Senate passes defense policy bill, setting up talks with House

The Senate on Monday easily passed a $716 billion defense policy bill that aims to continue Republican-led efforts to build up the U.S. military but could set up a clash with defense hawks in the House over how best to do it.

The massive legislation would authorize more warships and fighter jets, more troops and the largest pay raise for them in nearly a decade, but in some cases it would still lag behind a House version passed in May and the Pentagon’s own designs.

The vote was 85-10 to pass the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 5515 (115). Next, the House and Senate will work out the differences in their competing versions of the bill in a joint conference committee.

The House handily passed its bill last month, and lawmakers are aiming to finalize the legislation by the end of July. But lawmakers are likely Continue reading “Senate passes defense policy bill, setting up talks with House”

Schiff: Trump’s spy theory ’a piece of propaganda’

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Sunday dismissed claims by President Donald Trump that an FBI informant was used to undermine his presidential campaign.

"There is no evidence to support that spy theory," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said on ABC’s "This Week." "This is just … a piece of propaganda the president wants to put out and repeat. And certainly we’ve seen this pattern before."

Trump has decried what he calls "Spygate," after revelations that an informant made contact with his campaign as part of an FBI probe into Russian influence in the election. The president has slammed the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller, calling the ongoing investigation an attempt to undermine the validity of his election.

Schiff slammed the administration’s rhetoric and dinged congressional Republicans for being "complicit" in undermining the Justice Department. He noted the appearance of White House lawyer Emmet Flood Continue reading “Schiff: Trump’s spy theory ’a piece of propaganda’”

Flake won’t rule out White House run against Trump

Sen. Jeff Flake said Sunday he hasn’t ruled out a challenge to President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential primaries.

In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the Arizona Republican and frequent Trump critic added that, if he did run for president, it would likely only be as a Republican.

Moreover, Flake, who is retiring from the Senate this year, said he hoped Trump drew a primary challenge.

“It’s not in my plans. But I have not ruled anything out," Flake said. "I do hope that somebody runs on the Republican side other than the president, if nothing else, simply to remind Republicans what conservatism is. And what Republicans have traditionally stood for."

Flake added that Republicans in Congress need “to push back harder than we have” to rebuke Trump, citing concerns he could fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Continue reading “Flake won’t rule out White House run against Trump”

Clapper: North Korean leader ‘may have met his match’ in Trump

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "may have met his match" in President Donald Trump’s unorthodox diplomacy, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Sunday.

In an interview on CNN’s "State of the Union," Clapper argued a June summit between the two leaders — which Trump abruptly canceled last week but which he has since said was "moving along very nicely" — should still take place.

"This is typical … Two steps forward, one step back. That’s what they always do," Clapper said. "And in some ways Kim Jong Un may have met his match here with our very unconventional president."

"Having gone this far, there’s value in meeting and greeting, gripping and grinning and just establishing a rapport," Clapper said. "Yes, I think it would be important to have the summit."

The nation’s former top spy also advocated both nations establishing an initial diplomatic presence below the Continue reading “Clapper: North Korean leader ‘may have met his match’ in Trump”

Giuliani slams Mueller probe as ‘illegitimate’

Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump‘s personal attorney, on Sunday dinged an investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election as illegitimate.

Asked in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” if he believed special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was legitimate, Giuliani responded, “Not anymore.”

“I did when I came in, but now I see Spygate,” Giuliani told host Dana Bush, referencing a term used by Trump to described revelations that an informant made contact with his campaign as part of an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the election. Trump has lambasted the Mueller and Justice Department, calling the ongoing investigation as an effort to undermine the validity of his election.

Saying there’s no evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia, Giuliani argued of Mueller that “the basis on which he was appointed is illegitimate.”

“I know 50 years of investigatory experience tells me they don’t Continue reading “Giuliani slams Mueller probe as ‘illegitimate’”

House easily approves defense bill with new nukes, cuts to Pentagon bureaucracy

The House overwhelmingly passed a $717 billion defense policy bill on Thursday, despite concerns from some lawmakers over provisions that would endorse a new class of tactical nuclear weapons and seek cuts to a slew of Pentagon support agencies.

The vote was 351 to 66.

Advocates of the National Defense Authorization Act said the legislation would build on promises by President Donald Trump and defense hawks on Capitol Hill to build up U.S. military might.

"The best way to summarize this bill is that it takes the next steps," Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said on the House floor. "The next steps to rebuilding our military and reforming the Pentagon, the next steps towards strengthening our country’s national security."

The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, approved it version of the annual policy bill in closed session Wednesday. But Senate leaders have not yet said when they plan Continue reading “House easily approves defense bill with new nukes, cuts to Pentagon bureaucracy”

Mattis optimistic North Korea talks ‘could be fruitful’

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress on Wednesday there’s “reason for optimism” on the Trump administration’s efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula after the release of three American prisoners from North Korea.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2019 budget request, Mattis said the administration’s effort has always been diplomacy first, supported by military might.

“Certainly their capability concerns us on the military side. However, we see there is some reason for optimism,” Mattis said. “We said all along this was a diplomatically led effort, backed up by military force.”

Just ahead of the hearing, President Donald Trump announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had secured the release of three Americans held in North Korea and was bringing them back home on his plane. The move comes ahead of an anticipated summit between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“For Continue reading “Mattis optimistic North Korea talks ‘could be fruitful’”

McCain remains hospitalized after surgery to treat infection

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain is hospitalized in "stable condition" in Phoenix for treatment of intestinal infection, his office announced Monday.

On Sunday, his office said, McCain was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and "underwent surgery to treat an intestinal infection related to diverticulitis."

The Arizona Republican was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, and has remained at home in Arizona since December.

"Over the last few months, Senator McCain has been participating in physical therapy at his home in Cornville, Arizona, as he recovers from the side effects of cancer treatment," his office said. "He has remained engaged on his work as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and has enjoyed frequent visits from his family, friends, staff and Senate colleagues."

The Armed Services Committee, which McCain has led since 2015, plans to mark up its annual defense policy bill during the week Continue reading “McCain remains hospitalized after surgery to treat infection”

Mattis pledges to notify Congress of any attack on Syria

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pledged on Thursday to notify congressional leaders before any attack against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Mattis said he believes the regime used chemical weapons in a recent attack, but largely avoided discussing the likelihood the U.S. would launch a retaliatory attack.

"We’ll keep open lines of communication. There will be notification to the leadership, of course, prior to the attack," Mattis told lawmakers. "But we’ll give a full report to the Congress itself probably as rapidly as possible."

"I believe there was a chemical attack, and we’re looking for the actual evidence," Mattis added, noting the U.S. is seeking to get international inspectors on the ground to make that determination.

Despite Mattis’ unwillingness to discuss potential operations, President Donald Trump appeared to telegraph forthcoming strike against the Syrian regime Wednesday, writing on Continue reading “Mattis pledges to notify Congress of any attack on Syria”

Sanders: ‘We know nothing’ about Trump’s VA pick

Sen. Bernie Sanders wouldn’t commit to supporting President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, on Sunday.

In an interview on CBS’ "Face the Nation," the Vermont independent noted that Jackson, Trump’s personal physician, is a virtual unknown on veterans issues. He also expressed concerns the Trump administration is pushing to privatize the nearly $200 billion bureaucracy, citing the conservative agenda of the influential donors Charles and David Koch.

"We know nothing about what Dr. Jackson stands for and what his vision is for the VA," Sanders said.

Trump replaced VA Secretary David Shulkin last week after months of criticism over reports he misused government travel. Shulkin has since said he was forced out for pushing back against efforts to privatize veterans services.

Jackson’s nomination came as a surprise. And the pick has raised questions about his qualifications to manage the myriad health Continue reading “Sanders: ‘We know nothing’ about Trump’s VA pick”

Mueller was appointed ‘far too soon,’ Wisconsin senator says

Special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed “far too soon” to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Sen. Ron Johnson said Sunday.

Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he is concerned a special counsel had hindered investigations by Intelligence panels in both the House and Senate.

"What I’ve always said about it was — the special counsel was named far too soon. I would’ve much rather had the Senate and House Intelligence Committees complete their report.”

"There, there are completely different goals of a special counsel versus congressional oversight. I think, in this case, the most important thing is public disclosure," Johnson said. "And that is harmed when you start having special counsels, and all the information is, is gathered and is held close and sometimes never disclosed."

Pressed Continue reading “Mueller was appointed ‘far too soon,’ Wisconsin senator says”

Trump’s VA pick blindsides staff, deepens agency disarray

The timing of President Donald Trump’s announcement to name Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead Veterans Affairs was a snap decision that surprised his own chief of staff and knocked the government’s second-largest agency, already bedeviled by scandal, deeper into disarray.

White House chief of staff John Kelly had spoken with David Shulkin by phone Wednesday morning, reassuring the now-former VA secretary that he wouldn’t be fired by tweet that afternoon. Hours later, Kelly had to phone Shulkin again telling him plans had changed.

Trump declared Jackson’s nomination on Twitter at 5:31 p.m. The tweet was big news — not just to the public, but to some senior aides, according to one White House official.

The chaos — by now a typical part of the president’s management style — has for months upended Kelly’s attempts to ensure that an unorthodox White House adheres to traditional processes. But while White Continue reading “Trump’s VA pick blindsides staff, deepens agency disarray”

Military hawks win big in budget deal — for now

The bipartisan budget deal inked Friday marks a major victory for Republican hawks, who battled fiscal conservatives in their own party for years to lift the strict limits on defense spending that they warned were crippling the military.

Friday’s pact, signed by President Donald Trump, adds $165 billion to the Pentagon budget over two years. That means the military will receive at least $1.4 trillion in total through September 2019 to help buy more fighter planes, ships and other equipment, boost the size of the ranks, and beef up training — a level of funding that seemed a long shot just months ago.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long pushed for a $700 billion annual budget for the military, said in a statement that the agreement finally gives the Pentagon the “budget certainty it needs to begin the process of rebuilding the military.”

Continue reading “Military hawks win big in budget deal — for now”

Trump orders Guantanamo prison to remain open

President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered the controversial U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to remain open.

Trump announced the executive order, initially reported by POLITICO, during his first State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. It directs the prison stay open and allows the possibility Trump could send new enemy combatants there.

"I just signed, prior to walking in, an order directing [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis … to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay," Trump said.

Trump’s initiative repeals part of an executive order, signed by then-President Barack Obama in his first days in office, that calls for Guantanamo’s closure. It also directs detention operations to continue and permits additional detainees to be sent to the prison "when lawful and necessary to protect" the country.

The executive order also gives Mattis three months to recommend Continue reading “Trump orders Guantanamo prison to remain open”

Shultz warns Congress against low-yield nuclear weapons

Former Republican Secretary of State George Shultz on Thursday warned Congress against embracing the Trump administration’s consideration of new nuclear weapons with smaller explosive yields — as proposed in a draft of the Pentagon’s pending Nuclear Posture Review.

“A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon," Shultz, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s top diplomat, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "You use a small one, then you go to a bigger one. I think nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons and we need to draw the line there."

Shultz, who testified along with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, has advocated a path toward the abolition of nuclear arms in recent years.

Amid the nuclear standoff with North Korea and a resurgent Russian nuclear arsenal, he told the panel he is concerned that the long-standing fear of the effect of using nuclear Continue reading “Shultz warns Congress against low-yield nuclear weapons”

Troops caught in shutdown crossfire

Republicans on Sunday escalated their accusations that Democrats are abandoning the military, banking that the plight of unpaid troops on the front lines will be one of the GOP’s most potent political weapons in the standoff over the government shutdown.

The GOP coalesced around that message in statements by congressional leaders, tweets from President Donald Trump and an appearance Sunday by Vice President Mike Pence, who used a visit to American troops in the Middle East to accuse Democrats of holding the nation’s warriors hostage to politics.

“Despite bipartisan support for a budget resolution, a minority in the Senate has decided to play politics with military pay," Pence said at a base near the Syrian border. “But you deserve better. You and your families shouldn’t have to worry about getting paid.”

Democrats fired back by accusing Republicans of hypocrisy, noting that GOP leaders have blocked a stand-alone bill that Continue reading “Troops caught in shutdown crossfire”

Democrats negotiating ‘in good faith’ on Dreamers deal, Flake says

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake defended Democrats in the face of criticism from President Donald Trump, arguing Sunday they were negotiating in good faith on a bipartisan immigration deal.

"One thing I do take big issue with the president on is he is saying that the Democrats aren’t moving forward in good faith," Flake said on ABC’s "This Week." "I can tell you I’ve been negotiating and working with the Democrats on immigration for 17 years and on this issue, on DACA or on the Dream Act for a number of years, and the Democrats are negotiating in good faith."

Flake, an Arizona Republican and a frequent critic of Trump, is part of a bipartisan group of six senators who struck a deal last week to shield Dreamers, fund border security and make other changes to immigration laws.

"This is a bipartisan deal. It’s not the Democrats bringing this Continue reading “Democrats negotiating ‘in good faith’ on Dreamers deal, Flake says”

Rand Paul: ‘Unfair’ to call Trump a racist

Sen. Rand Paul came to President Donald Trump’s defense Sunday, arguing it is unfair to label Trump a racist over reported comments about immigration from "shithole" countries.

"I don’t think the comments were constructive at all," Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, said on NBC’s "Meet the Press." "But I also think that to be fair, we shouldn’t draw conclusions that he didn’t intend."

Trump’s racially charged comments during a meeting last week with lawmakers were reported to have been directed toward African countries, Haiti and El Salvador as he questioned why the U.S. doesn’t allow more people from countries like Norway.

Instead, Paul, an ophthalmologist, cited financial backing Trump provided for visits he and other surgeons made to Haiti and Central America to perform eye surgeries.

"I think it’s unfair then to sort of all of a sudden paint him, ‘Oh well, he’s a racist,’ when I Continue reading “Rand Paul: ‘Unfair’ to call Trump a racist”

‘I think he is a racist,’ Rep. John Lewis says of Trump

Rep. John Lewis on Sunday said he believes President Donald Trump is a racist in the wake of racially charged remarks the president reportedly made last week about people coming to the United States from “shithole” countries.

‘I think he is a racist,’ Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and icon of the civil rights movement, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Lewis was asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos how he reconciled remarks Trump made Friday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with his “shithole” comment, reported to have been made during an immigration meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers Thursday.

"I don’t think there’s any way that you can square what the president said with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and what he said about Dr. King," Lewis said. "It’s just impossible. There’s not any way you can do that. It’s unreal. It’s unbelievable. It makes me sad. Continue reading “‘I think he is a racist,’ Rep. John Lewis says of Trump”

McAuliffe: Trump should ‘forget Stephen Miller’ on Dreamers deal

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Sunday called on President Donald Trump to sign on to a framework to shield so-called Dreamers from deportation, ignoring hard-line views on immigrants within his administration.

In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” McAuliffe said, “We are there” on an immigration deal, noting the one struck last week by a bipartisan group of six senators.

“You have vast agreement between Democrats and Republicans. If you put a bill up Tuesday, they would vote for it and it would overwhelmingly pass,” McAuliffe said.

“Forget Stephen Miller. Stephen Miller did not get elected president of the United States of America,” McAuliffe urged, referencing the Trump senior policy adviser known for his hard-line immigration views. “Mr. Trump, if you’re watching today, you know what the right thing is, and just do it.”

The bipartisan senators group last week struck a deal to protect Dreamers, Continue reading “McAuliffe: Trump should ‘forget Stephen Miller’ on Dreamers deal”