himself should be able to see it first and he should be able to offer a response on behalf of the president.

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Thursday
Jan172019

Clamor growing for Trump tax returns as key House Democrat urges caution

LPETTET/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Democrats have for months fired up supporters with the promise that control of the House of Representatives would finally allow them to seize copies of President Donald Trump's tax returns.

They have argued the filings could produce a road map for investigations into Trump’s tangle of global businesses and provide a cure for anxiety caused by his refusal to share details about his wealth, debt, charitable giving and potential conflicts of interests.

At one point during the campaign, soon-to-be-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle it would be “one of the first things we do” and “the easiest thing in the world” to demand a copy of the president's tax filings from the Internal Revenue Service.

But now just a few days into the new Congress, the leader of the committee, one of a handful of lawmakers legally entitled to access the returns, is urging caution, setting the stage for an early conflict among Democrats about how aggressively to push.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., told ABC News Wednesday he doesn’t know when he will request the documents but wants to ensure the committee takes a careful approach to the politically-sensitive issue, so as to best protect their legal position should the president seek to block their efforts in the courts.

"The other side of this is that litigation could prolong it, so we’re methodically doing it the way we said we would," Neal said.

Neal added that he still hopes the president will turn over the returns voluntarily.

Other Democrats on the panel want to move immediately.

“We’ve got to get it going as soon as possible,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-New Jersey, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee who repeatedly tried to push Republicans to obtain Trump’s highly sought after returns in the last session of Congress. “I would say within the next month, I think that’s fair.”

The brewing clash in some ways encapsulates a pivotal challenge facing Democrats on a range of topics, including investigations into Trump’s business holdings, subpoenas for Trump insiders and talk of impeachment.

Many have expressed concerns that partisan battles over these matters could overshadow their legislative agenda and feed the perception of overreach House Republicans have been quick to accuse them of on the tax returns and other issues.

The call for Trump to make public his tax returns dates back to the early days of the 2016 presidential contest, when then-candidate Trump initially signaled he would gather the volumes of documents that comprised his returns and make them available for public inspection. As the campaign progressed, he dialed back that pledge, citing ongoing IRS audits that would complicate any attempt to make them public. Ultimately, he chose to keep them private.

Trump is among the few presidents or candidates not to release his tax returns over the past 40 years. Gerald Ford didn't release his returns in 1976, but released a summary of his returns. Other candidates have released more extensive records.

By the end of the 2016 election, three-quarters of Americans wanted Trump’s returns to be made public, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.

The Ways and Means chairman is one of only three congressional committee heads entitled to request copies.

A provision that was added to the Internal Revenue Code during a bribery scandal that hit Washington in the 1920s says the Treasury secretary “shall furnish” the tax return of any individual upon written request from the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee or the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Some Democrats have suggested they attempt a bipartisan route to the tax returns, through the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who sits on that joint committee, has already signaled that he has no interest in that fight.

"I will not go along with efforts to weaponized the authority of tax-writing committees to access tax returns for political purposes," Grassley said on the Senate floor in December. "Such an action would be unprecedented."

With the Senate under Republican control, the Democrats have viewed Ways and Means as their only option to pursue the documents. And there is mounting pressure on Neal, not only from within his committee, but from Democrats in other House committees, such as the oversight, intelligence and foreign affairs panels, all of whom see potential value in reviewing the returns as providing potential fodder for their own investigations.

A ‘roadmap’ to Trump finances

While there is no way to know whether the returns will yield anything helpful to those probes, tax experts tell ABC News they are very likely to provide insight into the president’s family business empire.

"There really is a lot of information on a return; it is a roadmap to a taxpayer’s financial world -- not just the total amount of income, but its sources and types," said tax attorney Christopher S. Rizek, an IRS veteran who now works at the Washington firm of Caplin and Drysdale.

"For most items, the return will just provide leads that will require follow-up," Rizek said.

Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, vowed on CNN in December to fight any effort by the House to see the returns.

“They can’t just look at them,” Giuliani said. “It has to be linked to some wrongdoing. We will fight it in court and I think we would win unless they had some specific allegation.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the New York Times in October that the department “will work with our general counsel and the IRS general counsel on any requests.”

Some Democrats have expressed a willingness to wait patiently as Ways and Means gears up for a possible fight with the Trump administration.

“You have one shot at it and you’ve got to get it right,” one House Democrat told ABC News. “Richie [Neal] has the best shot, everybody knows that he can go for it, but we can’t muck it up.”

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, defended Neal's handling of the delicate political question.

"I don’t think he’s timid at all. I think he’s just being thoughtful," he said.

But other Democrats note that if the battle grows into a long and arduous court fight, the longer they wait to request them, the more likely they miss their opportunity to hold the president accountable before the elections.

“We have the law on our side,” Pascrell said. “This president’s going to do it. Sooner or later.”

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