Political News In Brief: January 9-15

What a week! Russian election interference remained at the center of our national conversation. The Justice Department announced an investigation into the FBI director’s actions regarding Clinton’s emails. Congress began confirmation hearings on Trump’s cabinet nominees and geared up to repeal Obamacare. Trump talked smack about two American icons. And (ending this edition on a high note) Obama delivered his Farewell Address and later awarded Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

TOP STORIES

Allegations and Questions Abound about Trump’s Ties to Russia and Russia’s Influence on Our Presidential Election

This explosive and ongoing story began on Tuesday (Jan 10) when BuzzFeed dumped an unverified, classified document on the Internet called “US Presidential Election: Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin.” CNN ran with this “breaking news,” and other news agencies quickly followed – for the first time making public what they, and many others, have long been aware of but have neither confirmed nor disproved.

The document Trump received in a briefing alleges that Russia has been gathering information on Trump for five years, intel that includes a sordid sexual romp in a Moscow hotel and questionable business negotiations – info ripe for blackmail, if true. The most serious allegation is that during the campaign the Kremlin fed “Trump and his team valuable information on his opponents,” including on Hillary Clinton.

Trump strongly denounced the unproven claims on Wednesday (Jan 11), during his first press conference as President-elect. He blamed the intelligence community for the leak (which it has denied) and lambasted the media for carrying the story.

Wednesday night, according to an intriguing New York Times story on how the document came to be, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper talked with Trump and then released a statement saying that intelligence agencies don’t know if the information in the document is reliable or not – although the former British agent who uncovered it has an excellent reputation with the intelligence community.

In his news conference on Wednesday, Trump finally acknowledged what the intelligence community had been saying all along: that the Russians had hacked and made public emails belonging to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The next day (Jan 12) in their joint statement, a Republican and Democrat announced that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence would engage in a bipartisan inquiry on Russian inference in the recent elections. They said, “we believe that it is critical to have a full understanding of the scope of Russian intelligence activities impacting the United States.” (NPR)

Justice Department to Investigate FBI Director James Comey about His Handling of the Clinton Email Case

Michael Horowitz, Inspector General of the Justice Department, announced on Thursday (Jan 12) that he would open an investigation on FBI Director Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case, including Comey’s “decision to discuss it at a news conference and to disclose 11 days before the election that he had new information that could lead him to reopen it.” (NYT)

Apparently the FBI found nothing new: three days before the election Comey closed the case. But the damage was done. In fact, Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters believe that Comey’s actions then, as well as his unprecedented announcement in July calling her use of a private email server “extremely careless,” cost her the election. Members of both parties have questioned Comey’s judgment to make statements that appear to violate the FBI’s policy never to appear partisan and never to do anything that could influence an election.

OTHER NEWS OF INTEREST

Key Cabinet Nominees Disagree with Trump

This past week the US Senate held confirmation hearings on a number of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, nominee for Attorney General, received the most media attention because of actions, ancient and recent, that suggest he holds racist beliefs. Of great interest to me, however, is the extent to which Sessions and other nominees disagreed with Trump on statements he repeatedly made before and after the election.  

Sessions, for example, said he believes that water-boarding is illegal and that a ban on Muslims entering the country is unconstitutional; Trump has disagreed.

Former ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson, nominee for Secretary of State, called Russian president Putin an “international threat” that we must counter. He also opposes a Muslim ban and is committed to NATO; Trump has said the opposite.

General James Mattis, nominee for Secretary of Defense, said he supports the Iran nuclear agreement, “a stark contrast from Mr. Trump’s view that the Iran negotiations produced ‘one of the dumbest deals ever.’”

And like Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, nominee for CIA director, all of these “nominees have taken strong stands against Russia” and agree with the intelligence community that Russia meddled in our presidential election.

Perhaps, as Representative Susan Collins of Maine said, “Trump wants advisers who will bring him different views.” That would be, as she says, “very healthy”; or, as the New York Times suggests, “it could lead to confused messages both to our allies and adversaries.”

Republicans Start the Process of Repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

On Friday (Jan 13), the Republican-led Congress’ first act was to rush “approval of a budget resolution … that sets up a framework for repealing Obamacare.” The proposed budget includes cutting off funds for Planned Parenthood. At this time, Republicans haven’t arrived at an affordable replacement that would keep the popular ACA benefits (for example, coverage of preexisting conditions) and eliminate the unpopular parts (for example, the mandate to have health insurance).  (NPR)

Trump Slams American Icons in Tweets

Last Sunday night (Jan 8) at the Golden Globes, actress Meryl Streep was honored for a lifetime of notable work. During her acceptance speech she described her shock at watching a person seeking the presidency mock a disabled reporter, someone “he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.” Never directly mentioning Trump, she said, “It sank its hooks in my heart.” The next day Trump tweeted that Streep was “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and a “Hillary flunky who lost big.” (NYT)

Then on Friday (Jan 13) in an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, said that “he did not regard Trump to be ‘a legitimate president’ because of allegations that high-level Russian operatives interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf.” Early the next morning Trump tweeted that Lewis is “falsely complaining about the election results” while his district “is in horrible shape and falling apart.” Trump, as he sometimes does in retaliatory lobs, ended his two-part tweet with “Sad!” Many have come to Lewis’ defense since then. (Washington Post).

BEST MOMENTS OF THE WEEK

Obama Delivered His Farewell Speech to a Rapturous Crowd

On Tuesday night (Jan 10) in Chicago where his political career began, President Obama delivered his farewell address, speaking, as the New York Times says, “to a rapturous crowd that recalled the excitement of his path-breaking campaign in 2008.” He offered a message of hope, a warning against giving in to fear, and a call for individual action. Early in his speech he listed several of his administration’s accomplishments:

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high

As I watched his speech live on TV, like so many others I was deeply moved. He ended his address by asking us to believe – “Yes, we can!” 

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

 Obama Farewell Address full video and text 

Obama Bestows the United States’ Highest Civilian Honor on Biden

In a surprise move on Thursday (Jan 12), President Obama awarded Vice President Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling Biden “my brother” and saying, “He’s as good a man as God ever created.” Biden, deeply moved, told Obama, “This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it’s a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don’t deserve this but I know it came from the President’s heart.” (CNN)

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Whew! That’s a lot of news for one week – and yet there was so much more I could have mentioned. If you spot any factual errors, please let me know. Thanks!

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