Treasury Secretary Denies House Dems Requests to See President Trump’s Tax Returns

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin informed congressional Democrats today he will not comply with requests to hand over President Donald Trump’s personal tax returns.

“I am informing you now that the Department may not lawfully fulfill the Committee’s request,” Mnuchin wrote in a one-page letter to the House Ways and Means Committee. That committee’s chairman, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) made the request under a U.S. law that says the Treasury Department must furnish tax returns if they are requested by Congress.

“Today, Secretary Mnuchin notified me that the IRS will not provide the documents I requested under Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code,” Neal told reporters. “I will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response.”

Neal could issue a subpoena for the documents or House Democrats could move to hold Mnuchin in contempt of Congress.

The ranking Republican on the Ways and Mans Committee, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) applauded the Treasury Secretary’s decision.

“After consulting with the Justice Department the Treasury Department has come to the firm conclusion that we have known since day one: this request from House Democrats to weaponize the tax code for purely political reasons is illegitimate and should be treated as such,” Brady wrote in a statement.

President Trump has refused to release his personal tax returns since the 2016 presidential election breaking years of precedent. He claims his returns are under audit and his accounting team has advised him against releasing the returns while they are under review.

Photo by The White House

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The President Declares a National Emergency Seeking Funds for Southern Border Wall

Citing a humanitarian crisis on the southern border, President Trump declared a national emergency yesterday from the White House. The declaration would allow the President to repurpose funds for the construction of a border wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The federal government shut down for a record 34 days over December and January over an impasse between the White House and Democrats in Congress over funding for the wall. The stalemate ended when President Trump agreed to a short-term funding resolution reopening the government for 3 weeks while a bipartisan conference committee negotiated a deal on border security.

That committee reached an agreement this week, but it provided $1.375 billion for construction of barriers along the southern border – substantially less than the $5.7 billion the White House requested. The amount was even less than the $1.6 billion contained in the Democrats’ offer to the President in December, before the shutdown.

President Trump, however dissatisfied with the agreement reached, indicated he would sign the spending bill, funding the government through the end of the fiscal year (September 30), and look for funds for the wall elsewhere.

The Trump administration as identified about $8.1 billion in funds available for use for the border wall, which includes $1.375 billion from the spending bill approved this week and around $6.7 billion in reprogrammed funds.

By declaring a national emergency the President says he can reallocate $601 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund, up to $2.5 billion from a Department of Defense counternarcotic activities fund and up to $3.6 billion from Department of Defense military construction projects.

The President downplayed the effect reprogramming the funds would have on military readiness.

“We had certain funds that are being used at the discretion…of the military. Some of them haven’t been allocated yet, and some of the generals think that this is more important,” the President said during a press conference from the Rose Garden.

“I was speaking to a couple of them. They think this is far more important than what they were going to use it for. I said, ‘What were you going to use it for?’ And I won’t go into details, but it didn’t sound too important to me,” he added.

Under the National Emergencies Act of 1976, Congress can pass a resolution striking down the declaration. That resolution would likely be vetoed by the President however and it is unlikely there are enough votes in Congress to override such a veto.

The President’s announcement, while not unexpected, drew criticism from congressional Democrats.

“The President’s unlawful declaration over a crisis that does not exist does great violence to our Constitution and makes America less safe, stealing from urgently needed defense funds for the security of our military and our nation,” read a joint statement issued by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed President, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process,” the statement added.

Some in the President’s own party also voiced concern about the move.

“Unnecessary, unwise and inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) called the move.

“It is…of dubious constitutionality,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

“We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, echoing warnings from Democrats that the step sets a dangerous precedent.

“Today’s national emergency is border security. But a future president may use this exact same tactic to impose the Green New Deal. I will wait to see what statutory or constitutional power the president relies on to justify such a declaration before making any definitive statement. But I am skeptical it will be something I can support,” he said.

Not all Republicans are against the move however. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for example, has been calling for the President to declare a national emergency since January.

Importantly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he is in agreement with the President. “I’ve indicated to him that I’m going to support the national emergency declaration,” McConnell said from the Senate floor Thursday in making the announcement.

In addition to the congressional resolution, Democrats are likely to mount legal challenges against the declaration. Constitutional experts agree the Democrats’ case would be on sound legal footing, as the Constitution grants the power of purse solely to Congress.

President Trump acknowledged the tricky road ahead should such challenges come but said ultimately he will prevail.

“I’ll sign the final papers as soon as I get into the Oval Office…and then we will be sued…and we will possibly get a bad ruling, and then we’ll get another bad ruling. And then we’ll end up in the Supreme Court…and we’ll win in the Supreme Court,” the President said.

Photo by The White House

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Scandals Pile Up for Pruitt at EPA

Scandals continue to plague Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Kevin Chmielewski, a former deputy chief of staff for operations at the EPA is expected to testify before Congress in coming weeks about “secret” calendars used to keep meetings that might paint the job Pruitt is doing in a negative light off of his official calendar.

The alternate calendars were meant to hide meetings and calls with industry representatives and others that might appear controversial.

The story was first reported by CNN.

EPA staffers routinely met in Pruitt’s office to “scrub” Pruitt’s public calendar of records that might “look bad,” according to Chmielewski.

“We would have meetings what we were going to take off on the official schedule. We had at one point three different schedules. One of them was one that no one else saw except three or four of us,” Chmielewski said. “It was a secret … and they would decide what to nix from the public calendar.”

Chmielewski was forced to leave the EPA in February he says, after complaining about Pruitt’s spending and management.

A review by the network reportedly found discrepancies between Pruitt’s public-facing calendar and other records. According to CNN seven undisclosed meetings were held, for example, with individuals who were being considered for positions at the agency.

Pruitt has been under fire for weeks as revelations were made that a former top policy adviser to Pruitt, Samantha Davis, told Congress that Pruitt asked her to reach out to the Republican Attorneys General Association to look for jobs for his wife with annual salaries of at least $200,000. Davis reportedly refused to follow through on the request.

CNN also reported this week that Pruitt asked President Trump directly to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions with him, albeit on a temporary basis.

Pruitt’s negative publicity goes back months, as his office has been plagued by a slew of high-profile departures.

In May, it was also revealed that Pruitt had crossed White House demands and given two political staffers from his time as Oklahoma’s Attorney General large raises by exploiting an obscure EPA rule.

Pruitt’s travel habits, flying first class because of security concerns, have also received intense scrutiny.

The bad press has caused some conservatives to call for Pruitt’s resignation.

“Pruitt is the swamp. Drain it,” wrote conservative commentator Laura Ingraham on Twitter yesterday.

“I’m not going to come down here, just because he happens to be a nominee of a president I support … and try to defend the indefensible,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told Politico last month. Pruitt should have “learned his lesson” the first time he drew scrutiny for bad behavior, he added.

President Trump has been happy with the job Pruitt has been doing tearing through regulations at the EPA however, and while reports are the President has begun to find tedious Pruitt’s repeated scandals, no change is as of yet in the works at the agency.

“I mean, we’re setting records,” the President said last month. “Outside, he’s being attacked very viciously by the press. I’m not saying that he’s blameless, but we’ll see what happens.”

“The President feels as though Scott Pruitt has done a really good job with deregulating the government, to allow for a thriving economy, that’s important to him, but these things matter to the President as well, and he’s looking into those,” said White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley yesterday. “When we have an announcement, we’ll make it.”

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

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Massachusetts Signs Gun-Seizure Bill into Law

Massachusetts has become the latest state to allow law enforcement officials to remove firearms from individuals it deems to be a danger to themselves or to others. Governor Charlie Baker signed H. 4760 into law today, making The Bay State the twelfth state to pass a so-called “red flag” law.

Under the terms of the law, once a petition is filed against a gun owner, a hearing is held within ten days to determine whether the individual indeed poses a risk. If the judge in the hearing determines the person to be a risk, the individual will be ordered to surrender all firearms and to stay away from any weapons for a period of twelve months. They will have to relinquish any permits and their names will be entered into a federal database preventing them from purchasing any other weapons.

The Massachusetts law also allows for emergency protection orders to be issued, under which firearms are seized without notice. Under that contingency, firearms are removed up to ten days ahead of a hearing, at which point the judge in the case can decide to extend the order for up to a year or end it.

Baker, despite being a Republican, had previously indicated that he would sign the bill into law, citing support from the state’s police chiefs.

Massachusetts becomes the seventh state to sign a red flag into a law since the deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL, earlier this year with the enactment of H. 4760. Prior to that incident, California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut were the only states that had red flag laws. Since the shooting, Vermont, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and now Massachusetts, have passed red flag laws. A bill has passed the Illinois State Legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Despite outcries from students, parents and lawmakers, the Congress has failed to take concrete steps in passing gun control legislation in the wake of Parkland. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to acknowledge the futility of trying to get bipartisan gun legislation through Congress today when he said that any significant gun control measures would have to be passed at the local level.

“I don’t think at the federal level there’s much that we can do other than appropriate funds,” McConnell told a meeting of constituents in his home state of Kentucky Tuesday.

“It’s a darn shame that’s where we are but this epidemic is something that’s got all of our attention. And I know it’s got the attention of every school superintendent in the country,” he said.

Gun control advocates applauded Massachusetts’ move today.

“Today Massachusetts continues it’s [sic] incredible legacy of leading the country on gun sense laws. We are thrilled Gov. Baker, Rep. Decker and all lawmakers who supported this bill listened to their constituents, law enforcement officials, students and gun violence prevention activists, all of whom tirelessly advocated for this critical public safety law,” Molly Malloy, Volunteer with the Massachusetts chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America wrote in a statement emailed to ITN.

“Today’s Red Flag bill signing is an incredible victory for gun safety. We know this new law will save lives,” she added.

Gun rights advocates denounced the move. The Massachusetts-based Gun Owners Action League criticized the law as a violation of gun owners’ due process. “Its strict purpose is to take the gun, not provide help,” the group recently told The Huffington Post.

Photo by the Office of Gov. Charlie Baker

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Chaos at Pruitt’s EPA

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has received a slew of negative publicity in recent weeks amid accusations of abuse of power and several senior-level resignations. Several people within the agency have characterized those departures as staffers abandoning a sinking ship.

The first departure came several weeks when a close friend of Pruitt’s, Albert Kelly, who was hired when Pruitt became administrator, announced his resignation. Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill began looking into Kelly’s background in December when it was revealed he had been banned for life from working in the banking sector. There were also reports that Kelly helped Pruitt get financing for a mortgage as well as buy a minor league baseball team.

House members asked the EPA’s inspector general to look into Kelly’s actions. Kelly would resign week after the request. Inspector generals cannot force individuals to cooperate with an investigation once they leave government.

That was followed by the resignation of Pasquale Perrotta, the head of Pruitt’s security detail. Perrotta stepped down the day before he was set to testify before the House Oversight Committee. Perrotta was being looked into over reports he used his position to influence EPA security contracts.

Kevin Chmielewski, a former EPA employee, also told lawmakers in April that Perrotta began treating him with hostility when he questioned Pruitt’s travel expenses. According to Chmielewski, he returned from a business trip to Japan to find his office had been locked and his credentials revoked. He also claimed Perrotta called him, demanding he return his parking pass and threatening to go to Chmielewski’s home to take it by force if he didn’t.

Soon after that, the number two official in the press office, John Konkus, resigned. Konkus had been implicated as being the EPA official charged with preventing any initiative conflicting with the Trump administration’s deregulatory goals from receiving EPA grants.

Early last month, it was revealed that Pruitt had crossed White House demands and given two political staffers from his time as Oklahoma’s Attorney General large raises by exploiting an obscure EPA rule.

Pruitt’s travel habits, flying first class because of security concerns, have also received intense scrutiny in recent weeks.

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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Millennials Blame Baby Boomers for Their Problems

According to a new poll, 51% millennials blame baby boomers for making things worse for their generation. The survey also found that many baby boomers (36%), agreed with the sentiment.  Only 13% of millennials felt baby boomers had made things better for them.

The findings raise the possibility of competition between the generations becoming a key issue in the future, as the baby boomers and millennials compete for limited tax dollars.   Baby boomers will want to use the government’s resources for safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare.  Millennials may begin looking for government assistance for things like universal basic income, which is becoming a concern with the onset of the automated economy.

According to an earlier study released by Bain’s Macro Trends Group, “This new conflict will pit millennial workers displaced by machines against boomers living on Social Security and Medicare.”

“Who votes, who wins, and who goes to the polls become a highly politicized issue potentially,” says Karen Harris, managing director of Bain’s Macro Trends Group.”

Those polled were asked about possible solutions for their problems.  The responses included impeaching President Trump, voting out all old members of government, instituting Congressional term limits and sleeping more to avoid reacting to things negatively.

The poll also found that a majority of millennials are not very confident in their financial responsibility, with only 56% of those polled saying that are “very” or “extremely” confident in how they manage money. That’s compared to 86% of baby boomers who said they are confident in their money-managing decisions.

According to Axios/SurveyMonkey, the poll was conducted April 9-13 among 4,638 adults in the United States. Data was weighted for age, race, sex, and education using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Photo by State Farm via Flickr

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New Immigrants Better Educated but Not Better Employed

A new study by the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies found that the education levels for new immigrants has increased dramatically in the last decade, but employment and income have not kept pace by nearly as much.

The study found that the share of new immigrants with a college degree has increased from 34% to 49% between 2007 and 2017. That 16-point increase is far greater than the 4% increase for native-born Americans. The percentage of native-born Americans with a bachelor’s degree increased to only 35% from 31%.

The percentage of newly-arrived immigrants who have not completed high school also decreased dramatically, dropping from 34% in 2007 to about 16% in 2017. The same measure only dropped about two percentage points from 8% to 6% during the same time for native Americans.

The rise in education levels for newly-arrived immigrants has not corresponded to more employment or better-paying jobs however. The median household income for immigrants dropped from $19,125 to $18,402. (It also dropped for native-born Americans from $37,483 to $36,606.)

What is has translated to is a steep rise in reliance on social services. The percentage of newly-arrived immigrants using Medicaid and receiving food stamp has increased from 7% to nearly 17%, and from 6% to nearly 13% respectively. The same metrics increased from nearly 6% to 13%, and from 4% to a little over 10% for native Americans.

While more research is needed, the study’s authors cite several possible reasons for the disparities. Firstly, they say the economy is likely not absorbing new workers as well as it once did. Secondly, they believe that newly-arrived immigrants are not as educated as they appear on paper. That is, they are not as skilled at each education level as in the past, relative to natives.

The study’s authors also believe that the percentage of newly-arrived immigrants who are women may also be a factor. They note that women on average tend to work and earn less than men. The percentage of newly-arrived immigrants who are women increased from 46% in 2007 to 53% in 2017.

President Trump has tried to push initiatives that would limit the number of legal immigrants that come to U.S., almost by half in the coming decades. So far, multiple attempts at comprehensive immigration reform have stalled in Congress.

Photo by Senior Airman Scott Jackson via U.S. Air Force

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Schumer Introduces Legislation to Legalize Marijuana

Legislation was introduced this week in the Senate that would decriminalize the use of marijuana at the federal level and create dedicated funding streams for women and minority business owners to produce and sell the drug. The legislation was introduced by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer who said that his world view on Marijuana has “evolved.”

“The time has come to decriminalize marijuana,” Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement. “My thinking, as well as the general population’s views on the issue has evolved, and so I believe there’s no better time than the present to get this done. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

While the legislation would decriminalize the level one drug, it would not affect laws that prevent the trafficking of the drug to states that have not legalized it. The legislation will also allow for a dedicated study of the effects that the drug has on highway safety, fund research for medical marijuana treatments and how effective the drug would be in curing illnesses

The move comes after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced legislation last week that would legalize hemp, a form of marijuana which doesn’t contain THC, and is produced for industrial use. McConnell wants to vote on the measure in the next couple weeks. If passed, the new law would have wide ramifications for his state of Kentucky, which is the leading producer of hemp in the U.S.

Washington D.C.’s delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she plans to introduce legislation that would make medical Marijuana legal in public housing, which includes federally funded homes, like section eight housing. She also plans to speak at The National Cannabis Festival in Washington.

“Individuals living in federally funded public housing who are prescribed legal, medical marijuana should not fear eviction for simply treating their medical conditions,” Norton said. “Our legislation should attract bipartisan support because it also protects states’ rights.”

Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller via Army.mil

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Speaker Ryan to Leave Congress to Be “Full-Time Dad”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is not seeking reelection and will retire in January 2019, citing his responsibilities as a father.

“What I realized is, if I am here for one more term, my kids will only have ever known me as a weekend dad,” Ryan said in a news conference Wednesday. His departure is being viewed as a blow to the establishment wing of the GOP, which viewed Ryan as a bulwark of traditional fiscal conservatism facing Trump’s populist storm.

The Speaker’s retirement also throws Republican leadership for a loop in lieu of the coming midterm elections. Ryan, however, said he views a “bright future” for the current majority and doubts his decision will hurt individual races this November.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana are seen as the Speaker’s most likely replacements. Sources told CNN that Ryan notified both McCarthy and Scalise about retiring before announcing it to the public.

Scalise told Fox News he didn’t want to get into speculation, but that “we’ve got to make sure we keep the majority.” McCarthy is a favorite with the far-right House Freedom Caucus, according to a CNN source.

Ryan said only that he is confident he will “hand the gavel over to another Republican.”
While admitting his career goals of deficit reduction and entitlement reform had not been achieved, the Wisconsin congressman focused on his accomplishments, namely tax code reform and the rebuilding of the military with last month’s defense budget increase.

“I like to think I’ve done my part, my little part in history to set us on a better course,” he said.
Many Republicans and even some Democrats seemed to be in agreement.

“Paul Ryan is a person of true integrity who I have had the great fortune to know over the last eight years,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) said in a statement. “He has served Janesville, southeastern Wisconsin and our nation honorably. We should all be grateful for his sacrifice and understand his desire to be a full-time dad.”

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was also surprisingly generous.

“Despite our differences, I commend his steadfast commitment to our country,” she said in a statement. “During his final months, Democrats are hopeful that he joins us to work constructively to advance better futures for all Americans.”

President Donald Trump praised Ryan in a tweet.

“Speaker Paul Ryan is a truly good man, and while he will not be seeking re-election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. We are with you Paul!”

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Mark Zuckerberg’s Mea Culpa

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, endured a marathon session of questioning yesterday on Capitol Hill from a joint Senate committee looking to get to the bottom of the social media giant’s actions in several incidents where tens of millions of users had their personal information compromised.

It was a rare appearance for a CEO notorious for his aversion to public speaking and granting interviews.

Zuckerberg began by apologizing for failing to notify affected users of security breaches that have taken place. It was revealed earlier this year that Cambridge Analytica, a data research, firm acting in coordination with an app created by a Cambridge University academic accessed the personal information of up to 50 million Facebook users. Last week, that number was revealed by Facebook to be closer to 87 million.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” Zuckerberg said in his statement.

Facebook asked the companies involved to delete the breached data in 2015 when they learned of the incident but didn’t follow up nor did they alert affected users that their information had been compromised.

Despite the public apology Zuckerberg was pressed on his company’s questionable record on transparency and numerous unfulfilled promises of better behavior in the past.

“This may be your first appearance before Congress, but it’s not the first time that Facebook has faced tough questions about its privacy policies. Wired Magazine recently noted that you have a 14-year history of apologizing for ill-advised decisions regarding user privacy, not unlike the one that you made just now in your opening statement,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said.

“After more than a decade of promises to do better, how is today’s apology different?” he asked.

“I think it’s, it’s pretty much impossible, I believe, to start a company in your dorm room and then grow it to be at the scale that we’re at now without making some mistakes,” Zuckerberg responded. “And, because our service is about helping people connect and information, those mistakes have been different…we try not to make the same mistake multiple times.”

“But I’m committed to getting this right. And I believe that, over the coming years, once we fully work all these solutions through, people will see real differences,” he added.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked Zuckerberg about preventing interference in future elections. Zuckerberg called the issue one of his top priorities.

“So this is an arms race, right?” Zuckerberg said. “I mean, they’re going to keep on getting better at this, and we need to invest in keeping on getting better at this, too, which is why one of things I mentioned before is we’re going to have more than 20,000 people, by the end of this year, working on security and content review across the company.”

The Senators seemed to press the point of trust and asked the CEO what price Facebook can reasonably expect Americans to pay, in terms of privacy, for a service that allows to them to connect so easily with friends and family around the world.

“Mr. Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked. “No,” responded Zuckerberg after a pause, eliciting laughter from the gallery. “If you messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” Durbin asked. “Senator, no. I would probably not choose to do that publicly, here,” Zuckerberg replied.

“I think that may be what this is all about: your right to privacy, the limits of your right to privacy and how much you give away in modern America in the name of, quote, ‘connecting people around the world.’” Durbin said.

Photo by Friesehamburg via Wikimedia Commons
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