Feed aggregator

Trump transition counsel criticizes Mueller’s access to emails

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian contacts with President Trump’s campaign has gained access to thousands of emails sent and received by Trump officials before the start of his administration, the general counsel for Trump’s transition organization says.

Mueller’s investigators obtained the emails from the General Services Administration, a federal agency that stored the material, rather than request them from Trump’s still-existing transition group, Trump for America, Kory Langhofer said in a letter sent to two congressional committees.

Langhofer said the GSA had improperly provided the transition records to Mueller’s team, which he said has been “actively using” the emails. Langhofer told Republican chairmen of the House Oversight and the Senate Homeland Security committees that the disclosure by GSA was “unauthorized,” and it considers the documents private and privileged and not government property.

Trump on Sunday criticized the fact that Mueller had gained access to thousands of emails sent and received by Trump officials before the start of his administration. He said it was “not looking good” and again stressed that there was “no collusion” with Russia – an important question the probe is examining.

The documents were provided to Mueller’s team by the GSA in September in response to requests from the FBI, but the transition team didn’t learn about it until last week, Langhofer said.

The tens of thousands of emails pertain to 13 senior Trump transition officials. Many of the emails that Mueller’s investigators have now include national security discussions about possible Trump international aims as well as candid assessments of candidates for top government posts, said those familiar with the transition.

Langhofer also said that a GSA official appointed by Trump in May had assured the transition in June that any request for records from Mueller’s office would be referred to the transition’s attorneys. According to Langhofer, the assurance was made by then-GSA General Counsel Richard Beckler, who was hospitalized in August and has since died.

But late Saturday, another GSA official present for the conversation told Buzzfeed News that there was nothing improper about the disclosure of the emails to Mueller’s team. The GSA has provided office space and other aid to presidential transitions in recent years and typically houses electronic transition records in its computer system.

GSA Deputy Counsel Lenny Loewentritt, who Langhofer blames along with other GSA career staff for providing the transition documents to the FBI, told Buzzfeed that Beckler didn’t make a commitment to the transition team that requests from law enforcement for materials would be routed through transition lawyers.

Transition officials signed agreements that warn them that materials kept on government servers are subject to monitoring and auditing, Loewentritt told Buzzfeed, and there’s no expectation of privacy.

Late Saturday, Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, said the special counsel’s office has followed the law when it has obtained documents during its investigation.

“When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” Carr said.

In a statement, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, dismissed the transition’s arguments that GSA shouldn’t have turned over the records to Mueller.

Among the officials who used transition email accounts was former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to a count of making false statements to FBI agents in January and is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. Trump fired Flynn in February for misleading senior administration officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

Flynn attorney Robert Kelner declined to comment. Jay Sekulow, an attorney on Trump’s personal legal team, referred questions to the transition group. Spokespeople for GSA didn’t respond to AP’s emailed requests for comment.

It’s unclear how revelatory the email accounts maintained by the GSA will be for Mueller. Several high-level Trump advisers sometimes used other email accounts, including their campaign accounts, to communicate about transition issues between Election Day and the inauguration.

The special counsel’s office also obtained at least one iPad as well as laptops and cellphones that were used by the transition, but prosecutors have assured the transition that investigators have not pulled emails and other data from those devices, Langhofer said. He did not name the transition officials who used the devices.

The media site Axios first reported on the transfer of the emails to Mueller’s team.

Trump says he’s not considering firing Mueller

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON —President Trump said Sunday that he is not considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller even as his administration was again forced to grapple with the growing Russia probe that has shadowed the White House for much of his initial year in office.

Trump returned to the White House from Camp David and was asked if he would consider triggering the process to dismiss Mueller, who is investigating whether the president’s Republican campaign coordinated with Russian officials during last year’s election.

The president answered: “No, I’m not.”

But he did add to the growing conservative criticism of Mueller’s move to gain access to thousands of emails sent and received by Trump officials before the start of his administration, yielding attacks from transition lawyers and renewing chatter that Trump may act to end the investigation.

“It’s quite sad to see that, my people were very upset about it,” Trump said. “I can’t imagine there’s anything on them, frankly. Because, as we said, there’s no collusion. There’s no collusion whatsoever.”

Many Trump allies used the email issue as another cudgel with which to bash the probe’s credibility.

Members of the conservative media and some congressional Republicans have begun to systematically question Mueller’s motives and credibility while the president himself called it a “disgrace” that some texts and emails from two FBI agents contained anti-Trump rhetoric.

One of those agents was on Mueller’s team and has been removed.

Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide, called the investigation an “attack on the presidency” and told CNN there are “more and more indications that the Mueller investigation is off the rails.”

The talk of firing Mueller has set off alarm bells among many Democrats, who warn it could trigger a constitutional crisis.

Some Republicans also advised against the move, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who deemed the idea “a mistake.”

The rumor mill overshadowed the Republican tax plan, which is due to be voted on this week. Although Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was doing a victory lap on the tax bill on the Sunday talk show circuit, he first had to field questions on CNN’s “State of the Union” about whether he believed Trump would trigger the process to fire Mueller.

“I don’t have any reason to think that the president is going to do that, but that’s obviously up to him,” Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin added that “we have got to get past this investigation, it’s a giant distraction” but declined to elaborate on how he would want it to end.

Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, was also peppered with questions about Mueller’s fate during his own appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and again urged a quick end to the investigation but insisted that Trump has not discussed firing Mueller.

“There’s no conversation about that whatsoever in the White House,” Short said.

The tax bill measure would give the largest breaks to the richest Americans, but Trump has tried to sell the bill as a “Christmas present” for middle-class Americans in part because it would trigger job growth.

“As a candidate, I promised we would pass a massive TAX CUT for the everyday working American families who are the backbone and the heartbeat of our country. Now, we are just days away…” Trump said in a tweet from Camp David, where he spent the weekend.

How Maine’s members of Congress voted last week

Press Herald Politics -

Along with roll call votes last week, the Senate also passed a bill (S. Res. 356), expressing the sense of the Senate that members of Congress should substitute-teach at least one day per year in a public school to gain firsthand knowledge on how to address the prevailing challenges facing educators and how to remove obstacles to learning for students; the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act (S. 447), to require reporting on acts of certain foreign countries on Holocaust-era assets and related issues; and a bill (S. Res. 357), expressing the sense of the Senate that international education and exchange programs further United States national security and foreign policy priorities, enhance United States economic competitiveness, and promote mutual understanding and cooperation among nations.

The House also passed the Securing General Aviation and Commercial Charter Air Carrier Service Act (H.R. 3669), to improve and streamline security procedures related to general aviation and commercial charter air carriers utilizing risk-based security standards; the Promoting Hydropower Development at Existing Nonpowered Dams Act (H.R. 2872); a bill (H. Res. 407), condemning the persecution of Christians around the world; and a bill (H. Res. 336), reaffirming a strong commitment to the United States-Mexico partnership.

HOUSE VOTES

THREATS AGAINST RELIGIOUS FACILITIES: The House has passed the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act (H.R. 1730), sponsored by Rep. David Kustoff, R-Tenn. The bill would set out federal criminal penalties for threats of violence against churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious facilities. Kustoff called the bill “essential in safeguarding religious institutions of all kinds from atrocious threats and acts of violence.” The vote, on Dec. 11, was 402 yeas to 2 nays.

YEAS: Chellie Pingree, D-1st District; Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District

REGULATING MORTGAGE LOANS: The House has passed the Community Institution Mortgage Relief Act (H.R. 3971), sponsored by Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y. The bill would exempt community banks and credit unions with less than $25 billion of assets from certain Truth in Lending Act regulations for mortgage loans. Tenney said overwhelmingly expensive regulations and a resulting decline in the number of U.S. banks and credit unions showed the need for “smart, commonsense regulatory relief.” A bill opponent, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said dropping the regulations would “set the stage for a return of the harmful practices of the subprime meltdown and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” The vote, on Dec. 12, was 294 yeas to 129 nays.

NAYS: Pingree

YEAS: Poliquin

REPORT ON IRANIAN LEADERS: The House has passed the Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act (H.R. 1638), sponsored by Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, to require the Treasury Department to provide Congress with a report on the assets controlled by certain senior Iranian politicians and other leading members of Iran’s government, and post part of the report on Treasury’s website. Poliquin said informing the global public of illicit activities by the Iranian leaders should spur reform efforts in Iran and discourage businesses around the world from investing in a government that sponsors terrorism. A bill opponent, Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., said the time and effort used by Treasury employees to track down the leaders’ assets would take resources away from investigations into terrorist financing and money laundering. The vote, on Dec. 13, was 289 yeas to 135 nays.

NAYS: Pingree

YEAS: Poliquin

PRIVACY AND FINANCIAL FIRMS: The House has passed the Privacy Notification Technical Clarification Act (H.R. 2396), sponsored by Rep. David A. Trott, R-Mich. The bill would exempt banks and other financial firms that have not changed their consumer privacy policies in the prior year from having to send their customers annual privacy disclosures, so long as they adequately inform their customers of the existence and availability of their privacy policies. Trott said the exemption would “help companies provide better service to their customers” by ending the expense of mailing out the policy notices, which Trott said are confusing and simply thrown away by many consumers. A bill opponent, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said the proposed exemption was far too broad given the power financial firms have to use their customers’ personal information. The vote, on Dec. 14, was 275 yeas to 146 nays.

NAYS: Pingree

YEAS: Poliquin

IRAN AIRCRAFT PURCHASES: The House has passed the Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act (H.R. 4324), sponsored by Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas. The bill would require the Treasury Department to certify to Congress that financing arranged for Iran’s purchases of aircraft does not benefit Iranians who promote the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The vote, on Dec. 14, was 252 yeas to 167 nays.

NAYS: Pingree

YEAS: Poliquin

SENATE VOTES

APPEALS COURT JUDGE: The Senate has confirmed the nomination of Leonard Steven Grasz to serve as a judge on the U.S. Eight Circuit Court of Appeals. A supporter, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., cited Grasz’s nearly 12 years of experience as Nebraska’s chief deputy attorney general, and said hundreds of people have written to the Senate in support of his nomination. The vote, on Dec. 12, was 50 yeas to 48 nays.

YEAS: Susan Collins, R-Maine

NAYS: Angus King, I-Maine

SECOND APPEALS COURT JUDGE: The Senate has confirmed the nomination of Don R. Willett to serve as a judge on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. A supporter, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, cited Willett’s 12 years of experience as a Texas Supreme Court justice and his reputation for careful and meticulous analysis and fidelity to the law in his service on that court. The vote, on Dec. 13, was 50 yeas to 47 nays.

YEAS: Collins

NAYS: King

THIRD APPEALS COURT JUDGE: The Senate has confirmed the nomination of James C. Ho to serve as a judge on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. A supporter, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Ho had substantial experience as a lawyer at the Justice Department, solicitor general of Texas, and as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee when Cornyn was on the committee. An opponent, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., cited Ho’s work helping the Bush administration justify torture of enemy combatants in the war on terror. The vote, on Dec. 14, was 53 yeas to 43 nays.

YEAS: Collins

NAYS: King

Analysis: Passing the tax bill may not be the cure-all Republicans think it is

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — The tax bill now ready for final passage represents a big bet on the part of congressional Republicans. Facing an energized Democratic base and saddled with an unpopular president, Republican lawmakers hope that completion of the tax bill will help shield them from sizable losses in next year’s elections. Are they fooling themselves?

Assuming no last-minute hitches, the tax bill as enacted and signed by President Trump would represent a significant legislative achievement for a party that has struggled all year to convert power to productivity. As a morale boost to beleaguered politicians, its value should not be underestimated. Whether it will translate politically as they hope is a far different question.

Last Tuesday, for the second time in two months, Republicans received a warning that the 2018 midterm elections could cost them their House and slender Senate majorities, despite a map that puts Democrats at a clear disadvantage.

First came Gov.-elect Ralph Northam’s relatively easy victory in Virginia. Tuesday produced the shocker of Democrat Doug Jones winning the special Senate election in deep-red Alabama. Republicans can console themselves by noting that Roy Moore was an extraordinarily flawed candidate, but that should not be the extent of their post-election analysis.

WHAT AILS REPUBLICANS?

One question, as Republicans prepare to vote on the tax bill, is whether they are on the defensive heading into next year because of a lack of legislative achievements – or are they in trouble for other reasons? The evidence suggests it’s the latter, not the former. It will be the responsibility of Republican officials, from the president to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and those running next year to make a better case for themselves.

Republicans will have a body of work to take to the public next year. The tax bill, which includes ending the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act as of 2019, will allow them to tell their core supporters that they are delivering what they said they would. Tax cuts have been part of the Republican mantra for a generation and at times served the party well politically. This bill will test the potency of tax cuts in today’s economic and political environment.

Beyond that, Republicans can argue that they and the president are reversing the direction of policy from the Obama administration by slashing regulations, offering tougher enforcement of immigration laws and reshaping environment and energy policies by executive action. Additionally, they can credibly claim that they are changing the shape of the federal judiciary, from the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court to the rapid approvals of appellate and district-level judges.

Along with an economy that is steadily producing jobs, a stock market that keeps hitting record highs and an unemployment rate that is at a 17-year-low, that’s a decent-sized package to take to the voters next fall. So why are they in such trouble?

It begins with the president. Trump has had the lowest approval rating of any first-term chief executive from the day he was sworn in. His approval today is underwater by a significant margin. The reality is that he is this unpopular despite the state of the economy. People are making overall judgments about his performance that appear divorced from their perceptions of the economy or his role in it. That bodes poorly for Republicans.

On Election Day in Virginia, his approval was just 40 percent, his disapproval 58 percent – about the national average in a state he lost to Hillary Clinton by 5 points. On Election Day in Alabama, his approval was 48 percent, his disapproval was 48 percent – remarkably unimpressive in a state he won by 28 points a year ago. A recent Des Moines Register poll released last week found Trump’s approval at 35 percent, his disapproval at 60 percent – in a state he won by 9 points against Clinton. His disapproval in Iowa lags his vote percentage from 2016 by 16 points.

MIDTERM MATH

Over the past half century, three presidents have faced midterm elections with an unemployment rate in the range of today’s: Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2006. Only Clinton, who had an approval rating in the mid-60s at the time of that midterm, avoided losses, as Democrats gained four seats that year. Johnson, whose approval rating was in the mid-40s, saw his Democratic Party lose 47 seats in 1966. Bush, with an approval rating at the time below 40 percent, saw Democrats gain 30 seats and control of the House in 2006.

Former President Barack Obama, of course, suffered two big midterm defeats in 2010 and 2014, with approval ratings in the low-to-mid 40s. The biggest came in 2010 when the unemployment rate was more than 9 percent, far higher than the Republicans will have next year.

History is an uncertain guide, especially when it comes to anything political involving Trump. He has shown that traditional metrics mean less with him than with many other politicians. But for Republicans, the president’s unpopularity could weigh heavily against their candidates next year. Because Trump remains highly popular with rank-and-file Republicans, candidates cannot risk an open break with the president. But too firm an embrace risks turning independents away, as the elections this fall have shown.

The tax bill represents a gamble in part because the public so far has judged it unfavorably. Recent polls show that not even one-third of Americans give the bill positive marks, with a majority opposed. Trump and Republican leaders say the bill provides tax cuts to most families in the middle class, but the public judges it as tipped in the direction of the wealthy. Those numbers are significantly worse than public perceptions of the Affordable Care Act at the time it was passed.

INCONSISTENT TRUTHS

Republicans say the tax cut they are advancing will stimulate the economy even more, creating more jobs and higher wages for workers. But economic forecasts indicate minimal boost, and the Federal Reserve is likely to keep economic exuberance in check by continuing to raise interest rates as a guard against inflation. How much workers feel from the tax cut is one important indicator. Another is whether perceptions of the bill change over the next year. The Obama administration was unsuccessful in making the Affordable Care Act more popular (at least until he left office).

The tax bill adds at least $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. There is talk that House Republicans could turn to entitlement reform next year to address criticism that the party of fiscal responsibility has abandoned its longstanding position on that issue. Trump has pledged to resist such changes. If congressional Republicans in fact pursue such changes, they can expect massive opposition from Democrats and another battle to persuade the public to go along.

The Republican Party is even less popular than the president. That’s normally the case with political parties, and too much should not be read into that. But it was, again, striking that in the Alabama special election, the Republican Party was judged slightly less favorably than the Democratic Party, despite the state’s strong Republican leaning. Alabama voters gave the Democrats a 47 percent approval compared with 43 percent for the Republicans. In Virginia, the split was worse, with Republicans at 38 percent favorable and the Democrats at 50 percent favorable.

Democrats have plenty of problems to face in the future. In Virginia, for example, independent voters gave Democrats a negative rating, though better than Republicans. But midterm elections generally aren’t a referendum on the party out of power. That’s especially true with a president who enjoys roiling the waters as much as Trump. The tax bill is something Republicans and the president have been pointing to as their redemption since they failed to repeal Obamacare. If it does pass, as expected, they’ll have to fight to prove themselves correct.

Medicaid, marijuana to challenge legislators in 2018

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers are preparing for a 2018 session where Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization are expected to take center stage.

The Legislature must figure out how to pay for Medicaid’s eventual $54 million expansion. The sale of recreational marijuana is also set to become legal Feb. 1, even though lawmakers failed this year to put a licensing and regulatory structure in place.

Next year will be Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s last full year in office, and he is continuing to chastise lawmakers for his biggest pet peeve: fiscal irresponsibility and laziness. He has threatened not to implement Medicaid expansion and recreational marijuana sales unless lawmakers fulfill his conditions.

“Many politicians conveniently forget that the last time Maine expanded Medicaid, it blew holes in the budget every year,” LePage said in a recent radio address. “The Legislature lurched from crisis to crisis and scrambled to find one-time gimmicks to fund the budget. We cannot let the past repeat itself.”

The session begins in January.

MEDICAID EXPANSION

The Legislature must figure out how to pay for Medicaid expansion’s price tag that’s estimated to grow to $54 million after projected savings in 2021.

In November, Maine became the first state to expand Medicaid by public vote; up to 90,000 citizens are expected to benefit.

LePage has said he won’t implement the voter-approved expansion until it’s fully funded by the state Legislature without tax increases, budgetary gimmicks or rainy day fund raids.

MARIJUANA SALES

The sale of recreational marijuana is technically set to become legal Feb. 1, even though there’s no way to obtain the needed license because lawmakers failed this year to put a regulatory structure in place. That means lawmakers face trying once again to overhaul the 2016 voter-approved law legalizing recreational marijuana.

“We’re sort of in this world where we’re operating where marijuana is legal to have but it’s not legal to sell, so therefore there is only a black market,” Rep. Drew Gattine said.

OLD BILLS, NEW BILLS

Lawmakers sifted through almost 1,650 bills last year and passed about 300 of them, according to the Legislative Information Office. Next year, the Legislature will review roughly 300 late-filed bills, along with another 319 others.

One bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Lydia Blume, would require new or refurbished toll plazas on the Maine Turnpike to be built using all electronic collection technology. Other bills would protect hemp growers and encourage businesses to hire U.S.citizens.

Trump back on campaign trail in 2018

Press Herald Politics -

President Trump is not on the ballot in 2018, but the White House is planning a full-throttle campaign to plunge the president into the midterm elections, according to senior officials and advisers familiar with the planning.

Trump’s political aides have met with 116 candidates for office in recent months, according to senior White House officials, seeking to become involved in Senate, House and gubernatorial races – and possibly contested Republican primaries as well.

The president has told advisers he wants to travel extensively and hold rallies and that he is looking forward to spending much of 2018 campaigning. He has also told aides that the election would largely determine what he can get done – and that he expects he would be blamed for losses, such as last week’s humiliating defeat that handed an Alabama Senate seat to a Democrat for the first time in 25 years.

“For the president, this isn’t about adulation and cheering crowds,” White House political director Bill Stepien said in an interview. “This is about electing and re-electing Republicans.”

‘TURBOCHARGING THE OPPOSITION’

But getting deeply involved in the midterms could be a highly risky strategy for a president with historically low approval ratings, now hovering in the mid-to-low 30s in many national polls, and might be particularly disruptive in primary contests pitting establishment candidates against pro-Trump insurgents. Last week’s upset in Alabama – where Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican nominee Roy Moore – came after Trump endorsed two losing candidates in both the primary and special election.

Many Democrats also say they relish the idea of being able to run against Trump.

“He absolutely is turbocharging the opposition. My guess is most of the people running for office in 2018 are not going to want to cleave too closely to him,” said David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist. “He torques up both sides, but he torques up the opposition more. He is the greatest organizing tool that Democrats could have.”

Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors’ Association, said “we look forward to everything that comes out of the president’s iPhone.”

In coming months, Stepien is planning nearly daily meetings with potential candidates from around the country and aims to give Trump endorsement recommendations by the spring, officials said. The White House is also working with the Republican National Committee to discuss the strongest fundraising opportunities for Trump, they said.

WEEKLY MEETINGS

Stepien meets with Trump weekly to talk about the 2018 slate, poll numbers, candidates, their issues and their level of agreement with Trump, and he also regularly convenes with Chief of Staff John Kelly and other senior aides on the midterm outlook, officials said. Trump, senior officials said, has shown particular interest in certain races, including Republican senatorial candidate Josh Hawley in Missouri and the possibilities of Senate bids by Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and Gov. Paul LePage of Maine.

On Saturday, Trump’s campaign sent out a “2018 candidates” survey to supporters on issues ranging from abortion to gun rights to Trump’s call for a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But fundraising has been hurt in some quarters under Trump’s presidency, posing a financial challenge for a party increasingly spread thin in defending potentially vulnerable seats in the House and Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, for example, has only raised about $2 million a month for the last four months and is spending more money than it is taking in. The White House has grown concerned about the anemic fundraising, according to one political adviser; committee officials declined to comment.

Trump himself has proven a prodigious fundraiser when he wants to do it, and advisers say he may share his valuable donor and supporter database with favored candidates.

There are other risks for Trump on the campaign trail. The president frequently wanders off topic at rallies and often prefers to talk about himself, sometimes generating new controversies and making the candidate a sideshow at best. But the president can also draw a crowd like few other Republicans can.

‘HE MUST MOVE TO THE CENTER’

Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said the president needs to work to broaden his appeal ahead of the midterms.

“President Trump deserves far more credit for his accomplishments, but any president who has those types of numbers loses the House and the Senate,” Ruddy said, referring to recent polling. “He must move to the center. He must be the old Donald Trump – the bipartisan dealmaker who is looking for consensus.”

Trump’s political team downplays popularity concerns and says candidates are lining up to get in the door, particularly for Republican primaries.

“To say the president has shaky political standing, I’d say the pollsters, the experts, the pundits have never figured out how to poll this guy,” Stepien said. Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon remains another wild card as he pledges to continue backing anti-establishment candidates like Moore. In Nevada, for example, Bannon has told others he will help raise money for Danny Tarkanian, an insurgent candidate with a controversial past planning to challenge Republican Sen. Dean Heller, while Trump has yet to make a commitment.

Some consultants say the White House’s political team doesn’t have the influence to secure decisions from Trump and some fear that much of the midterm campaign will hinge on his unpredictable moods.

Still, some Republicans say they have recently seen improved communications with the White House. Trump has patched up his fractious relationship with McConnell for the most part, advisrs say, and the political team has been given more leeway under Kelly.

Moore tries raising funds after Trump tells him to concede

Press Herald Politics -

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Republican Roy Moore on Friday told supporters that the “battle is not over” in Alabama’s Senate race even though President Donald Trump and others have called on him to concede.

Moore sent a fundraising email to supporters asking for contributions to his “election integrity fund’ so he could investigate reports of voter fraud.

“I also wanted to let you know that this battle is NOT OVER!” he wrote.

Democrat Doug Jones on Tuesday defeated Moore by about 20,000 votes, or 1.5 percent, according to unofficial returns. But Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s, has not yet conceded the heated Alabama race to fill the seat that previously belonged to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Moore told supporters that the race was “close” and some military and provisional ballots had yet to be counted. Those are expected to be counted next week.

Moore said his campaign is collecting “numerous reported cases of voter fraud” to send to the secretary of state’s office.

Secretary of State John Merrill has said it is unlikely that the last-minute ballots will change the outcome of the election or even trigger a recount.

Merrill said his office has investigated reports of voting irregularities, but “we have not discovered any that have been proven factual in nature.”

Trump, who had endorsed Moore, called Jones to congratulate him on his win. Trump on Friday said that he believed Moore should concede the race.

The results of Alabama’s Senate race will be certified between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3 after counties report their official totals.

Trump calls FBI’s behavior ‘disgraceful’

Press Herald Politics -

QUANTICO, Va. — President Trump said Friday there is tremendous anger over what he called the FBI’s “disgraceful” behavior, taking aim at the bureau just before he appeared at its training facility to praise the nation’s police officers.

“It’s a shame what’s happened with the FBI,” the president said as he prepared to depart for a ceremony at the FBI’s National Academy in Quantico, where more than 200 law enforcement officers graduated from a program that imparts FBI expertise and standards.

Trump appeared to be referring to revelations that senior FBI officials exchanged anti-Trump and pro-Hillary Clinton text messages while working on the 2016 probe of Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and again during Robert Muel’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Pressure remains on Collins as tax reform vote looms next week

Press Herald Politics -

Sen. Susan Collins is in the pressure cooker heading into a crucial vote on tax reform next week, targeted by protesters in Maine and Washington, lobbyists both for and against the bill, Republican leadership and health care advocates.

Progressive activists were arrested at Collins’ Bangor office on Dec. 4 and clergy were arrested at her Portland office on Dec. 7.

Collins voted for the Senate version of the tax reform bill early this month, but remained undecided during the reconciliation process between the House and Senate versions of the bill pending the fate of amendments she championed. She cheered their inclusion in the final version of the bill that was released Friday afternoon.

“Americans deserve a tax system that is fair, simple, and promotes economic growth,” Collins said in a statement she released on Twitter and her website Friday night. “I am pleased that the final tax reform bill includes all three of the amendments I authored, along with a number of provisions for which I strongly advocated, that will benefit lower- and middle-income families.”

SUBHED

The vote is expected to be razor-thin in the Senate, with Arizona Sen. John McCain in frail health and possibly not being present to vote. With Republicans holding a slim 52-48 majority, it only takes three defections for the tax bill to be stopped in its tracks.

Another Arizona Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, remains undecided. He has previously raised objections about the bill adding to the deficit, and he also wanted immigration solutions to help “dreamers,” or those in the U.S. illegally but who arrived here as children. But with the other possible holdouts – Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida – flipping to a “yes” on Friday, the Republicans might not need Collins’ vote to pass the tax package.

The $1.4 trillion tax reform package would add $1 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years after accounting for economic growth – according to official congressional estimates – and slash the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent. Business groups favor the tax cuts, arguing that they would spur the economy, while critics complain that the cuts are skewed to the wealthy, and that the cuts for individuals would expire after nine years while the corporate tax cut is permanent.

Collins has made it clear she wants to see two bills become law that would help stabilize the ACA’s health insurance marketplace, and for Congress to waive $25 billion in automatic Medicare spending cuts the bill would trigger. But the timing remains tricky, as it looks increasingly likely that the ACA stabilization bills would be brought up after tax reform is voted on early next week.

SUBHED

Collins said this week that she would be “much more comfortable” if the votes for ACA stabilization occurred before the tax reform vote. On Nov. 30, she told reporters in Washington at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that having the ACA votes go first was “hugely important” to her.

The tax reform bill repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which would leave 13 million more uninsured and increase premiums by 10 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The individual mandate requires that people who can’t get employer-based coverage buy health insurance on the individual market or pay a penalty. The mandate is a way to ensure that young, healthy people are in the individual market, keeping premiums down.

The fixes Collins touts would mitigate the mandate’s repeal with $5 billion per year for two years of reinsurance, which would help alleviate the cost spikes of having fewer young people in the insurance pools. Another bill, Alexander-Murray, would restore the “cost-sharing payments” to insurers that the Trump administration halted this year.

Annie Clark, a Collins spokeswoman, said “it’s our expectation” that next week, the two ACA fixes would be attached to a must-pass continuing resolution government funding bill.

And Clark said Collins wasn’t concerned that the Affordable Care Act bills she supports might be in jeopardy now that the Senate appears to have the votes it needs to pass tax reform regardless of how Maine’s senior senator votes.

“We remain very confident in the agreements we have,” Clark said in an email Friday night.

Critics argue that House conservatives will balk at passing the Collins bills, and that House Speaker Paul Ryan was not part of any deal made between Collins and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell promised Collins that the bills would be voted on by the end of the year. McConnell and Ryan issued a joint statement on Dec. 1 promising to avoid the automatic spending cuts to Medicare.

SUBHED

But after tax reform passes, Collins would have much less leverage to make sure the bills are approved, critics have said.

“She is being played like a cribbage board,” Christina Foster of Peaks Island said, referring to the promises Republican leadership is making to Collins that Foster believes will be broken.

Foster was one of about 10 members of Peaks Indivisible, a liberal advocacy group composed Peaks Islanders, who played cribbage in Collins’ Portland office Friday to protest the tax reform bill. Foster said they got to talk to Collins on the phone for five minutes, but felt like the senator was likely to vote for tax reform despite their objections.

The two ACA bills have been the subject of several studies by health policy experts, but one analysis released Thursday indicates that the Collins-Nelson reinsurance bill and Alexander-Murray would, for two years, more than offset the 10 percent premium increases caused by the mandate’s repeal.

“This means that the package of provisions would more than offset the impact of repealing the individual mandate, and result in premiums that are roughly 10 percent lower,” according to Oliver Wyman Health, an actuarial consulting firm.

Oliver Wyman concluded that states could use the $5 billion in reinsurance money to leverage a total of $15 billion in federal money for reinsurance through waivers that would need to be approved by the Trump administration.

Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which analyzes health policy, said the Oliver Wyman analysis is “conceptually correct” although they might be a “little optimistic” on how much federal money could be leveraged by states. Levitt said he attributes most of the premium benefits to the Collins-Nelson reinsurance bill.

“The Collins-Nelson bill would blunt the effect of premium increases of repealing the individual mandate, although there would still be coverage losses,” Levitt said.

But Levitt said the extra reinsurance funding is temporary, while mandate repeal is permanent. Levitt said that states could alleviate the potential 13 million who would lose coverage with mandate repeal by approving individual mandates on the state level, automatic enrollments or other “carrots” that would get people to sign up for insurance.

Topher Spiro, vice president of health policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, said that the “Collins package does nothing” after two years. And he said that many states with conservative governments may balk at reinsurance programs.

“Will red states hostile to the ACA – which do not want to make the law work – act? It’s very uncertain,” Spiro said.

Staff Writer J. Craig Anderson contributed to this report.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: joelawlorph

Religious groups lose bid to allow churches to preach politics

Press Herald Politics -

NEW YORK — A provision that would have freed churches to make political endorsements has been dropped from the Republican tax overhaul, dashing the hopes of a segment of religious conservatives on what has been a key issue to the Trump administration.

Advocacy groups on opposing sides said Friday they expect lawmakers to keep trying to loosen rules over partisanship in the pulpit, even as this latest effort has reached a dead end.

Conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom have for years sought to abolish IRS rules that bar electioneering by houses of worship and other charitable groups. President Trump pressed the fight on the campaign trail and in the White House.

Still, only Congress has the authority to repeal the restriction known as the Johnson Amendment. It was named for President Lyndon Johnson, who introduced the measure in 1954 when he was a Democratic senator from Texas upset about a few nonprofit groups that had attacked him as a communist during a Senate race.

Under the IRS regulations, churches and other nonprofits can engage in a wide range of activity related to public issues, such as advocating for certain policies. However, pastors and churches are not allowed to endorse a particular candidate in a sermon or during church services without potentially losing their status as an organization exempted by the government from paying taxes. Even so, the IRS rarely enforces the rule.

The latest repeal effort was tucked into the Republican tax bill.

The House eliminated the restrictions for houses of worship and all nonprofits. The Senate bill did not include the provision, prompting a negotiation as a House-Senate committee worked to blend the two separate tax bills into a final package. The Senate parliamentarian decided the provision did not meet a Senate requirement that all parts of the bill be related to the budget.

Many religious groups want to keep the IRS restriction as is. They included the American Baptist Churches U.S.A., the Union for Reform Judaism, the Episcopal Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which counts Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson as a prominent member.

The groups say repealing the provision could divide their congregations along political lines and fear potential pressure from congregants to endorse politicians.

“They seemed most concerned about what this would do to their houses of worship and the communities that they value so much,” said Amanda Tyler, president of the Baptist committee. “They talked about how politically and ideologically diverse their church families are and how this could really tear at the heart of the community and both distract and divert them from the reason they come together as a church.”

A February survey by the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 40 denominations and thousands of churches, found 89 percent of evangelical leaders said pastors should not endorse politicians from the pulpit.

But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said opponents want to keep “religious leaders and churches muzzled or at least intimidated into silence” and vowed to keep fighting “until we have legislatively corrected this injustice or found a remedy in court.”

Analysis: Here’s a look at what’s in the final version of the Republican tax bill

Press Herald Politics -

Republicans were joyful Friday as they finalized their tax plan, bridging differences between the House and Senate bills and moving another step closer to getting legislation to President Trump by Christmas.

Republicans also appear, at least for now, to have locked down the votes they need to pass the measure through the House and Senate, after holdout Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., pledged their support.

Overall, the Tax Cut and Jobs Act is the largest one-time reduction in the corporate tax rate in American history: from 35 percent down to 21. The bill also lowers taxes for the vast majority of Americans and small-business owners – at least until the cuts expire after eight years.

Last-minute changes to the Republicans’ big plan gave a larger tax break to the wealthy and preserved certain tax savings for the middle class, including the student loan interest deduction, the deduction for excessive medical expenses, and the tax break for graduate students. A change Friday morning to win over Rubio gives expand the working-class families who kids a few hundred dollars more in money back from the government.

Here’s a rundown of what’s in the final bill. The full text is expected to be released to the public Friday and voted on early next week.

What is changing:

A new tax cut for the rich: The final plan lowers the top tax rate for top earners. Under current law, the highest rate is 39.6 percent for married couples earning over $470,700. The GOP bill would drop that to 37 percent and raise the threshold at which that top rate only kicks in. This amounts to a significant tax break for the very wealthy, a departure from repeated claims by President Trump and his top officials that the bill would not cut taxes on the rich. The new tax break for millionaires goes beyond what was in the original House and Senate bill, as Republicans sought to ensure wealthy earners in states such New York, Connecticut and California don’t end up paying substantially higher taxes as a result of the bill.

A massive tax cut for corporations to 21 percent: Starting on January 1, 2018, big businesses would see their tax rate fall from 35 percent to just 21 percent, the largest one-time rate cut in U.S. history for America’s largest companies. The House and Senate bills originally had the big-business tax rate falling to 20 percent, but Republicans were not able to make the math work to keep the rate that low and start it right away in the new year, so they compromised by moving the rate to 21. It’s still amounts to roughly a $1 trillion tax cut for businesses over the next decade. Republicans argue this will make the economy surge in the coming years, but most independent economists and Wall Street banks predict only a “modest” and short-lived boost to growth.

You can deduct just $10,000 in state, local and property taxes: One of the most controversial parts of the Republican tax plan is the push to greatly scale back how much state and local taxes Americans can deduct on their federal income taxes. Under current law, the state and local deduction (SALT) is unlimited. In the fina lRepublican plan, people can deduct up to $10,000. The House initially restricted the $10,000 deduction to just property taxes, but the final bill allows any state and local taxes to be deducted, whether for property, income or sales taxes. The move is widely viewed as a hit to blue-states like New York, Connecticut and California, and there are concerns it could cause property values to fall in high-tax cities and leave less money for public schools and road repairs.

Working-class families get a bigger Child Tax Credit: Thanks to a late push by Marco Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, the Child Tax Credit became more generous low-income families and the working class. The current Child Tax Credit is $1,000 per kid. Both the House and Senate bills expanded the Child Tax Credit, with the Senate going up to a maximum of $2,000 per child. The final bill keeps the $2,000 per child credit (families making up to about $400,000 get take the credit), but it also makes more of the tax credit refundable, meaning families that work but don’t earn enough to actually owe any federal income taxes will get a large check back from the government. Benefits for those families were initially limited to about $1,100, but through changes Rubio and Lee pushed for, it’s now up to $1,400.

You can inherit up to $11 million tax-free: In the end, the estate tax (often called the “death tax” by opponents) remains, but far fewer families will have to pay it. Under current law, Americans can inherit up to $5.5 million tax-free (that threshold is $11 million for married couples). The House wanted to do away with the estate tax entirely, but some senators felt that was too much of a giveaway to the mega rich. The final compromise was to double the threshold, so now the first $11 million that people inherit in property, stocks and other assets won’t be taxed (and yes, that means $22 million for married couples).

LePage, on visit to D.C., to press to remove junk food from food stamp purchases

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage says he plans to bring up his proposal to prevent the use of food stamps for junk food during a visit to Washington, D.C.

LePage, who blames the sugar lobby for resistance to his proposal, planned to travel to Washington for a holiday party this week.

LePage told The Associated Press that even though Maine children and adults are dealing with obesity and type 2 diabetes, the federal government won’t allow him to take soft drinks, chocolate bars and candy off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s list of allowed foods.

LePage had hoped a new presidential administration would listen. Federal officials earlier this year asked the Republican governor to provide more details.

Republicans on track to pass massive tax plan after Marco Rubio pledges support

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans appear to have secured enough support to pass their massive tax plan into law after one critical holdout, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., signaled he would vote for it after last-minute changes.

Rubio emerged as a final challenge in a complicated political puzzle that the White House and Republican leaders have been assembling for the past two months.

They worked – often behind closed doors – to build a $1.5 trillion tax package that would impact almost every American family and business.

Republicans thought they had finished crafting the tax bill Thursday, but Rubio threatened to block the measure if more changes weren’t made to expand access to the Child Tax Credit for low and middle-income families.

Many of his colleagues were furious, but they relented and made changes overnight to expand the tax credit for millions of working families. On Friday afternoon, Rubio spokeswoman Olivia Cubas-Perez said he would vote for the bill.

Rubio, in a series of Twitter posts, called the planned expansion of the Child Tax Credit a “solid step toward broader reforms” that he planned to continue working on in the months and years to come.

Americans will lose the personal exemptions that often dictate how much money is withheld from their paychecks. They will instead pay taxes through a new regime that exempts a higher level of income from taxation and then subjects much of the rest to lower tax rates. Many more Americans will have access to the expanded Child Tax Credit, but they will also lose the ability to deduct large amounts of state income and local property taxes. On net, Republicans believe the changes will lower most people’s taxes. But there will be many Americans who see their taxes go up, particularly those in high-tax states like New York, New Jersey and California.

The House and Senate plan to vote on the tax bill next week, clearing the way for President Donald Trump to sign it into law. Many of its changes – lower tax rates and fewer deductions – will go into effect in January, though it will likely take some time for the economy to adjust.

The package has sweeping political and economic changes, and the ramifications might not be fully known for years.

It would represent Trump’s first major legislative victory and includes both an overhaul of the tax code and a targeted change to the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have long sought to dismantle.

The tax plan has enormous benefits for many businesses, with a permanent and sharp reduction in tax rates that Republicans believe will trigger more economic growth and lead to higher wages.

It also changes the tax system for American households, temporarily lowering rates and creating new limits on deductions that are expected to lower the taxes of most Americans but could still lead millions to owe the government more.

The plan will also add at least $1 trillion to the debt over 10 years, based on numerous economic forecasts, an issue that will likely intensify policy debate in Washington into 2018.

The bill was originally pitched as a sweeping tax cut for the middle class, but it changed over the course of several months as Republicans demanded a variety of changes.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., extracted more tax cuts for businesses whose owners file their taxes through the individual income tax code.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and East Coast Republicans demanded changes that allow Americans to deduct up to $10,000 state and local taxes.

House Republicans tried to cap the mortgage-interest deduction to interest paid on up to $500,000 in new home loans, but they acquiesced eventually to a $750,000 cap.

A number of Republican donors complained that the bill could push their taxes up, so Republicans agreed to a late change that lowers the top tax rate to 37 percent.

For many Americans, the tax bill could have an immediate impact.

It could alter the tax benefit of mortgages issued in just two weeks, and Americans could see more take-home pay in their paychecks by February.

The process of filing taxes each year will change, however, and could lead Americans to change how they allocate money. It could also lead companies to restructure, based on their income, investment and spending patterns.

Many of the changes made late in the negotiations benefited businesses and the wealthy, but Rubio’s late-stage demands pulled the package back a bit more toward its working-class roots.

Republicans had proposed to expand the Child Tax Credit from $1,000 to $2,000, but the benefits formula they’d planned to use would have capped the credit for many low and moderate-income families at $1,100. Rubio demanded the credit be raised, and Republicans at first believed he would balk, in part because he voted for the Senate bill even after the party rebuffed his effort to expand the Child Tax Credit in that measure.

But when he threatened Thursday to block the bill and appeared to have the backing of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Republican leaders agreed to make changes and expand the tax credit up to $1,400 for those families.

Republicans had only passed an earlier version of the bill through the Senate with a 51-49 vote, and losing two more members could have proven fatal. Rubio’s support appeared to give them the margin of victory they needed to enact it into law.

Democrats have blasted the tax plan, accusing it of showering corporations with lower taxes at the expense of driving up the debt and giving only temporary and uneven benefits to the middle class. Public opinion polls show many Americans share this view, but Republicans have persisted, with many believing it will lead to a surge in economic growth and buoy their prospects going into the 2018 midterm elections.

The Washington Post’s Heather Long contributed to this report.

Not Real News: A look at what didn’t happen this week

Press Herald Politics -

A roundup of some of the most popular, but completely untrue, headlines of the week. None of these stories are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked these out; here are the real facts:

NOT REAL: UPDATE: Alabama Election Officials Found 5,329 More Dead Folks Who Voted For Jones

THE FACTS: Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill dismissed the viral story that over 5,000 of the votes for Democrat Doug Jones in Tuesday’s special U.S. Senate election were cast by the dead. “There are not 5,000 dead people on the voters rolls unless they died today,” Merrill told the AP Thursday. The story is one of several false claims that cropped up after Jones’ victory over Roy Moore. Merrill also denied reports that vans of people in the country illegally voted in the race, and that University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban got all the write-in votes. The state has not begun counting the write-in votes, he said.

NOT REAL: BREAKING: Roy Moore’s accuser arrested and charged with falsification

THE FACTS: A story published by a satire site called NoFakeNewsOnline and many others reported that Alabama Attorney General John Simmons filed misdemeanor charges of falsification against Mary Lynne Davies for accusing Moore of assaulting her. John Simmons is not the state’s attorney general, Steve Marshall is; and Mary Lynne Davies is not among the eight women who have publicly accused Moore of misconduct. Another story published on a hoax site claimed another Moore accuser had recanted her claims in a TV interview; the accuser was identified as Harley Hannah, not one of the eight women who have accused Moore, and was linked to a picture of a British singer.

NOT REAL: BREAKING: First NFL Team Declares Bankruptcy Over Kneeling Thugs

THE FACTS: The Jacksonville Jaguars say they have no plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, despite the claims first published this month on the Patriot Post satire site and shared widely on several conservative sites. The satire piece said the Jaguars had lost income because team members knelt for the national anthem at home games. The team has not knelt for the anthem since September. The story also said it planned to file in the 3rd District Court of Atlanta. There is no court by that name, and any bankruptcy court filings for Jacksonville would go through the Middle District of Florida.

NOT REAL: London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, approves ‘banned’ Jihadi bank

THE FACTS: Khan did not approve the opening of a bank that funds terrorism and has been banned in the U.S., despite the claims of the conspiracy site YourNewsWire. For one thing, the mayor has no authority to approve the opening of any banks; that job in Britain goes to the Financial Conduct Authority. Khan did announce the opening in September of two London branches of Habib Bank AG Zurich , a Switzerland-based institution. There is a similarly named, but unrelated, entity called Habib Bank Ltd. , which is Pakistan’s largest bank and is based in Karachi. Habib Bank Ltd. was fined by New York state this year for failing to stop illicit money flows, including terrorist financing. Habib Bank AG Zurich has no offices in the U.S.

NOT REAL: Get a Free $50 Coupon from Starbucks by Taking an Online Survey

THE FACTS: Starbucks is not giving out $50 coupons in exchange for completing an online survey. The coffee chain said the links being shared on social media are phony and have been circulating for years. After people click the link and take the fake survey, they are told to share the link on their own Facebook account. Some signs the survey is fake: the Starbucks logo may look outdated and the wording in the survey may have typos or spelling errors. Starbucks said customers who can’t tell if a promotion is the real deal can call Starbucks customer care or ask an in-store employee.

Latest call to rein in how Maine PAC money can be spent fizzles

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where it’s single-digit cold but campaign season is heating up and so is the debate about campaign finances.

On Thursday, Sen. Justin Chenette proposed tightening what he sees as loopholes in the system. Now, legislative leaders who run political action committees can use money from the PACs for personal benefit. Chenette, a Saco Democrat, pitched his proposal — “An Act to Close Loopholes in Election Laws and Ban the Use of Leadership Political Action Committees for Personal Profit” — to the Legislative Council, which met to consider after-deadline bill requests for consideration when the Legislature returns in January.

“This is about strengthening ethics and government accountability and I think it’s worth a public hearing,” Chenette said to the 10-member panel.

The situation Chenette describes is not unheard of. Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, was fined $9,000 in August for late campaign finance filings after the Maine Ethics Commission found he had commingled business funds with money from his PAC, Respect Maine. In 2016, then-Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, paid a $500 fine after the commission found that she didn’t report using an email list she developed to raise money for her Maine Senate primary run. In 2014, Then-Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, was found to have routed more than half of the haul by his leadership committee to himself and family members. Tuttle went on to lose his next election after 28 years in the Legislature.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau pushed back on Chenette’s proposal. Thibodeau, a Winterport Republican, has a leadership PAC, but hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. He said if the Legislature is going to look into PAC spending, it should also investigate how funds from Maine’s taxpayer-funded Clean Election system are being used, particularly in the area of advertising. He suggested that some of that money is being funneled to businesses owned by sitting lawmakers. “If we’re going to take on the ethics debate, it should be a broad debate,” Thibodeau said.

Chenette said that’s outside the scope of his bill. The Democrat is willing to debate the clean elections system but said that proposal belongs in its own bill, not his. The fate of Chenette’s bill remains in flux. The council voted 9-1 to table it.

But Thibodeau wasn’t done. He suggested that the council draft a letter to the Maine Ethics Commission, asking them to study reporting requirements across all campaign finance sources and report back to the Legislature with recommendations. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, called that kind of request from the council “very unusual” and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Thibodeau could use his position to write his own letter. Thibodeau’s motion to send the letter was defeated, 7-3.

“It is very important to acknowledge that the reason that we’re talking about this particular issue today is that there have been numerous legislators in the last four years who have taken advantage of having a PAC for personal benefit,” Gideon said. “It’s an important issue.”

This is an old debate renewed. There has been disagreement about the clean elections system since it was implemented in 1996. Though it’s widely used by both major political parties in Maine, many Republicans oppose the use of taxpayer money in campaigns. There are attempts to change the system virtually every legislative session and in recent years, the funding has been an issue and it is now as we head into next year’s election. The fund pays gubernatorial candidates up to $1 million for a primary and $2 million for a general election. It has around $4.5 million in it now and at least eight 2018 gubernatorial candidates are vying to use the funds. The issue of Chenette’s bill and Thibodeau’s letter will be decided later, likely when the Legislature returns.

Congress’ next spending bill may not have what Collins wants

Congress is poised to pass another stopgap government funding bill and Republicans say it won’t have changes demanded by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Talking Points Memo on Thursday detailed Republicans’ plan to fund the government through Jan. 19 and it won’t include two health care bills that Collins, a Maine Republican, wants passed to offset impacts on consumers’ health insurance premiums from repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate in the Republican tax bill.

That casts doubt on a promise made to Collins that the bills will pass by year’s end. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has promised Collins that those bills would pass by year’s end. They have been a condition of her tax vote. But the tax bill — which Collins thinks will have three of her amendments in it — is up for a Tuesday vote, so a yes vote may be a leap of faith. Talking Points Memo said she “appeared irritated” at Thursday questions on that, but that the Senate could pass a spending bill with them in it. Of course, the House would have to approve it.

“You know, I’m really tired of the cynicism of the press,” she told TPM with a tight smile. “Why don’t we wait and see what happens?”

Reading list
  • A independent review released Thursday urged Maine to overhaul its juvenile justice system, citing “dangerous and harmful conditions” at a South Portland facility. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy said that low staffing levels and a high population of teens with mental illnesses at Long Creek Development Center have created the conditions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine urged the state to close Long Creek on Thursday.
  • Two addiction experts panned recommendations from a Maine legislative task force on solving the opioid crisis. One called them “the same recommendations that have been made multiple times before” and said they didn’t go far enough. The task force released their recommendations on Tuesday, but they mostly expand on existing programs. One addiction counselor said the state needs to make an overdose-reversing drug more available, create more residential detox beds and expand Medicaid.
  • A Democratic lawmaker’s bid to get the Maine Legislature to call neo-Nazis terrorists stalled on Thursday. Also in the Legislative Council, a bill from Rep. Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, to get a resolution condemning neo-Nazis stalled after Republican leaders balked at voting on it. Thibodeau said Republicans wanted more time to review the proposed language and “to find something that we can all agree on.”
We have all these independents. Now where are we going to put them?

The number of sitting lawmakers who don’t associate with a major political party is growing in the Maine House of Representatives, which now has six independents and a Green Independent. In the past few months, three Democrats and a Republican have left their parties.

Aside from the political implications, there’s a question of where to put them and their staff of one, according to Grant Pennoyer, executive director of the Legislative Council, who brought the issue to the board on Thursday. He suggested putting them in the Cross Building, which is attached to the State House and which he called “prime legislative space.”

Republicans and Democrats on the council, who have most of the office space surrounding the House and Senate chambers, agreed that the adjacent building is a suitable location for the independents and the Green.

All this is a grand opportunity for some Huey Lewis. Here’s the new Cross crew’s soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Programming note

The Daily Brief will be a little less daily through the end of 2017, since we’re going to be taking some odd vacation time. We’ll publish it on Tuesdays and Thursdays until Jan. 2, when we’ll return to the regular schedule.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Maine task force to pursue state-based improvements to health care system

Press Herald Politics -

As Congress decides whether to repeal a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, a Maine-based task force set to meet for the first time next week will be studying state-based fixes to the health care system. Included in the discussion would be long-shot proposals to establish a single-payer system in Maine.

The Health Care Coverage Task Force – created by the Legislature after a hearing on a single-payer bill that failed earlier this year – will meet Wednesday in Augusta to begin a wide-ranging discussion on health care. The task force includes residents, a bipartisan mix of eight lawmakers, and representatives from health care groups, hospitals, the insurance industry, and small and large employers.

Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, a physician who is on the task force, said that although he supports single-payer in theory, he’s looking for practical solutions that can be supported by Republicans, Democrats, patients, hospitals and health care professionals.

“No health care reform is going to work unless we bring everyone to the table,” Gratwick said.

Democrats tend to support single-payer, but Republicans are usually opposed.

While many European countries and Canada have established universal health care systems, the United States created the Affordable Care Act under then-President Barack Obama, reforming the existing system rather than creating a single-payer version. No state has adopted a single-payer system despite several attempts to do so.

Single-payer means that a single entity – usually the federal government – is responsible for paying health care providers such as doctors and hospitals. Out-of-pocket costs for individuals go down, but taxes are increased to compensate. The U.S. has elements of a single-payer system in the Medicare and Medicaid systems for seniors, the disabled and low-income populations. The ACA reduced the number of uninsured by expanding Medicaid and offering subsidized insurance to working-class and middle-income families that didn’t have employer-based insurance.

SINGLE-PAYER PASSAGE FAILED IN OTHER STATES

Since congressional Democrats and Obama muscled the ACA through Congress on a party-line vote in 2010, many Republicans have argued that it doesn’t work well and have tried to dismantle it.

President Trump and congressional Republicans came within one vote of repealing the ACA this summer – with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine a key “no” vote – and are trying to weaken the ACA in a number of ways, including by repealing the individual mandate in the pending tax reform bill.

Repealing the individual mandate – which requires people who can’t get insurance through an employer to purchase coverage or pay a penalty – would result in 13 million fewer Americans with health care coverage, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. The Trump administration also has cut ACA advertising and outreach budgets and slashed the enrollment period from 12 weeks to six.

Meanwhile, as Congress and the Trump administration consider ways to undermine the ACA, California is exploring adoption of a single-payer system. A bill to create single-payer stalled in the California Legislature this year, but Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is a strong supporter of universal health care and he is considered a leading Democratic candidate for governor next year.

However, other efforts to create state-based single-payer systems have collapsed – including in Vermont in 2015, Oregon in 2002, Colorado in 2016 and California in 1994. Voters soundly rejected single-payer ballot initiatives in Oregon, Colorado and California.

John McDonough, professor of the practice of public health at Harvard University, said single-payer system proposals in the United States have failed when details start emerging.

“As much as people are attracted to the idea, it has always fallen apart when you get to the issue of finance. How are we going to pay for it? Then the exuberant support fades, people’s fears take over and it falls apart,” McDonough said.

OTHER TYPES OF REFORMS HOLD POTENTIAL

He said the referendums in Oregon, Colorado and California started with promising levels of public support before failing at the polls, with less than 30 percent of voters voting “yes.”

But Delene Perley, education and communications chair for Maine AllCare, a group that advocates for single-payer, said she looks to Canada, which started in the provinces before becoming a countrywide system in the 1980s.

“If we can’t get universal health care done nationally, we can start in the states,” Perley said. She said she’s also encouraged by the Nov. 7 vote in Maine to expand Medicaid, which passed with 59 percent of the vote. Perley believes Maine AllCare eventually will launch a referendum drive.

“It’s headed that way,” she said. “That Medicaid vote was a good sign. People want health care that they can access and afford.”

Perley doesn’t hold out much hope that the Maine task force will recommend a single-payer system, but “it’s a start. It’s opening the discussion,” she said.

McDonough said there are many reforms that states can approve to improve health care affordability without going to a single-payer system, such as a robust reinsurance program in Alaska that allows people to “buy into” Medicare or Medicaid, or simply offering more generous subsidies on the ACA’s individual market.

For instance, the Massachusetts state government approved a system similar to the ACA in the 2000s under Republican Gov. Mitt Romney that offered enrollees more generous subsidies than what was later approved under the ACA. When the ACA’s individual market started in 2013, Massachusetts continued the generous subsidies – supplementing federal ACA funding with state dollars – so that enrollees wouldn’t see their health care costs go up, McDonough said.

He said the more generous system has led to Massachusetts having the lowest uninsured rate in the nation, at 2.8 percent.

McDonough said there’s nothing stopping any state from making reforms similar to the ones in Massachusetts, which would lower health insurance costs and make coverage more affordable for those buying on the individual market.

“You can go for the so-called ‘perfect system’ in single-payer, and end up with nothing,” he said. “Or you can make these other, more incremental, reforms.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: joelawlorph

Americans doubt Trump’s story on collusion with Russia, poll finds

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — Most Americans think Donald Trump did something illegal or at least unethical regarding ties between his presidential campaign and Russia – and they think he’s trying to obstruct the investigation looking into those possible connections.

The deeply divided country is more concerned about health care and the economy than any collusion with the Kremlin, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But the survey also shows that Americans are unhappy with the way Trump is dealing with the investigations led by Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller.

Most people believe Trump is trying to obstruct the investigations, which have produced charges against four of his campaign advisers and increasingly appear focused on the president’s inner circle.

Four in 10 Americans think the president has done something illegal when it comes to Russia, while an additional 3 in 10 say he’s at least done something unethical. And 68 percent disapprove of his response to the investigations.

RESULTS FALL ALONG PARTY LINES

There are significant partisan divisions, with Democrats far more likely than Republicans to be concerned about Trump’s actions or to feel invested in what the probes uncover.

Debra Nanez in Arizona said that she believes Trump broke the law and has been lying to the American people.

“If you go back and do a rewind, you say, ‘Yep, he’s guilty.’ He’s lied so badly to us from the beginning until now. He was involved in it. He knew what was going on,” said Nanez, 65, who doesn’t affiliate with a political party.

But Mary Ruth Stephenson, 83, of Kentucky says she’s not yet sure whether Trump has broken the law.

“Unethical, yes. I mean the whole picture of that man is unethical. Illegal? I’ll just have to hold that in abeyance until I find out more about what went down,” said Stephenson, a registered Republican who says she’s unhappy with the current party.

Overall, 62 percent of Democrats say they think Trump has done something illegal, while just 5 percent of Republicans think the same. Among Republicans, 33 percent think he’s done something unethical, while 60 percent think he’s done nothing wrong at all.

Both Nanez and Stephenson, like 63 percent of Americans, say Trump has tried to impede or obstruct the investigations into whether his campaign had Russian ties. According to the survey, 86 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents and 24 percent of Republicans agree.

Still, just short of half of Americans – 47 percent – say they’re extremely or very concerned about whether Trump or others involved with his campaign had inappropriate contacts with the Russian government. Those results fall along party lines, too, and are largely unchanged since March.

“I feel like there are so many more important issues that we could be focusing on other than something that’s basically water under the bridge,” said Martina Childers, a 53-year-old Republican who lives in Colorado.

LITTLE FAITH IN COLLUSION PROBE

She said the economy, taxes, the military and small-business concerns are more pressing issues. The Russia investigations? “I don’t think that’s so important. I just don’t,” she said.

Childers’ views reflect the feelings of a majority of Americans. Just 4 in 10 call the Russia investigation very or extremely important to them. By contrast, immigration, taxes and health care are all considered much more important, according to the survey.

Melinda McLaughlin, who identifies as an independent and lives in Ohio, said she, too, believes tax reform and the economy are more important issues, but that doesn’t mean she’s not concerned about the Russia investigations.

“I do feel like there was either collusion or a connection there that affected the election, and I do not feel like the president is telling the truth about his involvement in it,” said McLaughlin, who is 56.

She’s withholding judgment on whether she’ll trust the ultimate findings of Congress and Mueller.

In fact, at this point few Americans have high confidence in either Mueller or Congress to fairly investigate the issue.

Of the special counsel’s investigation, just 26 percent say they’re very or extremely confident that it will be fair and impartial, while an additional 31 percent are moderately confident. Opinions about the possibility of a fair and impartial congressional investigation are even lower, with just 13 percent saying they’re very or extremely confident in that happening and 32 percent saying they’re moderately confident.

In Colorado, Childers said she can’t completely trust Mueller.

“I feel like there may be some ulterior motives there,” she said, noting that Trump “ruffled a lot of feathers” when he took office.

But in rural Kentucky, Stephenson said she has high confidence in Mueller.

“I don’t see how anybody could be unbiased, but if he doesn’t show it in his investigation or his conclusions, that’s integrity,” she said of Mueller. “I have to go on what so many people have said: They believe in him. They trust him. They think he’s honest.”

Though, she couldn’t say the same thing about Congress.

“What a bunch of crap,” she said.

The AP-NORC poll surveyed 1,020 adults from Dec. 7-11 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population.

The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Interviews were conducted online and using landlines and cellphones.

Roy Moore still won’t concede defeat in Alabama Senate election

Press Herald Politics -

Two days after losing Alabama’s special Senate election, Republican nominee Roy Moore has yet to concede the race.

Moore, who suggested on election night that the race would go to a recount, said in a Wednesday web video that late-counted ballots could change the results of the election.

“We have not received the final count to include military and provisional ballots,” Moore said. “This has been a very close race, and we are awaiting certification by the secretary of state.”

Moore, who lost by 20,715 votes, has received no official support from his party since digging in. President Trump congratulated Democratic Sen.-elect Doug Jones on election night. Alabama’s Republican Party, which stood by Moore when national Republicans abandoned him, congratulated Jones on Wednesday. At Thursday’s White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders expressed surprise that Moore had not made a concession call.

“Sounds like it should’ve already taken place,” she said.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who sided with Moore’s campaign during several election controversies, has said that the election will be certified Dec. 28. But at the same time, Merrill’s office has had to brush off conspiracy theories promoted by pro-Moore websites, which have suggested that the results were tainted by fraud.

One theory, which went viral before being debunked by Snopes.com, was that multiple black voters were caught trying to vote with fake IDs. (More than 95 percent of black voters supported Jones, giving him his winning margin.) Another, also debunked quickly, was that vans of illegal voters were seen somewhere in the state.

Merrill’s office confirmed that there had been no actual reports of fraud. “There’s a lot of misdirection that comes in around Election Day,” said John Bennett, a spokesman for Merrill. “We got no reports that caused us enough concern to act against them.” Alabama’s voter ID law, which has survived tough legal challenges, had previously led to four convictions of voter impersonation.

Margaret Chase Smith Library showcases cards from U.S. leaders and Phyllis Diller

Press Herald Politics -

SKOWHEGAN — There’s Bill and Hillary Clinton. And Ike. And Nixon.

Thousands of cards, personal notes and letters from the nation’s leaders poured into the mailbox at U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s home in Skowhegan every year beginning in November and stretching through New Year’s Day.

Margaret Chase Smith Undated U.S. Senate Historical Office photo

There were Thanksgiving greetings, Christmas cards and birthday cards – Dec. 14 was her birthday – mailed to the Skowhegan-born senator who was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress and, in 1964, became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by either of the two major parties.

Smith died at her home in Skowhegan on Memorial Day, May 29, 1995, at the age of 97.

A collection of seasonal greeting cards sent to Smith has been collected by John Taylor, library assistant at the Margaret Chase Smith Library on Norridgewock Road, and is open for public viewing. The collection also has been uploaded online to Pinterest.

Angela Stockwell, library collection specialist and the one-time personal secretary to Smith, said she remembers Christmas cards and letters pouring in by the dozens. Stockwell said the senator responded to every piece of mail she received, whether it was from Skowhegan locals or the White House.

John Taylor, library assistant at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, assembled a collection of holiday greeting cards sent to the senator over the years and showed off notable ones on Thursday. Staff photo by David Leaming

“She dictated what she wanted to write to them, then I typed them,” Stockwell said. “Her mail was very important to her. That whole card period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, there would be thousands of cards that she would get – 60 or 70 a day. It was absolutely amazing. It was crazy, crazy. It was a busy, busy time.”

Taylor, the library assistant, said he came across a couple of Christmas cards a few years ago from U.S. presidents and heads of state and began checking for more. There were cards from vice presidents and people who ran for president, along with fellow senators, including Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie.

“So we decided to put it up on the Pinterest page, which is what we did,” he said. “The cards that she received from presidents would have been after her career had ended in the Senate or while she was working there from 1940 in Congress. The earliest that we have would be from the Eisenhowers – the first one was 1956.”

There are several cards from President Dwight Eisenhower, who served in the White House from 1953 to 1961. There is a signed portrait from President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, from Elizabeth and Bob Dole, from President George H.W. Bush and his vice president, Dan Quayle, Nelson Rockefeller and Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

“This one is from the Johnsons. It goes across party lines,” Taylor said of Lyndon Johnson, who was vice president under President John Kennedy and sworn in as the 36th president following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

A birthday card, bottom, signed by former President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and an invitation to a luncheon for Mrs. Clinton are part of a holiday greeting card collection at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, on Thursday. Staff photo by David Leaming

“We have a few from Nixon, Ford, Vice President Agnew. This one’s from Muskie, who of course ran for president as well,” Taylor said, flipping through collection scrapbooks in the library’s research room.

There also is a card from George and Maude Mueller. George Mueller, who sent a photo of the first moon landing in his greeting card, was associate administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight for NASA in the 1960s.

Conspicuously absent from the collection of greeting cards is anything from Kennedy. Taylor said the Republican Smith often disagreed with Kennedy, a Democrat.

“She sometimes questioned some of his actions and motives,” he said.

Among Smith’s admirers were comedienne Phyllis Diller and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We have lots of cards from Phyllis Diller, actually for different holidays – Valentine’s, Halloween,” Taylor said.

Smith and Diller were affiliated through Northwood University of Michigan, which was responsible for all daily operations and programs at the library until 2012, when the University of Maine assumed those responsibilities.

Diller had been named as a distinguished woman as part of a Northwood program, of which Smith was chairwoman.

There is a birthday card from President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton and a personal letter from Hillary Clinton.

“This would have been personally from the first lady at the time,” Taylor said, referring to the letter from Mrs. Clinton. “It’s dated October 1993 and it’s talking about how Margaret was an inspiration for her and it’s signed on the back. It says she’s grateful still for her leadership today. She passed away in ’95, so Bill would have still been in office at that point.”

Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

dharlow@centralmaine.com

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

Bill to regulate recovery homes moves forward in Legislature

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — Top leaders at the State House agreed to allow a bill to move forward Thursday that would set standards for residential treatment programs meant to help those recovering from opioid addiction.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, will be taken up when the Legislature convenes again in January.

“An Act to Ensure Quality and Increase Access to Recovery Residences,” is meant to establish standards for residential programs, that are currently unregulated beyond local zoning ordinances.

Bellows said the lack of any defined standards for recovery residences in Maine makes it difficult for patients and families to determine whether a particular residence will aid their recovery.

“It takes courage and determination for a person to say goodbye to their former lives and get on the path to recovery,” Bellows said in a prepared statement. “When Mainers take the step to enter a recovery residence, they deserve to know they’re getting the safe, healthy, stable environment they signed up for. By setting standards and expanding eligibility, recovery residences can become a key component of our fight against addiction and overdose.”

Maine is struggling to cope with an epidemic of opioid addiction that led to 376 drug overdose deaths in 2016, mostly from opioid drugs that include heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers. The crisis, which reaches into every corner of the state, has overwhelmed treatment resources and left public officials scrambling for solutions.

About 15,500 people received treatment for opioid addiction in 2015, but public health officials say the demand for treatment services is much higher. That demand has fueled the establishment of recovery houses, often called “sober houses,” especially in the Portland area – but the programs are essentially unregulated.

Bellows’ bill would have the state adopt standards set by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, a nonprofit affiliation of recovery house programs across about two dozen states and based in Minnesota. The alliance established a national standard for recovery houses that helps consumers identify the levels of services offered and compare resources and programs.

The legislation would also make people in recovery eligible for the Bridging Rental Assistance Program. The federally funded program provides housing subsidies to people with psychiatric conditions who lack the means to afford stable housing. The bill would amend rules to make it easier for people to use BRAP funds to pay the costs for placement in a recovery residence.

For a bill to be allowed in during the second session of the Legislature, which begins Jan. 3, the Legislative Council must conclude that the issue it addresses is an emergency, according to the state constitution.

“If ever there were an emergency it is the drug crisis, which is taking a toll on Maine families from all walks of life,” Bellows said. Her bill was endorsed by a special legislative task force that was set up to find solutions to the opioid crisis. The task force recently completed its work and forwarded a list of suggested bills, including Bellows’, to the full Legislature.

“Future generations will hold us accountable for ability to face the drug crisis head-on and save Maine lives,” Bellows said in thanking the Legislative Council for allowing the bill to move forward in January. “With its decisions today, the Council showed it’s serious about taking action.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

sthistle@pressherald.com

Twitter: thisdog

Pages

Subscribe to As Maine Goes aggregator